Kids with gay parents
As lawmakers battle gay marriages, a look at how the children
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
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
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."
BY JOSEPH P. SHAPIRO WITH