Academic journal article Fathering

Gay Fathers' Negotiation of Gender Role Strain: A Qualitative Inquiry

Academic journal article Fathering

Gay Fathers' Negotiation of Gender Role Strain: A Qualitative Inquiry

Article excerpt

Gay fathers pose an ideological conundrum. Products of a dominant culture that deems "gay" and "father" as incompatible, they are subject to gender role strain. This phenomenological qualitative study explored 12 gay fathers 'perceptions of their gender roles around parenting. Participants discussed their decision to become parents, discipline and parenting roles, perceived views of others about their choice, and their fears and joys about raising children. Results indicated that gay fathers respond to gender role strain in ways that both contest and utilize traditional gender role expectations.

Keywords: gay fathers, gender roles, gender role strain


Research about families who deviate from the normative structure of a two-parent, heterosexual couple with biological offspring is a burgeoning enterprise. Yet, even within these published studies, a gender bias appears. In her survey of research about gender identity and sexual orientation in lesbian and gay-headed families, Lev (2010) noted that lesbian mothers have more often than not been the subject of these studies. Researchers have generalized their experiences to other sexual minorities, particularly gay male parents.

At the same time, the number of gay men who father through foster care, adoption, or surrogacy is on the rise. An estimated 1 in 20 male same-sex couples raised children in 1990; in 2000, this figure rose to 1 in 5 (Gates & Ost, 2004). Mallon (2004) dubbed this phenomenon a "quiet revolution" (p. xi).

The limited research about gay fathers, despite evidence of an increase in actual gay male-headed families, reflects the ideological conception of gay fatherhood as either threatening or invisible. Gay fathers are products of a dominant culture that defines "gay" and "family" in oxymoronic terms (Lewin, 2009). Two diametrically opposed sides have sustained this perception. Conservative religious-rights groups have framed gay parenting as evidence of the collapse of family values (Calhoun, 2000). Concurrently, queer scholars have viewed gay parenting as an acquiescence to mainstream, middle-class, heterosexual values (Lewin).

Ideological opposition to gay fatherhood has influenced social service agency practice and policy. Changes in the past 10 years in some states reflect a more open attitude toward gays and lesbians as parents (Cooper & Cates, 2006). At the same time, the social service agency response to this trend has been varied and unpredictable. Brooks and Goldberg (2001) noted that the child welfare system in general continues to assume that gay men and lesbians are unfit to raise and adopt foster children. Practitioners, for example, continue to regard gay men and lesbians as defined solely by their sexuality (Hicks & McDermott, 1999). Foster care/adoption workers who advocate for gay foster care and adoption often lack agency policy to guide their practice. These attitudes negatively affect gay men's desire to adopt and foster children (Mallon, 2006).

The derision of gay men as fathers both in society and in scholarship is, of course, part of a larger script that conceives of fatherhood in general in binary, heteronormative terms. Though fatherhood has meant different things in different places in different historical moments, society has always tied it to normative conceptions of masculinity and femininity (LaRossa, 1997). Studies that suggest fathers share equal parenting tasks, for example, still frame these tasks in essentialist ways around gender: Mothers are emotionally tuned-in to their children, whereas fathers tend to assume "the more pleasurable aspects of childcare, such as playing with children or taking them out" (Segal, 1990, p. 35). Legal and societal conventions that assume the mother as the most appropriate custodial parent reinforce this ideology (Lewin, 2009).

Lewin (2009) and other have asserted that gay male fathers have the potential to explode this binary construction of fatherhood. …

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