Pride and Parenting: Gay Fatherhood in America


For the last several decades, gay fathers have largely been treated as relics from a closeted history, from a time when gay men married heterosexual women in an attempt to quash or counter their own homosexuality. While this of course still occurs, many openly gay men today also actively pursue families and parenthood outside of heternormative structures. But despite the increasing prevalence of gay fathers, statistics do not offer reliable data about how many gay men, coupled or single, have actively sought fatherhood outside of earlier heterosexual relationships.

In her new book, Gay Fatherhood: Narratives of Family and Citizenship in America, Ellen Lewin investigates the nuances of gay adoption and describes the many challenges gay men face—from the “family values” Right as much as from the “radical queer” Left—as they actively seek to become parents. Lewin’s study, a comprehensive ethnographic look at gay fathers in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Iowa City, Iowa, explores the options available to gay men wishing to be parents: fostering, adoption (public, private, or international), and surrogacy. Between 1999 and 2003, she interviewed 95 men, 42 couples, and a lesbian couple co-parenting with a single gay man. [Full disclosure: Ellen Lewin was briefly one of my undergraduate Women’s Studies advisers at the University of Iowa. I say briefly because during most of my time in the department, she was away doing fieldwork for this very book.] A dense, comprehensive academic text, Gay Fatherhood nevertheless deserves a large, diverse readership. The issues contained in its pages are simply too important.

Not surprising—if not well enough known or understood—gay men face unique challenges when seeking to foster parent, adopt, or have children via surrogate. While lesbian mothers can, to some extent, rely on the cultural construction of “feminine” to support their choices, Lewin states that gay men face a paradox based on stereotypes about their cultural values and sexual practices. Conservatives who argue against gay male adoption often cite a narrow understanding of queerness, which they see as wholly contradicting certain morals and ethics necessary for proper, dutiful parenting. Lesbians also have several celebrity mothers—Rosie O’Donnell and Mary Cheney among them—that can counter the weight of cultural stereotypes. Gay men, Lewin argues, have no such public figure on their side, though this does fail to take into account gay celebrity fathers like Clay Aiken.

But on the more troubling flip side, some queer scholars deride the choices of lesbians and gay men to pursue families with children, arguing that queer families “mainstream” GLBT resistance. Positioning all queerness as radical, these researchers assume a particular cultural and political position of gay and lesbian parents. In large part, Lewin explains, these arguments rely on monolithic definitions of queerness, and I personally find it troubling that so many researchers apparently seek to politicize others’ sexuality. Lewin also points out that some scholars fear gay marriage for the same reasons: it may increase visibility, but it will not challenge homophobia. In fact, it may cause conservatives to raise yet another false binary: “good gays” will be known as the ones who “settle down,” while “bad gays” will remain single and thereby promiscuous. She also cites feminist scholars who resist the idea of “reclaiming marriage,” having long critiqued any family structure as oppressive to women and GLBTQ people.

Legal proceedings and statutes have also been problematic for gay fathers. In North Carolina’s 1998 case Pulliam v. Smith, for example, the North Carolina Supreme Court handed down a decision to place sons raised from birth by their gay father with their mother after she remarried and filed for custody. Despite how the children had thrived with their father—their sole custodian since birth after their mother abandoned the family—the judge ordered that the boys be placed with their newly remarried mother, as their father’s sexual orientation surely included exhibitionist sexual deviance that would damage the children. Other cases, such as a Mississippi case from 1999, also show bias against gay fathers, when in this instance, a child was returned to his mother and stepfather’s abusive home instead of being placed with his single gay father. As of the writing of Gay Fatherhood, Florida and Mississippi had outright bans on gay adoption, and many states had laws that could still be read as exclusionary.

The case studies found within the book offer a mix of disappointment and hope. Against all odds, some gay couples had little trouble finding a child. Liam and Matthew, a couple from San Francisco, adopted a little girl in the late 1980s in the midst of the AIDS crisis when few would have given their children to gay men to be raised. Their daughter’s birth mother, however, wanted her child raised in a Catholic home and wished to be the baby’s “only mother.” A few weeks after submitting their application to an adoption agency, the men brought their daughter home.

