You see them everywhere in New York City and increasingly in the suburbs, in a family tableau that is at once new and age-old: two mothers and the child they share. Rosie O’Donnell’s crusade for homosexual adoption may have dominated the news, but lesbians and gay men have always had children in all sorts of family configurations—whether through adoption, previous heterosexual relationships, or (increasingly) by choosing to have biological offspring as out men and women. Only in the last decade, however, have they shouldered themselves front and center into the group photo of the American family.
It is hard to say precisely how much company Rosie has, or how large the playgroup of children being raised by LGBT parents is. No demographic studies have been performed to determine anything close to an exact population, and numbers extrapolated from academic studies vary wildly. Lisa Bennett, deputy director of the FamilyNet project at the Human Rights Campaign, cites an analysis of past research by the American Academy of Pediatrics and sociologists Judith Stacey and Timothy Biblarz that estimates there are between 1 million and 9 million American children under age 18 living with gay parents. As for how many parents these kids have, Stacey and Biblarz project there are somewhere between 800,000 and 7 million lesbian, gay or bisexual parents. The very notion of a reliable count of LGBT parents is incendiary, because neither the government nor any research institution has dared to fund a conclusive study.
No matter their numbers, these parents are setting legal precedents and causing persistent, low-grade social outrage. In February, when the Alabama Supreme Court denied a lesbian mother custody of her children by her marriage to her ex-husband, Judge Roy Moore achieved new heights of homophobic rhetoric with his claim that the mother’s lesbian relationship made her an unfit parent prima facie and that homosexuality is “destructive to a basic building block of society—the family.”
Earlier this year, in a public decision that might not move Judge Moore but could help out Rosie and the myriad lesbian mothers of Park Slope, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared that “children who are born to or adopted by one member of a same-sex couple deserve the security of two legally recognized parents.” Said the academy in a statement: “A large body of professional literature provides evidence that children with parents who are homosexual can have the same advantages for health, adjustment and development as can children whose parents are heterosexual.”
The AAP is sanctioning the inevitable. Children from so-called “alternative families” are busting out all over. Last fall the New York Post’s Page Six threw a little baby shower of its own: a news item about several high-profile women who are unattached to men but are intimately attached to other mothers. Rosie’s partner, Kelli Carpenter, is said to be pregnant. Not to mention Lindsay and Melanie on Queer as Folk, whose son, Gus, is fathered by the show’s sulky protagonist, Brian. Among lesbian moms, we’ve even encountered that unfortunate fact of human relationships, de facto divorce: Rocker Melissa Etheridge shares custody of her kids with her ex, Julie Cypher; David Crosby is the father.
The greatest cultural change may stem not just from the sexual orientation of those two moms but from the sex of their child. According to the latest information from Xytex and California Cryo, the two largest sperm banks in the United States, the anecdotal conviction that lesbians who get pregnant via donor insemination are more likely to give birth to boys rather than girls is not true. But all women who choose to undergo donor insemination have at least a 50 percent chance of bearing sons.
That two women could raise a boy to a man without warping his manhood is an idea that challenges the preconceptions of politicians, psychologists, pediatricians, priests, and patriarchs. And what is even more revolutionary, lesbian mothers may be raising better boys.
As a research psychologist in San Francisco, I’ve long been fascinated with the sons of lesbians. Since 1996, I’ve studied the lives and characters of 16 pre-adolescent boys, all of them the sons from birth of lesbian couples. I compared them with 16 boys in heterosexual families. I’ve talked for countless hours with the sons of lesbians, and watched them play and interact with their siblings, their friends, and their mothers. I’ve interviewed their mothers, too—strong, professional, middle-class women in intact relationships. (Some are the biological mothers of their sons; others are what I call social mothers.) None of the boys had dads in the house, and only a few had a Queer-as-Brian sperm donor down the street, but all of them had men in their lives: coaches, uncles, neighbors, admirable figures from sports or history.
How does a boy figure out to be a boy without a full-time man around to show him? That question is perhaps the central family issue that Americans debate today. Thanks to the teenage terrorists at Columbine, the high divorce rate, and the rising proportion of males being reared in fatherless homes, our society has been in a froth about the condition of America’s young males, who (no matter their parenting) seem prey to confusion, resentment, and destructiveness. If only fathers were more fatherly, we are told, boys would learn to be good men. Sons of lesbians would seem to offer a perfect test for the apparent culture-wide trauma of the delinquent father.
“Sure, I’m a boy. I do boy things like play ball and stuff. I look like a boy. What else would I be?” asked nine-year-old Ned,* the son of Caroline, 35, a speech therapist, and Kate, 37, a systems analyst. From my first encounters with Ned and boys like him, I was witnessing them devise a boyhood using not just social cues but what seemed like innate male-identity-building talents. Whether he was riding the wind down a hill on a skateboard, pumping on his Rollerblades, or playing just about anything with a ball, he projected a joyful boyishness. Steven, age seven, the only son of Hannah, a 34-year-old physician’s assistant who lives with her partner, Carol, a 42-year-old attorney, knew his father but rarely saw him. Steven loves baseball, plays the game, collects baseball cards, and enjoys going with Carol to see the Giants play. Eight-year-old Carl, whose father lived in another state, loves to build complicated spaceships with his Legos and run races with his neighborhood friends or playmates in his after-school program. Ned, Steven, Carl, and all the other boys in my study refuted—to a man—the notion that boys raised by women will shrink from challenge and be unable to identify or connect with their own power.
