Mommy Dearest

Michael Bronski

I am the gay
parent,” declared Rosie O’Donnell to Diane Sawyer on ABC’s March 14 “Prime- time
Thursday,” during an interview in which she came out of the closet and declared
war on the State of Florida for denying lesbians and gay men the right to adopt
children. O’Donnell’s statement has become a call to arms in the  ongoing fight
for the rights of queer families.

The coming out of
the “Queen of Nice” was no big surprise. O’Donnell has been repeatedly outed by
the tabloids over the past two years; long before that, her sexuality was an
open secret in the gay community and in mainstream gossip columns and Internet
chat rooms. Of course, the fact that O’Donnell had carefully timed her grand
exit from the closet to coincide with the publication of her autobiography, Find
Me (Warner Books) and the self-imposed end of her daily talk show did make a few
people wonder whether publicity had been the mother of revelation.

At the same time
that she publicly declared her lesbianism, O’Donnell aligned herself with a
queer political cause: the right of gay people to adopt children. Specifically,
she is going head-to-head with a Florida state law that forbids single gay
people, gay couples, and unmarried heterosexual couples from adopting children.
The 1977 law was one of the wretched offshoots of Anita Bryant’s Save Our
Children campaign to repeal the Dade County gay rights law passed earlier that
year. There have been challenges to the adoption law over the decades, but this
past August a federal court upheld it, a decision now under appeal by the ACLU
in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.

challenge takes up the case of Steve Lofton and Roger Croteau, two gay men who
are raising five HIV-positive children. Three are foster-care kids placed with
them when they lived in Florida. After they moved to Oregon (because of the
illness of one of their parents), the kids went with them under a standard
relocation policy. They then adopted two foster kids in Oregon, where adoptions
by gay people are legal. Last year, Lofton and Croteau were told by Florida’s
Department of Children and Families (DCF) that they had to give up their son
Bert, whom they had raised for ten years, because his term of placement had
ended and they could not adopt him because they are homosexuals. In addition to
the court appeal, the ACLU launched a national public relations campaign and set
up a website ( to enlist popular support. Within hours after
O’Donnell mentioned the website during her interview, more then 24,000 emails
were sent to Florida governor Jeb Bush and Kathleen Kearney, head of the state’s
DCF, to protest the law. In two more days, that number had jumped to over

There is little
question that the Florida law is a nightmare—only Mississippi and Utah have
similar laws—or that Lofton and Croteau, who have won awards for their foster
care, are wonderful parents. It is also true that O’Donnell deserves praise for
entering the political fray. But O’Donnell’s entrance into the perilous arena of
politics and public policy—despite her good intentions—raises serious questions
not only about her political sophistication, but also about the disastrous
effect her words and actions might have on gay politics as a whole.

The power Rosie
O’Donnell wields is that of public relations and publicity. She has a knack for
bringing important issues to the fore, making people think, and even changing
minds. She expertly rides our celebrity-obsessed culture—from Barbra Streisand’s
anti-nuclear stance to Charlton Heston’s pro-gun activism, well- known faces and
figures make great spokespeople for public and moral issues.

But political
movements are complicated, often delicately crafted structures built and
maintained by carefully planned strategies—usually by groups whose visions or
intentions are similar, but not identical. This is particularly true of the gay,
lesbian, bisexual, and transgender movement, which has always had to tread a
thin line between demanding wholesale social change and courting respectability,
between (as conservatives like to say) “pushing their sexuality right in your
face” and remaining everyday, normal people.

The problem with
Rosie O’Donnell, or any celebrity, taking center stage and becoming, ipso facto,
a movement’s major spokesperson is that such a position takes on a life of its
own. Whether she likes it or intends it, Rosie ends up speaking for and, in the
public imagination, becoming all gay people.

Yet O’Donnell
isn’t accountable to anyone. She isn’t even, by her own admission, particularly
well- informed about gay and lesbian political issues. Gay people might want to
think they can win the hearts and minds of heterosexual America with everybody’s
favorite TV mom. But don’t forget, the cult of media personality cuts both ways
and it can be used for any cause. The political right could as easily promote
its own version of the lesbian mom, Paula Pound- stone—drunk, abusive, sullen,
and too butch. Poundstone is the media’s version of the anti-Rosie.

Unfortunately, in
our People magazine culture, the celebrity spokesperson is here to stay. But the
vital question at this moment is, does the gay community really want Rosie
O’Donnell in this role?

Certainly there
were many gay people who winced long and hard when O’Donnell held forth about
being a lesbian: “I don’t think you choose whether or not you are gay. Who would
choose it? It’s a very difficult life. You get socially ostracized. You worry
all the time if you are in physical danger if you show your affection to your
partner. You worry that you’re an outcast with your friends and society in

For a political
movement that has protested for almost 50 years that gay is good and has focused
on changing the world to make it safer for gay people, O’Donnell’s “Who would
choose it?” was, to say the least, retrograde. But her view on the futures of
her adopted kids— Parker, six; Chelsea, four; and Blake, two—was even more
disconcerting. “I think life is easier if you’re straight,” she said. “I hope
that they [the kids] are genuinely happy, whatever they are. But if I could
pick, would I rather have my children have to go through the struggles of being
gay in America or being heterosexual? I would say heterosexual.”

