44 | Intersecting Identities

Meet the Guests:

Tatiana Quiroga is the Director of National Family Networks for Family Equality Council, and also previously served as Southern Regional Manager. Tatiana has extensive background in the non-profit sector, mental health counseling field and higher education. She earned her Master of Arts in Mental Health Counseling from Rollins College and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from University of Central Florida. Originally from La Paz, Bolivia, Tatiana grew up in the Boston area. Now, she resides in Orlando, FL with her wife, Jen and their sons, Lukas and Gabriel.

Nishta Mehra is the first-generation daughter of Indian immigrants, born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee. She is a proud alumna of St. Mary’s Episcopal School, Rice University (B.A. in Religious Studies), and the University of Arizona (M.F.A. in Creative Writing). Nishta is also a partner, parent, teacher and writer. Her publications include two books, The Pomegranate King, and Brown White Black, published in February 2019. She lives in Phoenix, Arizona with her wife, Jill, and their seven-year-old, Shiv.

Further Reading

Episode Transcript

Emily: When I'm recording this, we only just came back from an amazing week at Family Week in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Family equality celebrated the 25th anniversary of Family Week with around 600 families from across the country and the world. Two events that were just a really beautiful celebration of families and were hugely attended where spaces for parents of color and their children and multiracial families. And seeing those wonderful families was a strong testament to the importance of the stories and the experiences of families of color and multiracial families in the LGBTQ+ community. So to talk with me more about some of those experiences of being an out LGBTQ parent of color, from the south, and in multiracial families are Nishta Mehra and Tatian Quiroga. So just to get started, the first question I ask in all of the episodes is who is in your family and how was it formed?

Tatiana: As you shared in my bio, I live in Orlando, Florida with my wife Jen and our two boys. That's our immediate family. We just adopted Guinea pigs, which is a whole new exciting chapter of parenthood and the family experience. Well, Jen and I have been together since 2004. We got married in 2009 and we embarked on expanding our family several years ago. It's a journey that where we started and where we thought we were to end were two totally different things. So my wife actually got pregnant with both boys through an unknown donor and they have the same donor, who is of a South American descent. It's been an adventure.

Nishta: First of all, I just want to acknowledge what a great way of framing that question. I wish we could use that in all of our spaces. It would just make so much room for everybody's family if we could sort of ask that way. My immediate family consists of my wife, Jill, and Shiv, who just turned seven. So Jill and I have been together for 17 years and we were together a good while and did a lot of adventuring before we decided we wanted to become parents. It was actually not something that Jill was planning on when we first got together. She had sort of thought that she wasn't going to be a parent and I have always known that I wanted to be a parent. So part of the adventure for us was to figure out what that might look like. And what we came to was that Jill really felt a strong pull toward adoption. And so that became the way that we sought to add a child to our family. And that process itself was a journey. Just as Tati was saying, there's lots of ups and downs being a same-sex couple. This was in 2012 that Shiv was born. We could not be legally married in the state where we were living at the time. So we were very lucky to find a wonderful private adoption agency that was committed to serving same-sex couples. And so we had a lot of dignity in that experience. Shiv's birth mother chose us to be Shiv's parents, which is still like the most incredible thing that's ever happened to me. And we were able to meet her and we were able to be in the room when Shiv was born and it was such an incredible, a life alternating experience. So Shiv's birth mother is obviously a part of our family forever, even though we are not in contact with her as, as per her choice. Shiv was born male and has been expressing female gender identity for most of her life and about a year ago switched pronouns and now uses this female pronouns. So I think the queerness of our family has only been compounded and expanded by parenting this kid who's taught me so much of what it means to advocate for your true self expression. We're definitely on a journey with her.

Emily: Youth both have a lot in common. To start, you're both people of color with a white spouse, raising children of color. With that in mind, what are some of the things that surprised you about becoming a parent? How have you talked about your family's identities with your kids?

