COLAGEr Interview with Director Maya Newell on her 2015 Film Gayby Baby
Even in this post-marriage equality age, a person need not look long without passing a billboard, hearing a radio show, or scrolling through their newsfeed to see yet another disclaimer that a family requires both a mom and a dad. Stories of our LGBTQ families and queerspawn still pepper the media and courtrooms: stories told lawyers, parents, religious leaders, and reporters. But what about the kids? This central question was explored by Australian documentarian Maya Newell in her 2015 documentary Gayby Baby.
“[K]ids and families like mine were being used as political footballs in this polarizing this horrible game of people yelling across tables,” said Maya Newell, a self-identified “gayby” or child of LGBTQ parents. “And no one was asking the kids what they felt and what their opinion was and so really I just wanted to go talk to this younger generation of kids.” – Maya Newell
Maya Newell, 28, a child of lesbian mothers, has employed her skills as a filmmaker and documentarian to add her story as a “gayby” and others’ to the discourse about our families. Gayby Baby follows four children ages 10-12 of white LGBT-parented families in Australia and Fiji. The film is a window into each child’s life, illustrating their joys and struggles. Newell created the film to be a nonpolitical teaching tool for schools and educators to shift the current conversations and “negative rhetoric” of LGBTQ parented families “to stories of children growing up.”
Maya Newell also discusses the importance of representation of our families in the media.
“I went and saw [The Kids Are Alright], and I sort of walked out of the cinema feeling uncomfortable and upset somehow. And I realized it was the first time I had ever seen my family structure on the big screen. And so I think there’s a certain level of validation or acceptance. I was like ‘Oh, do people with heterosexual parents feel like this every time they see or go to the movies?’… And I suppose I wanted to add to the narrative of what’s out there because, while we have policy changes and all of those things on the top level, the cultural shift—I think—is really about stories and representation.”
One of the challenges of representation in Gayby Baby, that COLAGErs Lilli Plourde, head of the POC Leadership group, and Devan Wells, member of the Youth Advisory Board, both noted was the lack of representation of people of color in the film. Newell, who identifies as mixed race and Eurasian, recognizes the importance of portraying our families’ diversity. Read more of Devan Wells’ review of Gayby Baby here.
Lilli Plourde spoke with Newell about Gayby Baby, about growing up “gayby,” the film’s contentious response, and representation of LGBTQ people of color in film.
COLAGEr Lilli’s interview of Maya Newell
Listen to the interview here or read the transcript below:
LP: So my first question for you is “What does the term ‘Gayby Baby’ mean, and why did you choose this subject matter for your film?”
MN: What did you think when you first heard that name? Probably been slinging the name gayby for a long time as well.
LP: I really.. I like the term because I feel like a lot of the times for us and our families, people or the public or the media comes up with their own words for us. Being able to have that power to choose your own kind of label or your own terms for what you’re going to call yourself is really empowering—especially when it sounds as cute as ‘gayby.’ [laughter] Yeah I like the word a lot.
MN: Besides saying “I’m the child of, you know, lesbian moms” can sometimes get a bit long-winded.
LP: Exactly, yeah, I definitely use queerspawn a lot too. I like the sound of that also.
MN: Indeed. In fact, I also like “LGBTQ2,” and I just heard that term recently.
MN: I don’t know if that’s using the right terminology, but I kind of, I like being a part of that acronym as well. It sort of made a lot of sense. So back to your original question about why we wanted to make this film. So it’s kind of hard but in Australia and really all over the world—in America too—we’ve been having this big ugly debate about marriage equality and adoption equality actually. And I’ve heard so many public officials and politicians repeat this argument that, you know, marriage is about having kids, and kids need a mom and a dad. And, you know, kids and families like mine were being used as political footballs in this polarizing this horrible game of people yelling across tables. Yet even though in Australia our families can’t marry, they’ve been having kids for generations already, and obviously I know that because I’m one of them. And no one was asking the kids what they felt and what their opinion was and so really I just wanted to go talk to this younger generation of kids. In Gayby Baby there’s four 11-year olds, and it’s—you know—we really tried to shoot the film from the perspective of the kids, and in some ways, I think that’s what sets the film apart. Because we’ve hear so many stories about parents fighting for rights, or even parents trying to conceive, from that perspective. But, you know, I had never seen anything from the kids’ perspective, for me.
