LONDONERS AT HOME: The Way We Live Now
Lesbian Parents -
Kisori Morris and Velerie Maureen Humphreys with their son Holden Nate John Morris
Date of photography: 22nd October 2017
Kisori and Valerie have created a loving home for Kisori’s son, Holden, and their personal journey says a great deal about how society’s attitudes have changed, how liberal most young people’s attitudes are now, and yet how much more there is to be done. In a study recently published in the American journal, Paediatrics, lesbian couples were identified as providing family structures that consistently nurtured kids who were better adjusted socially, more confident, as well as happier than the norm. And to those who feel that any male child raised by two women would suffer from the absence of a male role-model, Kisori and Valerie would point out that Holden undoubtedly loves and respects his father, whom he sees twice every week. There are also other male role-models around him who will no doubt ensure that he doesn’t grow up a ‘sissy’.
In a study recently published in the American journal, Paediatrics, lesbian couples were identified as providing family structures that consistently nurtured kids who were better adjusted socially, more confident, as well as happier. I therefore felt strongly that this was definitely a topic to be included in the WHO do we live with? category of Londoners at Home: The Way We Live Now. As we all know, eyebrows continue to be raised, even these days, by gay male couples who choose to create families and bring up children either by adoption or through the use of surrogacy - and they often provoke much stronger reactions than eyebrow elevation! - while women nurturing children are usually viewed as perfectly natural parents. Especially in the case of small children, women are seen as most likely to provide a sound, loving upbringing for the children in their care. After all, there is a widely-held conviction that, because they can't bear children, men simply can’t be motherly.
I was keen to examine this topic in some detail and was therefore happy and honoured to be invited into the home of Kisori Morris (aged 37) and Valerie Maureen Humphreys (aged 52) who together are raising their bright-eyed, twelve year-old son, Holden Nate John Morris. They live together in north-west London, in a penthouse flat with spectacular, panoramic views of the surrounding cityscape.
I was greeted by a smiling Kisori and, from the outset, it was clear to me that she was keen to tell it ‘just the way it is’. She is an artist herself and as such, when she talks about life in general and her own life in particular, she well understands that rarely is anyone’s story only about the light and the good; there are shadows in all our lives also, dark chapters which are often of equal importance. There is darkness in Kisori’s life but there is plenty of colour too and all of that goes into making her the person she is.
Kisori begins her story: “I was born in the USA, in Chicago, Illinois, to parents who lived in a cult - they had both joined the Hare Krishna religious sect when they were teenagers. My father is an African American, while my mother, who is Canadian, has rather more complicated ethnic roots: her own father was a Mennonite (a Protestant sect sharing roots with the Amish people of north America - they are often well-to-do farmers) while her mother was Metis, a native American whose mother tongue was French. In the 1970’s, my mother was highly respected in her Hare Krishna zone, principally because she was a very successful earner; she collected money at airports, often bringing in thousands of dollars each day.”
“As a young woman, she confided in the leader of her zone, telling him of her desire to marry a young man that she fancied, someone associated with another zone, but her request was not granted. Milan, you need to understand, the control exercised within the cult is absolute: they tell you when to eat and when to sleep; they determine the shape of every day of your life. In this instance, the leader didn’t want to lose her from his zone, simply because she was one of his top fundraisers. Not long after this disappointment, she was thrust into marriage with a different single man altogether, someone within her own zone. Both of them resented being forced into this arrangement but, as it turned out, it didn’t prove to be very much of a problem; they both continued to live apart, spending their married life in separate male and female ashrams, as was the custom. The Spiritual Master was celibate, and he was the guru; it was the guru’s decision to allow conception but this had not been requested by my mother or father. He did finally arrange for her to have sex and to get pregnant during what was an elaborate religious ceremony lasting several days.”
“So yes, I was born into the Hare Krishna community and we lived both in the States and in Africa. Then my mother became pregnant with my brother and my father left the cult to return to the USA. At that point, our spiritual guru decided to transfer us to a Hare Krishna community in Hertfordshire, England, and I went to school at our temple there. We were not allowed any contact with the outside world: it was a cloistered institution, with no radio, no television, and no cinema; there was no listening to secular music, ever. But my mother, who certainly still had some steel in her, realised that I was becoming completely institutionalised; she wanted me to get a broader education and managed to get me away from the temple and into a local comprehensive school.”