Nishta: To that question about what has been surprising, I mean I think there are so many levels to that. How we're maybe surprised personally and how much you learn about yourself becoming a parent, which I think is true of any sort of life challenge. There's this idea in the culture that only if you become a parent can you access this knowledge. And I really pushed back against that. I don't necessarily think that's true, but I do think that becoming a parent brings up some stuff that you have to deal with that you might otherwise have pushed to the side or not necessarily want to look at. Anything that has to do with your own childhood that's not complete. Or the differences in how you were raised and how your spouse was raised or some of those things are just really ingrained. I think in ways that can go unexamined, until it's time to make a decision about how you're going to parent your own kids. And I know for us, that just gets complicated by the fact that we are from very different backgrounds. There's a class difference for my wife and myself. She was raised in a very blue collar working class family and my family was very comfortably middle class. So there's lots of values ingrained there for one. And then race obviously is a factor too. I think one thing that surprised me the most is how much having a kid, particularly a kid of color, we have a black child we're parents have a black child in America, and there are conversations that we never had to the same extent about what it means for Jill to be white and me not to be white that we have had in relationship to Shiv moving around in the world. And there are things that were not necessarily as fully examined for Jill in terms of whiteness and just small coded things. Like when she'll push back in public or the ways that she feels safe to speak in public that I would never. And my concerns are about what Shiv is paying attention to and what she's going to feel is acceptable or okay. What is safe for her is very different. And I think that has surprised me more than anything. Just the fact that having a white person in our family sometimes feels like a tool that we can leverage. It's nice sometimes for Shiv and I to be walking around with a white lady and not just to be us. It's different when it's just me and Shiv. But then it's also sometimes tricky because it's different when it's just me and Shiv and it's different to have a white person in our family with all of the complications that comes with. I think for me that's been the biggest surprise.

Tatiana: I can piggyback on that because there's been examples where Jen is navigating a situation much differently because of white privilege. She's able to navigate situations and places much differently than I am. For instance, our three year old goes to a daycare and the diversity is very lacking. I'm the one usually who does drop offs and I come to her and I'm like, yeah, I don't really find people very friendly. They were okay. You know, I think he likes it and it works for us. But she walks in and they know her name and they're like excited to see her. And it's a very, very different experience. Navigating those situations with almost that white ambassador sometimes can be drasticly different. And, you think, what are our kids seeing? You try to figure out what are they seeing and how to have these conversations in ways that are going to be understandable for them. And being able to balance all that I think is one of the biggest things that I was surprised by.

Emily: Something that has come up in previous episodes and I also see discussed a lot online, is people asking our LGBTQ+ families questions all the time. And sometimes they feel really intrusive and inappropriate and they're coming from a place that is not of kindness and often they're coming from a place of kindness. It's really interesting that the idea of how the world reacts to your family as a unit of three versus your family when it's a unit of two. So I'm curious - those questions and some of those reactions - how do they differ when you're navigating as three versus one-on-one with your kiddo?

Nishta: Yeah, it's kind of fascinating. I feel like we have had the opportunity to notice many layers and shades of dynamics that are a microcosm of bigger conversations because we have a white parent, a non-white parent, a black child who's gender expression has changed over time. So there's a difference even in how people responded to us as units of two or three when Shiv expressed as male and then how people respond to us in units of two or three now that Shiv expresses this female. So it's fascinating. I will say that our default has been in general to try to follow Shiv's lead. Hopefully if we can make sure that there's open communication Shiv will let us know what she's noticing, what she has questions about. And then you kind of have to pick your battles because you're also trying to pack lunch and get to daycare on time and just parent your kid. So, you got to figure out what is the hill I'm gonna die on? Like gender roles in Disney movies. Okay, I'm going to let you watch them, but we're going to talk about how you don't marry someone or like give your bottom half of your body for someone you think is cute from afar. Okay. But you can still watch the movie, fine. But if someone says something in public that we feel like it really crosses a boundary line, then we're going to interfere or we're going to talk through it. And again, mostly Shiv is initiating those conversations or asking questions and we try to just follow her lead. You can usually tell if someone is just being curious, if they're coming maybe from a well-meaning but maybe misguided place. But then there are times when it's usually pretty clear when someone is not coming at you with gentle curiosity. And then it's like, okay, no, we're not doing this and you're definitely not doing it in front of my kid. And if you're going to do it, then I'm gonna counter program with my child because that's where it really matters. To stand up for what we believe in, what we value and demonstrate in ways that feel safe. Obviously for some families in some situations it's not safe to push back at people in public. And that sucks that we're still in a place like that in 2019 but it's very true for a lot of people and I think feels more and more scary as we watch what's happening around us. That feeling of maybe I shouldn't push back, but I'm going to have this conversation in our family unit.

Tatiana: I'd like to echo that. It definitely is a dance for us too. Jen and I didn't really know any other LGBTQ couples that were having kids at the time that we were, we didn't really know any other families. So lots of times we were tokenized in a way and we knew that. We wanted to come from a point of education, which is kind of how we've approached things. Like Nishta said, there's times where, especially being of color, you find yourself in the role of representing all of your people. Suddenly you're supposed to know all these things about everybody. And on top of that, I've noticed with just moving around in our community, we are a little bit under like a microscope. People at stores, like clerks and stuff, remember us more than they probably would another family because they've sat there and tried to figure us out. But we've been at Costco before and this little old lady walks over and goes, oh my gosh, the boys are getting so big! I'm like, I'm pretty sure I've never spoken to you before. But clearly you watch us through our grocery shopping at Costco. You've been watching my family grow and she comes over with the best of intentions. But it's just interesting to see that we obviously do stand out and how we're able to navigate that.

