Raising a child takes at least 18 years, though some would say it is a lifetime’s work. Why then, has television representation of LGBT families focused primarily on the initial stages of family creation, and not on the later years?
Almost every adult lesbian on television has had a storyline revolving around her attempt at pregnancy, including NYPD Blue’s Abby Sullivan, ER’s Kerry Weaver, and more recently Cashmere Mafia’s Caitlin and Alicia. The long-running Friends’ never starred a lesbian, but Ross spent the second episode in shock that his ex-wife was going to have his biological child with her new, female partner.
LGBT shows, too, often tackle lesbian family creation. Pregnant lesbian characters have included Melanie and Lindsay of Queer As Folk, Bette and Tina of The L Word, Ellen DeGeneres and Sharon Stone’s couple in If These Wall Could Talk 2, Chris and Kris of LOGO’s sitcom Exes and Ohs, and Dana and Kirsten of the same network’s Rick and Steve, who partner with the titular characters to have a family. We see little, however, of any of these women actually raising their children. (The last two shows are new enough, though, that they could show it in future seasons.)
It is important, of course, to show images of LGBT families on television. We must counter the old stereotype that being LGBT means forgoing children. It is tiresome, however, when writers use the same lesbian pregnancy storyline over and over, often involving wacky antics in the search for sperm. The rest of the LGBT spectrum, adoptive parents, and those with children from previous relationships are rare. Ellen, the show that brought lesbians into the spotlight on mainstream television, is notable for featuring a lesbian (Ellen’s girlfriend Laurie) with a middle-school-aged child. Nip/Tuck last year also showed a lesbian mom (Olivia Lord, played by Portia De Rossi) with an older daughter. These are the exceptions.
Writers focus on biological family creation, it seems, because that is the area of greatest apparent distinction between LGBT and non-LGBT families. All of the post-conception differences—the yearly talk with new teachers, getting permission for the non-bio parent to visit the child at the hospital, dealing with harassment at school, etc.—are off the radar or too subtle for television drama. Showing LGBT parents doing general parenting tasks, moreover, like preparing dinner and going to PTA meetings, would seem to negate any need to show them at all. We catch an occasional glance, but no more. Contrast the many shows featuring non-LGBT parents that can center a whole episode around, say, chaperoning a field trip or planning a dinner party.
This helps explain the lack of LGBT adoptive parents on television. Since straight couples can adopt, too, watching two lesbians wait for Social Services to call doesn’t appear to make the same kind of LGBT-specific point as watching them hunt for a sperm donor. (Yes, infertile straight couples may sometimes need a sperm donor, but it is rare.) Television writers need to learn that the adoption process for lesbians in a straight world can have just as many lesbian-specific twists. Simply showing lesbian moms in general parenting situations, too, can say more about acceptance than any explicit “lesbian” storyline.
Gay dads are almost non-existent on mainstream television. Eddie and Chance of Noah’s Arc were on LGBT-network LOGO along with the aforementioned Rick and Steve. Michael and Ben of Showtime’s Queer As Folk were on a very LGBT-targeted show. Mainstream television producers still seem to have a fear of showing gay men anywhere near children. When and if they get over it, it is unclear whether they will focus on gay men creating their families (and view surrogacy, like sperm, as having more dramatic potential than adoption), or if they will also show them driving their kids to soccer practice and doing the hundreds of parenting tasks that occupy most of our lives.
Absent, too, are permutations of families that don’t follow the traditional two-parent model. Single gay dad? Lesbians parenting with the gay male couple down the street? LGBT-specific shows touch on some of these variations, but mainstream media steers clear.
Transgender parents are likewise rare. The only representation of a trans parent for many people is Felicity Huffman’s Bree in Transamerica, a character who didn’t even know she was a parent until her son was almost grown.
All of this helps explain the media fascination with Thomas Beatie, the actual transgender man who announced his pregnancy several weeks ago. A man getting pregnant—or even any trans person deliberately starting a family—runs so counter to the mainstream idea of family creation (and of trans people) that it is hard to get past that. People cannot see that this baby will be born to two loving parents who are willing to face ridicule and harassment to help make the world a better place for their child.
As a society, we will always have a fascination with family creation. Families, in all their diversity, are one of society’s building blocks. It is significant that we are seeing LGBT families at all on mainstream television, for that is a first step to greater acceptance. To take the next step, however, we need greater representation across the LGBT spectrum. We need to see LGBT parents not only creating families, but also raising children with all the ups and downs of families everywhere. When we see an LGBT version of The Brady Bunch, we’ll know we have made progress.