Therapy with Lesbian and Gay Parents and Their Children

Article excerpt

This article explores some of the social and clinical issues facing the many different kinds of gay and lesbian families that are becoming increasingly visible in the United States. Research findings are discussed that dispel popularly held myths and stereotypes concerning these families, gays and lesbians as parents, and their children. Clinical vignettes are presented to illustrate issues often encountered in the consulting room, some unique to gay and lesbian families and some common to all families.

In Boulder, Colorado, John arrived in the park with his 3-week-old daughter Susan. He sat down on a bench next to a woman and her baby and said hello. The woman said, "What a lovely baby." She then looked at John and added, "How nice of you to take care of her. Is your wife taking some time off?." John debated whether to tell her that he and his lover Paul had just adopted the infant. This was not the first time in his short parenting career that he had been confronted with the world's assumptions about parenting rolesassumptions that did not include gay men as fathers.

Deborah and Pam, who had been partners for 12 years, invited three of their four sons to go to the movies with them. Throughout their relationship, they had been the main parents to four sons, all of whom had been conceived in previous marriages. On their way to the film, their 17-year-old son turned to them and said with a twinkle in his eye, "Here we are. A typical Berkeley, California, family." Everybody laughed. It had taken a long time for them to be able to have fun with this issue.

Many such lesbian and gay families are found throughout the United States, and national estimates range anywhere from two to eight million families raising three to 14 million children (Lowry, 1999). However, it is difficult to obtain an accurate count of these families and their children for a variety of reasons. For example, though these families are sometimes more easily observed in major cities where it is safer to be "out:" many lesbians and gay men have chosen to remain invisible due to the pernicious effects of discrimination, which can result in loss of employment, loss of child custody, ostracism, or antigay violence. In addition, some individuals are ambivalent or yet unaware of their homosexuality and therefore are not counted as part of lesbian and gay families. The 1998 California Republican senatorial candidate, Michael Huffington, for example, publicly announced that he is gay. Was his family a heterosexual family before the announcement? Is it now a gay family? Finally, a census of lesbian and gay families is complicated by the existence of bisexual or transgendered parents (e.g., how would a family with a bisexual parent be classified?).

Gay and lesbian parents are frequently perceived to be less stable psychologically than their heterosexual peers and to be too involved in their relationships to nurture their children appropriately. Physical custody and the right to make decisions for their children can be taken away from them in courts because they do not fit into conventional ideas of parenting, regardless of whether they are effective and caring adults. For example, a Florida court removed a child from the custody of her biological mother because the mother was a lesbian. In this case, custody was awarded to the child's father, a man convicted of murdering his first wife. The case was under appeal when the biological mother suddenly died (Ward v. Ward, 1996). Legal issues pertaining to children are even more troublesome for gay men because of the commonly held beliefs that men are not as nurturing as women or that gay men, in particular, are more involved in promiscuous sex or are more apt to sexually abuse their children. None of these beliefs has any basis in research or systematic knowledge; as a matter of fact, wherever data are available, they suggested quite the opposite.

DIFFERENT FAMILY CONFIGURATIONS

Contrary to commonly held assumptions, there is no such thing as the typical gay or lesbian family. …