Forging Meaning through Love: Jane Byers’ “Small Courage”

Acclaimed poet, documentarian, and lifelong activist Jane Byers takes a courageous dive into modern LGBTQ parenthood in Small Courage: A Queer Memoir of Finding Love and Conceiving Family. At once a unique story of a transnational lesbian couple raising biracial twins adopted in Canada in the aughts, and a parallel narrative about coming out and finding oneself, Small Courage represents multiple journeys rolled into one. Adopting is a journey, parenthood is a journey, finding oneself is a journey…coming out is not a singular event, it is a lifelong process that repeatedly occurs during these journeys. And while being lesbian in no way defines Byers’ parenthood journey, it is this powerful part of her identity that gives her much of the strength she needs to overcome challenges in conceiving and raising a loving family.

Small Courage begins with detailed accounts of the adoption process that Byers, who is Canadian but immigrated from England at a young age, and her wife Amy, an American, undertake to build a family. Byers vividly illustrates the amount she and Amy must “explain” themselves throughout the adoption process–the simple desire, and ability, to provide a loving, safe home for children is not enough. The reality of having to assert her identity beyond being a lesbian, to everyone involved in the anxiety-inducing adoption process, peaks in a moment inside the home of an evangelical Christian family fostering the 15-month-old twins that eventually become Jane and Amy’s children. In preparation to bring the twins home, Jane and Amy spend two weeks with the foster family. In a lull between diaper changes and spilled sippy cups, the foster mom asks Jane, “So how does it feel knowing you will go to hell because of your lifestyle choice?” As she does with many similar encounters throughout, Byers responds with mental fortitude: “I chose not to engage and instead focused on cleaning the sippy cups, while thinking up rebuttals (“Hell will be more fun”).” In a testament to Byers’ compassion toward others, by the end of the journey, she and Amy are friends with the foster parents, people who, at one point had a “deeply held belief” that “a family is a mom, a dad, and children, and that anything else is somehow less.”

By braiding her now decades-long journey in parenthood with powerful personal anecdotes regarding her growth as a woman, a lesbian, and a feminist, Byers illustrates why her courage–derived from having her own identity challenged by society, the organized state, and even her own family—is exactly what is needed to be a loving parent. Byers is deeply attuned to her children’s and partner’s physical and mental well-beings, largely because of her life experience learning not only to survive, but to overcome and thrive, despite carrying the trauma of sexual abuse at age 9, frequently feeling invalidated by her parents and close family, and first coming out during a challenging time historically (she writes: “When I was first starting to allow cracks of queer light to enter my consciousness, homosexuality hadn’t long been off the books as a disease, and only a radical few had dared to think of it as an identity”). Her strength and courage are inspirational.

While the courageous act of raising children becomes validating for their relationship, Jane and Amy are also hyper-sensitive to ensuring the children feel validated too. “Perhaps because of my mother’s inconsistent parenting,” Byers says, “it seems to have been my parental mission to see the shit out of my children. Perhaps being seen is just another definition of loving. To love is to see and not to try to change.” Identity and validation are also important to Byers in relation to addressing adoption trauma and recognizing her children’s multiracial backgrounds, two of the other many challenging topics astutely addressed within her memoir. Byers regularly deliberates about whether she is doing enough to expose her kids, whose birth mother is Indian and whose father is “likely Caucasian,” to “cultural heritages and to other transracial adoptees…to usher them through to adulthood with a healthy sense of self.”

Readers will delight in Byers’ interspersed poems, which nicely complement her practical encounters with parenting, marital, and physical and mental health challenges.  As a transgender writer married to a cisgender schoolteacher with two young children of our own, I adored the applicability of Byers’ memoir in thinking about my own journey as a parent and partner (e.g., “it is the quality of the relationships, not the gender of the parents, that matters”), while at the same time indulging in her more artistic portrayals of love and family. Byers’ voyage to becoming herself, finding deep love, and conceiving a family is full of stormy weather, but, movingly, she sails through life’s storms with strength and determination, leaving rainbows of vibrant poetry in her wake.  

It is worth noting that Byers also pays ample homage to LGBTQ pioneers throughout her memoir, for example, with a pilgrimage to the Stonewall Inn with Amy on their tenth anniversary. Byers’ recognition of those who made it possible for her and Amy to love more freely, and to legally marry, adopt, and raise a family, seamlessly detaches Byers’ narrative from the personal and elevates it to the communal. Small Courage is more than a familial memoir, it is an ode to the power of community, and a call to courage.  

The memoir ends with joyful, reflective notes: “Heck, if a lesbian couple can spend every waking moment for two weeks with a Christian fundamentalist couple and come out at the end as friends, there is hope in the world.” In addition, Byers concludes with somber reminders that finding meaning is synonymous with living our truths. “I spent a long time forging meaning,” Byers writes, “it took me a while to get to changing the world. How do I change the world? I came out. I walk through airports with my wife and our children and we don’t hide being a family.” Small Courage is continually coming out–it is the journey, the meaning, and the joy.