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Kids with gay parents

As lawmakers battle gay marriages, a look at how the children fare


Alex Tinker knows what people say about kids like him, kids with gay or lesbian parents: You'll probably turn gay yourself. Your life is going to be a mess. But the 13-year-old is doing just fine as he steps onto the stage along with 260 other Oregon seventh graders being honored for scoring higher on the Scholastic Assessment Test than most high school seniors. As the students' names are called, Alex stands on a chair and points happily to his two proud moms. "Not to brag or anything," he says later, "but if you compared me with an average kid in a normal household, I probably get better grades; I'm probably more athletic; I'm probably equally mentally healthy."

At the heart of the debate over legalizing same-sex marriage lies the well-being of children like Alex. The Senate is expected to vote this week on the "Defense of Marriage Act" that would allow states to refuse to recognize gay marriages even if they are legal elsewhere--a measure adopted by the House and supported by President Clinton. Gay marriages may soon be sanctioned by Hawaiian courts, and 15 states already have adopted statutes barring recognition of gay unions. Critics argue gay marriages would devalue the institution of marriage and give special rights to homosexuals. But their bottom-line objection is that lesbians and gay men cannot be fit parents. Says Robert Maginnis of the Family Research Council: "Both a mom and dad are essential to a balanced upbringing."

Yet many thousands of homosexuals already are living in virtual marriages and parenting children. There are no good estimates of the number of children of gays and lesbians, but researchers are discovering that most children of homosexual parents share Alex Tinker's confident self-assessment. According to a recent American Psychological Association survey of more than 40 research studies on gay parenting, such children are likely to be just as well adjusted as the progeny of traditional unions. The samples in many surveys are small, but the studies show that the children play with the same guns and dolls as do other boys and girls, have similar IQs, develop typical friendships, have a normal sense of well-being and are no more likely to be confused about their sexual identity than kids with straight parents.

What does have an impact on the lives of children whose parents are homosexual is society's reaction. Many are as closeted as their parents. Sons and daughters of gay parents met in July at the sixth annual meeting of the Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere (COLAGE), a 2,000-member support and education group. The most popular seminar: knowing whom and when to tell Mom or Dad is gay. At last year's conference in Los Angeles, Maya Jaffe met a classmate from her Maryland high school. Nei- ther knew the other had a gay parent.

In past generations, the children of homosexual parents were likely to be the product of a heterosexual marriage. Typically, the mother or father later came out as gay and the parents divorced. Today, there's a second wave of children of gay parents, many of whom are adopted or who are the natural sons and daughters of lesbian moms.

Special delivery. Visiting Alex Tinker's family is like taking an archaeological dig through the layers of such families. Alex, a likable, straight-A student, is the youngest of three siblings living with Bonnie Tinker and her partner of 19 years, Sara Graham. Alex knows that his family is unusual, to say nothing about his conception. In 1982, a family friend bicycled an oyster jar of his own sperm over to Bonnie's house. She administered the insemination herself. Alex considers Bonnie and Sara his parents. But the father occasionally takes Alex--along with his own children--hiking or bicycling.

Though the circumstances of his life may seem complicated to outsiders, to Alex they're rather ordinary. Alex loves basketball, watergun fights and, he notes, most everything typical to any 13-year-old boy. While he has been selective in whom he tells about his family, he reports only rare cases of teasing. "I don't think there's anything wrong with being raised differently," he says.

Growing up was more difficult for Alex's older step-siblings. Josh, 28, is Sara's son from an earlier marriage. And Connie, 25, was the legal ward of Bonnie's previous lesbian partner. Josh and Connie's generation had more problems, notes University of Virginia psychology professor Charlotte Patterson, because they "were the pioneers" when homosexuality was less accepted.

It can be an especially hard adjustment for kids who start out living in what they think is a typical heterosexual family to discover suddenly that Mom or Dad is gay. That's similar to what happened to Josh. His father died when he was 10. A few years later, he was sharing his Portland home, a converted blacksmith's shop that his late father had remodeled, with his mother and her new partner, Bonnie, who worked at a battered-women's shelter, and Connie. Josh kept his lesbian mother's existence a secret from his friends; Bonnie avoided parent-teacher conferences and Josh's sports events to protect him. "I couldn't understand it. It was out of the norm," Josh says now. "They weren't my family. Basically, I just hated them."

No visitation? A recent brush with what the family considers homophobia made them closer. Josh says his marriage fell apart over his wife's discomfort with her lesbian in-laws. Josh's wife, the first person he ever told about his gay mother, demanded that there be no contact between their baby daughter and her gay grandmothers. After the divorce, his ex-wife went to court in an unsuccessful attempt to prohibit her daughter from visiting Josh at Sara and Bonnie's house last Christmas. The rancorous battle over visitation "opened my eyes up," says Josh, to the prejudice his mother faced. "I'm older now and more mature," he says. "I don't look at people for their sexual orientation. My mom's lifestyle is her lifestyle. You have to respect that." As for his mother's partner and his step-siblings: "I consider them family now. I'd do anything for them."

Among the toughest and most universal unpleasantries kids in these families face is teasing from classmates. Kate Asmus lost track of the many confrontations with taunting West Hartford, Conn., classmates, which left her burning with tears or anger while the school janitor scrubbed KATE'S A LESBO, YOUR MOMS RECRUIT and other graffiti from her locker. Once Kate, then in the eighth grade, ignored the slurs, the harassment stopped. One study found that virtually all children of gay parents report being subjected to unwanted teasing but that nearly all children of traditional families report being bothered by teasing at some time as well.

