My brother, sister and I grew up constantly being asked about our family; more specifically, what it was like having two dads. However, that question never had an obvious answer. After all, although we understood that most families featured one mother and one father, our family did not seem to differ otherwise. Like any other parents, Dad sat in the carpool lane after school and taught us how to ride our bikes, while Papa took us to the movies on the weekends and separated the whites from the colors. But no matter how mundane our everyday lives, even the fact of our arrival in a new neighborhood apparently warranted an article. Little did we know we were early members of the Gayby Boom: the first generation of children being raised by openly LGBTQ parents.
“You know from the get-go that you’re an untraditional family if you have two gay dads,” Malina Simard-Halm shared with the HPR. Simard-Halm, who serves on the board of the Family Equality Council, was one of the first children born to openly gay fathers via assisted reproduction (e.g. via commercial surrogacy and/or in vitro fertilization, the creation of an embryo outside of the body). She and her brothers, like my siblings and I, were raised in a family that was an impossibility only decades ago.
Indeed, the rights of the LGBTQ community have advanced at a clip far exceeding expectations since the Stonewall Uprising. In the minds of many, gay rights reached their apex with the Supreme Court’s legalization of same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges.
“I remember growing up, when I was maybe 15 or 16, first coming out, and I had someone who told me, ‘Eventually gay people will probably get married. It probably won’t be in [your] lifetime, but it’ll probably be in your grandchildren’s lifetime,’” David Strah, author of Gay Dads: A Celebration of Fatherhood, told the HPR. “And it took place thirty years later.”
However, such a triumphant narrative can make it easy to forget that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed under a decade ago, that the Democratic Party did not publicly support same-sex marriage on the national stage until 2012, and that there is still no federal law protecting LGBTQ Americans from discrimination in the workplace, as well as from discrimination in accessing housing and other public accommodations.
In spite of the fact that the question of same-sex marriage has been settled, many Americans hold reservations about advancing LGBTQ rights in the familial sphere. Approximately one in four respondents in a Gallup poll reported that they still do not believe gay and lesbian intended parents should be allowed to adopt children. But estimates show that as many as six million American children have at least one LGBTQ parent; furthermore, adoptions and in vitro fertilizations by LGBTQ parents have been sharply on the rise for the past two decades. As such, because being raised by gay parents was not just a personal experience but also the subject of intense political scrutiny, the first generation of children born to LGBTQ parents had to carefully consider how they presented their families to the public, with the understanding that any perceived flaws in their family could be generalized to reflect on the LGBTQ community at large.
“What was it like being raised by gay parents?”, indeed. Whether the person asking realizes it or not, such a question demands one answer: “Amazing!” Any other response, even if simply accounting for a family’s nuanced experience, might as well be an outright admission of failure on behalf of the entire LGBTQ community.
A Break with Tradition
The United States has seen a number of shifting trends regarding what the typical family looks like in recent decades. According to the Pew Research Center, the percentage of children living in households with two parents has fallen from 88 percent to 69 percent since 1960. An all-time high of children face ‘nontraditional’ living arrangements; rather than being raised by a married, heterosexual couple, many children are being raised by a single parent, their grandparents, or, increasingly, by parents who are members of the LGBTQ community; namely, by same-sex couples.
It is important to note that there have always been LGBTQ parents. But prior to the latter half of the twentieth century, the majority of these parents had children via traditional marriages (that is, from buried deep in the metaphorical closet). Hence, the face of LGBTQ parenthood changed dramatically almost overnight, only compounded by the fact that adoption agencies began working with same-sex couples around the same time that in vitro fertilization and professional surrogacy became commercially available.
For the first generation of same-sex couples becoming parents outside of previous heterosexual relationships or co-parenting arrangements, the path forward was often murky and fraught with legal complications. For example, when Strah and his partner considered their own path to parenthood, surrogacy was off the table. “It wasn’t really an option for me at the time. It seemed like going to the moon,” Strah explained. Strah, who ultimately adopted his sons, detailed how the prospect of having children has emerged only in the past two decades among LGBTQ couples. “When I was dating in my twenties, no one was talking about having kids.”
And for good reason. It was not until 1979 that a gay couple in California became the first LGBTQ parents to jointly adopt a child in the United States. New Jersey became the first state to legalize adoption by LGBTQ parents 18 years later, and Florida became the last state to overturn its ban on LGBTQ adoption in 2010. However, many LGBTQ parents did not achieve the right to adopt until 2015 with the advent of Obergefell v. Hodges, as their state governments mandated that intended parents must be married.
“The law allowed for gay men in New York State to adopt but it was unclear if both of us could adopt at the same time. Our attorney said he was not sure, and it would depend on the judge. In the end, the judge did allow both of us to adopt at the same time. I think we were among the first to adopt together as gay men in New York,” Strah said of his own family’s adoption process. However, because the decision was left up to judicial discretion, often with bad news resulting for LGBTQ parents, many couples looked for alternatives. Assisted reproduction was one such option.
“When my dads were trying to have a child, adoption agencies wouldn’t let them. … Surrogacy was the only thing that came through for them,” Simard-Halm told the HPR. Fortunately for them, by the late nineties, a select number of doctors were willing to refer LGBTQ couples to assisted reproduction agencies; of the limited agencies available offering such a new technology, even fewer were willing to take on non-heterosexual couples.
