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?
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Of all the gay-rights issuesovershadowing "don't ask, don't tell" and even same-sex marriagegay 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 againstwhether 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 parentsfor better or worse. Suzanne Johnson and Beth O'Connordevelopmental psychologists, lesbian parents and life partnersare 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 farwith 100 families interviewed and the goal of at least another 100 to gothe 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."
THE NEW FAMILY VALUES CROWD
Johnson and O'Connor are themselves a new suburban family. They live on a tucked-away street in Oakdale, not far from Dowling, in a split-level house inherited by Johnson, who grew up there. O'Connor, who's from Ohio, stays at home with the girls, Bailey, 5, and Rowan, 2, playing Twister and reading kids' books and limiting TV time and fixing popcorn. Bailey goes to public kindergarten. There are neatly framed family photographs on the mantle, Christmas stockings dangling below it, a fluffy cat lounging on the backyard patio, living-room shelves holding books from Primary Colors and Plato to Williams & Sonoma cookbooks and the AIDS chronicle And the Band Played On.
Both girls were borne by O'Connor, who was artificially inseminated with the sperm of an anonymous donor, chosen in part for his description of features similar to the blond, fair ones of Johnson. So far the daughters have not asked their moms"Mom" and "Mama"much about what makes their family different, although when Bailey was 4, she came home from school and told them that a classmate said two girls can't get married. "Aren't you married?" Bailey asked her moms. Although they've never had a ceremony, the moms, who met 15 years ago as Ph.D. students at Stony Brook, told her yes, of course they were married, that they loved each other and that's all that was required, and that maybe this friend just didn't know. That was apparently all Bailey needed to hear; she hasn't brought it up again.
"I think both of us have found that you let the child lead the way," Johnson says. "We assume that as their cognitive awareness increases, there will definitely be more questions."
They claim they've never encountered homophobia from Bailey's school, pediatricians, neighbors or Dowling College, which provides domestic partnership coverage and has been "completely supportive" of the study, says Johnson. And now even the grandparents have eased into the idea.
O'Connor's parents never like the fact that she was gay, but she says they softened after Bailey was born. "The minute there was a grandchild on the way, things were very different," she recalls.
"I was totally stunned," says O'Connor's mom, Marie, about her daughter's announcement that she and Suzanne were going to have a baby. "My biggest worry is what's going to face the children as they grow older." Although she says it took her a long time to accept the idea of a two-mother household, knowing the children has made it easier to deal with. "I've fallen in love with those girls," she says.
When Beth first came out, her father Jack says, he had a difficult time. "I told Bethie, 'I can't agree with this, because it's against everything I've ever been taught...'" he recalls. "But I did a lot of soul-searching, and I thought if I raise hell with her about it, I'm not going to get anywhere." He remembers confiding to his other daughter (they also have three sons), " 'The thing that bothers me about this the most is that she'll never have children.' But then Bethie called me up one day and said, 'Dad, I'm pregnant.' And they're doing a good job." But, he adds, "I can't say I would've accepted it as easily if it was one of the boys."
Suzanne's mother, Joye Schulton, had an easier time with their decision to have children. "I felt like it was their choice," she says. "The little girls are just beautiful, and I love them. Other people may feel differently, and that's their choice."
Johnson and O'Connor decided to conduct a study of gay parents when they realized, as clinical psychologists, that not much research had ever been done on the topic. And it seemed that publishers were hungry for the information. When the two women, both 38, sent their study proposal out to four university presses last year, all wrote back with strong interest within two weeks.
Then they placed announcements seeking study subjects on Internet websites and in gay publications and, since June, they've seen an overwhelming response. So far they've had more than 100 participants, mostly women, representing 27 states. They're hoping for 100 more, and it seems likely that they'll get them, considering that just last month, an ad in Alternative Family Magazine, a gay-parent magazine published in Illinois, sent them 200 more lesbian and gay moms and dads who are interested in taking part in the study.
It seemed as if gay parentseven those who were edgy about being outed at their jobs or to certain members of their extended familieswere as hungry to talk about their experiences as the publishers were to print them. The fact that O'Connor and Johnson are lesbian moms seemed to ease many people's minds.
"I guess our timing has been good," Johnson says.
The 14-page survey is straightforward, inquiring first about jobs, level of education, income, marital status, religion and how the children were conceived (from a prior heterosexual relationship, through insemination, adoption, etc.). In a section called "pre-parental issues," the subjects are asked questions about when and how they decided to have children, negative reactions from family members or friends, concerns about employment and difficulties with medical care. Other sections assess participants' general attitudes toward child-rearing, their concerns about children in a homosexual household and the response of their communities. The project also gauges partners' parenting practices and their relationship to each other.
BACK TO STUDY HALL
The fact that the study is not based on a random sample will continue to give anti-gay activists ammunition. "For this study to overcome the problem of sample selection alone would be a high barrier," says Robert Knight, head of the Family Research Council, the organization set up by evangelical Christian broadcaster James Dobson and led for years by presidential wannabe Gary Bauer. The FRC and its branches in practically every state have fought hard against gay rights, most notably in Colorado, where controversial Amendment 2 outlawed gay-rights ordinances until it was overturned by the courts. "All the other studies have had glaring errorsthey have small sample sizes, they compare apples and oranges. There have been so many methodological errors that they can't be considered scientific."
Knight argues that the new study is also fatally flawed. "Most people who participate in gay parent studies already think gay parenting is great and would not submit information to any scholar who believes otherwise," he says.
O'Connor freely acknowledges her study's self-selected sample, conceding "it might be that people who have had negative experiences may not want to participate."
But Johnson dismisses the problem. "To say that parents who are homosexual will be concealing information is pretty absurd, considering the high instances of abuse, abandonment, neglect and divorce in heterosexual-headed families," she says. "Homosexual parents are no more likely to be truthful or untruthful than heterosexual parents."