Emily: How do you prepare for moments like those that you're describing or those conversations that you're having with your kids, especially as they get older and more aware? Has talking with other LGBTQ parents and in particular LGBTQ parents of color, had an impact on the way that you navigate those conversations or prepare for what's to come as your kids get older?

Speaker 3: It's funny that you ask how did that all come about? Because that's literally what I do for Family Equality now. We found a parent group and through this local parent group is really where we've found our chosen family. And we've created incredible friendships and connections. We make sure that our kids are always able to have families that look like theirs around. But it's challenging because once again, our families are so diverse. So what may work for me may not always work for someone else just because of the makeup of the families. Like Nishta and I have a very similar backgrounds and upbringing and stuff, but our families look very different and her experiences are going to be very different than mine. So it's hard to say like there's a specific rule or best practices even. But you know, just reminding parents that it's always going to be a journey. Parenthood in a way is such an unknown journey. And just when you say, I've crossed all the t's and dotted the i's, just kidding your kiddo throws something else at you. You know, all these other things come about that sometimes even the LGBTQ+ background stuff kind of goes to the side and you're just dealing with regular parent stuff. If I've shared, my oldest is on the spectrum. And so lots of times our focus is just being parents of a special needs kid trying to get by. And that's really where a lot of our focus ends up being in navigating that world with direct providers coming into our home and dealing with that and hoping that they're okay having a two mom home. And what does that look like with sitting in IEP meetings and making sure that forms have parent one or parent two, or guardian one and guardian two. Things like that. And that we're both seen as equal parents and those kinds of things. So it's really hard to say best practices in that. It's really always an ongoing journey. Like I said, just when you thought you figured it out, your kiddo comes back and goes, nope, there's something new on the platter.

Emily: So we've touched upon this a little bit, but you both also share an immigrant experience in your families. Can you talk a little bit more about that? Then also what are some of the things that you're excited to be sharing and passing onto your kids from your experience or cultures?

Nishta: I feel like it is a really distinct experience even across cultures. I'm first generation, I was born here, my parents came to the states before I was born. Being either someone who came here as a child and straddled cultures, or someone who was born here as first gen, is a really distinct experience. And then becoming a parent just intensifies that for me. The pride, the longing, the sense of loss, the sense of despair. It just makes it all more. I have an even greater and deeper respect for my own parents. Becoming a parent and thinking about what it means to try to create a life for your child that you think will be what's best for them, while also desperately wanting to pass on things that are meaningful to you and knowing that's kind of a crap shoot on some level. My identity as an Indian American woman is super important to me and my culture has always been a huge touchstone for me. But Shiv is a distinct person and also has a distinct experience as a black American and she has her own identity that will be hers to navigate and figure out. It's not something that I can directly relate to and I'm like really clear about that. It's really important for me to give her space, to need and want what she may need and want. Just like my parents had to do that with me. They didn't know what it was like to be a first generation kid growing up in America. They had limited tools and they did the best that they could. I'm really lucky that they did give me that space. They were really clear about how these things are important to us and while you're a kid we're going to ask you to participate in these things. And then as you get older we're gonna let you choose them. And they did. They gave me a lot of room and I use that much as my own framing for Shiv. Right. We celebrate and do holidays. We read the stories and we talk about what we believe, but we also talk about what other people believe. It's important for us to expose Shiv to lots of different things and to know that it's ultimately up to her to choose what feels authentic to her and that we will be guideposts for her. And like Tati was saying, having a child with special needs sort of sometimes takes the front seat. And for us sometimes Shiv's blackness takes the front seat. In terms of what we're trying to expose her to and diversity and things like that. Sometimes we do have to put her seeing people who look like her in front of us being around other families who look like our family. And so it is that navigating and deciding what you feel like your family or your kid needs at any given moment.

Tatiana: As you guys know, I was born in Bolivia. We came over to the States when I was about two or three years old and my dad was a college student. I can really relate to my parents more and having a totally different appreciation when you become a parent. Because now I look back and I'm like, oh my God, I can't imagine not speaking the language and coming to America and making this better life as two young kids, for the lack of better terms, for my dad to finish college with a two year old. With the economy that fell on the late eighties, we moved to Spartanburg, South Carolina. So, so it was a very drastic change there. And so that's where I did a lot of my growing up. Being in the south and not just navigating the home culture of being Latina and hearing about how things are in the homeland that really wasn't mine either. Because we left when I was two. Navigating this very white world that my parents tried to assimilate as much as possible. As Nishta was saying, as a parent now I'm trying to pick and choose what to pass on. Something that I battle with is the fact that their donor isn't necessarily from Bolivia. As a non-bio parent, I'm trying to pass on their background, which is my background, and trying to pass that on to the kids. But that's not necessarily their biological background. And so it is a really interesting balance to be able to do that. And my parents are very big part of our family and they literally live a block away. It's interesting for them to wrap their minds around some of the things that we're choosing to do as parents because Jen's in the picture. I mean even the guinea pigs, my parents, are like why would you bring in rodents into your home and let them live in your living room? Well, "that's what you do as a kid", meaning American culture or it's a very standard thing to have these pets. It's definitely something that has been a surprise for me in that way to see how all that ends up playing out.

