Director Maya Newell on being a “Gayby Baby”

The Australian documentary Gayby Baby looks at the everyday lives of same-sex parents and their children, including three families with two moms. Director Maya Newell was inspired to make the film by her own upbringing with two moms and by the current situation for families like hers in Australia, where same-sex couples can’t get married, and same-sex parent adoption is only legal in a few states.

FilmMaker Afternoon Tea - BFI London Film FestivalPhoto by John Phillips/Getty Images for BFI

We spoke with Maya about the present-day situation in Australia, the controversy around her film getting banned, what Gayby Baby is doing in schools now, her experience growing up with two moms and much more. Let’s start off by discussing the current situation in Australia: how are things looking on the same-sex marriage front right now? Many of us have read about the possibility of a public vote on the issue, which sounds pretty problematic to me.

Maya Newell: It’s incredibly problematic. For the last five or six years, the marriage equality debate has been rising in volume in Australia and probably essentially was one of the motivating forces behind why I wanted to make Gayby Baby because it was getting so ugly. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “Children need a mother and a father.” So we’ve been fighting that for a while. We just had a new conservative government voted in, which means that we are looking at a plebiscite. Which is completely absurd, because even if the vote is positive, government don’t actually have to go with that decision and make marriage equality legal. So yeah, I think it’s looking a little bit bad at the moment. Though in polls, we know that Australians want marriage equality. And in actual fact, if it was voted on today even in Parliament, the numbers are there to pass it. It really is just a number of conservative individuals up top that are really blocking it.

We’ve been doing a lot of campaigning around marriage equality and other policies and laws in Australia with the film. We have screened this film in federal Parliament House. We hosted a big panel event where I gathered gaybies from every state all around Australia to come and share their stories with parliamentarians. We’ve had screenings in every state around the country. I think a film that allows children to speak for themselves is incredibly powerful. We’ve been using that to its full potential.

The other really important policy over here which we’ve been battling is around same-sex adoption. Now that’s legal in a few states. Matt and Pete, the dads in the film, were actually the first couple in New South Wales to legally adopt Graham and Michael when the laws changed in 2009, which was pretty beautiful.


AE: Do you ever see the adoption issue becoming something that is a federal concern as opposed to taking the state-by-state approach?

MN: It’s got to. It just requires that lobbying from the sidelines. In some ways marriage equality, while it has a big symbolic value, something like adoption equality actually has serious implications for families and would change lives. I know that when we had a screening in Melbourne in Victoria Parliament, it was a couple of months after that the issue was raised and passed in Victoria, which was pretty amazing. The same is happening in South Australia. So I think that while there’s a huge wave of many people working towards change, I think what’s been really amazing with Gayby Baby is you can see the value of moving hearts and minds. I think that’s why I make documentaries, is because I believe in the power of stories to enact change.


AE: So what happened with Gayby Baby getting banned in classrooms in New South Wales?

MN: It was devastating. We [Note: Maya and producer Charlotte Mars and executive producer Billy Marshall Stonekingdecided to release Gayby Baby independently, which meant that we could decide how we wanted to show it to the world. We decided we’d release the film in schools before we went to cinemas, which is kind of not done. Like if you had a distributor, they’d be like, “That is a terrible idea. Giving out your film on a DVD before anyone has seen it and sending it to schools for free…” In our hearts, we believed that this was a film about Australian youth and we wanted schools and students to see it first. We did this.

A couple of days before our screening was to take place, our leading newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, ran a cover story citing “Gay Class Uproar” where parents–they said parents, but actually, there were no complaints from parents. You know, people were outraged that we’d be brainwashing–rainbow brainwashing our youth with this film about normalizing same-sex families. What was really horrifying was that the top government ministers in our state, the education minister Adrian Piccoli, banned the film. He banned the film from screening during school hours having not seen it. I think what was so absurd is that because no one had seen the film who had banned it, it was the mere idea of same-sex families or this subject matter that had caused such rigorous objection from who you would think to be the people who are to be supporting and making sure children are safe at school.

I think what flowed on from there was a national conversation about the existence of children in same-sex families. The subject matter was trending on Twitter for like a whole week. We were on the front of every paper after that. We had really big politicians stepping up and writing opinion pieces in all the major papers and going on the news and debating what we should be teaching children in schools. What arose from the ashes of that experience was that you would literally have to be living under a rock to not know that kids in same-sex families exist and have done for generations.