Gay and Lesbian Parenting: In the Interest of the Child

In the last decade there has been a rise n the number of lesbians and gay men forming their own families. Many do this through adoption, foster care, artificial insemination, and other means.

Today, researchers have estimated that the number of children living with one gay or lesbian parent is six to fourteen million. Some have described this current period as a lesbian and gay “baby boom”. However, lesbian and gay parents face many social and legal obstacles (Lambda Legal Defense and Educational Fund, 1997).

In the past, most gay and lesbian parents lived secretive and protective lives. Not only did gay parents have to face his or her coming out issues and separation from spouse, but also face coming out to their children. Because more and more lesbian and gay families choose to have children, they are also more out about whom they are. “This means that they are showing up in fertility clinics for information about attempting pregnancy, they are coming to adoption agencies stating clearly the nature of their family, they are going to attorneys for information on second parent same-sex adoption, and they are going to PTA meetings and little league games with the same enthusiasm as other parents” (Lev, 2002 p.2).

Many of the children parented by lesbians and gay men were born to them when they were in a heterosexual relationship or marriage. Often, when the child’s non-gay parent discovers the sexual identity of the other parent, he or she may attempt to limit their parenting roles. Other challenges have been brought upon by other relatives or government agencies, thus causing prejudice towards gay and lesbian parents and denying custody and visitation rights (Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, 1997-2002).

The child custody and visitation legal standards vary from state to state. For example, twenty-one states have granted second-parent adoptions to lesbian and gay couples. This enables the child to have the equal opportunity of having two legal parents, especially if one dies. Today, the majority of states no long deny custody or visitation based on sexual orientation. Now, courts apply the notion “best interest of the child”, when it comes to deciding cases based upon this. Thus, one’s sexual orientation cannot be the basis for denying or limiting parent-child relationships, in most states (The American Civil Liberties Union, 1999).

Although things seem to be coming along more and more, one’s sexual orientation may have drawbacks. A few states, which rely on the myths and stereotypes, have uses one’s sexual orientation to deny custody, adoption, visitation and foster care. For example, Florida and New Hampshire have laws that forbid lesbians and gay men from adopting children. Some instances have shown how one’s sexual orientation is used to their disadvantage, such as in Sharon Bottom’s case. “In a notorious 1993 decision, a court in Virginia took away Sharon Bottom’s two-year old son simply because of her sexual orientation, and transferred custody to the boy’s maternal grandmother. And Arkansas has just adopted a policy prohibiting lesbians, gay men, and those who live with them, from serving as foster parents” (American Civil Liberties Union, 1999, p.1).

Issues of parenting are not the only difficulties that gay and lesbian parents face. Others include the right to a legal marriage, which enables them to have the same rights and laws as opposite-sex couples. The Netherlands became the first to issue legal marriage to same-sex couples on April 1, 2001. These marriage licenses are only offered to its legal citizens and residents. No other state or country in the world allows same-sex marriages. Although many churches marry same-sex couples, ceremonial marriages provide no civil laws and carry no legal benefits or responsibilities. Same-sex couples are considered to be legal strangers, thus, Federal laws regarding marriage does not cover them. It still remains uncertain when same-sex couples will be able to get a legal marriage license. Suits for legal marriages began in the United States in 1971 (Partners Task Force for Gay and Lesbian Couples, 2002).

Although same-sex couples remain in the fight for their rights to be legally married, one of the best rulings came from the Vermont State Supreme Court on December 20, 1999. Their final ruling stated that, “Same-sex couples must be afforded the same rights and benefits as opposite-sex couples, but require the Vermont Legislature to provide legal marriage or a ‘domestic partnership’ law, rather than immediately require marriage licenses for same-sex couples” (Partners Task for Gay and Lesbian Couples, 2002, p.5). This new license allows same-sex couples to be recognized as ‘next-of-kin’, rather than ‘legal strangers’. However, although this is a start, it is unlikely that any other state will honor this new marital license (Partners Task Force for Gay and Lesbian Couples, 2002).

