Queer As Your Folks

Michael Bronski

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 more complicated. In one of the original studies, 25
percent of adults raised by lesbians (6 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 17 percent of those with heterosexual parents (3
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. 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?
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?

and moralists, that’s who. To social conservatives, many aspects of Stacey and
Biblarz’s study 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 ban
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

“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, Stacey and
Biblarz have “burst the bubble of one of the best-kept community secrets.” As
it’s trickled from academic circles to the mainstream media, the
Stacey-Biblarz report has received a lot of publicity from the New York
, the New York Post, Newsday, the Washington Times,
the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, and the China Daily.
Stacey has been interviewed on the Fox News Channel’s “The O’Reilly Factor”
and National Public Radio’s “The Connection.”

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.”

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

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

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.

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
condemn gay people and have led social and legal attacks against them).

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.

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. 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

These gains
have come about in large part because mainstream society has become convinced
that gay people are just like everybody else. 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, in curious and
fantastic ways. The question now is whether gay leaders will have the courage
to say so out loud.       Z