When the internet exploded over the Daily Telegraph’s Gayby Baby story last week, Ebony, 16, was hanging out before school.
“My mum called me up and said 'Where are you?', and I said ‘At the plaza, just chilling’,” Ebony tells BuzzFeed News. “She was like ‘Check the newspaper’.”
A huge headline screaming “Gay Class Uproar” dominated the front page. Parents were apparently outraged that a PG documentary about children with same-sex parents was being shown at Burwood Girls' High. And Ebony, who stars in the documentary, was at the epicentre of the outcry.
Conservative commentator Piers Akerman singled her out in his column, using the dictionary and census figures to say her family wasn’t "normal". By that afternoon, the film was banned from NSW schools during class.
Ebony says she was “a little bit angry” when she first saw the splash, but more upset by the later revelation that the school had received no formal complaints. “It seemed like so much trouble for nothing.”
As for Akerman’s comments – Ebony took them a lot less seriously than her many defenders on social media.
“That Piers Akerman guy! I found it kind of funny to be honest,” she says, laughing. “He took a quote from like four years ago, where it really mattered to me then, to be normal.”
“He told me something I already knew. He was like, oh, this is the definition of normal, these are some statistics, you’re not normal. And I was like… I already knew that?”
Last week's outcry was just the latest in a long line of discussions about whether same-sex couples should be parents. Kids are often invoked in the long-running marriage equality debate, with opponents of same-sex marriage repeating the mantra that "every child deserves a mother and a father".
However, thousands of children across Australia have same-sex parents. And while many studies indicate they are doing just fine, the ongoing stigmatisation of their families is cause for concern.
To accompany the cinematic release of Gayby Baby, director Maya Newell and producer Charlotte Mars teamed up with model Casey Legler and photographer Jez Smith to increase visibility of same-sex parents in Australia with another project: a photo series titled "Gaybies: We are not a hypothetical".
In a letter sent out to participants, Newell, Mars, Legler and Smith wrote "This project seeks to let Gaybies everywhere know that no matter what anyone says about them or about their families over the next few months, you are beautiful, you are awesome and you are loved."
Legler told BuzzFeed News the project was an opportunity for children of same-sex parents to see themselves, and share stories of resilience with their peers.
“I know for me, when I was a young kid, there were moments when elders, be they musicians, or artists, they were able to reflect back saying ‘Hey kid, you’re going to be OK. Hang in there. You’re going to be alright.’,” she says.
“So that was the motivation to do it, to offer the chance for folks to be able to see themselves. And the best ones, the voices that are missing in some of the debate that’s happening right now, are the voices of the kids in these families.”
Brenna Harding, 19, has been talking about same-sex families since she was a kid.
“I’ve been doing this stuff since I was eight. I’ve had all these interviews, I’ve said ‘I love my family, they’re great’, and people are like ‘woah, that’s amazing’. Well, no, it’s not, you love your parents, that’s it. Mine are particularly great. They also happen to be gay.”
Harding, an actor who starred in Puberty Blues on Network Ten, first hit the spotlight in 2004 when she appeared on Playschool with her two mothers. The episode sparked an outcry, with even then-prime minister John Howard weighing in. But Harding says the weight of public opinion has shifted to her side since the 2004 debacle.
“In [the Playschool] case, it was widely accepted by the majority that this wasn’t OK,” she says.
“But in the instance with Gayby Baby, it seems like a small group of narrow-minded conservatives who can’t quite get it. And the majority are going, ‘what on earth are you doing?’”
Harding describes herself as being “very lucky” to have grown up in Sydney’s inner west, where gaybies were still few and far between, but diversity of family structure was widely accepted.
“Even as a kid, I was always able to identify, when someone was homophobic or discriminatory, I was like ‘that’s ignorant’,” she says. “That’s nothing to do with me, that’s nothing to do with my parents, that’s their own problem, their own ignorance.”
But, Harding stresses, you can’t expect all children of same-sex parents to be able to make that distinction.
