: Life Imitating Art?

Life Imitating Art?

Paula Gerber

Gay and lesbian families on and off the silver screen

It is a sign of how far we have come with respecting the rights of lesbian and gay people that there are currently several movies where the main themes revolve around the lived experience of gays and lesbians and their families.1 It is a sign of how far we still have to go, that the New South Wales government banned the screening of one of these movies in schools.2

Freeheld and Gayby Baby are both films that depict the reality of being lesbian or gay, or the children of lesbians and gays, in the 21st Century. However, that is where the similarities end. Freeheld is an American drama starring Julianne Moore and Ellen Page, while Gayby Baby is an Australian documentary chronicling the lives of four children in same-sex families.

I would not recommend seeing Freeheld without a good supply of tissues. It is a powerful and moving film based on the real life battle of a lesbian couple challenging blatant homophobic discrimination by the government. In 2005, detective Laurel Hester was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. While undergoing chemo and radiation treatment, she is forced to take on the local authorities who refuse to allow her pension — earned over the 23 years she worked for the New Jersey Police Force — to go to her partner Stacie, upon Laurel’s death.

Just as marriage equality was achieved in the United States through the courts, I went to see Freeheld fully expecting to see a courtroom battle. But I was wrong. This fight for justice was undertaken through a bold grassroots campaign, which saw the coming together of unlikely allies, united by the injustice of the decision to deny a veteran of the police force her dying wish, to be able to provide for her partner.

The producer of the original documentary, which was the catalyst for the feature film said:

I always saw it as a love story. It was not only a love story between Laurel and Stacie. It was also a story about a community loving its members, about people who became unexpected activists when the political suddenly became personal for them.3

The film is a testament to what can be achieved when a community unites to fight for civil rights. If Laurel Hester were still alive, she would undoubtedly be amazed that, in just ten years, the United States has gone from refusing to allow her same-sex partner to receive her pension, to same-sex couples being allowed to marry across the entire country.

Gayby Baby is an altogether different type of film; it is shot in a different style, in a different time and in a different country. It follows the lives of four kids — Gus, Ebony, Matt and Graham — who are all being raised by same-sex parents. Director Maya Newell — herself the child of lesbian parents — does such an amazing job in establishing a rapport with the families that it seem as if they have almost forgotten that the cameras are there.

The range of issues covered in this documentary could not be broader. Through Gus, we examine gender roles and notions of masculinity in today’s society as his mums struggle with his obsession with the violent spectacle of WWE wrestling, but are comfortable with him putting on lipstick in a department store.

The complex and complicated relationship between religious organisations and sexual minorities is explored through Matt, who can’t comprehend why his mothers continue going to a church that considers their relationship sinful.

Graham is a child with learning difficulties who has to come to terms with cultural differences, including intolerance of homosexuality, when he moves with his dads to Fiji.

The timing of Gayby Baby could not be more apt. As the debate about marriage equality in Australia heats up, there are many opponents arguing that same-sex couples should not be allowed to marry because children will be harmed by not having a mother and a father. In the space of just one hour and 25 minutes, this film obliterates those arguments. It demonstrates very effectively that raising kids is challenging, regardless of whether the parents are straight or gay, and what we shouldn’t be doing to the 6120 children being raised in same-sex families in Australia,4 is making it more difficult for them by refusing to legally sanction their parents’ relationship. This film makes it very clear that children have no problem understanding and accepting diverse genders and sexualities; what they struggle with is intolerance and discrimination.

Gayby Baby is a heart-warming film which is bound to entertain and educate its audiences. I only hope the production team have the energy and resources to produce a sequel in future years, along the lines of the British Seven Up series. That documentary began in 1964, filming 14 seven-year-old children, and has continued to film them every seven years since, with the latest one — 56 Up — coming out in 2012. A similar follow up of the four children in Gayby Baby is likely to be just as popular, as well as providing valuable research to complement scholarly efforts such as the US National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study which, since the 1980s, has been following and reporting on the social, psychological, and emotional development of the children in a cohort of lesbian families.5

PAULA GERBER is an associate professor in the Monash Law Faculty and Deputy Director of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law.

© 2015 Paula Gerber


1. For a comprehensive list of LGBTI films released in 2015, see — http://www.imdb.com/search/title?at=0&keywords=gay&sort=moviemeter,asc&title_type=feature&year=2015,2015,asc&title_type=feature&year=2015,2015.

2. Eryk Bagshaw, ‘NSW Education Minister bans schools from screening gay film’, 27 August 2015, Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney) — http://www.smh.com.au/national/education/nsw-education-minister-bans-school-from-screening-gay-film-20150825-gj7sid.html.

3. Cynthia Wade quoted in Seanna Cronin, ‘Rumours of a double Oscar for Julianne Moore with new film’, 31 October 2015, Northern Star — http://www.northernstar.com.au/news/double-oscar/2823744/.

4. Number of children in same-sex couple families, according to the 2011 census. See: — http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/2071.0main+features852012-2013@.nsf/Lookup/2071.0main+features852012-2013.

5. For further information about this study, see — https://www.nllfs.org/.

(2015) 40(4) AltLJ 294
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