The Berlin post-family

It might be Berlin, but does that make it easier to raise a family outside of societal norms? An increasing number of Berliners are breaking out of the nuclear mould, creating patchwork families, rainbow families and tri-parent families.

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Photo by Alexa Vachon
Patchwork families, rainbow families, tri-parent families: an increasing number of Berliners are breaking out of the nuclear mould… far ahead of German law. “They only wanted two parents in the room, and we said sorry – we are three parents,” recalls Kay Garnellen on the birth of his child, Lee*. In 2010, the Berliner from Toulouse, France had met Sadie Lune, an American artist and performer, and her friend Kathryn “Mad Kate” Fischer, a writer/singer/performer who has lived in Berlin for the past 10 years. Three years later, the two women and one transgender man, all active in both Berlin’s queer community and the sex industry, started a family together. Sadie had wanted a baby since she was young. “I did a big art project about it.” Said project, Biological Clock, culminated in San Francisco in April 2011 with what she described as a “one night queer feminist-whore insemination gangbang ritual” in which a group of “handmade-ins” personally delivered donor semen into her body. Though the ritual did not result in conception, Sadie did eventually get pregnant through a “friendly” German donor, and she delivered Lee via C-section in summer 2013. At the time, Sadie and Kay were romantically involved; though they have since separated, Kay – along with ‘co-parent’ Kate, who was part of the process since the beginning – continues to share custody of Lee. Currently, Sadie and Kate live together, with Lee dividing her time between their place and Kay’s. The three split parenting duties: Kate handles most of the German bureaucracy, for example, and Kay shops for groceries. “It’s been an advantage,” Sadie says about having three parents, especially when the three of them have erratic work schedules, and both Kay and Kate have to travel regularly. In fact, there’s an entire village taking care of this child: friends from their community often help out, offering to watch Lee during performances. “The more adults taking care of the child, the better,” says Sadie. But the only one with the legal right to Lee is her biological mother. If anything happened to Sadie, Kay and Kate would have to fight to hold on to their child. “Basically, Kate and I have no rights,” says Kay. The trio find themselves at a disadvantage in a legal system tailored towards married couples, and a society that — even in queer-friendly, ‘alternative’ Berlin — sees the nuclear family as the default.
Compared to a queer radical threesome, parents Jörg Ernsting and Bent Vansbotter lead a placid, rather conventional existence. They drop off their seven-year-old foster son Peter* at school every day, go to their jobs (as a city planner and environmental engineer respectively), pick Peter up, repeat. Although they initially hoped for an older kid – “We thought we wouldn’t be able to change the diapers…” – when the children’s care service told them a five-month-old was available for fostering, they eagerly went for it and haven’t regretted their decision for one second since. “He calls us Papa-Bent and Papa-Jörg,” says Bent. “It’s a mouthful, so sometimes he just uses our first names – or he just says ‘Papa’ and then both of us have to run and do what he demands.”
He calls us Papa-Brent and Papa-Jörg.
Yet like Sadie, Katie and Kay, Jörg and Bent are outliers. According to the most recent The Berlin post-family Patchwork families, rainbow families, tri-parent families: an increasing number of Berliners are breaking out of the nuclear mould… far ahead of German law. By Rachel Glassberg. Research by Diana Hubbell and Sara Wilde. alternative families 18-German census, a mere 13 percent of children in so-called ‘rainbow families’ have two fathers (87 percent have two mothers), although a recent survey reported that as many as 30 percent of gay men expressed the wish to be parents (against 40 percent among lesbians). The fact is that it’s much, much easier for two women to have a baby. Even though unmarried women and partnered lesbians do not have the same legal right to sperm banks as heterosexual married women (in their case, it’s up to individual banks to make the decision), they can still go the Sadie Lune route and use sperm from a friend, or find a willing off-the-books donor on any number of internet message boards. All-male couples have fewer options. They can’t use a surrogate mother, as the practice is illegal in Germany. And as the law currently stands, they are not allowed to jointly adopt a child. Therefore, many of them – like Bent and Jörg – turn to the foster care system. Before they could be entrusted with Peter, the couple had to go through a series of rigorous screenings. “They were looking for constellations where everything is stable,” says Bent. The service checked in on everything from their friends to their flat. They even combed through 100 years of their family history to make sure it was relatively divorce-free – a tall order these days. But the duo delivered “the whole package”, and today they have no qualms about the process. “It takes nine months, like a pregnancy. They want you to prove that you’ll stick with it, that you really want this.” Legally, Peter’s fathers are only 25 percent responsible for him – the rest of the responsibility lies with the Youth Welfare Organisation. Therefore, “we have to inform the YWO when we go on holidays, when he is going to have an operation and when he is starting school,” says Jörg. “They have never disagreed with us, but it’s annoying nonetheless. You always have to have the right signature on time. It would be much better if the state allowed it to be different.”