At the same time, I went and saw this film called The Kids Are Alright which depicted this lesbian family in America, a feature film. And I went and saw this film, and I sort of walked out of the cinema feeling uncomfortable and upset somehow. And I realized it was the first time I had ever seen my family structure on the big screen. And so I think there’s a certain level of validation or acceptance. I was like “Oh, do people with heterosexual parents feel like this every time they see or go to the movies?” You probably know what I’m talking about, all those subtle similarities when you have two women as parents that are kind of indescribable in a way. And I suppose I wanted to add to the narrative of what’s out there because, while we have policy changes and all of those things on the top level, the cultural shift—I think—is really about stories and representation.
LP: Thank you so much. I think it’s one of those things that COLAGE tries to do is make sure that people with LGBTQ parents or gaybies are heard. Because so much of the time it really focuses on the parents, and what the kids have to say is really ignored or kind of pretended that we’re these hypothetical people that don’t really exist, when like you said we’ve been around for a really long time.
MN: Totally, and I think there’s the perception that children are like naïve and don’t know what’s going on or have been brainwashed by our parents or something like that. You know, making the film and really getting to know Gus, Ebony, Grey, and Matt, I’ve realized that children really have so much wisdom and agency and if you ask them what they think, they have a wisdom that adults don’t have. In the film Matt says “Sometimes kids have better ideas than adults,” and I think there’s so much truth to that in a way because you see the world in black and white and you know what’s right and wrong. And kids have a lot to teach adults.
And I wanted to mention as well, because I did talk about representation and wanting to have our voices heard. And I think one of the hard things is, I don’t know if you’ve watched many films or stories that do represent our perspective, but it’s hard I think when you’re one of the first stories out there to feel like you’re representing everyone’s experience. And I was talking about this with Kaley and Key, that one of the things that’s sad about the representation of is that they’re all white families. And I’m mixed race; I’ve got a donor in Japan, so I’m half Japanese. And there’s so many new layers to the gayby experience which are specific to growing up with someone of color and, in my case, being Eurasian in a pretty white world in Sydney. So, yeah, I think it’s really important thing to mention that that’s something we’ve been struggling with that hopefully the next stories that come out will include that perspective.
LP: Well thank you so much for sharing about your background and your family background. You know, a lot of our youth are mixed race and people of color-led families also. And in the United States, the majority of LGBTQ families are families of color who live in the South. So it’s definitely true. For a lot of the times, for us in the United States it can be frustrating because it feels like the representation of our families is really white-washed–especially when you think of the reality, how things actually are.
LP: So another question I have for you: “What do you think about representation in the media for LGBTQ people of color?”
MN: Well yeah, it goes across the board, that unfortunately it 2016 and kids’ schools and on billboards and TV are heterosexual and white, and unfortunately those are two things that run alongside one another. So I think, when you say that all kids need narratives that reflect their lives, and that goes across the board, I suppose. It’s a funny thing because in the making of this film, I talk a lot about sexual diversity and family diversity and sexual orientation, I haven’t managed yet to talk about my experience yet of growing up as Eurasian in Australia. In some ways I’ve experienced just as much racism as I have about my family. And for me, I’m sure this is a common experience, that those things are intrinsically linked and one always leads to the other. And I think, because of my physical appearance, I have to come out so much more than other kids—because people are like “Oh, what’s your background?” And I’m like, “Oh, I’m half-Japanese.” And they’re like “Oh, do you speak Japanese?” And I’m like, “No I don’t speak Japanese.” And they’re like “Who’s Japanese in your family? Your mom or your dad?” And I’m like “Oh, my donor” “Why do you call him your donor?” “Because he’s in Japan, and he helped us make a family.. blah, blah blah..” Anyway, I think I’ve gone a bit sideways on your question, but yeah I do think it’s really important and I hope that we see more stories in the future that represent that.
LP: Great. Well, thank you so much for those words. Like I said before, I think what you have to say is important because of the whitewashing that happens in the media and doesn’t accurately reflect our stories. Even just you saying that now, a lot of people will hear it, and it will be really important for them to hear.
MN: Thank you. One of the things though, because I think we’ve managed to to do so much is wonderful. But it doesn’t stop with the film. So because we felt that way about the way that family diversity is reflected in general not just in relation to our families but in relation to ethnicity and culture and what we were talking about. We’re actually in Australia next week for International Day of Families is launching Australia’s first comprehensive education resource to represent same-sex parented families and also explore family diversity, and that is much more about the modern family unit and what it looks like and representing families from all different places and different shapes and sizes. And that is pretty exciting. So that sort of links to the film and extends beyond, giving teachers tools and strategies for supporting kids from all different types of families.
