Bringing Parents’ Rights and LGBT Rights Together

International Women's Day 2007I didn’t write my Bay Windows column for this week with International Women’s Day in mind, but it seems appropriate nonetheless. It explores the need for “Mothers’ Rights” and “LGBT Rights” groups to come together in support of all families. “Mothers’ rights,” defined as better workplace policies, childcare options, and children’s health insurance, touch fathers as well as mothers, of course, especially in families with gay dads—and I’ve made a point below to say “parents’ rights” rather than just “mothers’ rights.” The organizations leading the movement for such rights, however, rightly note that the lack of supportive workplace policies for parents affects women more than men, with women still doing the majority of childcare in our country. I’m also therefore marking this post as my contribution to Blogging Against Sexism Day (thanks, BlogHer). Happy International Women’s Day, then, and may we use the day to remember that equality for one part of society, whether women or LGBT people or any other group, ultimately means a better society for us all.

Bringing Parents’ Rights and LGBT Rights Together
(Originally published in Bay Windows, March 8, 2007.)

Bay WindowsWhat if we gained access to the same rights as straight parents only to find that there weren’t as many rights there as we’d hoped? That’s the prospect facing LGBT parents in the U.S. right now. U.S. public policies for working families “lag dramatically behind” all high-income countries, as well as many middle- and low-income ones, concludes the new Work, Family and Equity Index study (PDF link) from McGill University’s Project on Global Working Families.

Out of 173 countries studied, the U.S. is only one of five that does not guarantee paid leave for new mothers in any segment of the work force, the others being Lesotho, Liberia, Papua New Guinea, and Swaziland. 66 countries also ensure paid paternity leave or parental leave for fathers. The vast majority offer paid sick days for self or family care. The U.S. provides only unpaid leave for serious illnesses through the Family and Medical Leave Act, which does not cover all workers. The U.S. also does not mandate paid annual leave or at least one day off each week, as do most other countries in the study. A majority of countries also protect women’s right to breastfeed at work, which the U.S. does not.

Some organizations are already taking up the challenge of addressing these needs. Most prominently, Moms Rising is advocating for better maternity and paternity leave, flexible work hours, improved childcare and after-school programs, healthcare for all children, and realistic and fair wages for parents, particularly working mothers. Their initial focus is on mothers, because traditionally, the bulk of childcare tasks have fallen to women, and mothers most often bear the brunt of poor policies for working parents. “Non-mothers earn 10 percent less than their male counterparts; mothers earn 27 percent less; and single mothers earn between 34 percent and 44 percent less,” say Joan Blades and Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, co-founders of Moms Rising, in their book The Motherhood Manifesto. Moms Rising’s work will clearly benefit all parents, however, and according to a recent article in the New York Times (February 22, 2007), they will include fathers more explicitly in the future.

One will search in vain, however, on the Web sites of Moms Rising and most similar parents’ rights groups, for any sign of whether they support rights for LGBT families. Their vision of “a family-friendly America,” however, must include support for LGBT rights, even if this is not their primary goal. Otherwise, they ignore the estimated two to eight million LGBT parents in the U.S. and the four to 14 million children being raised by us. Our needs for parent-friendly work policies are the same as those of any other parents, but we cannot benefit from such policies unless we are legal parents in the first place, and our relationships recognized. We must be able to adopt, to foster, to do second-parent adoptions, and to have one parent stay at home with our children while taking advantage of the working partner’s employee benefits. All the parental leave in the world does no good to a non-bio mom or dad in a state that does not recognize them as parents.

Parents’ rights and LGBT rights therefore go hand in hand. Parents’-rights groups are working to change the playing field for working families, acknowledging that the old model of working father and stay-at-home mother isn’t the only one around anymore. They want government policies to reflect social realities and changing conceptions of family and family roles—and that’s exactly what the LGBT-rights movement is striving to achieve.

The parents’-rights groups are treading a thin line, however. They are forming alliances with labor and feminist groups like the National Organization for Women (NOW), but are also, in keeping with their nonpartisan stance, reaching out to conservative groups like the Christian Coalition, as the New York Times reports. Courting both NOW and the Christian Coalition is tricky enough, especially for someone like Joan Blades of Moms Rising, who founded liberal organizing group MoveOn.org with her husband Wes Boyd. Bring in a national LGBT-advocacy group, and the conservatives might shy away.

I cannot fault them for seeking support where they think they might find it. Groups that claim to promote family values seem a natural fit. I only hope the parents’-rights groups will be equally welcoming to LGBT groups and individuals as their young movement grows, for we bring much to the Cheerio-covered, juice-stained table as well. LGBT parents as a whole have a great political awareness and passion for activism on behalf of our families.

The burden of reaching out should not be solely on the parents’-rights groups. LGBT-rights organizations, for their part, should speak up about general policies for working parents as part of their advocacy for LGBT parents, and show they can be strong allies in this fight. They should engage the parents’-rights groups and figure out how to help each other achieve their overlapping goals.

We have the opportunity now, in the early days of the burgeoning parents’-rights movement, to be part of the conversation, drawing on both our common status as parents and our perspective as LGBT parents in particular. Together, we have a better chance of bringing government policies into alignment with the evolving landscape of family relationships in the early 21st century. The beneficiaries are not just parents, but, more importantly, our children.