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Like their parents, these children go through a difficult "coming out" process.

Morning finds some campers on a half-mile hike with their counselors to Gypsy Falls, where they sunbathe on granite rocks or stand under the cascading water. Others swim or canoe in Lake Vera. Still others take up art projects. They model papier-mache masks on the contours of their own faces, peruse National Geographic for photos to design collages, or use felt markers and paint to decorate family-quilt panels, a takeoff on the popular AIDS Memorial Quilt.

After lunch, campers break into the Camp Lavender Hill song, which includes the lyrics: "From gay to straight ... Lavender Hill has no hate." Afternoon activities include more individual art projects, instruction in American Sign Language by a counselor who is hearing impaired, volleyball and badminton, and preparation for a variety show to be held the final night of camp. Evening brings campfires and dances.

Campers say the atmosphere here frees them to talk with each other about their experiences as the children of gay parents--but only if they want to. While her close friends know about her mother and her mother's female partner, says 15-year-old Abagail Blanchette, "I still feel weird. I don't like talking about my mom's partner. At home, it's my mom's friend; here, it's my mom's partner."

Their family structures vary. Carolina Wings, 15, says she has two lesbian mothers who aren't in a relationship. Carolina describes her mothers as friends who always wanted to raise a child and turned to artificial insemination to make that possible. She splits time between their households. The sperm donor was a heterosexual man who is a longtime friend of the girl's biological mother.

Steve Metzger, 12, who knew only one other child with gay parents until he came to camp, has two gay parents who were originally married to each other.

Julia Becker, 10, lives with her lesbian mother, who recently ended a long-term relationship. "It was kind of awkward because I knew her all my life," she says of her mother's partner.

Julia doesn't know her sperm-donor father, but would like to meet him some day. She has a half-brother at the camp whose lesbian mother used the same sperm donor as her own mom.

The experiences of the children of gay and lesbian parents are as uncommon as the campers' families .

Twelve-year-old Jessica Wirth says she is open with her friends about her two gay fathers and has not experienced any discrimination or ridicule.

Lizzy Seaburg and Morgan Early, who share one of Camp Lavender Hill's open-air wood cabins with Jessica, say they tell only their closest friends that their parents, two lesbians in Lizzy's case and a lesbian mom and a gay donor-dad in Morgan's, that their parents are gay.

"I just love having two mommies, but sometimes it's kind of hard because people sometimes don't like it," Lizzy says.

Morgan complains about the frequent use of "fag" and "gay" on the playground. One of her teachers, she says, went so far as to write a song with anti-gay remarks and teach it to her class.

"It really makes me mad because the word fag is used at my school a lot. That's why I don't want to come out at school," Morgan says. "Lots of people don't even know the meaning of that word. Faggot means gay man, right? And I hear these girls saying, 'Stop it, faggot' to other girls."

Only a small body of research exists about the lives of the children of gay parents. Most seeks to dispel the popular notions that having gay and lesbian parents will harm a child's sexual development, impair a child's emotional growth in areas other than sexuality, or lead him or her to experience difficulties in social settings.

In a review of the research, published by the National Association of Schools Psychologists in 1995, Ms. Patterson, the University of Virginia developmental psychologist, wrote: "There is no evidence to suggest that lesbians and gay men are unfit to be parents or that psychosocial development among children of gay men or lesbians is compromised in any respect relative to that among offspring of heterosexual parents. Not a single study has found children of gay or lesbian parents to be disadvantaged in any significant respect relative to children of heterosexual parents."

But a 1993 article in the Journal of Divorce and Remarriage found that the existing research was not conclusive enough to support the thesis that there are no significant developmental differences in children raised by lesbian mothers and children raised by heterosexual mothers. The article did not address the issue of gay fathers.

The article, written by five researchers with public-health backgrounds, also suggested that most of the research "was biased toward proving homosexuals were fit parents."

Today there are an estimated 1 million to 5 million lesbian mothers, 1 million to 3 million gay fathers, and 6 million to 14 million children in the United States with at least one homosexual parent.

Mary Henning-Stout, a professor of counseling psychology at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore., also believes there is insufficient research on the subject.

Based on the information available about social development and racial-identity development, as well as on anecdotes, Henning-Stout says it's safe to say that children of gay parents face situations that other children likely bypass. But the situations are the result of living in a homophobic society, she maintains, rather than the fact that the parent is a homosexual.

"I see it as early as between kindergarten and 1st grade," says Henning-Stout, a former co-chairwoman of the American School Psychologists Association's committee on gay, lesbian, and bisexual issues.

"Kids understand what is safe to admit about who they are and where they come from. The parents don't put these kids in this position; the way the dominant structure is organized against loving gay parents puts these kids in this position."

Like their parents, these children go through a difficult "coming out" process. They must gauge the reaction of their friends, teachers, classmates, and neighbors before disclosing that their parents are gay.

"There are times I feel very closeted, even embarrassed, because society doesn't accept my mother's sexuality, and the attitude of some people makes me feel bad, even though there's nothing wrong with it," says one 15-year-old girl who asked that her name not be used. "I had been closeted with my friends because I was attending a school where my mother worked. I recently came out to four of my friends, and it was wonderful. I didn't feel as though they thought we couldn't be friends anymore, and that was important. If I'd felt the other way, I don't know if I'd continue coming out."

Some children with gay parents are teased as being gay themselves. One boy who asked that his name not be used says that when he told his 2nd grade class his dad was gay, "everyone in the school hated me."

AIDS has also crept into the lives of these children. One 15-year-old from San Francisco lost her donor-father recently.

Their attitudes about sexuality tend to be more open than those of many of their peers. The children of gay parents say they value homosexual relationships as much as heterosexual ones, even though they may not be gay themselves.

"I think the environment I grew up in has made me more educated about life, sexuality included," says a 15-year-old girl.

"Most kids are raised with only one option--straight," Abagail Blanchette says. "I've been raised with both options. I can go wherever my heart desires. I don't know if I'm straight. I could be straight, gay, bisexual, whatever."

Advocates, parents, and educators say it is an uphill battle to persuade institutions to recognize sexual-minority families, particularly because the public often believes that any reference to homosexuality in the presence of children means a reference to sexual practices.

Some San Diego teachers call in sick during their school's sexual-orientation workshop day, says Garbosky, the district testing official. And Gogin of the San Francisco district says that despite his city's liberal image, teachers there are no more tolerant than others.

"'Coming out' has been around for a couple of decades, but gay parenting has surfaced only in the past few years. And that prompts the question what to do with the children."

Ben Stilp,
Lesbian and Gay
Community Center

But these educators also believe that the controversy over discussing homosexuality in the classroom is much different from educating and nurturing the children of gay parents.

"As educators, we have not kept up with our children," says Nancy McDonald, a former magnet school director for the Tulsa, Okla., schools and the president of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, a Washington-based national education and advocacy organization known as P-FLAG.

"Let's think about this," McDonald says. "I've been very active in the Girl Scouts for a long time. What does this mean for the Girl Scouts and Girl Scout training? What does it mean for all the youth-service agencies, the YMCA, the YWCA, and, God forbid, the Boy Scouts? The Boy Scouts don't want to admit gay troop leaders, but what about their children?"

Schools & Communities is underwritten by a grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

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