Two New Books Reveal LGBT Lives

(Originally published as my Mombian newspaper column.)

Stories can be told in many ways. Two new works—one poetic, one academic—take strikingly different approaches to telling the stories of LGBT people and families.

The first is by Lesléa Newman, best known as the author of the groundbreaking children’s book Heather Has Two Mommies. Newman is also an award-winning poet, however, and served as the poet laureate of her hometown of Northampton, Mass. in 2008-2010. Her new work draws on her poetic skill, and, with its much more somber tone, is aimed at older audiences.

October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard is a cycle of 68 poems that serve as reflections on the death of Matthew Shepard, the University of Wyoming student killed in a brutal gay-bashing in October 1998. Newman was scheduled to be the keynote speaker at the university’s Gay Awareness Week just a few days after the tragedy.

Despite being shaken by the event, Newman gave her talk, she writes in the afterward to her book, recognizing the Wyoming community’s need not for her exact words, but for her presence as an out, proud lesbian to show them such a life was possible.

Later, she reflected on the many people who had told her “I can’t imagine,” in response to the murder. Her poems, which she calls “a historical novel in verse,” are her attempt to imagine—not only because that is her job as a poet, she writes, but also because it is her job as a human. She explains, “Only if each of us imagines that what happened to Matthew Shepard could happen to any one of us will we be motivated to do something. And something must be done.”

The poems speak from a variety of imagined perspectives, including Matthew, his assailants, his parents, the mountain biker who first found him, the police officer who came next, the doctor who treated him, and the housekeeper at the hospital—but also the stars above, the deer found curled next to him, and the fence he was tied to, as well as less specific mothers, fathers, students, gay people, and others who heard of the killing.

The lines are brief and haiku-like in their simplicity (a few are in actual haiku form), giving them a rawness and impact that might well be lost among more words. Newman’s slim volume reminds us why, even twelve years after Shepard’s death, his story still resonates.

The second new book takes a very different approach to LGBT lives. Gay Dads: Transitions to Adoptive Fatherhood, by Dr. Abbie Goldberg, associate professor of psychology at Clark University in Massachusetts, and senior research fellow at the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, is an examination of gay couples before and just after they adopt children. While written in part for an academic audience, the book is nevertheless extremely accessible for lay readers. Gay dads (and prospective gay dads), as well as adoption providers, social workers, and lawyers, among others, will find much of value in it.

Goldberg’s previous book, Lesbian and Gay Parents and Their Children, took a broader look at LGBT families, and remains the best one-volume overview of research on the topic. In Gay Dads, however, she looks more in depth at a smaller segment of our community.

Goldberg conducted a study of 70 adoptive gay dads (35 couples) from across the country, interviewing them when they were seeking to adopt as well as several months after they had adopted. Over 80 percent were White and well-educated (although over half had adopted transracially). This is just a slice of our full community—but Goldberg recognizes the need for further work on gay dads of color and working-class gay men.

She starts by looking at the decision-making process that led the men to choose parenthood in general and adoption in particular. After that, she explores how adoptive parenthood—private, public, domestic, and international—affected the men’s relationships to each other, their families, friends, and communities.

One major question she tries to answer is whether the men reinforced or resisted the “heteronormative” standard of two parents settling down with kids, often with the mother as a stay-at-home caregiver. Did they challenge the norm with new views of what makes a family, or with new approaches to dividing family and employment responsibilities? Did having non-biological children or bumping into legal obstacles because of their sexual orientation force them to confront these norms, regardless?

Goldberg found that variation among the men—and even within individuals—means we cannot simply split them into two groups. “Some men conformed to heteronormativity in some aspects of their lives and resisted it in others,” she writes. At the same time, even if they didn’t actively resist traditional ideas, “their very existence [as gay adoptive parents] poses a challenge to heteronormativity.”

Recognizing these men and their children as families and understanding how they navigate these issues, she concludes, “can help to transform societal understandings of family, gender, sexuality, race, and love.” This new and expanded understanding can benefit both gay and straight couples alike, she asserts.

The above two books may seem an unlikely pair. One is emotional verse; the other dispassionate research. Each, however, has its place in painting a fuller picture of LGBT people and our interactions with the world around us.

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