certainly breached the movement’s consensus here —most activists would say that
kids grow up to be who they are and one orientation is not preferable to
another. While some might see O’Donnell’s statement as brave and as bucking
queer political correctness, try to imagine African-Americans saying that they
would prefer their kids to be white. Or imagine a Jewish family raising their
kids to be Christian because society is anti-Semitic. The gay movement may be
committed to many things, but promoting heterosexuality is certainly not one of

O’Donnell admits
to being “fairly uninformed” about the gay movement. That may be why she felt
free, during a February 25 appearance at an ovarian-cancer-research benefit at
Caroline’s Comedy Club in New York, to refer to gay activists who wanted her to
come out sooner as “gay Nazis.” Words spoken at a comedy club cannot be taken
completely at face value, but “gay Nazis,” even in jest, is pretty harsh.
O’Donnell might keep in mind that if it weren’t for three decades of “gay Nazis”
fighting for the right to be openly queer, she could never have come out or
published her book, and she would be living in fear of losing her job, kids, and

Statements like
these play into the right-wing sentiments that have been used so effectively
against the movement: that it is a tragedy for kids to grow up to be gay; that
the movement is run by PC dogmatists who expect people to submit their
individuality and personal choices to political imperatives. But another aspect
of O’Donnell’s public campaign is even more disturbing and potentially harmful.
Along with positioning herself as the spokesperson for gay families, O’Donnell
draws heavily on a long and dangerous tradition in feminist and (to a lesser
degree) gay politics: the tradition of maternal moral superiority.

The cult of
female moral superiority—especially as endowed by motherhood—has been prominent
in American life and politics since at least the middle of the last century,
when it was used by women in the temperance movement, various social-purity
movements, and even the campaign for women’s suffrage. It was a commonplace in
these circles—and in a certain level of American intellectual life—that women
had a purer nature than men and were called on to lead men and the country to a
higher standard. This sentiment is still with us today, represented by groups
like Mothers Supporting War Resisters in the 1960s, Mothers Against Drunk
Driving (MADD), and the Million Mom March, which has grown into a permanent
pro-gun control organization.

The trouble with
this highly gendered form of politics is not that it isn’t, in the short run,
productive—certainly MADD has managed to do some effective lobbying on
automobile safety issues—but that it rests on what is essentially a sentimental
lie. The war against Vietnam was wrong because it was genocidal, not because
mothers were hurt by it and lost their sons. Drunk driving is bad because
innocent people get killed, not because mothers suffer from it in particular.

The appeal to
motherhood is irresistible. But the politics of motherhood are also deeply
conservative and particularly limited, even disastrous, for the gay-and-lesbian
movement. Let’s face it: the gay movement seeks personal freedom to act outside
of heterosexual norms and to establish equality under the law for a wide range
of personal choices, including the right to marry and raise children, as well as
the right to have a full, varied, and adventurous sexual life. Given that these
are its central concerns, the gay movement should be extremely wary of the
motherhood argument. It may work to a limited degree on the issue of gay
families, but it would fall far short on most others. It would be antithetical
to many of the movement’s long-standing preoccupations. Can you imagine “Mothers
United Against Sodomy Laws?” Or “Mothers for Sex-Reassignment Surgery?” “Mothers
for the Freedom To Read Gay Porn?” More likely the song today would be “I Didn’t
Raise My Son To Be a Drag Queen.”

O’Donnell played
the motherhood card well. She undoubtedly won more attention for the Florida
case than the ACLU would have gotten on its own. But O’Donnell is acting out the
obvious limitations of her approach. While she is open about being in a
four-year, committed relationship with Kelli Carpenter, she continually refers
to herself as a single mother. There is never any mention of Carpenter’s
relationship with the kids. (Given that O’Donnell stars in and produces a daily
weekday television show and edits her own magazine, one imagines that Carpenter
might actually spend more time with Parker, Chelsea, and Blake than their
adoptive, working mother does.) O’Donnell knows full well that her campaign and
public image might not do as well if her audience could picture the reality of
what it is like to live as a lesbian couple raising kids. The motherhood card
might allow for a near-phantom woman lover rather like the “chaste” Victorian
friendship between two “spinsters” in a “Boston marriage,” but not for the more
immediate reality of lesbian relationships, which O’Donnell’s portrayal has
rendered invisible.

O’Donnell bought
full-page advertisements in the Miami Herald, the Tallahassee Democrat, the
Orlando Sentinel, and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel of Fort Lauderdale, urging
the Florida state legislature to repeal the law banning gay adoption. She was
caught up short, however, and admitted that she was “fairly ignorant” of the
workings of the legislature when told that nothing could be done because there
were currently no bills on file calling for the law’s repeal and that, in any
event, the 60-day regular legislative session was over on March 22. The ACLU
appeal has a far better chance of destroying the law around which gay activists
have been organizing. O’Donnell’s misapprehension was embarrassing and

There is little
doubt that Rosie O’Donnell has the best intentions. It is her ignorance of the
gay movement’s history and politics, combined with her new position as
spokesperson, that could lead to serious problems. Social discrimination against
gays, laws that prevent gay people from adopting, and laws that prohibit queers
from committing sodomy or looking at porn or cross-dressing are wrong because
they deny GLBT people full citizenship and equality under the law. Motherhood
might be something worth fighting for when jeopardized, but in the end, it is no
substitute for justice.           Z


Michael Bronski is an author and activist. He has published many books and his
articles have appeared in the
Boston Globe, the Los
Angeles Times, Utne Reader, and Z Magazine.