“From there, I went on to Watford Grammar School for Girls. My brother also went to a private school for boys. For the first time in my life, I was able to experience the outside world and to get to know some of the people who lived in it, but at the end of the day, I still had to return to my life within the Hare Krishna Community. Though my mother was clearly very skilful in negotiating our freedoms and securing us a secular education outside the cult, she was also very controlling herself, often quite overpowering. I was heavily abused within the Hare Krishna community, where the sexual abuse of children was commonplace. Milan, the treatment I suffered you could make into a book. Thankfully, I managed to get myself out when I was 17.”
“Life in the cult was certainly no bed of roses but life outside it, with no effective support mechanisms and armed only with my very atypical experience of life, proved to be equally challenging on almost every front. Being creative, I succeeded in enrolling on the Arts Foundation Course at Middlesex University. I even acquired a boyfriend too and lived at his parents’ house. All of this was totally new to me and, together with all the baggage I brought with me from the past, it proved completely overwhelming and, unsurprisingly, I had some sort of breakdown. Without the level of support I was used to, without all the props of the community, I started to ask myself questions: ‘Where do I actually belong?’ I pined for my father, whom I hadn’t seen since my early childhood, and when he came over from the US, for a visit, I suddenly appreciated that he had somehow filled the emptiness I felt inside me. By that time, he was living in Atlanta, Georgia, with his new family - a wife and two children. When he left England, I felt devastated; at that stage in my life, I felt I needed him more than anything else so, having reached the grand old age of 19, I decided to follow him to the States.”
Once in the US, Kisori lived with her father’s family initially, but perhaps because, deep-down, she was missing and longed for the comfortable security of her early life within the community, she was the perfect candidate for being exploited. And so it was. Kisori found herself drawn into the life of a very charismatic and powerful man who proved to be both controlling and deeply possessive; and, given that he was much embroiled in the criminal underworld, she found herself entangled in a very dangerous net indeed. “I was almost 21 when my father succeeded in extricating me from the twilight world in which I’d managed to enmesh myself; he got me away from danger by sending me back to England. However, even when I was safely on the other side of the Atlantic, I continued for some time to be influenced by my ‘master’ in Atlanta. You have to remember my background: anyone who succeeded in controlling me became, in a way, my guru. Somehow, suffering felt reassuring and familiar; being controlled seemed to feel good.”
“I embarked upon a degree in the Performing Arts, in Carlisle. I survived two years there but my past never quite let me be and, when the darkness descended, I would often drink myself into oblivion. When, perhaps inevitably, another massive breakdown followed, I resorted to therapy and over time, it worked and the clouds began to lift. Then I got myself a job, working as a bouncer at one of London’s cutting-edge nightclubs, Fire. I was 24 by then and, having been raised in the bizarre world of a major cult, I was desperately trying to lead a normal life. I was striving to be normal now in what I still saw as ‘the outside world’, very much trying to be part of it without a complete understanding of what ‘normal’ was. Having had to deal with so much mess in my past life, I was desperate to conform and so, to be honest, I was reluctant to explore the issue of my own sexuality. Then I met Dale, a fellow bouncer at the nightclub - he was a kind, softly spoken, muscular man, capable of being sad as well as being very funny, and he even looked similar to me facially (he is Polynesian). I felt a strong urge to have a child with him. Well, that's just what we did and our beautiful son, Holden, was born. We got married a year after that, and I got to finish my degree with the Open University.”
Kisori now identifies herself as a lesbian so I asked her to tell me about her ‘journey of sexual discovery’: “I wasn’t aware that I might be gay but I’d always liked women and at one stage, when I was 16, I thought of myself as possibly bisexual, simply because I was attracted both to men and to women, though I never had sex with either at that time. As I was trying very hard to conform to what I thought of as normal, I decided it would be simpler just to stick to dating men - dates with women would have been problematic, of course, because then I certainly wouldn't have been seen as ‘normal’. I was also a bit scared of dating women, scared perhaps of my own feelings. As a hangover from my cultish childhood, I also always enjoyed the experience of being dominated by men.”
