Thursday, June 29, 2006

Same-sex parenting and kids

Last year my then-14-year old daughter CB stumbled upon a right-wing online political discussion board. What shocked her was a post, and numerous followup comments, that were about a lesbian couple and their daughter. The post and comments were crude, homophobic and hateful. CB thought the post was very much what immature teenagers would say, and asked if most adults were so immature.

For CB this is mystifying, because she has a number of friends who have same-sex couples as parents. So does my son. For them, the bigotry and hatred against gays and same-sex parents doesn't make sense.

I had to tell her that on this particular issue, way too many adults are in fact very immature and intolerant. We had a discussion about why that is so, how many people are ignorant, or somehow that their own sexual identities are threatened in some way. I explained to CB that another part of the reaction is because same-sex couples who want to marry and adopt children are directly challenging traditionally defined gender and parenting roles.

As Rogers Cadenhead has pointed out on his blog (which I found via RebelDad), some conservatives fear that if homosexuals marry it will undermine "the basic grammar of marriage," that is, the traditional and narrowly-defined gender roles of husbands and wives.

There is also a growing movement among states to ban the fostering or adoption of children by gay couples, based again on a traditional notions of gender.

These attitudes have culminated in a fear of even discussing with children the fact that two men or two women can love each other and be committed to each other just as much as a man and a woman, and that gay couples can be good and loving parents. This fear is taking the shape of a crusade to prevent school children from being exposed to gender roles that differ from the traditional two-parent, mom at home with the kids and dad at work image. Heather Has Two Mommies has been banned in order to "protect" our children. Tinky-Winky and SpongeBob Squarepants are portrayed as nefarious underminers of traditional values.

I'm not in a same-sex relationship nor have I adopted children, but my personal experiences and those of my kids directly contradict the fear and heated opposition to same-sex relationships and parenting that we're seeing in this country.

At the most basic level, I've yet to see a convincing argument as to how exactly same-sex marriage threatens my own relationship and marriage with my wife. But what I've come to realize is that this issue is not about facts, it's about deeply ingrained conceptions of gender.

The issue of committed same-sex relationships does indeed challenge traditional gender roles and stereotypes. But of course any stay-at-home dad is also a direct challenge to this "traditional" definition of gender roles and of parenting. What could be more subversive of that definition than a dad who stays home full time with the kids and a mom who works full time bringing home the paycheck? Do those who claim to be protecting "traditional values" intend to outlaw stay-at-home dads?

It seems that all too many people approach these issues without the crucial ingredients for making good, informed decisions: personal experience and empathy. And that lack of experience and empathy just reinforces their inability to get beyond traditional gender roles to see the human side of these issues.

Those who are so viscerally opposed to gay marriage, gay adoption, and open discussion of non-traditional families seem to be those who don't personally know any gay couples or gay parents. Personal experience can make all the difference, and makes it really difficult to demonize a whole group of people just because they are different from you or your expectations.

What's interesting on this front is the generational divide. Young people approve of gay marriage at much higher rates than their elders; even many young Republicans have no problem with the idea. Given the extent to which the Republican party in general has seized on this issue, and has adopted an electoral strategy that demonizes the idea of same-sex couples marrying or adopting children, this is particularly striking. My hunch is that this generational difference is due to personal experiences, that younger generations have much more direct personal experience with gay men and lesbians in loving, committed and long-term relationships, and that they are more accepting of non-traditional gender roles.

But won't the children be confused?

My own kids know quite a few children who have gay parents, that is, two mommies or two daddies. My kids have known kids with same-sex parents from their first days in kindergarten, not because it was focused on, but because it was just part of the natural conversation between kids about their families. And they accept it as natural.

One kindergarten friend of my daughter explained in a matter-of-fact way that she had been conceived through in-vitro fertilization, and that she had two mommies. This was not upsetting or disorienting to my daughter or the other children in the class. She accepted it, just as she accepted her friend as just another kid.

