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'My son is totally cool with Mum being gay': Jack Monroe on life as a non-binary parent

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 17/02/2021 Claire Newell
Jack Monroe wearing a blue shirt: Jack Monroe - Geoff Pugh © Geoff Pugh Jack Monroe - Geoff Pugh

As a gay woman, Jack Monroe has had to deal with her fair share of abuse from strangers online, but there was one “incident” with her son that comes to mind as an illustration of some of the difficulties they have faced as a family.

“At one of his previous schools - when I had done an interview about being non-binary - a kid much bigger than him came up to him in the playground and said, ‘Your mum is a tr*nny’," the food writer and activist told the Telegraph's Juggling Act podcast this week (listen using the audio player above).

“And Jonny didn’t know what that word meant.  He was only about five. But I suspect he gathered from the taunting tone being used that it was an insult against his mum. And he got really upset and smacked the kid. 

"Which wasn’t exactly how I’d have handled it myself, and obviously we had a discussion about that, but I was shocked that a primary age child would even know that word.”

Her son was suspended, but when Monroe asked the school about their anti-bullying policies and whether they had spoken to the other boy’s parents, the school’s response was surprising.

“They were really blasé about it,” she said. “One of the staff said something along the lines of ‘Well if you will go plastering your private business all over magazines...’ 

"Jonny wasn’t at that school for much longer, and he doesn’t remember a thing about it now, thank goodness.”

Jonny is now nearly 11 and at a "brilliant, incredibly compassionate and decent" school closer to their home in Southend. Monroe said he is “thriving”, despite the pressures of lockdown.

She said the pair had become “closer” because of the time Jonny has spent at home due to schools being closed.

To help avoid monosyllabic answers as Jonny nears his teenage years, Monroe has introduced a new game at meal times; they use a pack of cards to ask each other interesting questions to promote discussion, including thinking of words that a friend might use to describe them, or explaining what they are grateful for on that day. 

“Initially it was like pulling teeth,” she said. “But we persevered with it and it has generated some great little conversations. It has now become our thing.

As one of the country’s most prominent food writers and anti-poverty campaigners, Monroe has come a long since her son was born. In the podcast, she discusses some of her experiences. 

As a single parent, she struggled to pay the bills and feed both herself and Jonny after she lost her job as a call handler for the local fire service.

Spending several years on benefits while she looked for a job took its toll and damaged her confidence, but by a stroke of luck changed her life when a publisher spotted an article about her struggles to make cheap meals - soon afterwards she landed a book deal

Monroe told The Juggling Act podcast of the “shame” she had felt using food banks and how she had skipped meals to ensure her son had enough food.

Drawing on her experiences, she has since used her position to campaign for the Government to do more to help financially-stretched families. She joined the recent debate on reforming the “hampers” that were given to parents to replace school meals during the Covid crisis. 

In 2015, Monroe announced on social media - on National Coming Out Day - that she was “transgender”, but rather than transitioning to male, she explained that for her this meant she was “non-binary” - neither female nor male, but somewhere between the gender norms of the two.

“I want to be treated as a person, not as a woman or a man,” she said in an interview, but confirming that the pronoun “she” was OK.

Monroe had Jonny with a friend when she was in her early 20s and said that some people had commented that she had “deceived” him into having a baby because she had hidden her sexuality from him.

But she was clear that this was untrue. “He had known me for years, he knew who and what I was,” she said. “We had been friends for quite some time.”

She said there was a “sticky period” when her son was unable to understand why his father couldn’t live with him and Monroe. 

"For a while he was like, ‘Why can’t Daddy live with us?’. ‘Why can’t you and Daddy get married?’ And I said, ‘Because Mummy doesn’t love men in the same way that she loves women. Mummy is gay. And do you know what gay means?’ And he went, ‘yes’. I had to reinforce that a few times.

“He is totally cool with it. He has never seemed embarrassed by it,” she said.

Jonny's father subsequently married someone else and Monroe is positive about what she calls "all of their blended and beautiful relationships". 

“We all get along. It’s very modern and lovely,” she said. "The focus is to collectively raise this little human in a cocoon of love and nurture and wellbeing, and I think it’s that common goal that has underpinned all of our relationships for the last decade or so.

"I’m not pretending it’s easy, because successful relationships take a lot of constant, consistent, mindful work, but it is definitely worth it for how balanced and gorgeous he’s turning out."

The way that the outside world has responded to her sexuality has not always been so positive and Monroe has experienced a fair amount of hostility from others. 

“I did get a lot of abuse about being gay, online, for quite a long time,” she said. “I never really understood what the problem with that was. I was a bit like, well, it is not any of anybody else’s business, really, is it?”

She also said that other people criticised her for not being “a real lesbian because I had had a baby, because apparently you have to hand your womb in when you are getting your gay card”.

But such comments do not rattle her.  “I am extraordinarily secure in my sexuality and in my identity,” she said.

“If someone has got an issue with that, in the past that would have hurt me and I would have attempted to mask it or hide it, or not talk about it.

“And now, I am just like…I am not going to subdue myself for the sake of some anonymous ranting p**** on the internet.

“I am just going to just be myself and if they don’t particularly like it, well, I am not particularly bothered. Because who I am, and who I fall in love with or go to bed with or whatever, that’s my business."

Listen to Jack Monroe on The Telegraph's new podcast, The Juggling Act, on the audio player above, on Apple PodcastsSpotify or wherever you listen to podcasts. Join the Telegraph Women Facebook Group to discuss The Juggling Act and more.

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