“Dale and I were married for eight years and, I admit, it took me some years before I began to feel, ’Is this all there is?’ Our marriage came to an end but not because we were sexually incompatible; other factors were at play and we parted amicably enough. I was then determined to explore other dimensions of my sexuality and I soon had my first sexual encounter with a woman. In an instant, I knew I was gay, definitely gay, and definitely not bisexual. At the age of 33, it was clear to me that what I loved was masculinity, masculine gestures, and all those characteristics of maleness, but I had never been close to men emotionally and then, suddenly, I understood that all these traits of masculinity could be found in a woman; that was the point of no return and my life was changed for ever,” Kisori concludes with a big smile.
Kisori and Valerie met three years ago and Holden was soon to acquire a second mother. His father accepted this new arrangement completely: “Dale was OK with me and Val, but more because he liked her as a person and thought it was easier for Holden to have a stepmother than another man in his life.”
Kisori has now been working for a number of years as a hairdresser, though she continues to indulge her interest in the Arts at every opportunity. Everywhere in their flat there is artwork on display and creativity has remained very much part of her life. “My mind works in a creative way,” she says, “it always did. I see the world through an artistic eye.”
We all shared a coffee together, and the photographs got taken too, but I was keen to learn something about Valerie. Her family is Caribbean, they hail from Antigua, but having been born in London, Valerie sees herself very much as a Londoner.
“My dad worked at the Ford factory, in Dagenham, and my mum worked in the local rubber factory. We were very much a working-class family of one brother and four sisters. I went to a local comprehensive school where I stayed on until I was 18. Right after I left, I managed to get a job in a hostel for homeless women; I worked part-time in a youth centre; and then I became a postwoman. But I had always wanted to do social work and I was lucky to land a job in a secure unit for young male offenders, 14-18 year-olds, the well-known Stamford House. It was certainly a baptism of fire but I learned an awful lot there and I stayed for three years. Wanting to get myself qualified, I took my degree in Social Work and then I became a professional. I am now a Deputy Manager, within a ‘Child Protection and Child in Need’ team.”
“Milan, I knew from my early years that I was different, even if I couldn’t articulate exactly how. Growing up in the 70’s as a gay person was not easy: I was always aware that I was attracted to women but I did my best to deny it at every opportunity. Only when I was 21 did I have my first relationship with a woman. She was around the same age as me and, while it was certainly exciting initially, it turned out to be a painful and destructive relationship, one that ended two years later. That was my very first lesbian relationship and it really scared me; it put me off to the extent that I somehow went back into the closet, and there I stayed until I was 46. However, at that point in my life, I decided to be true to myself and I finally came out as gay.” I asked Valerie if she had experienced rejection, as many people do, even now. “No, I didn’t. In fact, most people told me that they already thought as much. My own mother, who was in her 80’s by then, said she had always known - apparently, I had never liked playing with dolls; I liked to play with guns instead! And I was lucky, insofar as I didn’t come from a family that had ever been homophobic - I know it’s not always like that. I am proud to say that all my family accept me as gay and that Kisori and Holden are now considered and treated as members of the family.”
Valerie continues: “As we all know, from myth, from literature and from life, not every step-parent is accepted by their step-son or daughter. I was very fortunate, in that Holden has accepted me fully; he respects me and sees me as his second mum. What’s more, he also accepts my own extended family as his own. Inevitably, however, there is a huge difference between me entering Holden’s life, a relative stranger, and the long-established mother-son relationship that has developed in a family home. I had to find a place for myself in what was already a settled family dynamic. Just like when couples adopt a child, a space must be made by the new parents for that child.”
Kisori has also taken the deliberate decision to include Valerie as one of Holden’s parents - he now has three, of course. But putting legalities and formalities aside, Valerie and Holden have bonded: on Saturdays, one of Kisori’s busiest days when she is flat out at work, it is Valerie who takes Holden to play rugby; they do all the weekend shopping together; and, indeed, their closeness is both tangible and touching to observe.