The boys’ mothers affirm, even relish, their sons’ boyishness. “You know, I like seeing Ned wrestle with his friends,” Caroline told me. “But I also like the fact that he’s not a thug out to humiliate them. I just don’t see an oppressive power struggle when he’s roughhousing with his friends.” Hannah calls Carl “my budding entrepreneur”: He wants to send his Lego spaceships to the Lego company and is sure he’ll win a prize. So much for the myth that lesbians hate men and might undermine their sons’ masculinity. Engendering what I call “boy power”—a generous, confident sense not of masculine entitlement but of natural male possibility—is not merely the patented practice of dads. It is an equal-opportunity opportunity.
But even if the brains of boys are wired as they are from birth, don’t they need grown-up men to show them the way? Whether from the stuff of his own life or from more remote figures, each boy I studied could, as it were, roll his own role model. Some have models close to home, either their biological fathers or other males they are related to. Others become close to men their mothers have deliberately introduced into the family circle for the boys’ benefit. I found that most had more male figures in their lives than boys from the heterosexual families I studied, where the father was often the sole adult male in his son’s life.
As a small child, nine-year-old Henry had picked out a special guy who worked in his after-school program. He would hang on the man’s leg when his mother would come to take him home; when he was older, he adopted some of the man’s characteristics, such as the way he wore his hat or waved his arms when he was excited. Kenny, 11, had connected with his soccer coach. Evaluating aspects of men he knew, Kenny declared his Hebrew tutor to be very smart—but he’d rather be a veterinarian, like his (male) neighbor. Some boys invented or summoned up other admirable males from the world of sports as well as real-life heroes or fictional characters, from Jim Davis, the creator of the cartoon Garfield, to Thomas Edison and Harry Potter. Ned was fascinated with the basketball star Kobe Bryant, whom he admired not only for his prowess but for his sportsmanship.
Some may say that these boys’ reliance on cartoon, fantasy, and media figures is pitifully inadequate, offering no opportunity for real boys-to-men interaction, growth, and learning. But my observations suggest that these boys are forging healthy, well-integrated masculine identities whether they actually meet their role models or not. And if boys can construct a father as needed, they contradict the default belief of mental-health professionals, social scientists, and the culture at large that their fatherlessness thrusts them ipso facto into social and psychic danger. All mothers raising boys without men around could be heartened by that.
When these boys imagined what it would be like to have a father around, most declared almost immediately that they thought a dad would be “strict” with them. The father of Kenny’s best friend, Ian, always wanted to be a pro golfer but never was. Now he was pushing Ian, making him practice all the time. “I wouldn’t want a dad like that,” Kenny told me. “He doesn’t give Ian a chance to be a kid. I have more choices than Ian. I can play soccer, baseball, and football. All Ian can do is practice his golf swing.” Lesbian-parented boys are less likely to be terrorized by that golf swing—and more likely to feel integrated into a post-feminist culture that celebrates sensitivity and openness.
Are sons of lesbians different in any way from the sons of heterosexual parents I studied? Yes—and the impact is mostly positive. Boys with lesbian parents are undoubtedly more self-aware. My study corroborated findings by psychologists Valory Mitchell and Ann O’Connell that boys and girls with lesbian or gay parents are more adept at communicating their feelings and exhibit more empathy for people different from themselves.
They learn early how to negotiate the outside environment, gauge other people’s motives, and assess how open they dare to be in specific situations. Yet stigmatization may matter less than how children react to it. I saw how, with enough support from their families, these boys were developing skills at thinking independently and standing up for what they believed. This distinguishes them from many boys with straight parents.
Perhaps as a by-product of the discrimination they face, sons of lesbians tend to be more sensitive to others and more sensitive to the good and bad feelings in themselves, as psychologist Charlotte Patterson found as early as 1996. The boys in my study also tended to be more thoughtful and measured in how they exert themselves in the world. When Henry told me the story of David and Goliath, he concluded by saying, “Well, I like David’s strategy. I mean, Goliath is one of those guys that just goes out there and hits. David thinks about it, uses his mind and brute force.” Henry applied David’s approach to the politics of his own playground. He won’t shoot from the hip, but he won’t wimp out, either.
So will they grow up to be gay? That question pierces the dark heart of cultural anxiety around LGBT parenting. Its very supposition is problematic. Certainly, sons of lesbians ponder sexual orientation, including their own, at an early age. I heard a few worry that because their mothers were gay they would have to be, too. But others were more matter-of-fact. “I’m too young to think about that,” Kenny said to me. “I’ll know if I’m gay or straight when I’m older.” Based on the evidence offered by their boyhoods, most sons of lesbians will ultimately grow up to be straight, if only because most boys grow up to be straight. If we believe that homosexuality is neither a choice nor an unlucky orientation, then we can relax and trust that these young men will find out what possibility comes naturally to them. Unquestionably, they will have to establish the terms of their sexuality with more self-consciousness than most other young adults. I did find that they related to other females (myself included) with great respect and openness, which augurs well for romantic relations as adults.
The sons of lesbians I studied promise to offer us the best characteristics of men, as well as the ones we most value in women. Growing up without ingrained, preordained ideas of gender roles, they look for and find traditionally masculine and feminine attributes in their mothers. When they pitch in with cooking, cooking becomes a masculine activity. Nothing is forbidden to them—including the prospect of exploring their sexuality, no matter where it ultimately leads them, with generosity and creativity. Their innate maleness ratified by their mothers, these boys are learning a language of emotional literacy never before documented in our sons. Metaphorically and literally, they will move into manhood willing to ask for directions.
As part of the research protocol, names and identifying details have been changed.