A Couple of Startling Facts

My parents brought up the grandchild thing during our last major blowout about my being gay. "You would have been such a wonderful mother," they said, looking alternately down at the floor with self-pity and into my eyes with sharp resentment.

"I will be a wonderful mother," I shot back. "I'm still having children."

And then, together, they told me, as if they were letting me in on an obvious and unwavering truth: "You can't have children. A child needs a father and a mother."

According to whom?

Of all the gay-rights issues—overshadowing "don't ask, don't tell" and even same-sex marriage—gay parenting may press the most panic buttons in our society. It's children, for chrissakes, the fearful say. It's dangerous, it's confusing, it's just not right.

But gay parenting is not waiting for the idea of gay marriage to take hold. While gays are still fighting for the right to marry, gay parents are becoming more and more common. And, in a way, it's not surprising that gay parents are becoming just as visible in suburbia as in big cities. After all, it's suburbia where many people go to build families.

Openly gay Jon Cooper, who won election to the Suffolk County Legislature last fall after a campaign in which he touted his cute family of five kids and a partner, says of his household, "If anything, I think it probably has increased my support."

You'd think the way gays and lesbians are clamoring to embrace marriage and parenthood would blunt at least some of the hysteria whipped up by religious-right conservatives about the disintegration of the American family. No, gays are still their shibboleths. A movement to prevent lesbians and gays from becoming parents has gathered steam over the past year: Florida and New Hampshire already have laws that bar gay people from adopting, and similar bills have been introduced in Texas and Indiana. One year ago, Arkansas and Utah became the first states to enact regulations preventing lesbians and gays from becoming foster parents or adopting children.

Each time such laws are trotted out, the extremists parade "studies," most often those conducted in the '80s by the vehemently homophobic and widely discredited anti-gay researcher Paul Cameron. His "data" supposedly show that most gay parents molest their children, are diseased, die young and make their kids gay. At various times, groups like the Christian Coalition and the Family Research Council have touted Cameron's studies. The anti-gay rhetoric is more sophisticated these days, but the message is the same: Gay parents are just plain bad for children.

"Hey, it's a great way to raise money," Cooper quips. "They need a bogeyman to fight against—whether it's abortion or gay people."

But what tools do gay parents have to fight back with?

For the most part, studies of gay parenting have been small in scope, usually looking at no more than 30 or 40 families.

Until now, that is.

Here on Long Island, two women are busy working on the most powerful defense that's ever been constructed to argue that gay parents are no different from any other parents—for better or worse. Suzanne Johnson and Beth O'Connor—developmental psychologists, lesbian parents and life partners—are in the midst of conducting the largest national sampling of gay parents that's ever been done. Their project is being funded by Dowling College, where Johnson is a professor, and is due to be published in book form by New York University Press later this year. They're also working jointly on a lesbian parenting guide for Gilford Publishing, which will include detailed interviews with some of the study's participants.

While other studies have focused on whether the kids turn out OK, Johnson and O'Connor are more interested in surveying what the parents are like and what philosophies and strategies they have for raising children.

"The whole issue of being a gay parent is the last domain of homophobia," Johnson says. "What we're really trying to do is give a basis for reality...We're trying to demonstrate that people who are gay and lesbian parents are likely to be the same as any other parent.

"The 'hidden agenda,' of course, is to show that gay parents are good parents."

Ray Drew, head of the California-based Family Pride Coalition, a 20-year-old gay-parent group with more than 6,000 members nationwide, praised Johnson and O'Connor's efforts as the largest such study he's heard of.

"The bottom line is that parents are parents and children are children," says Drew. "It's difficult for me to hear about having to prove that to people, but think about it from the standpoint of middle America: You've heard your whole life that gay people are a threat. When you introduce parents and children into the equation, it brings out a visceral response from people.

"So this study will be great for us. We need it. We need information for the public."

So far—with 100 families interviewed and the goal of at least another 100 to go—the results are proving to be overwhelmingly good news for groups like Family Pride.

"If I were an anti-gay enthusiast," Johnson says, "knowing what the statistics are so far, I'd be concerned."

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