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Parenting

Review of "Families Like Mine"

By Abigail Garner
HarperPerennial, 2004
Review by Elizabeth O'Connor, Ph.D. on Mar 18th 2005
Families Like Mine

There are now a number of books written for gay men and lesbians on parenthood.† You could fill more than a shelf with titles like The Gay and Lesbian Parenting Book, Primer for Queer Parents, The Essential Guide to Lesbian Conception, Pregnancy and Birth.† Throw in another shelf or two for chronicles of personal experiences like The Kid: What Happened After My Boyfriend and I Decided to go Get Pregnant, Getting Simon:† Two Gay Doctors' Journey to Fatherhood, and The Other Mother.† Round out your collection with books written exclusively for young children with gay or lesbian parents, including not only the infamous Heather has Two Mommies, but also Daddy's Roommate, Zach's Story, and ABC: A Family Alphabet Book.† There are even a few books for adolescents with similar themes, among them Jack and Holly's Secret.† You get the idea.† One might honestly wonder if there is anything left to be said about gay and lesbian parents and their children.† It turns out, there is.

Families Like Mine begins to fill in a gap that exists within the literature:† how now-young adults describe their experience of growing up in LGBT families. Author Abigail Garner is typical of the people she writes about.† She learned that her father was gay when she was five years old.† As an adult, she has worked as an advocate for LGBT families, and with her website (www.familieslikemine.com), appearances on the lecture circuit, published articles (the most famous one probably being the op-ed piece that appeared in Newsweek), and now this book, she is the all but official spokesperson of children with gay parents.† Our children could not ask for a better spokesperson.† (Full disclosure:† I am a lesbian mother, and I have met Abigail.† We both spoke at a reading in Provincetown one summer during the annual Family Pride Week.)

Families like Mine examines the experience of growing up with LGBT parents.† Garner has interviewed over fifty young adults who grew up in LBGT-headed families, and includes many quotations from these young people. She probes their experiences, and their interpretations of their experiences, in a thoughtful and thought-provoking way.† The first thing most people think of, in terms of children with gay parents, is the issue of teasing.† Garner addresses this issue, but she goes deeper.† She also talks about the more subtle effects of growing up with gay parents.† For example, a number of her participants speak about feeling the pressure to be perfect; an unintentional by-product of feeling like everyone is judging the fitness of their parents by how well the children turn out.† Any failures or shortcomings will likely be ascribed to their parents' sexuality, and they know it.†

Garner delightfully skewers the typical newspaper article that appears about children with gay or lesbian parents:

"It starts out with a profile of a typical child.† Like any five-year-old, Mia is a little nervous about her first day of kindergarten.† The article will mention a quintessential family activity in a gender-neutral way.† Around the dinner table her parents are taking turns telling Mia about all the exciting things she will get to do at school.† Then comes the kicker:† Just the typical all-American family except for one thing--her parents are lesbians." (p. 22)

She goes on to note that the incessant positive spin that such articles represent can be isolating, even burdensome, to children in LBGT families.† "…[I]t becomes easy to overlook that not all children of LGBT parents have a circle of supportive friends, are class president, and lettering in three sports." (p. 22). This book allows these children to talk about their real lives, not the sanitized versions.

Children go through a coming out process too, and one of the skills they must learn is becoming more selective in whom they choose to tell about their family.† Many of them speak about the high school years as a time of gradually coming out of the closet themselves, and learning the lesson that losing the friendship of someone who would reject them for their parents' sexuality was not much of a loss.† As Garner herself recounts, after asking her father and his partner to "straighten up" for a party she hosted in high school, "I began to understand for myself that if people could not accept my family, I probably did not want to be friends with them." (p. 120)

Children also often have to deal with homophobic family members, some of whom are simply uncomfortable around the gay parent and some who actively reject him or her.† She offers advice on how to deal with homophobic family members, and counsels patience as individuals come to terms with their family member's sexuality.

I personally found two of the later chapters the most interesting.† One, entitled Second Generation:† Queer Kids of LBGT Parents, discusses the scrutiny that children feel about their own sexuality.† Dan Cherubin, founder of Second Generation, an organization for gay young people with gay parents, puts it succinctly: "When queer parents want to highlight well adjusted children to prove how normal our families are, 'well adjusted' is often a euphemism for 'straight.'" (p. 168).† Garner points out that, once people learn she has a gay father, she is often asked about her own sexual orientation.† Her interpretation, which I believe is correct, is that people use that as a litmus test.† If she is straight, then her father did an adequate job raising her.† If she is not, she has been unfairly influenced, brainwashed, or damaged in some way.† It is not only the straight world that makes such assumptions. Garner points out that gay parents, too, sometimes use the same litmus test, unwittingly putting subtle pressure on their children by showing a little too much pleasure at their interest in members of the opposite sex, for example.† Hard as it may be to believe, some gay parents are dismayed when their own children come out as gay.† Homophobia runs deep.

My other favorite chapter, Tourists at Home:† Straight Kids in Queer Culture, deals with how children who have grown up in the gay community maintain their connection with it as straight adults, and how they become more integrated into the straight community.† "'I think that it's hard for both the queer community and the straight community to know what to do with us,' says Orson, who is heterosexual.† 'What are we part of?† Are we part of the queer community?† Are we part of the straight community?... I think that maybe it's a little easier for second generation people to feel welcomed into the community.'" (p. 199).† Garner recounts the experience of one son, Arthur, who was not able to attend a women's music festival with his mothers because boys over the age of ten were not allowed (in order to keep the festival a "women-only event"), and how this made him feel shut out of the community he had always felt was his own.†

At some points in the book Garner addresses parents, and at other times she is speaking to the children.† She has a list of resources, including books, support groups, and web sites, on interest to both parents and children.† The book will, of course, give straight people plenty to think about, in terms of exposing them to issues that must never have occurred to them.† More importantly, it gives us gay parents plenty to think about, and givers voice to our children's experience.† I plan to give it to my daughters, when they are a bit older.† Then I will listen to what they say.

 

© 2005 Elizabeth O'Connor

 

Elizabeth O'Connor, Ph.D. is co-author with Suzanne Johnson of For Lesbian Parents (Guilford, 2001) and The Gay Baby Boom: The Psychology of Gay Parenthood (NYU Press, 2002).

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