In the firestorm that followed the publication of the NFSS, I reflected a lot about the role of descriptive academic research in the gay parenting debate. So far, much of the debate has appealed to normative principles of justice, fairness, equality, civil rights, natural rights, children’s rights, etc. Very little of the conversation has been about just plain understanding what the gay parenting phenomenon is.
Gay parenting is a complex matter, and part of the problem with our understanding is that we have too few up-close and personal examples of it to understand it well. It is hard to form any kind of opinion without some element of speculation, propaganda, imagination or fear of the unknown. Moreover, we turn to whatever images that can help us acquire a better understanding of what it is, sometimes without asking ourselves whether they present an accurate picture.
NBC has produced a new TV show called “The New Normal” in which an attractive upper-class, white gay couple contracts with a sweet, single mom strapped for cash to carry their baby, so they can become parents. The show presents a lovable picture of a committed gay couple, and so far it looks as if their lives will be greatly improved by the arrangement. These images stay in our minds so that the next time we are presented with a normative question about gay parenting or marriage policy, we think of them and want such scenarios to be true, or at least hope they can become a reality. But is this a new norm? How accurately does this capture reality?
A significant body of social science has found that non-monogamy and open relationships are the norm rather than an exception for gay men. The Gay Couples Study reports some candid truths about this. As for race, the NFSS found that, contrary to stereotypes of gay families as being primarily upper class and white — as the NBC show portrays them — 48 percent of the children with a father in a same-sex relationship were either black or Hispanic, and only 41 percent were white. The reality is that a more diverse and probably less well-to-do demographic experiences the phenomenon of gay parenting. A significant number of gay couples prefer non-monogamous relationships. We as a society should be aware of this so that we can better apply our normative principles to this more complete reality.
A different example that has helped many people put a real-life face to the gay parenting phenomenon is Zach Wahls, the young man born by in vitro fertilization to a lesbian couple and raised by his two mothers for a full 18 years, excelling in academics and athletics. Is Wahls the new norm? How representative is he of the average experience of children of mothers in same-sex relationships?
Regnerus began the NFSS survey with 15,058 random contacts and found only two cases of children in which the mother and her partner were together for the full 18 years. Most of the young adult children of a mother in a same-sex relationship went through the less ideal experience of single-parenting, and most were born into a heterosexual union, which then separated and left them with their single mother, who then had at least one same-sex relationship. The path to adulthood for these children was not as rosy or stable as that of Wahls. Although there is speculation, and we assume, that there are many more Wahls out there, no studies based upon a large and random sample of the US population have proven this to be the average experience for the children of lesbian parents. Rather, the NFSS suggests that the more typical experience for that generation of children was like that of Dr. Robert O. Lopez, the young English professor who wrote about his own difficult experiences which resulted from growing up with two moms.
My hope is that we can appreciate the crucial role descriptive social science plays in helping us to understand the options presented to us as a nation. Let’s not attack new research just because it doesn’t conform to our preferred images. Let’s commit to look at the whole of our reality, and not just the most romantic examples of it.
Ana Samuel is a postdoctoral Bradley Fellow at the Witherspoon Intstitute. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Original URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2012/09/25/31237/