Equity & Diversity

Family Matters

By Mark Pitsch — September 24, 1997 15 min read
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As more children of openly homosexual parents reach school age, educators are awakening to the issues facing these young people, who say they are no different from their peers.

Outside Nevada City, Calif.

On the banks of Lake Vera, children stand around a crackling campfire, arms outstretched as they roast marshmallows on sticks. The deep croak of a bullfrog resonates across the lake. A crisp nighttime breeze circulates through the majestic, decades-old ponderosa pines. Stars sparkle in the cobalt-blue sky.

“See,” says 12-year-old Lizzy Seaburg as she lifts her stick from the fire and approaches a visitor. “The children of gay people are just like other children. We eat marshmallows just like other kids.” Gesturing as she speaks, Lizzy pokes a friend in the arm with the skewer. “We have accidents, too.”

Lizzy, who lives in California with her two mothers, is one of 37 youths here at Camp Lavender Hill, the nation’s first summer camp for the children of gay and lesbian parents. Set on 82 acres in the Sierra Nevada foothills, the weeklong camp has drawn children as young as 7 since its inception in 1994.

Because all the campers have at least one homosexual parent and all the counselors are either homosexual or come from families with a gay parent, Camp Lavender Hill is a refuge, a place where the children don’t worry about what their classmates, friends, teachers, neighbors, or other relatives think of their families.

Helping Hands

Some advocacy groups have been successful in bringing into schools and communities programs and other efforts to help the children of gay and lesbian parents:

  • San Francisco’s Lesbian and Gay Parents Association has produced a 10-minute videotape of young children with homosexual parents talking about their families, how their teachers discuss family issues, and what it’s like to hear anti-gay slurs on the playground. “Both My Moms’ Names Are Judy” and “It’s Elementary"--a feature-length documentary from last year by Academy Award-winning director Debra Chasnoff that explores how six schools successfully incorporate gay issues, including gay families, into the classroom--are used as training tools. About 1,200 copies of the videotape have been purchased by schools, churches, and other community groups.
  • Bonnie Tinker, a lesbian and the founder of Love Makes a Family, a gay families’ group, hosts a two-hour radio program each week in Portland, Ore., to discuss issues relating to sexual-minority families. She is also a member of a Portland public schools advisory group on alternative families.
  • The Family Diversity Project in Amherst, Mass., distributes a traveling photo exhibit of families headed by gay and lesbian parents. Since 1995, nearly 50 schools have shown the controversial exhibit.
  • The Center Kids family program of the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center in New York City includes 2,200 parents who work with local schools so that gay and lesbian issues, including households with homosexual parents, are not ignored.

“It’s the most glorious place I’ve ever been,” says Leonard Simp, 17, who lives with his brother and lesbian mother. “I can come here and be totally, completely open. Gay people don’t necessarily make better parents; there are plenty of crappy children here. But at least you can be open with them.”

Lizzy and Leonard are part of a trend: More and more people who are openly homosexual are raising children. Gay parenting is most evident in large cities where the concentration of gay men and lesbians is high, but experts say school officials across the country--as well as Little League coaches, Girl Scout leaders, and Sunday school instructors--should no longer assume that all children under their watch come from families with heterosexual mothers and fathers.

“It’s very new,” says Ben Stilp, the communications director for the Lesbian and Gay Community Center in New York City. “Gay parenting is a new concept. ‘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 of what to do with the children.”

Some school districts have begun addressing the issue by enacting “safe schools” policies that prohibit anti-gay harassment, providing teacher training on alternative family structures, and incorporating information on diverse families into their school curricula. Where districtwide policies have not been implemented, gay parent-advocates have sought to make sure that schools acknowledge different kinds of families in the classroom and provide a safe environment for their children.

“This is going to happen at a different pace all around the country, in different cities and districts, depending upon the demographics,” says Charlotte Patterson, a developmental psychologist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville who has studied the children of gay parents. “There is strength in numbers, and in cities where more parents feel comfortable coming out, schools will move quicker.”

Conservative groups, meanwhile, are beginning to mobilize against the acknowledgment in classrooms of gay-led families. In a fund-raising letter distributed this summer, Beverly LaHaye, the head of the Washington-based Concerned Women for America, said her group had “uncovered an aggressive new national campaign to put an extremely dangerous pro-homosexual video in every school in America.”

What she referred to was the documentary “It’s Elementary,” which explores how schools discuss gay issues and gay families in the classroom.

Throughout history, homosexual men and women have raised children in traditional heterosexual marriages. But with the emergence of the gay-rights movement in the 1970s, many married homosexuals “came out of the closet” and began living openly gay lives. Those with families often divorced but maintained relationships with their children.

Conservative groups, meanwhile, are beginning to mobilize against the acknowledgement in classrooms of gay-led families.

In the mid-1980s, however, some homosexuals, particularly lesbians, began adopting children or conceiving them through artificial insemination in what has become known in the gay community as the “gaybee boom.” 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, according to an article published in Pediatric Review in 1994, the latest study of its kind.

Not surprisingly, schools in San Francisco--the home of one of the world’s largest and most visible gay communities--have been at the forefront in addressing the phenomenon of gay parents.

“There are more and more children of gay parents in schools. A lot of these kids are in 3rd and 4th grade and below, and more are on the way,” says Kevin R. Gogin, the director of support services for gay and lesbian youths for the San Francisco school district. “A lot of schools are working as we did, first supporting the kids who are coming out themselves. As we deal with them, these questions about families keep coming up.” After first working with gay students, he said, “the next logical step is the children of gay and lesbian parents.”

In 1990, the San Francisco district created Gogin’s office to provide support services for homosexual youths. In addition to offering direct services, such as counseling, the office conducts teacher training on family diversity and produces lessons on homophobia.

The office’s resource and curriculum guide for teachers and administrators includes, for example, a lesson that asks students to draw pictures of their families and paste their own photograph on the drawing. The guide recommends that students be taught that diversity means “many differences” and that a family is “a unit of two or more persons, related either by birth or by choice, who may or may not live together, who try to meet each other’s needs and share common goals and interests.”

Then last year, the school board expanded the scope of its activities, calling for issues related to homosexuality to be integrated “across disciplines, specifically social studies, language arts, and science.”

Elsewhere in California, the San Diego school district requires all its employees to undergo a two-hour workshop on sexual-orientation discrimination, focusing largely on families headed by homosexuals.

So far, teachers at 85 of San Diego’s 165 schools have gone through the training. The session includes a presentation by a gay or lesbian parent, a discussion about anti-gay slurs, and the presentation of research about children growing up in gay households.

“The children of gay people are just like other children.”

Lizzy Seaburg

“After the training session, we always ask the teachers to fill out a form asking what they learned, and almost all of the elementary school teachers said it never occurred to them that some of their students are the children of gay or lesbian parents,” says Jan Garbosky, San Diego’s testing-unit program manager, who’s involved with the training.

Neither San Diego nor San Francisco offers specific services for the children of gay and lesbian parents. But parents and gay-rights advocates say what is important for the children is recognition of their families in the classroom and sensitivity by teachers to alternative family structures. How teachers use their training and instructional materials differs by teacher and school.

But recognition of gay families is far from widespread. Representatives of the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, the National PTA, and the National Association of Elementary School Principals, for example, say the matter has not surfaced in their organizations on a national level.

That, of course, is the very notion behind Camp Lavender Hill, where many of the campers are from the San Francisco Bay area, though some come from other parts of California and as far away as Seattle.

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?”

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Schools & Communities is underwritten by a grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the September 24, 1997 edition of Education Week as Family Matters


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