Issues for Lesbian- and Gay-Parented Families

April Martin, PhD
Clinical Psychologist, New York, NY

The issues that arise in lesbian- and gay-parented families are a function of two things: One is the rich variety of family constellations they comprise, and the other is the fact that they are living in a society which does not yet value rich variety. The tension created by this situation generates unique needs for the approximately 5 million gay and lesbian parents in this country1 whenever they present themselves to the legal system, the educational system, the mental health profession, religious organizations, the medical profession, or the insurance industry - to name just a few.

To begin with, it is important to know that family constellations among lesbian- and gay-parented families are largely quite different from the heterosexually-parented nuclear family. Our conventional notion of a parenting family contains many presumptions: that there will be two parents, that they will be one of each gender, that they will be romantic partners of one another, they will live under one roof, that they will both be biologically related to the children they raise, and that they will be recognized legally as a family. This Mom-and-Dad nuclear family is not merely the baseline model in our culture against which all other models are deviant, but it is also assumed by most to be an optimal structure for child development, compared to which all other constellations are viewed as having deficiencies which must be overcome.

This is a model, however, which applies to no lesbian and gay parented families. Gay and lesbian parents are heading families with one, two, three, or even four parents. Sometimes there are no men among the parents, sometimes there are no women. Sometimes there are men and women but they are not romantic partners of each other. Some families intentionally comprise more than one household. Sometimes both biological parents are included in the family and sometimes not. Often there is a biological parent who is not a family member at all. Usually there is at least one parent who has no biological relation to the child. And perhaps most important, there is almost always a parent-child relationship that the law does not recognize or protect.

By this time, the ability of lesbian and gay parents to provide just as adequately as heterosexual parents for the social and emotional health of their children has been documented repeatedly in the research literature. Over two dozen studies have found that children raised by gay and lesbian parents were indistinguishable from children raised by heterosexuals.2 In order to interface effectively with these families, however, to truly meet their needs in this culture, we have to go beyond a tolerance for their alternative format. We need instead to radically discard the Mom-and-Dad nuclear model as any kind of standard. We must accept the premise that it is quality of care, and not family constellation, which determines what is optimal for children's healthy development. We must further learn to identify who actually is and isn't a family member based on the loving bonds of responsibility that have been both intended and fulfilled, and not on any biological, legal, or conventional definitions of what is a family.

Let me give you some examples of families I know: One 10 year old boy I know has three parents in two households. In one household is his lesbian biological mother, and in the other are his two gay dads, neither of whom is biologically related to him. In fact, they only entered his life a few years ago when he was four. The fathers share half time custody, including very active involvement in school activities, yet have no legal rights to the child if anything should happen to the mother. His mother has a partner but she is not a designated parent in this family system. The biological father is unknown and not in the picture.

In another family, 12 year old Joshua's two lesbian mothers had him through donor insemination. The women's relationship broke up when Joshua was a baby but they continued to coparent from separate households and he has always called both of them "Mom". In addition, each one now has a lesbian partner, and those partners have also become his parents, though he calls them by their first names. Each of those partners has also given birth to a child through donor insemination, and Joshua considers those children to be his siblings despite their having no biological relation to him. So his family consists of two households containing four mothers and two siblings. Meanwhile, his biological father is known to everyone in the family, but he is considered a sperm donor rather than a family member. In addition, Joshua's biological father was also the sperm donor for another lesbian in town, making that woman's daughter a biological half sister to Joshua. Sociologically speaking, however, she is not a sibling in Joshua's family. (Joshua tells me that the only time this causes trouble for him is when he's filling out a form that wants to know how many siblings he has.)

In yet another family, the sister of a gay man agreed to become pregnant as a surrogate mother. She was inseminated with the sperm of his partner, gave birth to a little girl, and handed her over to the two men. The two men are the child's only parents. Their biological mother is an aunt, both biologically and in terms of her role in the family. Her husband is an uncle, and her three children, who are biological half-siblings to the child, are not functionally siblings at all. They are functionally, as well as biologically, cousins.

What is especially interesting about all this is the fact that the children in these families are not the least confused as long as they are being spoken to openly and honestly about who are the biological parents who made them and who are the caregiving parents who raise them. The younger the child, the easier it is for them to grasp. In many cultures other than our own, of course, we see that children are often being raised by people other than the two who created them, in a variety of family structures. As long as it is culturally supported, the children experience it as natural. Increasingly, it appears that our gay and lesbian parenting communities are providing the kind of supportive subculture that allows these kids to be comfortable in such a variety of family relationships.

