Queer as Your Folks
Do lesbian parents raise queer kids? A recently published study says they do. It's easy to predict how socially conservative lawmakers will use the study. But national gay organizations -- the ones who've spent millions of dollars trying to convince mainstream America that gay people are just like straight people -- face a tricky decision.
In "(How) Does the Sexual Orientation of Parents Matter?", a 24-page article published in the April issue of the American Sociological Review, University of Southern California professors Judith Stacey and Timothy J. Biblarz found that the children of lesbian parents were more likely to experiment with same-sex relationships than those raised by heterosexuals. Girls raised by lesbians tended to be "more sexually adventurous and less chaste" than those raised by straight parents, while boys tended to be just the opposite. Boys also tended to be more fluid in their definitions of gender roles, while girls were much more independent and assertive. Children of both genders were found to be more sexually and culturally tolerant than their peers.
Biblarz and Stacey, who is also a member of the Council on Contemporary Families, came to their conclusions after reviewing 21 psychological studies conducted over the past 20 years on children raised in lesbian families. (Studies of children raised by gay men had smaller statistical samples.) The 21 studies, conducted from 1981 through 1998, examined a range of family groupings and dynamics (from lesbian couples raising children conceived through donor insemination to families headed by parents who came out during previous heterosexual marriages). Each of these studies originally concluded that there are no significant differences between children raised in lesbian families and those reared in heterosexual ones. Stacey and Biblarz have little criticism of the methodology used in these studies, but after reviewing the data, they found that the authors' conclusions didn't completely represent their findings.
Take, for example, the question of the children's sexual orientation. Whereas the original studies found that lesbian parents do not produce a higher percentage of gay or lesbian children than heterosexual parents, the reality, as Stacey and Biblarz point out, is a little more complicated. In one of the original studies, 25 percent of adults raised by lesbians (six of 25) reported having a homoerotic relationship, as compared to none of those (out of 20 surveyed) with heterosexual parents. In another study, 64 percent of the adults with lesbian parents (14 of 22) reported that they would consider having a same-sex relationship, as opposed to just 17 percent of those with heterosexual parents (three of 18).
It's true that the people raised by lesbian parents were not more likely to be gay in the sense of identifying themselves as homosexuals in adulthood. That was the question the original studies asked. But their sexual identities do seem more open-ended. And the new study does seem to show that, as Barnard women's-studies professor Ann Pelligrini says, "queer families are going to produce queer kids. By 'queer,' I mean kids who can resist thinking in cultural norms. Kids with a sense of difference who have the capacity to be critical of 'common-sense notions' of what families should be."
So what's the problem? What parents wouldn't want their children to be tolerant? Their girls to be ambitious and assertive? Their boys to be communicative and emotional? And given the endless cultural fretting about women being from one planet and men from another, who wouldn't be happy to raise young women who are sexually assured and young men who exhibit a little less eagerness in their sexual adventures?
Traditionalists and moralists, that's who. To social conservatives, many aspects of Stacey and Biblarz's study simply confirm what they've long believed: gay men and lesbians should not be parents. Just ask Lynn D. Wardle, a family-law specialist from Brigham Young University's J. Reuben Clark Law School, who continues to be interviewed on this topic even though many legal scholars and sociologists consider his work deeply flawed by his bias against gay rights. He told the Associated Press, "This is a flashing yellow light that says before you legalize gay adoptions you better think clearly. The social science doesn't support those kind of radical reforms."
Although the study came out just three months ago, it's already being used as evidence that lesbians and gay men are unfit to be parents. It's been offered for that purpose in In Re Adoption of Luke, a Nebraska second-parent-adoption suit brought by the lesbian partner of a child's birth mother. (Conversely, however, the study is also being cited in pro-gay briefs in such cases as Lofton v. Butterworth, a class-action suit challenging Florida's bar against adoptions by gays, and in same-sex-marriage cases in Ontario, British Columbia, and Quebec.) Both researchers recognized the possibility that their study could be used against gay families; they wrote of the need to "recognize the political dangers of pointing out that ... a higher proportion of children with lesbigay parents are themselves apt to engage in homosexual activity." But they thought that the subtle realities of gay parenting deserved public discussion.
"I have no doubt that this work will be abused and it could conceivably do harm in some individual cases, but that will always happen," Stacey tells the Phoenix. "In the end, I believe, it is always better to be truthful and honest about people's lives."
Until Stacey and Biblarz embarked on their review, every previous scientific, sociological, or psychological examination of children raised in lesbian families focused on one question: were the children put at a disadvantage? The answer was always an overwhelming "no." Meanwhile, because most of the researchers understood that their studies could, as Stacey puts it, "be used by politicians, policymakers, judges, and even other academics and scientists as ammunition against judicial and legislative decisions on a whole range of issues relating to gay and lesbian parenting, custody, adoption, and foster care," they downplayed some of their findings -- especially concerning the sexual identity and behavior of the children -- in some subtle and some not-so-subtle ways. Stacey says that the original researchers did this not so much out of "political correctness" as out of "political anxiety."