Both of my kids over the years have had really good friends who have committed gay couples as parents. These parents are like any other parents. The kids spend a lot of time at our house, and a lot of time at their friends' houses. They go to birthday parties, have play dates, have sleepovers at their friends' homes. My kids are not confused, they know and have seen that what matters is having parents who love their kids and are committed to them.

Likewise on the issue of homosexuality itself, both of my kids see it as a very unproblematic issue, though they understand that others do not. I remember one conversation when my son BK was about 9 or 10, and we were talking about homosexuality and heterosexuality. My daughter, then 12 or 13, stated that she did not think she was gay. BK said, well, I'm not really sure, I don't think I am but I'm not sure. There was no defensiveness or fear in his statement, it was just a matter-of-fact statement that indicated to me that our kids understand that sexual orientation comes in various forms, that it's not necessarily a choice, and that there's nothing wrong with gay people. Given the amount of homophobia in our society, I was heartened by BK's attitude.

Above I said that the same-sex parents we know are no different from other parents. But that is not totally true. Same-sex parents face challenges that heterosexual married parents don't have to worry about. They don't have: the right to visit their partner or child in the hospital; bereavement leave if their partner or partner's child dies; sick leave to care for their partner or child; social security survivor benefits; the right to be recognized as a co-parent with full parental rights. The list is a very long one. In short, society actually puts enormous obstacles in the way of these couples, making it even more difficult for them to achieve the most basic goals that any family has.

Gender roles and expectations all too often stand in the way of healthy, happy families. They've prevented dads from expressing their love for their kids in tender ways, from trading off career and status for time with kids. They prevent same-sex couples from having their relationships protected in the ways that heterosexuals' relationships are protected. They prevent kids from finding secure homes in loving families just because both parents are of the same sex. They prevent children from learning that loving families come in more than just the traditional variety.

The bottom line for me is love and caring. What's important is that people love each other and care for each other. What's important is that kids have parents who love them.

Just as traditional roles limit men and dads, by preventing them from being able to express themselves as full human beings, so too these attitudes towards same-sex couples and their families prevent those families from having what any family wants: security in the knowledge that they are safe, that they are valued as parents and as human beings. And that's not only important for them. It's important for all of us.

Reposted (and slightly revised) from Daddychip2


Anonymous said...

OK, I admit it. I've started following what "Dear Abby" has to say about gay marriage to her millions of readers. Following up on a previous comment on this subject, I would like to share July 28's column:

DEAR ABBY: I am being married this summer to my fiancee of five years, "Beth." I had always assumed that my brother, "Mike," who is also my best friend, would be my best man. Mike is gay.

When I asked him, I was stunned at his response. Mike said he loves me and Beth, but refuses to be part of a ceremony celebrating something for which he is discriminated against emotionally, financially and socially. He refuses even to attend.

Now that I have been forced to confront this issue, I realize my brother is right. Beth thinks he should "get over it," and he needs to accept that it's just "the way things are in the world."

As hurt as I am, I can't hold against my brother his refusal to participate in what he refers to as a "reminder that he is considered a second-class citizen without the same civil rights" as I have.

How can I handle this without turning it into something that could overshadow what is supposed to be one of the happiest days of my life? -- DISAPPOINTED IN WESTLAKE, OHIO

DEAR DISAPPOINTED: By respecting your brother's decision, and reminding your bride-to-be that accepting the status quo is not always the best thing to do. Women were once considered chattel, and slavery was regarded as sanctioned in the Bible. However, western society grew to recognize that neither was just. Canada, Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain have recognized gay marriage, and one day, perhaps, our country will, too.

Anonymous said...

Our country has reconized the relationship as legitimate -- in Vermont via civil unions and in Massachusetts (my current, though not original, home state).

Civil union really should be considered equivalent to civil marriage; in some states it is. I don't believe Vermont is one of those states.

In many ways, Mass is not as liberal as it thinks it is, but on this issue it gets it right; so far.