When we have learned to identify a family based on who performs the functions, takes on the responsibilities, has the bonds of the heart, and was intended to be a parent, we soon discover that most of the time the family that we define in this way will fail to meet the legal and social definitions of family. Every form they fill out for their child will ask for Mother's name and Father's name, and the family will forever be making decisions about how to identify itself. To opt for total openness - as in crossing out "Father" and writing in "Other Mother" for example, creates both benefits and stresses. On the benefit side, the family that chooses to completely disclose the nature of their family to their neighborhood, their doctors, schools, extended family, etc., puts itself in the ideal position to receive support, services, and community. Because such a family is openly known in the school system, the children are in the best position to deal with whatever social situations might arise from having gay parents. Their parents' openness gives them the tools to approach their family's difference in a positive way with people. It teaches them to expect respectful treatment and to trust their own ability to cope with someone who is negative. It creates an authenticity and genuine intimacy with friends and extended family that can never be had if there is hiding or secrecy. It also means that school and medical personnel who are serving a child's needs are in the best position to understand the nature of the child's experience at home, which might on occasion be critical to evaluation and decision-making.

On the stress side, however, a family that chooses to identify itself openly as a gay or lesbian parented family may expose itself to risks of homophobic insults, to loss of support from extended family, to loss of jobs or housing, and even to violence. For many families, openness about a parent's homosexual orientation might also result in loss of custody or visitation with the child. Whether or not these dangers are real for a given family, the expectation that they could happen creates considerable anxiety. These are frightening prospects and require very difficult decisions.

Gay and lesbian parented families in hiding about who they are can be presumed to be everywhere. They may look like heterosexual nuclear families, with no one outside the family knowing that one or both parents is gay. More often, one sees what looks like a single mother, perhaps. The fact that she has a committed life partnership may be hidden from everyone in her life: her employer, her community, and even her child. I have seen committed long term couples where the mother's partner is known to all only as a friend. They never live together, never show affection openly, never appear together at social functions, have no interaction with each other's extended families, and expect to continue to live that way until the child is grown. Not only are they themselves under phenomenal stress having to deny so many personal needs, but the child is deprived of the knowledge that his mother is in a loving partnership, and is deprived of another adult parent who could be caring for him.

More commonly a parent's partner may be visible - may live with the parent, for example, and share full time child care. But because the couple themselves may be stuck in heterosexist thinking, they may never have identified the partner as a parent in the family system. They may have bought into the notion that a child can only have one father, for example, so Daddy's partner has to be some kind of friend or uncle. That may seem logical to everyone who knows them, and they may never be challenged to rethink that concept of family. There are many consequences of their decision, however. Daddy's partner Bob may be putting in a full share of the money and an equivalent amount of time and energy caring for the child, but he is not rewarded with any social recognition that he is a parent. He does not go to parent teacher conferences or pediatrician visits. He does not participate in the father-child picnic. His family of origin don't see this that this is their grandchild or niece or nephew, and makes no provision in their wills for the child. Daddy doesn't really see that Bob is a parent, or only sees it sometimes, and at other times undercuts Bob's authority to discipline the child. Bob himself is not exactly sure he's a parent, and is often resentful about why he's putting out so much when he has no authority. The child is deprived of the opportunity to fully bond with Bob, and of the family relationships with Bob's relatives. In addition, should the child encounter homophobic people in school, the only tools he has learned so far for dealing with the issue consist of silence and avoidance.

Whether or not a family is open about being headed by gay or lesbian parents, however, the lack of legal recognition for a nonbiological parent has a profound impact both on internal family dynamics and on the way the family is integrated into their community and extended families. The anxiety may be enormous for a parent who invests his heart and soul in a child with the ever present danger that this child could be taken from him in an instant if the legal parent died. Grandparents may not want to get deeply involved with a child to whom they have no legal ties. Employers may not offer family leave or recognize family emergencies. Insurance will not cover the child of a nonlegal parent.

The situation is especially serious when a gay or lesbian couple with children separates. Their lack of legal recognition as a family creates real danger that the custody and access arrangements that are made will not be in the child's best interests. The biological mother, for example, in a crisis of anger and hurt, may resort to legal privilege and view the child as solely hers, thereby ignoring the child's need for emotional continuity with his other mother. Family and friends, who are understandably protective of her and feel adversarial to her partner, may pressure her to redefine the family relationships along heterosexist lines. Meanwhile, a nonbiological mother knows that she has virtually no chance of succeeding in a court challenge, and so may just get pushed out of the child's life. The professionals who get involved at this juncture have tremendous power to either exacerbate the problem, or to turn it around and support the family to continue coparenting together after separating, despite a complete lack of legal and societal support for doing so.

The issues I've described so far can be found in many different kinds of gay and lesbian parented families. I'd like to say a word, however, about the differences between families in which lesbians or gay men have children within a heterosexual marriage, perhaps later divorcing and forming stepfamilies with same-sex partners, and the families we refer to as part of the current "gayby boom", in which gay men or lesbians choose parenthood outside of the conventions of the Mom-and-Dad household, usually through donor insemination, surrogacy, or adoption.

