I have a love-hate relationship with the term “LGBT parenting.” On the one hand, I often say I write a column about LGBT parenting, insofar as I write for and about LGBT people who are parents. On the other, I believe that we LGBT folks change diapers, sing lullabies, help with homework, and drive to soccer practice like any other parent. There’s no “LGBT” way (or even, separately, lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender ways) of doing those things—which makes me doubt whether there is such a thing as “LGBT parenting.” Is there?
Many LGBT activists avoid use of the term “gay marriage” for the same reason. Marriage is marriage: it’s about love and commitment, regardless of gender. Similarly, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) advises against using the phrase “gay adoption.” Gay people (and all LGBT people, for that matter), adopt children in the same way as anyone else, and for much the same reason—because we want to raise a child. One doesn’t “gay adopt” (or even ‘gayly adopt,’ although I’ll grant you ‘gaily adopt’).
And if there were such a thing as “gay adoption,” why stop there? One could also argue for the existence of a “lesbian diaper change,” a “transgender nighttime feeding,” or a “bisexual walk in the park.”
So does that mean there is no such thing as “LGBT parenting,” no distinguishing characteristic that defines it?
Certainly, our parenting may include a healthy dollop of our particular take on LGBT culture—but LGBT culture is itself a multi-dimensional affair.
We create our families differently from non-LGBT parents, and that sets us apart, some might argue. Even after the children arrive, we have donors, surrogates, or birth parents in our lives, whether actively or in the background. But non-LGBT people may create their families through assisted reproduction, surrogacy, or adoption, too. And let’s not forget the many LGBT people who have biological children from previous, opposite-sex relationships, or the transgender people who have biological children with a partner.
The law applies differently to LGBT parents, to be sure. We often have to cobble together legal protections for our families, if we are even lucky enough to live in a jurisdiction that allows them. Does that affect how we parent? Perhaps, insofar as nonbiological or non-legal parents may feel less authorized or included, and that may affect their relationships with their children—but not all of them feel that way. Many consider themselves equal in all but the eyes of the law.
Legal struggles and social stigma may also toughen us, enabling us to better prepare our children to face adversity—but we certainly don’t have an exclusive on that one, as many families of color, families with differently abled members, and immigrant families, among others, could affirm.
What does academic research tell us about “LGBT parenting”? In Abbie Goldberg’s Lesbian and Gay Parents and Their Children: Research on the Family Life Cycle (2009), she synthesized decades of studies by herself and others to conclude that lesbian- and gay-parent families “are not, by virtue of their family structure, essentially different from heterosexual-parent families.”
Goldberg also, however, cited one study that found that lesbian nonbiological mothers were more involved with their children, compared to heterosexual fathers; another found that gay fathers were “more sensitive and responsive to the perceived needs of their children” compared to their heterosexual peers. Still more studies have found that children of lesbian and gay parents may grow up with “more expansive and flexible notions of gender,” and be more accepting of differences in others.
She cautioned me in an e-mail, however, that “many of the characteristics that make (some) same-sex parents ‘special’ . . . also occur in some heterosexual parents,” and that we should not conclude lesbian and gay parents are “better.”
Goldberg also noted that more work needs to be done on the impact of class, race, and geography, among other factors. Most studies of LGBT families have focused only on white, middle-class ones. And little has been done on bisexual or transgender parents. Our image of what LGBT parenting is remains incomplete at best.
Where does that leave us?
LGBT families cut across racial, ethnic, religious, geographic, and socioeconomic boundaries, and our parenting styles reflect the mix of our disparate identities. In that, we are no different than non-LGBT parents.
Still, I can’t help but feel that there is still something that distinguishes LGBT parenting. It lies, I believe, in us as a community and in our shared, though diverse, history as LGBT parents. The generations of LGBT parents who have gone before us have paved the way legally, socially, and emotionally. No other community shares that same exact history, that same pattern of interwoven stories.
“LGBT parenting” is not a particular parenting style or method. Instead, it is the collective history in which we partake because of one aspect of our identities. We create it as we live, and as we add our stories to the pattern.
Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian (mombian.com), a blog and resource directory for LGBT parents.