Holden is now at a critical age himself, no doubt starting to be aware of his own budding sexuality, but he accepts and embraces the sexuality shared by his two mothers. I am told that, at his primary school, he has not shied away from LGBT issues and is proud to wear a rainbow bracelet, proud of both his mothers.
I asked Kisori and Valerie if they had had to face any discrimination in their neighbourhood or at work. Kisori replies: “Thankfully, society has moved on quite a bit but there are still some people who are stuck in the past. We are careful not to advertise ourselves everywhere as a lesbian couple but we don’t conceal anything either. Even in our own neighbourhood, we don't hold hands in public and the same is true outside the school playground.”
Towards the end of the interview, I asked Kisori and Valerie a question that often causes lesbian parents much irritation but it is something that is often heard. ‘Will Holden be damaged by growing up without a male role-model in his life?’ I asked. Kisori was quick to respond: “I don’t object to this question at all, Milan. I grew up with an absent father myself but that is not the case with Holden; he sees his father twice a week and more during the holidays. He loves his father. He also has other male role-models in his life; he’s not growing up in a hermetically-sealed, female environment. Valerie adds to this lively polemic by saying: “I don’t feel that a boy growing up in a home with two mothers is automatically deprived of a male role-model in his life anyway. With the current rates of separation and divorce, lots of young boys are brought up by a single mother, without a man in the household at all, and there is no evidence that they are somehow inadequate, or sexually confused. After all, male role models can be found in many other relationships, such as male relatives, teachers and mentors.”
Returning to the study in the American journal, Paediatrics, I was interested to learn that, with regard to measures of development and social behaviour, children brought up in lesbian households achieved scores comparable to those of children raised by heterosexual parents. And contrary to what many people would like to believe, the children of lesbian parents scored higher than the offspring of straight families on psychological measures of self-esteem and confidence; and they did better at school. Furthermore, while 26% of American teenagers reported some form of physical abuse by a parent, not a single case of abuse was found amongst the children of the lesbian parents in this study. What was not quite clear, however, was whether lesbian parents were simply more committed to the children they raised or whether, from the outset, they were determined to teach their kids about diversity, tolerance and variant sexuality, thus helping to enhance their emotional intelligence and perhaps even their confidence.
Progress has undoubtedly been made but sometimes problems for children surface at the most unexpected times. Kids get bullied for all sorts of reasons and in many ways, it is in these situations where they master the strengths and the skills to deal with comparable problems later in life. Kisori and Valerie are aware that some people will find their relationship difficult to accept, even to comprehend but, like many others, they have learned to deal with prejudice and at least now, they have the law on their side. Society is sometimes a bit clumsy, almost ill-equipped, in dealing sensitively with diversity, or indeed with anything that deviates from the norm.
The Guardian recently published an article, ‘Lesbian Mothers: My Two Mums’, by Shahesta Shaitly, in which, during a delightful interview of one lesbian mother, Ashling Phillips, who is married to Natalie Drew, says: “It's been difficult at times because I think people in our town weren't exposed to gay families before. Overall we've been accepted by our community, but every now and then there's a little reminder that people don't know how to deal with gay families. The week before Father's Day this year, Giana's class made cards, and because her school wasn't sure what to do with her, they got her to make a card for her little brother instead. She's young and didn't understand why she was asked to make a card for her brother while all the other children made cards for their dads. The school knows that Natalie and I are together – they just didn't know how to deal with the dad issue.”
I leave Kisori, Valeri and Holden rather late; it was a pleasure to share a Sunday afternoon with them in their comfortable, welcoming home. Young Holden is a lucky boy; he has a good home with two mothers who love him, as well as a loving father whom he sees quite regularly. He will, I am sure, soon grow into an impressive young man. He can be proud of the slightly unorthodox parenting that will help him to see how life can offer many tangential paths and can open many windows on to the world that might otherwise have remained firmly closed.
Text edited: 20th December 2017
Page modified: 6th April 2019