Despite such occasional ugliness, perhaps most striking about the children of gay parents is how little they say having a homosexual parent truly upsets their lives. "I've never lost a friend because my dad is gay," says Nathaniel Selig, 18. Even his girlfriend, Tara Kelley, and her politically conservative parents are OK about it. Tara's mother, an interior decorator, has worked with gay men.

The rhythm of their lives, such teens say, is like that of any of their peers. Asmus, now 18 and starting a college filmmaking program, notes that her two lesbian mothers "make me do my homework, give me the car when I need it, complain about bills"--just like her friends' parents. "They are my Cleavers; they're my Ward and June," she says. For Nathaniel Selig, the key is that father John Selig is Dad first: "He's not my gay dad. He's my dad." Still, father and son tastes are distinct in the cluttered apartment they shared until Nathaniel recently left for college: It was filled with Nathaniel's soccer trophies and Dallas Cowboys memorabilia and John's gay-pride paraphernalia, rainbow flags and streamers. As for his own sexuality, Nathaniel, who proudly declares his virginity, says: "I don't think I could be taught to love a guy the way that I could love a girl. It's just not me."

Sketchy studies. No issue is more controversial than whether gay parents produce gay children. Northwestern University psychology professor Michael Bailey, who has studied the genetics of homosexuality, says that the sketchy studies that do exist "are finding rates on the order of 10 percent of the offspring" of gay parents who turn out gay themselves, higher than the "generally accepted range between 1 and 4 percent" of the population that gays constitute.

But just because gay parents have a higher percentage of gay offspring doesn't mean that their parenting styles are responsible. If homosexuality is largely genetic--as Bailey's own groundbreaking studies of twins suggest--then it makes sense that homosexuality would run in families. Alex Tinker has an aunt, one of Bonnie's sisters, who is also a lesbian. And if being gay is at times a choice--as some homosexuals say--then it also is logical that kids with positive gay role models would be more likely to see homosexuality as an OK choice. After years of bad relationships with men--"they're bossy and controlling"--Connie Tinker started dating women. Her lesbian mothers, however, always had encouraged her dating of men.

For gay parents, having a gay child can be jarring--since it plays into antigay arguments that they "proselytize" their homosexuality. Dan Cherubin knows. He founded Second Generation, a support group for the gay children of gay parents. Cherubin was shocked when, marching in New York's gay-pride parades, his group was greeted with chilliness and even hostility by other gay marchers.

Several studies suggest offspring of gays and lesbians are rarely confused about their own sexual identity. If anything, says Maya Jaffe, 17, having a gay parent may make teens even more secure about their heterosexuality. "I'm more sure about my sexuality than my friends," says Jaffe, who lives with her two moms in Rockville, Md., "because I know it would be OK if I am a lesbian. But I'm not."

And having gay parents also may foster empathy and tolerance. That is clear from Jaffe's eclectic mix of friends, which includes mostly straight kids but also gay ones (one boy came out to her before telling anyone else he is gay), and friends across race and class lines.

One specter, however, haunts some children of homosexuals: AIDS. For Stefan Lynch, 24, watching his father die five years ago was particularly lonely. The father talked about it little, already feeling guilty about "abandoning me when I was a teenager," recalls Lynch. And Lynch, now director of COLAGE, hid his own hard times at school from his dad, feeling "he had enough on his shoulders." In some families, AIDS strikes more than once. Breauna Dixon, 7, wrote a picture book about her father's death that is used in AIDS support groups. Breauna now lives with her father's partner--who became her guardian--and the man's new live-in partner (her third "dad"), who has HIV.

Custody decisions for Breauna would have been easier if her dads could have married. Many gay couples find that, without the sanction of law, they spend thousands of dollars for lawyers to draft papers that make clear who can make life-and-death guardianship decisions for their children. Often gay couples will keep multiple sets of these papers--at home, in the car or with them at all times--in case of emergency.

For Connie Tinker, there was a cost to such uncertain legal status. Connie's mother, Bonnie, is a lesbian activist in Oregon--but it wasn't always that way. It was Bonnie's former partner who was Connie's legal guardian. And although Bonnie has reared Connie from the time her daughter was an infant, Bonnie at first kept her own name off the guardianship papers. Bonnie, who now runs a gay-parenting network, feared Connie would be put into foster care if social workers discovered she had lesbian parents. (Courts often deny custody to gay parents. Last month, a Florida court upheld the transfer of 12-year-old Cassie Ward from her lesbian mother to her father, despite the fact that he had served eight years in prison for killing his first wife.) Once, when Connie was 7, police took her into custody, mistaking her for a 13-year-old they wanted to arrest. Despite her terror and anger, Bonnie felt she could not complain. Not until Connie turned 18--and it was no longer a judge's decision--did Bonnie formally adopt her.

Because of such problems, Connie's mothers say they would welcome the chance to get a marriage license at city hall. But even if Bonnie and Sara one day marry, their youngest son, Alex Tinker, doubts it would change his life. His moms are already in what, to him, feels like marriage and family. "It's kind of like finding a new species of life," says Alex, who hopes to go to MIT to study engineering. "It's always existed before, but now it's in the books."