Gay or lesbian parented families that start out in heterosexual marriages have disclosure issues within the family. The children in these families start out believing they had a Mom-and-Dad heterosexual family, and will at some point learn this is not the case. It may be at the time of a divorce, in which case it may greatly complicate the child's understanding of this upheaval in her life, or it may be at the time of integrating a parent's same-sex partner as a new stepparent.

In general, the rule of thumb is that disclosure should not take place until custody arrangements are secure. Gay and men and lesbians are in serious danger of losing their children simply because of their sexual orientation, and it requires careful planning with a knowledgeable attorney to know how to handle things so that a child does not tragically lose a parent.

Barring custody problems, however, it is generally advisable to help move a family toward full disclosure as soon as possible. Many families have been advised by well meaning but uninformed professionals of various disciplines to not tell Johnny because he's only in kindergarten, or to avoid telling Jennifer because she's a teenager. The advice to Johnny is based on an erroneous and damaging assumption that homosexuality is somehow more about sexual behavior than heterosexuality, and therefore can not be discussed without reference to sex acts. The advice to Jennifer is burdened by the completely unsupported fear that a teenager will become homosexual or somehow confused if she has positive role models of gays and lesbians in her family.

The reality we find is that the most destructive things in families are secrets. Children should be given truthful relevant information as soon as possible, along with ongoing support to address their concerns about it. Everyone working with children should be aware of an organization called C.O.L.A.G.E., the national support organization whose acronym stands for Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere,3 as well as the Family Pride Coalition (formerly the Gay and Lesbian Parents Coalition International).4 There is nothing more powerful for kids than letting them know that they are not the only ones in their situation, that other kids have families just like theirs, and that there is a forum for discussing all the issues that come up in school and family.

By contrast, families which don't start in a heterosexual context5 generally have no issues about coming out to the children. Gay men and lesbians who become parents through adoption, donor insemination, or surrogacy tend to create families in which the children grow up with a natural and comfortable awareness of their parents' affectional lives. These families also tend to be more open in their communities and schools, though many of them also struggle with being partially closeted due to fears of losing housing or jobs.

These gayby boom families are uniquely created through a great deal of planning and decision-making. Because gay people do not automatically assume they will have children, and have little societal pressure or encouragement to do so, as well as the fact that there are virtually no accidental pregnancies, these tend to be highly motivated families who spend considerable time in consultation with therapists and other advisers before undertaking so important a venture as parenthood. In fact, in many cities gay men and lesbians are creating what should become a model for parents of all sexual orientations in their approach to parenthood. It is commonplace for lesbians and gay men to spend many months in the ongoing workshops on Considering Parenthood which are proliferating all around the country. In these workshops, in addition to making the complex decisions about how to define who the intended parents will be and how to go about accessing adoption and donor insemination options, these prospective parents also do careful reviews of all their parenting concerns: questioning whether they have the resources of time, money, maturity, skills, stability of relationship, physical health, and stamina necessary to be good parents. It would be ideal, of course, if every child in the world were born to a family that prepared so responsibly.

The fact that these families are thriving despite tremendous social obstacles is certainly admirable. They have largely done their own advocacy and absorbed the difficulties as individuals. If our agenda is to see that every member of these families is optimally cared for medically and educationally, and if our aim is to protect the rights of children living in these families so that they do not lose a parent due to homophobia and heterosexist definitions of family, then we must, as professionals and simply as neighbors and citizens, be proactive about increasing visibility for them. Families who see themselves welcomed in a school brochure, for example, or mentioned in a kindergarten class on family diversity, will be far more likely to openly disclose to their communities. Their visibility, in turn, will help to change the stereotypes and hysteria that afflict our culture, and make our institutions more realistic and compassionate.


1 Patterson, Charlotte. "Children Lesbian and Gay Parents." In Child Development, October, 1992, Vol. 63, No. 5, 1025-1042.

2 Ibid. See also Patterson, Charlotte: "Children of the Lesbian Baby Boom." In Lesbian and Gay Psychology, Beverly Greene and Gregory M. Herek, eds. Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA, 1994.

3 C.O.L.A.G.E., the organization whose acronym stands for Children Of Lesbians And Gays Everywhere, has newsletters written by and for kids with gay parents offering contact, information, and support. There are also local support groups and an annual conference.

4 The Gay and Lesbian Parents Coalition International (GLPCI) provides support, information, education, and advocacy for and about gay and lesbian parents and their families. Membership costs $25 annually. Members receive a quarterly newsletter and access to a variety of publications, videos, bibliographies, and other resources. Contact them at GLPCI, 4938 Hampden Lane, #336, Bethesda, MD 20814.

5 See Martin, April. The Lesbian and Gay Parenting Handbook: Creating and Raising Our Families. HarperCollins, New York: 1993. It offers an in-depth discussion of the range of issues this group of families faces, including the intricacies of defining the family structure, understanding the legal ramifications, the methods and implications of various adoption, surrogacy, and donor insemination routes, as well as dealing with children's questions and concerns and functioning in the larger world.

Copyright © 1998 April Martin.

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