Queer Parenting – Can We Stop Acting Like it’s Something New?

We can all recite the cultural fairy tale about the American family. A man and a woman meet one another, date and fall in love. Wait – let’s really go for the fairytale stereotype. He’s handsome and tall. She’s pretty and petite, perhaps just a few years younger than he. He has a good paying job and hers is fulfilling if not well-paid. They have a big wedding with lots of photos in their fancy clothes – white dress, fine suit, smiling family and friends. They marry and buy a house together and have two children – the boy is born first and then a girl. Ideally, this is how it goes.

Even if we find the fairy tale foolish and think there’s nothing wrong with non-adherence, this story is in our cultural consciousness. No one reading that scenario fails to recognize it and thus, we are each aware of where our family deviates from it. We live in comparison to it. And therefore, it takes awareness and effort to develop public policies to normalize a range of families. It takes effort to be a non-adherent who still takes pride in having a happy family. Further, if this is indeed what your family looks like – more or less – it’s tough not to act like you’re normal and others aren’t. It’s tough not to act like you “deserve” the “good life” and everyone else is just a little sad in the ways they don’t measure up.

Now back to reality. Realities – plural. Here’s the truth of it: Sometimes people meet and marry and have children. Often, people start having sex with one another before marriage and sometimes children result. Sometimes marriages involve sexual fidelity – sometimes not. Sometimes multiple sexual partners are a planned part of loving relationships, sometimes not. And any combination of those people can create children, or not. Some people have children without marrying. Some people can’t have their own children because neither of them is able to give birth – either because of their own fertility or because both of them are the same gender. Yes, sometimes people of the same gender have sex, and fall in love, and sometimes they even marry – either because gay marriage is legal where they live or they gain state support by concealing or changing one of their genders in order to conform to cultural norms. All of this has been happening for all of recorded time. All of it. Families are complex and we construct them both in accordance with and in opposition to cultural norms and laws.

wedding rings_abaMuch of America has been watching the discussion and testimonies about gay marriage, thanks to the Supreme Court’s examination of the Defense of Marriage Act and the legality of Proposition 8. Reporters and commentators don’t often help their audiences to see public policies and practices – such as marriage – as a way for government to apply structure to the myriad ways that humans find to construct their lives and interpersonal relationships. It might help if we started thinking that way and asking ourselves who benefits from our current sanctioning of certain relationships. If we truly want everyone’s children to prosper – not just those children who are born into a socially acceptable family – then we could learn to cozy up to the realities of families and the realities of gender roles. There are now and always have been myriad ways to raise healthy, happy children. It’s not up to politics to allow family diversity, or not allow it. Policies and politics matter to queer families (and other non-normative families) because they help children access resources and opportunities and to feel that their country values them. And that’s good for everyone.

Some participants in public discussions are acting as though queer people have only recently been given the option to have children – as though it’s a right that must be bestowed by some outside group or government. It is only this way of thinking that makes queer parenting seem abnormal. The reality is that there are a certain number of children born in a society and not all of them are wanted or cared for by the people who made them. There are a certain number of adults who can and/or want to care for children and if we’re wise, we’ll support them to do so and improve at the task as they go. It’s best for all concerned.

In past times, if two men or two women wanted to have a child, they simply needed to find a family member or friend who had a child that wasn’t being adequately parented. People make their own arrangements to parent – even now – and certainly historically. And further, two women who want to parent and have the means to do so have always been capable of carrying off the deed as long as one of them was fertile. I’m not talking about artificial insemination or in vitro fertilization here. Those are modern developments. Throughout human history, women have become pregnant independent of long-term relationships with men. To put it bluntly, sperm is free at any bar. A woman may not have her pick of the sires, but if she’s willing to lower her standards, our cultural practices around male and female sexuality almost ensure her success.

So, what are we really saying when we discuss whether or not queer people should be “allowed” to have families? We’re discussing whether we’re going to let children in queer families have the social support and opportunities of other children who come from family structures we legally recognize and have rendered somehow “right” and “beautiful” and “worthy.”

That’s a fairy tale, and it’s time to wake up and construct policies that respond supportively to ALL of the ways humans can think to create families. We do that by accepting the reality of human diversity and acknowledging that children and parenting are really pretty great and that when kids are allowed to get back to the business of discovering the world, rather than managing hatred and bigotry, we all benefit.

This column was originally published on Ms. Magazine’s blog.


Kimberly Dark (photo credit Kate Mayne)Kimberly Dark is a writer, performer and sociology professor. While she is still telling stories of his childhood, her favorite son is now a graduate student at University of Chicago, having fascinating adventures of his own. Learn more at www.kimberlydark.com.



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