And, other than some accounts of moms having ex-husbands try to use their lesbianism against them in custody battles and the recurring worry that children will be teased for having two moms or two dads, "we haven't had any real nightmare stories," says O'Connor.
Johnson adds that, while she is unwilling to paint a completely rosy picture of gay family life, she is inferring that instances of abandonment and neglect could actually be lower when lesbians or gays have children simply because gays have to jump through more hoops to become parents. "Most people who are gay have had to go to a far greater effort to be parents," while many straight people have children almost unconsciously, because it's the next step in life, she says. Plus, she would ask critics like Knight, "At what point do you say you have at least adequate information?"
As one of two adoptive dads of a 9-year-old son in New Jersey wrote in his survey: "Both of us chose parenting and overcame significant obstacles to have a child. It was not a casual act, and we take parenting very seriously." And the society at large may have less of a problem with the idea of gay parents than the anti-gay pressure groups would have people believe. The New Jersey man's partner added this tidbit: "We were able to get our son into any private school we wanted. It seems they were all interested in having gay dads for parents!"
AN OPEN-MINDED AND SHUT CASE
It's not that gay parents haven't been studied before. They have, and the results haven't backed up the warnings of anti-gay activists that gay parents will produce a nation of gay children. A 1992 survey of the results of 30 studies of the kids of gay parents, published in the journal Child Development, concluded that the studies were nearly unanimous in their findings that the children had developed normally.
The most oft-cited of these studies, conducted in 1995 by University of Virginia psychologist Charlotte Patterson, also showed normal development from children with same-sex parents. And this past summer, the American Psychological Association published a study showing that if a strong relationship exists between parent and child, it doesn't matter whether it is with the mother, the father, two moms, two dads, a grandmother or any other caregiver. Further, a series of lesbian-mom studies have shown that two moms often have the added support of a close network of friends regarded as an extended family and that there is often a more egalitarian division of labor between the parents than there is with most heterosexual couples.
The new study by O'Connor and Johnson indicates that gay parents are thriving in the Midwest and South, outside large, active gay communities. Most two-parent households had one stay-at-home caregiver if the children were young and seemed to evenly divide the responsibilities. Something Johnson and O'Connor say they learned from gay fatherswho so far make up only about 15 percent of the study's participantsis that they often face additional pressure.
"One couple had a hard time going out in public without women inserting themselves into the situation," Johnson says, and some also reported being misunderstood by gay male friends. "Reading that made me realize that men who are gay and who want to be parents really face additional boundaries," she says. "Within their community, by them desiring to be parents, it's not as valued [as in the lesbian community]."
But Jon Cooper's experience belies that. Cooper, a Huntington Democrat just elected to the Suffolk County Legislature and interviewed with his family for a PBS documentary on gay parents scheduled to air this summer, says he hasn't faced much pressure from anyone about his decision to become a father with his partner of 18 years, Rob. Together, they have adopted five children, ranging in age from 5 to 14.
"We're in the suburbs, and most people come out here because they want to raise a family with kids," he says. "So I think the pressure here is 'when are you guys going to have kids already?' Almost every gay couple we know either has kids or are planning on it."
As far as how being a gay dad has affected his career as a politician, Cooper says, "We're lucky that we live in a well-educated, relatively progressive community...We'd be at the Walt Whitman Mall, pushing a triple-stroller, and people would come up to us and say, 'What is this, mother's night off?' And we'd immediately say, 'No, we're the parents.' And they'd never bat an eye."
Cooper recalls once being on line with two of his children at a Huntington Starbuck's when a group of people recognized them from a recent newspaper profile and expressed their admiration. "It obviously had an impact on these straight, middle-aged women. I was floored," he says. So, although Cooper says he's all in favor of compiling data and publishing studies on gay parents, "what's going to change people's minds in the long run, I think, are the one-to-one relationships."
And some of the gay parents in the survey predict that their children will naturally learn open-mindedness and pass it on in their own relationships.
"I think that one of the biggest differences that I see is that in our family we don't have the bias against people that some straight families have," wrote a New Jersey mom of a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old. "We're not sheltered. You know, there are a lot of straight families that are sheltered, that don't know anything beyond their bounds. We don't have that. I think that our children will be able to be much more open-minded and I think that as a result their friends will be much more open-minded."
But whether they are or not, it's clear that parents are parents, that most of them have the same dreams for their kids.
A lesbian mom of a 3-year-old wrote: "I think it's been great for her, and I don't know that it would be any different if one of us were a guy, if a guy would be the same kind of parent." And when it comes to possible teasing from other kids, she has the antidote that every parent tries to apply: "What we're doing now, what you do every day for your kid, all the time, is how can I build your self-esteem, and how can I make you feel comfortable with yourself, and comfortable with your family...and have her respect us and love us to the point where she says, yeah, two mommies is the best thing in the world."
Most of the gay parents surveyed by Johnson and O'Connor believed that having two moms or two dads would actually help better arm their children to deal with the world.
"We always love it when these studies come out," says one of those children, the now 34-year-old Dan Cherubin of the national group Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere. "To us, it's preaching to the converted, but it shows that parents are parents." Cherubin is gay and grew up in New York City with two moms, which he said was difficult because there were not many others in his situation. When he realized that he himself was gay, he helped to found Second Generation, an offshoot of COLAGE for gay children of gay parentsa sometimes controversial population that gay parents don't like to advertise because they fear it will help fuel the fires of homophobes.
Cherubin hates it when people point to him as an example of where gay parenting can go wrong. "It does infuriate me," he says. "I have two siblings and they're both straight. You're just as likely to be gay with straight parents."
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