LP: That’s incredible. Great, also congratulations on the success of your film. When you started working on it, did you think it would be so much of an international success?
MN: Not at all. I mean it still had some modest audiences around the world, but I’ve been so lucky, like you said, to make it into a few really fantastic film festivals like London BFI. But I think when you start something, you never really know what it’s going to turn into. The producer Charlotte and I met at University. We were 22 when we started making this film. So it’s been a five and a half year journey to where we stand now. And I think when we began it was just quite innocent wanting to go tell the story of these kids. And I was just hanging out and hearing the stories of these kids for like three years. And you never know. That’s the beauty of documentary in some ways it’s quite spontaneous in a way and unexpected and you never know if you’re even going to come up with a film at the end of it, but I think that’s what I like about it as well.
LP: Right, I’m also interested because of the reception your documentary has received. It seems to me that there hasn’t been a lot of conversation about the representation of people of color in your documentary. And I was wondering if you think that says anything about the current LGBT movement.
MN: Hm. Really interesting. Yeah, it’s got to, right? I mean we do have at Q&As we have people who ask—those questions are welcome. But yeah the mainstream media never asks questions about it, never questions why there’s four white families in our film. I think it’s really indicative of the world that we live in and what people expect on their screens. It’s like just because you met one box of diversity people are happy. But yeah, I don’t know what to say. I think it’s upsetting and yeah really reflective of the world that we live in. And so I suppose it comes down to us storytellers to rectify it in the end. But I think because of conversations like this and sometimes when you’re making something you have no idea whether it’s ever going to even reach an audience, but to make everything regardless if you think it’s going to be big or small at the beginning that you take seriously representation in general. I don’t know if you know about this but we had mentioned some of the controversy around the film and the reception of the audiences. When we released the film in Australia, we decided to go onscreen in schools first before we went into cinemas. We had about 80 schools signed up to screen this in school halls across the country for Wear Purple Day, which is a day to celebrate LGBT kids in school, and a couple of days before the screening was supposed to go forward, we had this Australian bigoted newspaper ran this cover story saying “gay class uproar” with a picture of Gus who at the time was a 10 year-old from the film applying lipstick which was in the scene from the film, and it was like incredible. Every single newspaper was running stories. Commentators were outraged that we were pushing a gay agenda in schools we had top government ministers including our premier in education minister ban the film from being screened in schools across the state during school hours we had politicians writing big articles in newspapers and getting on the floor and making impassioned speeches. It was really scary. So I never thought we were making such a controversial film, but if you watch it, I think you see that it’s completely non-political frankly which made the film to replace the negative rhetoric with stories of children growing up. And so it was in the limelight at the film festivals for the right reasons and sometimes in really tricky scenarios. But you have to have been living under a rock in Australia not know now that kids in same sex parented households exist and have done so for generations so that’s kind of this double edged sword in the end.
LP: Yeah, I read up on it and was reading some of the headlines and reactions people were having and I was thinking “did you even watch the film?”
MN: Yeah, that was what was outrageous. The ministers banned the film without even watching it. What was horrifying was that even the subject of our families seemed to be controversial and scary enough for them to ban it without even seeing it. And I think that was the most painful thing in a way.
LP: Yeah that sounds really, really scary, and with your goal of just putting these kids’ stories out there and having such a negative reaction from a lot of different, really influential people.
MN: I mean, I’m sure you’ve had similar scenarios in the U.S. But I think what was really amazing was that the kids in the film were so strong and courageous. Even our filmmakers were looking to them for courage. Gus was like “oh cool, I’m on the front cover of the paper.” [laughter] Ebony was like, in one of the articles a journalists pulled out Ebony and directly addressed her and said “Ebony, no matter how hard you try, you’ll never be normal,” which is horrible, a grown man saying that to a 12-year-old. And Ebony, her response was like “as bas a spending a whole article telling me I’m not normal, my moms have piercings have piercings all throughout their faces. They’ve got tattoos, and I fall asleep listening to death metal in our house. Like, I know they’re not normal, but it’s got nothing to do with their sexuality.” [laughs] It thought that was a very wise and mature response.
LP: Yeah, I actually saw here response to that and I was thinking the same thing. It was so wise and at the same time so funny.
MN: Yeah, right? [laughs]
LP: So as a storyteller, what do you hope that people or gaybies with LGBT parents will gain from watching your film?
