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In a story well told, the filmmakers feel hearts and the tide changing

It has been eight years since producer Charlotte Mars and director Maya Newell began making Gayby Baby, an award-winning feature documentary starring four young people whose parents are gay. Hindsight got Maya Newell thinking. Certainly, the film caused a stir and got people talking, but what change did it make? 

Gayby Baby, known across Australia as “that film that got banned”, hit a conservative nerve and triggered a national backlash. For some, the censorship of a PG-rated film in NSW schools seemed a surprise. However, as a child raised with same-sex parents, this charged response was in line with the many instances of unchecked prejudice I have experienced throughout my life. 

It hit the place from where our values, ethics and political standpoints derive – the family. As described by political theorist George Lakoff in his analogy of “strict father” conservatism and “nurturing parent” liberalism, family values are the centrefold of every issue that divides right and leftist views. 

Through the perspective of four children, Gayby Baby asks us to reconsider what a family is – it breaks down the differences between genders and ignites conventional fears that both mothers and fathers can equally offer a child what they need to grow into healthy, well balanced adults. 

The film offers a fresh way of seeing. It states the obvious: that raising kids requires far more complex inputs than simply parents of opposite sexes. Raising kids depends on individual triumphs and defeats, unwavering love, stability, perseverance and the quality and texture of our relationships. Moreover, when we are ready to acknowledge the enormous challenge of parenting, we can begin to channel our collective energy into what matters most – supporting parents from all walks of life to raise healthy, happy children. 

The growing new wave of impact-orientated films pushes us to measure success on the basis of clean and precise outcomes. “Impact reporting” celebrates the number of screenings, records broken, laws changed, articles written or social media clicks counted. 

However, the Gayby Baby experience reminds me that numeric terms fall far short of a meaningful description of the film’s reach and impact. For me, evidence of change is in the minutiae. It’s in how we got there, or as English critic John Berger says, “the countless personal choices, encounters, illuminations, sacrifices, new desires, griefs, and finally, memories, which are, a strict sense, incidental to that movement”. But hold everything, dear Berger, I want to explore the transformations that we have to lean in close to see, feel and hear. I want to take you inside Gayby Baby, and share some stories of change as I remember them. 

Maya versus Barnaby Joyce 

In early 2012 on the ABC television program Q&A, I asked the panel of politicians and public figures to acknowledge the perspective of the thousands of children with same-sex attracted parents in the fight for Marriage Equality, and consider that, we too, were denigrated by this exclusionary legislation. We wanted our parents to have the right to marry just like everyone else. 

I asked the panel to recognise my parents’ 27-year relationship and put our family as equal to theirs. To my dismay, this was met with a close mind by politician Barnaby Joyce who stared me and told me that he and his wife were better parents than mine. As happened, as he was saying my family was worth less, he was cheating on his wife and daughters with a colleague. 

This run-in with Barnaby Joyce was disappointing, but also strategic. On the T-shirts that Charlotte and I wore was the URL of our crowd-funded campaign to fund the initial stages of Gayby Baby. After an explosion on Twitter, @gaybybaby was nationally trending and the campaign raised over $20,000. The campaign went on to reach over $110,000, which was the most of any film in Australia at that time. Barnaby Joyce’s unabashed conservatism gave us the push that set us on our way to making Gayby Baby. 

Banned in schools 

Gayby Baby is a film about kids, so Charlotte and I decided that the kids of Australia would see the film first. We partnered with Wear it Purple, a youth-led support group for LGBTIQ+ students to host screenings in school halls a week before the films’ theatrical release. 

Days before the screenings were to take place, the front cover of the Daily Telegraph printed a story with the heading “Gay class uproar” featuring a picture of 10-year-old Gus applying lipstick and an editorial speaking directly to the children in the film saying “your family will never be normal”. 

NSW Premier Mike Baird and Education Minister Adrian Piccoli said “issues covered in the film do not belong in the classroom” and then banned the film based on a newspaper article that claimed there were complaints – but there were none. 

The absurdity of the national debate that followed was that none of the critics, including politicians and public figures, had watched the film. On the other hand, a previous NSW State Parliamentary Screening and targeted previews meant that Alex Greenwich, an independent state politician, had seen the film and battled a conservative minister on the Channel 10’s The Project, op-eds were written in the following days by Tim Wilson and Senator Penny Wong, the issue was raised on the floor of Parliament, a State vs State battle erupted where the Victorian and Queensland Premiers welcomed the film in their states schools, a rally was organised in support of the film and cafes, fire brigades and cinemas all over the Sydney erected signs that read “calm down and watch Gayby Baby”. 

A language to describe ourselves 

At the launch of our education resource (The Gayby Baby School Action Toolkit schools), Rowena Allen, the Victorian Gender and Sexuality Commissioner, read a speech about a conversation she overheard her 8-year-old daughter having in the schoolyard. A boy approached and said, “you’re gay cause you’re mums are”, she turned to him and proudly said “Nah, I am not gay, but I am a Gayby” and walked away. Rowena thanked the film for giving her daughter, along with this new generation of kids, a language of pride to describe themselves. 

Film subjects to filmmakers 

One of the most sustaining impacts of Gayby Baby has been watching the children in the film rise to the challenge of being experts on their lives and leaders in their community. During the Marriage Survey in 2017, we were asked to collaborate with the Guardian Australia on a short film about the perspectives of Gayby children during this time. Charlotte and I invited Ebony and Gus, now 16 and 18, to direct the film. The teens interviewed the next generation of Gayby children about family, marriage, love, and politics with poise, skill and empathy learnt from being the subjects of a documentary themselves. 

The film got 289,000 views on release, but Gus and Ebony’s personal sense of achievement at creating something meaningful was undeniably the lasting heart-sing for me. 

You will be a great parent 

Developments in reproductive technology, policy, and the slow but sure lifting of social stigma have led to a Gayby boom. Now, there are thousands of Gaybies growing up and spreading their wings and for the first time in history, gay and lesbian people can expect to have a family. 

As possibility opens up, what remains are the remnants of such scrutiny – internalised homophobia and pervading insecurities about being able to parent at all. We have loved receiving messages from Japan, Taiwan, Mongolia, the UK, Poland and many more countries from LGBTIQ+ people, for which Gayby Baby sparked a new confidence in building families where there was none. 

Finally, will you marry me 

Gayby Baby and the rights of children in same-sex families hit the public eye as Marriage Equality moved into the headlines and gained public support. The campaign saw the end of marriage and adoption discrimination in Australia. Real change happens slowly and collectively as a result of the efforts, discomfort and sheer tenacity of many individuals, campaigners, NGOs and organisations. In a story well told, we can feel the tide changing. The greatest power of cinema is to peel back assumptions about minorities of race, sexuality, gender, disability and belief. When I think about Gayby Baby, I remember Peter, a heterosexual farmer in north-Queensland who independently hosted a cinema-on-demand screening in Mackay because he felt his community was homophobic and needed to know about Gaybies. 

Then there was the nine-year-old boy who followed me through the Victorian Art Gallery for an hour to tell me he was proud to be a Gayby, too. As I grow older and Marriage Equality settles as a battle fought and won, these will be my lasting memories. 


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