Even with no legal issues involved, non-traditional families face stigma from society – and more often than not, this tends to affect their personal lives. Christopher Gottwald, a theatre actor and director who also facilitates workshops and courses on years in Nuremberg with a “patchwork family”: his partner, her school-aged children from a previous marriage, and part-time custody of his teenage daughter from a short-lived relationship in his twenties. He and his partner openly dated other people in relationships that varied from trivial (“they’d visit for a weekend, then we’d never see them again”) to serious. according to Christopher, at least three of these partners got to know the children well. “The kids didn’t mind when they were young,” says Christopher. “They saw that, okay, there were friends who we kissed. No problem.” As the children grew older and their parents became more involved in the poly scene, however, it became more difficult for them to see their family as ‘normal’. “We were giving workshops and presentations on polyamory, and their classmates would read about it in the paper… They would tell us: ‘It’s okay what you do. But at the moment, it’s hard for us.’” Christopher says he and his partner never encountered openly negative reactions from other adults. “People thought it was out of the ordinary, but they never told us it was wrong.” The problem is more about self-perception in a society where you’re a marginal minority. “In workshops many people tell me that they’re afraid that if other people hear about their lifestyle, they’ll have job problems. People have told me, ‘I told someone about being poly, and after a while they were looking at me strangely at work…’” Last year, Christopher decided to move to Berlin – he and his partner stay in contact, but “we needed some time apart.” While he agrees that Berlin is a more poly-friendly city than conservative Nuremberg, he says that the polyamorous families he knows here are press-shy. “The problem is, it’s such a big taboo. When someone talks about polyamory, people immediately start thinking about sex…”
For Sadie, Kate and Kay, sex is at the forefront no matter what. Despite having a nine-month-old daughter, they continue to create provocative art exhibitions and performances – intimate photos of Sadie and Kay were prominently displayed at the Berlin PornFilmFestival just a couple of months after Lee was born. “Most of what we do relates to sexuality. I don’t ever intend to hide that,” says Sadie. Though few other members of their community have children, Sadie has reached out to the ones who do, even organising a queer/sex-positive family Stammtisch in Neukölln. As her daughter gets old enough to figure out what’s going on, though, Sadie admits that “I do anticipate being more in the closet than ever before – which is to say, at all. At the end of the day, you don’t want your work to be the reason your child can’t go to their friend’s house. I have my values, but I’m ready to adapt my practices when it comes to my child.” When Jörg and Bent go out for a family stroll in Kreuzberg, nobody bats an eye. “Where we live, a family consisting of a dad, a mum and a child is almost the minority,” says Bent. Peter’s schoolmates don’t seem to mind that their friend has two dads – some of them, anyway: “Once, a child burst into tears because he wanted two dads, too, and he only had one.” But the couple doesn’t see the future as purely rosy either. “I guess someone will probably one day call him ‘schwule Sau’, and that will be something we will have to handle.” But for now, says Jörg, “I can’t think of a bad experience.” Even on holiday in small German towns, “everyone was open and interested.” Is the country opening up to non-nuclear family structures? In June 2013, German courts finally granted couples in civil partnerships the same tax splitting benefit as married couples. And, as ‘successive adoption’ by gay couples is now legal (one member of a couple can adopt the other’s adopted child), joint adoption cannot be far behind – in February, Germany’s Constitutional Court refused to hear the case of a same-sex couple wishing to adopt in Berlin due to a technicality, but remarked that in legal terms, the issue of joint adoption was virtually identical to successive adoption. In other words, it’s probably just a matter of time. And as same-sex parenting becomes more and more accepted, other parenting constellations stand a greater chance of finding acceptance as well. “We have these clear pictures about relationships and family,” says Christopher. “We think it has to be one mother, one father and one to three children, and that more than two parents or less than two parents is not what we want. But that’s all in our mind.” *Names changed Originally published in issue #126, April 2014.