Raised by Unicorns is a collection of essays written by people who were raised in LGBTQ+ families. There are fourteen essays altogether; the youngest contributor is 15 years old and the oldest is 47. One theme stood out particularly strongly to me, the reader, regarding the various experiences of this mix of teenagers, young adults, and middle aged people: there is, with rare exception, some element of shame associated with falling outside the so-called traditional family. Sometimes, that shame is overtly communicated by snide comments or exclusion from and by one’s peers. Other times, it is self-inflicted.
Pushing middle age myself, I identified more closely with the voices of the older contributors. The lens through which they see and experience the world more closely aligns with my own personal worldview–from the relative safety of my cis gendered life and assumed identity, I still could not wrap my brain around tragedies like what happened to Matthew Shepard. Some of the essayists can identify personally with the kind of fear and threats that abounded (for some perspective, Tinderbox does a wonderful job of describing some harsh realities in the gayborhood in the 70s). Contrasted to today where RuPaul has an extremely popular TV series featuring drag queens and network television has headlining programs with gay and trans lead characters.
Many of the essays were deeply personal reflections on their lives. Rather than try to offer a review of each experience, I will include some of my favorite quotes from various stories.
I grew up in the post-title IX world where little girls were encouraged to play sports and were told they could do anything the boys could do. But boys were not receiving the same message. In fact, it was often firmly the opposite: boys were not encouraged to participate in activities considered girly, like dancing and playing with dolls, or emulate traditional girly behavior, such as crying or expressing affection. There were often painful social punishments for boys that crossed these boundaries.
—Persis Ticknor-Swanson, One Coin, Two Sides
It was significant to me that [a] gay man in P-town commented on [my brother] Calvin’s gender expression and sexuality, rather than mine. I was a little girl, and therefore could never gain full access to the world of gay men in P-town the way my brother could.
—Persis Ticknor-Swanson, One Coin, Two Sides
I took a quiz the other day on Facebook (which, clearly is a highly reputable source) and it told me that, based on my own assessment of my personality traits, I am approximately 93% masculine. Shocker. While I was not surprised by my results, I started to question myself yet again. I was transported right back to my younger self. Does this Facebook quiz know that I still can’t French braid my hair?
—Emily Grubbs, The Woman Who Cannot Refuses to French Braid Her Hair
Gay parties were better than lesbian parties, too. My parents always had a 4th of July party, one at Christmas, and another on New Year’s Eve. We always had two baskets lined with paper towels—one filled with Doritos, the other with pretzels. The silver chafing dish was polished and filled with tiny hot dogs, a can of blue-flamed Sterno keeping them warm. On New Year’s Eve, they added a silver tray with disposable champagne flutes that came apart in two pieces for easy storage. When I went to my first gay party, there were flowers, candles, and gold Mylar balloons with streamers that hung to the floor. The food was displayed on risers, so that everything was at a different height, and there was caviar on ice instead of little baby hot dogs over Sterno. I called my mother, feeling betrayed. “You are not really gay!” I accused her. “I just went to a party at Robert’s, and there were flowers, and caviar—”
My mother interrupted my rant. “Oh, honey, you just learned the difference between gays and lesbians. Gay parties are Hollywood. Lesbian parties are Doritos in a basket.”
Clearly, if one was to be homosexual, anyone could see that being gay was preferable to being a lesbian by a mile.
Then my friends started dying. The shop [where we worked] closed. My gay family was gone.
—Lara Lillibridge, I Know You Are, But What Am I?
People would see my rusty afro and immediately feel invited to inquire where it came from. […] Questions about genealogy were not the only source of confusion and anxiety that were the result of my parents’ sexuality. […] Every time I was given a form to bring home for my parents to fill out, I’d have to cross out the line that said “father’s signature” and replace it with “mother #2”. There was, and is, a general expectation about what the ‘normal” family looks like.
—Rebecca Gorman, Changing the Definition of Gay
Of all the essays, only two were a bit lacking for me. One was the essay Two Hens and a Chick: My Teenage Life with Two Moms. The writing feels self-absorbed, which is odd given the whole point of this collection is to give a voice to the children of LGBTQ+ parent(s) in the debate over same-sex couples even having children. That said, plain old fiction written in this type of pompous voice is a turn off for me, too. By way of example, here is an excerpt:
[On my moms’ wedding day,] I was determined to make it just about then (especially since I already picked out their dresses, cake, and rings), but they did not want that to be the case…[Reverend Knapp] called for me to stand between [my moms] Missy and Meg. Still unaware as to what was happening, I began to hysterically cry, as did the whole audience. Then he opened up a box with a ring for me. For me! And during that moment, it smacked me—I knew our love is infinite…
Far be it for me to dictate how anyone chooses to orchestrate their matrimony, but writing about it doesn’t have to sound so schmaltzy. The little parenthetical cheapens the vicarious experience and really does seem to say Meg and Missy’s wedding is all about the author (to be fair, I just attended the wedding of a cousin and in the civil ceremony, the only real substance from the officiant was all about how both parties would do whatever it took to raise a good family so…maybe it’s not all that uncommon for a wedding to celebrate future or extant children rather than the two people committing to one another?).
The other piece that left me half perplexed was the final interview with a baseball player. Perhaps I should put it down to the nature of an interview–no re-dos or editing like in an essay. Nevertheless, I thought the subject of the interview was authentic in his personal acceptance of having two mothers. However, he had to go to a PR team before revealing publically he was “raised by unicorns” and his attitude towards a former romantic partner made it seem like he dumped the partner because of the partner’s grossly intolerant parents. To be fair, young love is often stupid and neither interviewer or interviewee seems much interested in explaining how the romantic partner felt and much more content on ripping into the hypocritically intolerant family member instead. That irked me because, as a reviewer of romance novels and the haver of an intolerant in-law myself, sometimes the interpersonal relationships you have with people means you have to accept their intolerant baggage.
On the whole, this is a wonderful collection—but it leaves some things to be desired from an editorial perspective. The bulk of these essays come from people who have two moms. There is zero representation of trans parents. I don’t even know why there is a “+” in the titles byline. No one really discusses bisexuality, and whether or not that may have been why at least one or two of these authors were conceived in a heteronormative way. If the overall goal of this book is to boost representation, then I’d say it fails to cover the full spectrum and that certainly is something that concerns me given the lack of tolerance towards trans and bisexual folks, to say nothing of asexuals and aromantics. Nevertheless, I feel these are important voices to hear and amplify because despite the TV shows and the movie stars, there is still much progress to be made on de-stigmatizing LGBTQ+ people, their friends, families, and communities.