One of the primary purposes of the Stacey-Biblarz study was to explore the political need to downplay the differences -- which they describe as "modest and interesting" -- between the children of lesbians and those of heterosexuals. Toward that end, their study calls for a "less defensive, more sociologically informed analytic framework" to study gay and lesbian families. As Stacey has pointed out in nearly every interview she has given since the study's publication: "Differences are not deficits."
But a "less defensive" atmosphere may be difficult to achieve now that, as Paula Ettlebrick of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force puts it, Stacy and Biblarz have "burst the bubble of one of the best-kept community secrets." As it's trickled out from academic circles to the mainstream media, the Stacey-Biblarz report has received an enormous amount of publicity from the New York Times, the New York Post, Newsday, the Washington Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, and even the China Daily. And Stacey has been interviewed on the Fox News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor and National Public Radio's The Connection.
With the cat out of the bag, some mainstream gay-rights groups are still sticking to the old script. Mary Bonauto of Boston's Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, for example, says the best news of the report is that it "forcefully reaffirms the fact that there is nothing detrimental about gay and lesbian parenting." Others are embracing the differences between the new findings and the old. "Of course there are enormous similarities in gay and heterosexual families -- curfews, fights about television, household chores, homework. These are problems all families face," says Felicia Park-Rogers, founder and director of Children of Gays and Lesbians Everywhere. "But we also have to admit that lesbian and gay parenting is also different and that difference is often quite wonderful."
Ironically, however, it seems riskier to stress what should seem like the best news: that, as Stacey says, "the study shows the real benefits of being raised in a gay family."
But why? Surely at least progressives, straight as well as gay, believe it is better to raise children who are emotionally secure about sexuality and gender than children who aren't.
If the findings from "(How) Does the Sexual Orientation of Parents Matter?" were taken to their logical conclusion, however, many progressives would have to admit that the report is an implicit critique of heterosexual parenting. Stacey and Biblarz found that "nonbiological lesbian co-mothers" are "more skilled at parenting and more involved with the children than stepfathers" and that "lesbian partners in two-parent families ... enjoy a greater level of synchronicity in parenting than do heterosexual partners."
This message may not be one the gay movement is willing to broadcast, especially because the value of less rigid gender roles is at odds with moderate -- never mind conservative -- views. After all, history has repeatedly shown that for the gay movement to sustain its core values while fighting for legal rights requires not just integrity, balance, and planning, but also a certain amount of deception.
Given that much of its lobbying for political reform rests atop a public-relations battle for social acceptance, the gay-rights movement has worked hard to show that homosexuals are no different from heterosexuals. Faced with charges of indiscriminate promiscuity from the right, the movement responded by painting a happy portrait of homosexual monogamy and fidelity. And so we have a political movement that plays up gay-marriage lawsuits and plays down the fact that, generally speaking, gay culture is much more honest than mainstream culture about the myriad ways in which sexual desire can be expressed. Accused of being sinful, again by opinion-makers on the right, gay leaders have pushed an image of homosexuals as people of faith (never mind that many religions actively condemn gay people and have, throughout history, led social and legal attacks against them). Just look at last year's Millennium March, co-sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign and the Metropolitan Community Church.
To a large degree, this strategy has worked. The past three decades have seen tremendous advances in securing lesbians and gay men the basic rights of parenting that are immediately, and often unthinkingly, extended to heterosexuals. Second-parent adoption, which allows the unmarried partner of a legal parent to adopt his or her partner's child without terminating the partner's parental rights, is available in 16 states (including Massachusetts). Despite massive pockets of lingering prejudice, parents who come out are no longer routinely denied custody of, or visitation rights with, their children. Foster-care policies are now far more lenient than they were 15 years ago. Some volunteer groups that work with youth -- with the obvious exception of the Boy Scouts of America -- now welcome gay men and lesbians. And while a 2001 Gallup poll showed that 40 percent of Americans do not think homosexuals should be elementary-school teachers, that's down from 54 percent who held such views in a 1992 Gallup poll.
These gains have come about in large part because mainstream society has become convinced that gay people are just like everybody else. And in an absolute sense, gay people are just like straight people: good, bad, patriotic, devout, apostate, untruthful, conniving, honest, sluttish, flawed, horrible, and wonderful in curious and fantastic ways. But gay people are also different -- also in curious and fantastic ways. The question now is whether gay leaders will have the courage to say so out loud.
Michael Bronski is the author of The Pleasure Principle: Sex, Backlash, and the Struggle for Gay Freedom (St. Martin's Press, 1998). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.