Nishta: Part of what can make this challenging are two things that you just pointed to Tati. One is this question you were talking about your child's donor. There are lots of families like ours, both LGBTQ and non that are doing this sort of mashing up of cultures. And it raises all these questions about who counts and how in American culture there's this idea that got to pick one thing that you are. I think about it a lot when Shiv is older. Are people gonna be like, what are you, why are you celebrating Diwali? The other thing that I think it points to, and certainly as a child of immigrants, is that we really do have a monolithic understanding of minority identities. Either there's one way to be black, there's one way to be Indian, there's one way to be Latino. So as a kid you're scrambling around trying to feel like, I want to be true to my culture that is sort of mine, but not mine. But this doesn't feel authentic to me. So all these stereotypes are problematic. And then, it's the same sort of thing with your kids. There are so many ways that it might look for Shiv to express her blackness or being part of a mixed race family that's also multi-religious and multi-lingual. I feel really excited about the idea of all these kids growing up and exploding these notions about identity and culture. It's like, go mess some stuff up out there. I love that people aren't going to know what to do with our kids and I hope that we can equip them to feel totally confident in their own senses of identity.

Emily: Tati you've led workshops on being a parent of color in a multiracial family. And Nishta, you have a whole book that you wrote about it - Brown, White, Black: An American family at the intersection of race, gender, sexuality, and religion. Why is it important for both of you to talk about identities and these intersections?

Nishta: I think it's important for some of the reasons we have pointed to, just because I think still structurally, our society is set up for one kind of family. Even if you know intellectually and experientially that families look many different ways, all kinds of configurations of our systems and our institutions are very slow to change to catch up. So I think these conversations are important because they restore that sense of rightness. And I don't mean right like right and wrong, but just wholeness and completion. That there is nothing less than or missing about any particular family. But it's hard to hold onto that when you have to cross something out on a form and write something else in, or when you have to interrupt someone who's made an assumption about what kind of spouse you have. I think mostly people do mean well. But when you're on the receiving end of those kinds of things day in and day out, it does become exhausting. And it can be really weird and it can feel like where is the space where we fit? So I think the conversations are important for the people having them just to feel a sense of relief and a reminder that our families exist and are perfect the way that they are and that there's community. Like Tati was talking about, creating community is really important. In terms of having written the book, I hear from two distinct categories of people. I hear from folks like Tati, who have experiences like mine who have not really gotten to read a book that capture those experiences before. Which is super gratifying as an author. There's nothing better than to imagine that someone was able to see themselves in what you've written in a way that it felt good to them. There's the second category of folks who are folks who don't necessarily relate or see themselves but who feel like they have learned things that they hadn't thought about before. And that is also really gratifying because I do think that it's easy if you are not necessarily pushed or life has not given you an occasion to think about those systems and institutions that you take for granted because you fit inside of them, to never realize that other people do not fit inside of them. And to realize all the different ways that those systems and institutions can do harm. I think having the conversations are also important because there's some people just don't know or haven't thought about it. I'll give you an example. A good friend of mine is an employment attorney for a major food service company. And her experience being Aunt Megan to Shiv mover her to have a conversation when they were developing a new online tool for their employees to push to have a drop down menu that includes a gender nonconforming/non-binary choice. It's not just going to say male or female. And she advocated for that at her place of work, which is a huge ripple effect that one person made by having a real lived experience with a family and people she loves. That's then going to make a difference for other people. And I think that that for me is a big part of why it's important to have these conversations. Also one because it's just really nice for me, hopefully for Tati too, to do this. But also that it could open up or access things for folks who find themselves in positions where they can think about how they could leverage their privilege for some good now that they've learned something or thought about something differently.

Tatiana: I fully agree with that. And I think that for me it's so important because despite being part of several marginalized communities, I still have some power and privilege. And so it is my responsibility to not only acknowledge this power and privilege, but be able to, like Nishta said, leverage it for good and being able to use the platforms that I do have and give voice. And hopefully we are able to move that movable middle, change hearts and minds, and validate experiences from those who aren't able to do so. And hopefully educate some people along the way too, not to sound cheesy and corny, but to make things better for our kids. Just like our parents did for us. They sacrificed everything they could to make a better life for us and now we do the same thing for our own kids. If we can at least make this little corner a little bit better, then hopefully that will have a ripple effect.