According to The Lesbian and Gay Parenting Handbook, lesbians and gays face many obstacles in regards to parenting, such as the decision to parent, or not to parent. For example, Martin discusses the issues about parenting in our society, “We live in a society which pressures heterosexuals to raise children and pressures lesbians and gays not to raise children” (Martin, 1993, p.16). This is common in society today; however, this book states that heterosexuals want children less of the time than they have them, and that lesbians and gays want them more. Another factor has been whether lesbian and gay parents influence the gender of their children. However, according to Brooks in Parenting (2001), there is no evidence that children of lesbian and gay parents have an increased likelihood of having a lesbian or gay gender identity or same-sex sexual orientation. Also, there is no evidence that they are at an increased risk of sexual abuse in lesbian and gay homes (Martin, 1993).

Gay and lesbian parenting is almost like all parenting. For instance, the issues which gay parents face are identical to the issues all parents face. Gay parents are no less exhausted at 4 a.m. feeding, no less concerned when their child is sick, and no less challenged by their busy schedules of working and day care, household chores, and the responsibilities of family life. However, there are differences that lesbian and gay parents face, such as facing the fact that they are the minority among parents, thus, facing many prejudices and stereotypes. Many people may be offended or hostile to same-sex couples. Also, their desire to become parents depends on social workers and medical personnel (Lev, p.3).

According to The Lesbian and Gay Parenting Handbook, parenting, indeed, does not represent any greater achievement of mental health or adulthood. Rather, it is simply something one does by choice. Many of the stories told throughout this book dealt with the fact that lesbian and gay parents felt ashamed that they were unable to have children because of their sexual orientation. Because society raises us to believe that only women are nurturers, many lesbian and most gay men decided that their sexual orientation and parenthood didn’t go together. They just didn’t know that there was any other way. Thus, many of these individuals feel that the idea of never having a child is extremely painful. However, today the possibility of parenting has opened, and there are many different ways to achieve this, such as adoption. Raising a child is the single agenda in their lives. However, today raising children doesn’t seem that appealing until one’s twenties or thirties, and is true with lesbians and gay men as well. “They just sometimes feel themselves bitten by the parenting bug” (Martin, 1993, p.21-56).

There are many myths regarding lesbian and gay parenting, which many people today, tend to believe. Some of these myths vs. facts about this issue include the following: The only acceptable home for a child is one with a mother and a father who are married to each other. The fact is that children without homes don’t have the option of choosing a married mother and father. Often times, these children have neither a mother nor a father, married or unmarried. Another myth states that children need a mother and a father to have proper male and female role models. The fact is that children without homes have neither a mother nor a father as role models. Children get their role models from many places besides their parents. The next myth states that children raised by gay and lesbian parents are likely to grow up gay themselves. The fact is that all evidence states that sexual orientation of parents has no impact on the sexual orientation of their children. Other important myths about lesbian and gay parents includes: “Children who are raised by lesbian and gay parents will be subjected to harassment and will be rejected by their peers, lesbians and gay men are more likely to molest children, children raised by lesbians and gay men will be brought up in an immoral environment” (American Civil Liberties Union, 1999, p.3-4).

All of the research to date has come to the same conclusion about lesbian and gay parenting. “The children of lesbian and gay parents grow up as successfully as the children of heterosexual parents. In fact, not a single study has found the children of lesbian or gay parents to be disadvantaged because of their parent’s sexual orientation” (American Civil Liberties Union, 1999, p.2). Other findings show that there is no evidence to state that lesbians and gay men are unfit to be parents. Home environments of lesbian and gay parents support their child’s development just as heterosexual parents. Good parenting is influence by a parent’s ability to create a loving and nurturing home. Finally, children of lesbian and gay parents grow up as happy and healthy as children of heterosexual parents. In addition, the lesbian and gay “baby boom” will have a tremendous effect on the next generation. In reality, they will be raising their children who will be attending the same schools, playing in the same playgrounds, and leaving us to deal with this new level of diversity (American Civil Liberties Union, 1999, Lev, p.2).