Two articles today gave me cause for reflection about children of LGBT families and the development of identity: “I’m Not Gay, but My Four Mums Are,” in the Sydney Morning Herald profiles 21-year-old Eamon Waterford, who was born into a two-mom family, but acquired two more when they split up and repartnered. (Thanks, Abigail.) The article is full of plaudits for same-sex couples and our ability to raise well-adjusted children, though Eamon wryly notes LGBT parents’ ability “to mess their kids up in exactly the same way hetero parents will do.” It does not, however, shy away from exploring some of the distinctive issues in our families, such as Eamon’s search to find a comfortable relationship with his biological father and his wife. Also, unlike most coverage of same-sex families, this one does not cite any ultra-right “authorities” spouting prejudice disguised as scientific “evidence,” though it does note that conservative opposition exists.
One old chestnut the article does cover, though, is the question of whether children of same-sex parents will be gay or lesbian themselves.
To gay parents, the very question of their children’s sexuality reveals a homophobic premise – that it matters. . . .
However, the research on the young adults’ sexuality is sparse and inconclusive. The children of gay parents understandably are less affronted by homosexuality than most of their peers. They are more likely to consider a gay relationship, and even to experiment but, according to the limited research, appear no more likely to identify as gay. As researchers point out, nearly all gay people were raised by heterosexual parents.
True, but at the same time, there’s a chance our children will be LGBT—which is one of the reasons I was interested in the Village Voice article “Queer in the Crib,” by Julia Reischel. It discusses children who consistently show “gender atypical” behavior, and whether this indicates they will come out as trans or LGB later in life. Overall, the article is fairly balanced. It quotes Jennifer Chrisler of the Family Pride Coalition who asserts that greater acceptance today does mean many are coming out earlier, though it notes that talking about a sexual orientation for prepubescent children makes little sense. Some are using the term “gender variant” to describe their children, not wanting to label them as either “trans” or “gay” before seeing whether either of those names applies. (This sounds clinical and too close to “deviant” for my tastes, but I’m failing to come up with an alternative at the moment.)
It’s notable, though, that all the examples in the article are of boys exhibiting “girlish” behavior, not the reverse, except for an instance or two of a girl stating she wants to marry a female friend. “Parents come to the [New York] LGBT Community Center worried about their kids’ sissy behavior,” Reischel states, clearly talking about boys. It’s true that in most of the U.S., a girl playing sports or wanting to play with trucks wouldn’t cause as much notice as a boy playing with dolls.
We need to be doubly careful here, then, not to overlook signs of budding lesbianism or transgenderism in girls, but also not to slap a label on either girls or boys when it may not apply. If it’s okay for Jane to play with John’s trucks, then John may want to play with her Barbies out of a simple sense of fairness. Jane may enjoy trucks because she’s destined to become a mechanical engineer, not because her sexual orientation and gender identity are clear at this point. Early signs of attraction may be more indicative, but before puberty (and sometimes even after) it can be hard to distinguish crushes from friendships. If we as parents judge there’s something consistent and deep seated here, though, then we should be ready to encourage our children to express their true selves.
One thing that bothers me about all this, though, is the implication that being gay or lesbian always means a propensity for atypical gender behavior. Reischel is careful to distinguish sexual orientation from gender identity, but might have reminded people that there are plenty of feminine girls and masculine boys who will also come out as lesbian or gay.
The article also does not touch on the issue of LGBT parents who have LGBT children, and whether they approach atypical gender expression in their young children any differently from non-LGBT parents. Reischel even stresses the separation between the adult LGBT community and LGBT youth:
While a straight dad like Arnold [whose son likes to wear dresses and play with Barbies] can keep the options open, the LGBT community can only keep its distance. Kids are a tough subject for gay adults. When you’re a minority tarred with pedophilia and sexual depravity, you learn to stay away from children. And gays have: Almost 50 years after Stonewall, same-sex-leaning children are completely absent from the gay discussion.
The growing number of LGBT parents proves we have not, in fact, “[learned] to stay away from children,” but we have, on the whole, learned to stay away from LGBT children. Many LGBT parents are quick to point out that most of our children will be straight. It’s a defensive reflex to counter one prejudice. It risks marginalizing the “second generation” LGBT individuals who do exist, however. (See Abigail Garner’s post Second Generation: LGBT Kids of LGBT Parents, as well as her book, Families Like Mine, for more on this.)
We must find the balances: assuring people that LGBT parents won’t necessarily have LGBT children, while welcoming such children into our community; not being hasty to slap a label on our children’s behavior, while also offering them a vocabulary to describe themselves if and when appropriate. Allan Acevado, one of this year’s Point Scholars, who was interviewed for the article, explains “The fact is that the lives of many young people, now increasingly even earlier than junior-high-school age, are redeemed and sometimes saved by being able to see a label and recognize the connection that it has to what’s going on within them.”
This generation of parents, LGBT and not, however, has a tendency to dissect and diagnose to an alarming degree. I suspect parent bloggers and online forums don’t ease this trend, though I see its roots in the pressure to start preparing our kids for college when they’re still in utero. “You mean if I don’t play Mozart to my swollen abdomen, my child might not be as smart as she/he could be? What other things must I identify and nurture (or stop) so my child reaches his/her potential?”
We need to relax a little. Einstein became Einstein without those videos. You don’t need to run out and buy a Melissa Etheridge album for your preschool daughter if she won’t take off her Lil’ Builder tool belt. You just need to support her decision to wear it. If, in her teen years, she starts mooning over Melissa, however, the odds are greater you may have an emerging second-gen’er on your hands. The key is to be open to all possibilities, because the one universal truth about children is that they will surprise you.