For Darlene Pinkerton, sexuality was never a barrier to entry for her clients. As the president and CEO of A Perfect Match, one of the few agencies willing to work with LGBTQ intended parents that that paired clients with egg donors and surrogate mothers, Pinkerton bore witness to the anxieties unique to LGBTQ intended parents. “I can’t tell you how many times [gay clients] would call me and they would say, ‘Are you sure she [the donor] knows we’re a gay couple? Are you sure she’s okay with helping us?’… There were some donors that would just say no, ‘I’m not gonna help a gay couple,’ but most donors were like, ‘Of course I want to help! There’s no other way they can have children.’”
Finally, after years of discussion and planning, of disappointments and triumphs, parenthood became the reality for many LGBTQ couples. Whether with the help of an adoption agency, egg donor, or surrogate mother, a baby came home, joining a new generation of children that is redefining what it means to be a family.
Coming Out of the Cradle
First came the congratulations – then came the questions.
“How can two men be as good? How can one man be as good? Who’s going to be the mom? And doesn’t a child need a mom and dad? What are you gonna tell your kids, or what are they going to say when they’re in school?” Strah recalled being asked. “Are they gonna make them gay? Are they gonna be upset if they’re not gay? Kind of basic, pretty silly things.”
However, the children of LGBTQ parents – myself included – found that the biggest difference in their experience was how others reacted to their families. Although experiences could vary widely depending on the region or neighborhood, they constantly had to ‘come out’ on behalf of their parents, often with mixed results.
For example, my father was asked to step down from his leadership position in my brother’s Boy Scout troop on account of his sexuality. Even though my siblings and I were only fourth graders at the time, we understood that our family was under strict scrutiny, and that even the slightest misstep could beget severe consequences for how competent our fathers were perceived as being. In the face of this pressure, the first generation of ‘gaybies’ recognized the importance of presenting their families as perfect; doing otherwise would only present ammunition to those already dubious about the rights of LGBTQ parents to raise children.
“A lot of the fear was internal for me. I remember growing up I was really self-conscious. … At a low point, I told one of my classmates that one of my dads was my uncle, and I was betraying the people that loved me the most because I was scared. Now I know not to blame myself one hundred percent because obviously there were forces that make us feel like we don’t belong, and it’s not just other students. It’s the law, it’s the way that media depicts gay families,” Simard-Halm shared. “I think something that [we] uniquely have to deal with is internalized insecurity a lot of the time and feeling alone.
She continued: “It’s almost certainly stigma from the outside. Every family has its differences and quirks, and what’s unique for being the child of LGBTQ parents is having to deal with homophobia from the moment you were born. [We’re] born into a family that’s been historically despised by a lot of demographics. I mean, my parents tried for upwards of ten years to have a child and were met with scorn and hatred around every bend, and that bigotry doesn’t go away immediately,” Simard-Halm explained. “It feels like the rights of the community at large are riding on whether or not this community succeeds by the metrics of success that society has created, and I think that’s really difficult because our families are different, but not extraordinarily [so]. But we have issues too-challenges that every family has-and it feels difficult sometimes to be able to speak honestly about some of the issues we might have. We have to present in a way that if somebody who wanted to find evidence to write back the rights of the community, [we] wouldn’t be giving them fodder for that, [we] wouldn’t be an excuse for the government to roll back liberties that the community has fought for.”
But roll back liberties the current White House has. President Trump’s pushes for religious exemptions to civil rights legislation have come at the expense of anti-discrimination efforts. For example, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has proposed rules ranging from ceasing the enforcement of regulations prohibiting HHS grant recipients from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, to allowing the agency to allocate funding to adoption and foster care agencies that discriminate against LGBTQ adoptive parents under the guise of religious freedom.
With such blatant attacks on the LGBTQ community, specifically LGBTQ families, clearly not consigned to the dustbin of history, the pressure on ‘gaybies’ to present as poster children has yet to cease. But LGBTQ millennials are anything but discouraged; according to a survey of LGBTQ respondents by the Family Equality Council, 77% of LGBTQ millennials are either parents or planning on having children, in contrast with the 35% of respondents aged 55 or older who already are parents. Furthermore, a majority of the survey respondents who intend to become parents anticipate using assisted reproductive technology, foster care, or adoption. In spite of the Trump administration’s stance, as Pinkerton put it, “if there’s a will – if someone wants to be a parent – they’re going to find a way to do it.”
The New Normal
Although the Gayby Boom has rendered LGBTQ families more commonplace, many LGBTQ parents and their children are resisting the urge to minimize what makes their families unique.“Normalcy is not the goal. … I think something that the queer community really values is acceptance and equality, equity more broadly, and love,” offered Simard-Halm. “Those are the things we want to highlight in society, and that means accepting differences and extraordinary circumstances.”
Strah added, “We don’t have the same cultural norms that apply to us, or constructs, or constrictions. And so it’s like, who’s going to make dinner? Who’s gonna clean? You know, it’s no longer the woman stuck in more of the parental role, or housekeeping role, and I think kids see that, and they grow up with a freer way of thinking about gender norms and gender roles.”
“[They are] at a focal point of those movements, as a youthful, often progressive community that’s been exposed to bigotry from a very young age. I think that they’re in a unique position to speak out and advocate against it. On a social and cultural level there’s still a lot of bigotry that families face,” said Simard-Halm. However, one thing about her family is just the same as any other. “Having two loving parents… [they’re] the people that raised me, that read to me, that taught me to swim, that drove me to school – the people that are my family and I love the most. And I think those people should be treated as parents, not as second-class citizens.”