Most cases, however, are not so simple. As Lewin explains through personal stories, cited research, and her own investigations, gay men’s options for fathering are often limited by economic forces as much as cultural ones. Often, issues of biological attachment, race, and ethnicity are also raised. While public adoption offers prospective parents a lower cost way to search for children, private adoptions are more guaranteed to produce a particular type of child. In public adoption cases, gay men are often offered “hard to place” children, including children who are handicapped, in sibling groups, or biracial. In some cases, labels like “special needs” can simply apply to African-American children. While this systemic perversity seems to indicate that some children are more worthy of stable homes and families, children who have been labeled as “special needs” may also be given financial benefits from the state, thereby providing additional assistance to the adoptive parents. One couple that went through the public adoption process, Carl and Frank, explained that based on social pressure, they sought out adoptive daughters to ease the discomfort of social workers prone to assuming gay men are also pedophiles. Time and time again, Lewin uncovered situations in which uncomfortable compromises were made. That isn’t to say that adoption doesn’t come with its own set of compromises from the jump, only that gay men face unique barriers to entering the process in the first place.

In cases of international adoption, it isn’t uncommon for adoption officials to simply omit information or lie about their clients’ sexual orientation, as many countries do not allow homosexual adoption of any kind. Of the men Lewin interviewed, those who had adopted internationally had children from Guatemala, where there are no specific restrictions for single men adopting and often, the children are very young when put up for adoption. One couple, Josh and Brent, reluctantly admitted that international adoption meant little interference or judgment from a nearby birth family.

For many gay men, Lewin found that parenthood created or solidified other aspects of the men’s lives. Some of the men finally felt like adults and felt that parenthood gave them much-needed responsibility, in addition to community stature as capable members of society. Some gay fathers also reported that adopting “hard to place” children came with its own set of social assumptions about heroism and selflessness. Some men reported seeking such altruistic experiences and actively sought out “hard to place” kids in part because they knew that was their best chance at parenthood. Circling back around to the idea of politicized sexuality, some also felt that adopting children who look differently than they do battles racism and injustice, in a sense.

Though biological issues did not loom large for all couples, surrogacy felt like the best option for Alan and Art because of their desire to raise their child Jewish. Knowing that state adoption would likely yield an African-American or biracial child, the men simply felt so many contradictory cultural messages would “be too much for the kid.” In the end, the men decided that they valued the possibility of a visible biological connection to their child, and the cost—in excess of $100,000—was affordable. While some couples and single men have had to make decisions based on money, for a couple like Alan and Art, their personal finances allowed them to choose this option.

The book, while not exceptionally long, covers an extraordinary amount of ground, exploring the many complications and nuances of gay fatherhood. Lewin’s main strength as a researcher—though she has many—is her ability to showcase all sides of this issue without advocating for one particular position or solution. Despite the bold stands of many queer researchers, Lewin explains that her interest is not in elevating one stance. Instead, her ethnography explores the hurdles gay men must overcome and how their determination to have families affects other aspects of their lives and identities. She also notes that as a “middle-aged lesbian researcher with longstanding interests in gay and lesbian family life,” her subjects were perhaps more comfortable with a seemingly allied researcher recording their stories and observing their lives. While personal politics should theoretically be checked at the door, it is unavoidable fact that Lewin has spent much of her academic career researching and writing about issues of lesbian motherhood and gay family life. That her work led her to the dilemmas facing gay fathers is hardly a stretch, given the politicized climate in which so many personal decisions are made today.

Simply put, Gay Fatherhood does what many studies, papers, and book fail to do. It lends an unbiased ear to the struggles of gay men seeking fatherhood by any means necessary. Illuminating this struggle within GLBT communities is not only a necessary part of the growing conversation around homosexuality in America; it is an integral part of how we continue to redefine our expectations surrounding gay identity, the law, and “family.”

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  • emily-douglas

    Brittany, thank you for this very thoughtful review–I’ll have to check out the book! I’m wondering whether Lewin examined at all some of the thornier issues around surrogacy and foster care, with respect to the rights of the birth mothers. I feel very torn on this point, wanting both to support gay men’s access to parenting and the rights of the women involved in bringing that about. Was this addressed? Are there ways to make surrogacy and adoption fair and open for all parties?

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