“I’ve been lucky that I’ve been confident from a young age, but that is an incredibly privileged situation. That is not the norm,” she says. “There are kids like me with a thick skin, and there are kids who are soaking this in, and it’s not OK.”
“When you talk about banning a film, and you say this shouldn’t be seen, you’re saying gay families shouldn’t be seen. It can mean nothing else.”
Gus, 13, is the boy in the Gayby Baby poster. He was around nine when the iconic photo of him with his head tossed back and a winged heart painted on his chest was taken.
When he woke up to that picture emblazoned on the front page of the Telegraph last week, his elation was rapidly followed by dismay.
“I saw me on the paper and was like ‘Oh, sweet! On the newspaper!’ and then I read it and thought ‘Oh. That’s not cool.’”
Gus describes the decision to ban the film during school hours as “stupid, utter stupidity”. He thinks those who oppose same-sex families are un-informed.
"I’d just say unless you actually know anything at all about gay parents, you should probably stay out of their business."
Seth, 12, agrees. As Ebony's younger brother, the film is important to him.
“I’ve heard that the documentary is trying to brainwash kids but it’s really not about lesbian or gay parents,” he says.
“It’s more about the kids and their story and how they grow, and showing that their lives aren’t that much different from people with a mum and a dad.”
To those railing against the documentary, Seth has two pieces of advice: one, watch it, and two, understand that it’s about the kids.
“They should definitely rethink their decision of banning it in schools,” he says.
Rory, a sweet 7-year-old with a tangle of shoulder-length blonde hair, says she felt “upset” about the Gayby Baby furore.
“I think they were just trying to be mean so their half could always win,” she says.
“Who is their half, Rory?"
“Some people in parliament and the churches.”
To people who oppose same-sex families, Rory says they are just as weird to her as her family is to them.
“I would just walk away,” she says, if she got the chance to speak to them.
But then she adds “I would give them a camera and a notepad and see if they can make their own film.”
Photographer Jez Smith, who has appeared as a judge on three seasons of Australia's Next Top Model and shot countless celebrities and professional models, said the kids were "amazing" to work with.
"It’s kind of flabbergasting how comfortable they are on camera," he tells BuzzFeed News.
The interactions between the parents and kids was also a beautiful thing to shoot, says Smith.
"They’re all so proud of their kids, it’s amazing to see. The amount of love in the room, it’s full on. The kids are so happy."
Smith "fell in love with the project" after seeing it was from the kid's point of view – something he thinks there should be more of.
"They’re surrounded by these adults, telling them what’s right and what’s wrong. No one ever asks the kids, are you happy?" he says.
"That’s what was so refreshing about the whole thing. That’s the voice we need to hear. And for any adult to have a problem with that…. it’s incredible to me that anybody could not see that it’s about giving these kids peace."
For Legler, too, the shoot was all about the kids – about giving them the space to be proud of who they are, and imparting messages of strength to their peers.
“My role was putting all the pieces together. I can only stand next to them. I was raised by straight parents,” she says.
“My partner is Australian, and I hope to have kids some day, so those kids will be gaybies. But I am not one, so I can stand next to them. And I do.”
Ebony says that at some point between the filming of Gayby Baby when she was 12 and now, she “stopped seeing the point in being defined as normal”.
“I stopped seeing it as a big deal. It was like, yeah, we’re happy. So who cares?” she says.
“My mum’s an ex-goth, with piercings and tattoos. And Ange I think at some point was a wrestler. We fall asleep to Korn and Slipknot in the car on trips to Canberra. We don’t have normal parents. But they’re not normal because they are who they are – not because they’re lesbians.”
And the message she would deliver to other children of same-sex parents?
“Let me think about that for a second,” says Ebony.
After a pause, this:
“I’d probably say that no-one knows your family better than you do. So don’t let them make assumptions about you and put words into your mouth. It’s your family, you know how happy you are, you know how happy they are, and no-one else can really tell you otherwise."
Gayby Baby opens in cinemas today.
Lane Sainty is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney, Australia.
Contact Lane Sainty at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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