MN: I mean, it’s sort of hard to know in some ways, but I think one of the reactions that has been incredibly surprising to me is that after screenings, a lot of people, particularly young gay men come up and say “I never thought having children was possible or that was in my reach. After watching the film, I think I want to have a family.” And just sharing those tender, intimate moments with people, like when my mom came out to my grandmother, my grandmother was horrified that her only daughter was going to lead a barren and lonely life. And her being a lesbian seemed to crystallize that ultimate fear in a way. But what is so wonderful now is that, if you’re LGBTIQ, you can have a family and it’s expected that you will. I think seeing people have that realization you know the audiences being such an unexpected, beautiful thing watching the film with queer audiences. With the kids it’s the same thing like the feeling I got watching The Kids Are Alright for the first time was like “oh, that’s me!” Which we don’t know how that feeling trickles down as the kids grow up, but I think it’s really important, that sense of validation or something. We had a screening tour, a whole cinema of kids from LGBT families in Australia and it was like 200 kids under 10 with their parents. And at the end of the screening, this little girl put up her hand in the Q&A, and she was like “My mom lives in America and this is my dad and this is my other dad” explaining how she came into the world quite like how Gus does in the opening of Gayby Baby. And then no question, and then a kid put up a hand and was like “On Sundays we go and visit grandma and do this.” And it was like this, one after another, these kids just telling their stories of who was in their family and what they like to do with their family and where they went and how they were conceived. It was these intimate things with like under 10 year olds. It was beautiful. There wasn’t one question that was asked after the film, but it was like this safe space had been created where everyone wanted to share about their family because they thought it was special, like the kids in the film. So that was a really longwinded way of saying yeah, that’s what it looked like to sort of grasp hold of what it feels like when you feel represented. And that’s what I hope the kids get out of the film. They’re the focus audience, right? It’s for them.
LP: That moment sounds so incredibly beautiful.
MN: Yeah. I didn’t have to do anything; I just got to listen.
LP: When I was watching the film—I’m about to be 22—my parents got married in 2004 in the state where I grew up, that’s when marriage was legalized, and I was around 10. So I was around the same age as a lot of the kids in the movie, and as I was watching it, I found myself getting emotional. When I was that age and where I was living, the exact same thing was going on. And thinking how cool it would have been to see that when I was 10, 11, or 12 and hadn’t found COLAGE yet.
MN: Yeah, amazing. It is sometimes I think we’ve got all of these momentous moments, our lives are really interwoven and made in the sort of loopholes and gaps in these policies that are just totally bizarre and bureaucratic in some ways but has a big effect on us. When I was 25, I think, we changed the laws that allowed two women to have their names on a child’s birth certificate and I was over 18. I didn’t have anything to benefit from altering my birth certificate. But we went in as a family to the office of marriages, and we were standing there and laughing and having fun, taking photos, and signed the documents. But then I just said to Donna “Welcome to the family.” And it was like, wow, for the first time our government is acknowledging what our family looks like. Because before then, I just had one mom on my birth certificate as though I had been raised by a single parent my whole life. And it was quite momentous, you know, this is great. This is cool, and we got a bit emotional.
LP: Yeah, you’re actually making me tear up a little bit right now. [both laugh]
MN: It’s okay.
LP: In a happy way! [laughs] Great, thanks. I have just one more question for you. Do you have any ideas for your next project?
MN: I think the thing about being a documentarian is that there are no shortages of stories out in the world. Yeah, I don’t know if any of your listeners have been to Australia, but in the Northern territory, Australia is a very beautiful place. Yeah, so I’ll be making documentaries, I’ll be making one out there in the desert with aboriginal kids from Australia because that’s another area I feel passionate about and for the last couple of years, I’ve been doing some work out there. I think that’s a really nice quality with a lot of kids and for me myself, when you grow up feeling part of a minority, you’ve got a lot of resilience and heart for other communities who are experiencing hardship or discrimination in some way. So yeah I’ll be making stories out there.
LP: Thank you so much, Maya, for this interview and making the time to talk to me—and also my fellow COLAGErs. Thank you so much, and I hope you have a wonderful day.
MN: Yeah, I think we’re really excited that Gayby Baby is now available for people to watch on iTunes. It’s incredibly exciting for me to hear a response about how COLAGE has experienced this film because they’re the first audience. So I hope that they can write to us and tell us what they think when they watch it.
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