An exclusive excerpt from Unhitched: Love, Marriage, and Family Values from West Hollywood to Western China (pp. 50-55), a book by Judith Stacey, released from NYU Press last month.
by Judith Stacey
Because let’s face it, if men weren’t always hungry for it, nothing would ever happen. There would be no sex, and our species would perish. (Elder, “Why My Wife Won’t Sleep With Me,” 2004.)
Because homosexuals are rarely monogamous, often having as many as three hundred or more partners in a lifetime — some studies say it is typically more than one thousand — children in those polyamorous situations are caught in a perpetual coming and going. It is devastating to kids, who by their nature are enormously conservative creatures. (Dobson, “Same-Sex Marriage Talking Points.”)
Unlucky in love and ready for a family, [Christie] Malcomson tried for 4 ½ years to get pregnant, eventually giving birth to the twins when she was 38. Four years later, again without a mate, she had Sarah. ‘I’ve always known that I was meant to be a mother’, Malcomson, 44, said. ‘I tell people, ‘I didn’t choose to be a single parent. I choose to be a parent.’ (Turnull, “Family is…Being Redefined,” 2004.)
Gay fathers were once as unthinkable as they were invisible. Now they are an undeniable part of the contemporary family landscape. During the same time that the marriage promotion campaign in the U.S. was busy convincing politicians and the public to regard rising rates of fatherlessness as a national emergency,1 growing numbers of gay men were embracing fatherhood. Over the past two decades, they have built a cornucopia of family forms and supportive communities where they are raising children outside of the conventional family. Examining the experiences of gay men who have openly pursued parenthood against the odds can help us to understand forces that underlie the decline of paternity as we knew it. Contrary to the fears of many in the marriage promotion movement, however, gay parenting is not a new symptom of the demise of fatherhood, but of its creative, if controversial, reinvention. When I paid close attention to gay men’s parenting desires, efforts, challenges, and achievements, I unearthed crucial features of contemporary paternity and parenthood more generally. I also came upon some inspirational models of family that challenge widely-held beliefs about parenthood and child welfare.
The Uncertainty of Paternity
Access to effective contraception, safe abortions, and assisted reproductive technologies (ART) unhitches traditional links between heterosexual love, marriage, and baby carriages. Parenthood, like intimacy more generally, is now contingent. Paths to parenthood no longer appear so natural, obligatory, or uniform as they used to, but have become volitional, plural, and politically embattled. Now that children impose immense economic and social responsibilities on their parents, rather than promising to become a reliable source of family labor or social security, the pursuit of parenthood depends on an emotional rather than an economic calculus. “The men and women who decide to have children today,” German sociologists Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim correctly point out, “certainly do not do so because they expect any material advantages. Other motives closely linked with the emotional needs of the parents play a significant role; our children mainly have ‘a psychological utility.’”2 Amidst the threatening upheavals, insecurities and dislocations of life under global market and military forces, children can rekindle opportunities for hope, meaning, and connection. Adults who wish to become parents today typically seek the intimate bonds that children seem to promise. More reliably than a lover or spouse, parenthood beckons to many (like Christie Malcolmson in the third epigraph to this chapter) who hunger for lasting love, intimacy, and kinship–for that elusive “haven in a heartless world.”3
Gay men confront these features of postmodern parenthood in a magnified mode. They operate from cultural premises antithetical to what US historian Nicholas Townsend termed “the package deal” of (now eroding), modern masculinity– marriage, work and fatherhood.4 Gay men who choose to become primary parents challenge conventional definitions of masculinity and paternity and even dominant sexual norms of gay culture itself. Gay sex columnist Dan Savage mocked the cultural stakes involved when he and his partner were deciding to adopt a child: “Terry and I would be giving up certain things that, for better or worse, define what it means to be gay. Good things, things we enjoyed and that had value and meaning for us. Like promiscuity.”5
Gay fatherhood represents “planned parenthood” in extremis. Always deliberate and often difficult, it offers fertile ground for understanding why and how people do and do not choose to become parents today. Unlike most heterosexuals or even lesbians, gay men have to struggle for access to “the means of reproduction” without benefit of default scripts for achieving or practicing parenthood. They encounter a range of challenging, risky, uncertain options–foster care, public and private forms of domestic and international adoption, hired or volunteered forms of “traditional” or gestational surrogacy, contributing sperm to women friends, relatives, or strangers who agree to co-parent with them, or even resorting to an instrumental approach to old-fashioned heterosexual copulation.
Compared with maternity, the social character of paternity has always been more visible than its biological status. Indeed, that’s why prior to DNA testing, most modern societies mandated a marital presumption of paternity. Whenever a married woman gave birth, her husband was the presumed and legal father. Gay male paternity intensifies this emphasis on social rather than biological definitions of parenthood. Because the available routes to genetic parenthood for gay men are formidably expensive, very difficult to negotiate, or both, most prospective gay male parents pursue the purely social paths of adoption or foster care.6
Stark racial, economic, and sexual asymmetries characterize the adoption marketplace. Prospective parents are disproportionately white, middle-class and relatively affluent, but the available children are disproportionately from poorer and darker races and nations. Public and private adoption agencies, as well as birth mothers and fathers, generally consider married heterosexual couples to be the most desirable adoptive parents.7 These favored straight married couples, for their part, typically seek healthy infants, preferably from their own race or ethnic background. Because there are not enough of these to meet the demand, most states and counties allow single adults, including gay men, to shop for parenthood in their overstocked warehouse of “hard to place” children. This is an index of expediency more than tolerance. The state’s stockpiled children have been removed from parents who were judged to be negligent, abusive, or incompetent. Disproportionate numbers are children of color, and older boys with “special needs,” such as physical, emotional and cognitive disabilities, are the hardest of all to place.
The gross disjuncture between the market value of society’s adoptable children and the supply of prospective adoptive parents allows gay men to parent a hefty share of them. Impressive numbers of gay men willingly rescue such children from failing or devastated families. Just as in their intimate adult relationships, gay men more readily accept children across boundaries of race, ethnicity, class, and even health.8
The multi-racial membership of so many of their families visually signals the social character of most gay fatherhood. In addition, as we will see, some gay men, like single mother-by-choice Christie Malcolmson in the epigraph to this chapter, willingly unhitch their sexual and romantic desires from their domestic ones in order to become parents. For all of these reasons, gay men provide frontier terrain for exploring noteworthy changes in the meanings and motives for paternity and parenthood.
Judith Stacey is Professor of Sociology and of Gender and Sexuality at New York University. Previously she was the Streisand Professor of Contemporary Gender Studies at the University of Southern California and also on the faculty at the University of California, Davis. Dr. Stacey’s works focus on changing forms and meanings of gender, family and sexuality. She is most noted for her research on gay and lesbian family issues. Dr. Stacey has written four books, has appeared on numerous television and radio programs and lectured extensively throughout the country. She has served as an expert witness in cases on same-sex marriage and parenting rights in the U.S. and Canada.
Notes From Excerpt:
1. I discuss the fatherlessness discourse and the history of the politics of family values in the Conclusion, pp.xxxx. Also see, Stacey, “Dada-ism in the Nineties.”
2. Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, The Normal Chaos of Love, 105.
3. Lasch, Haven in a Heartless World.
4. Townsend, The Package Deal.
5. Savage, The Kid.
6. Here too, however, gays encounter discrimination. While one national study found that 60 per cent of U.S. adoption agencies accept applications from homosexual clients, only 39 percent of the agencies in this group had placed at least one child with a gay or lesbian potential parent during the target period, and only 19 percent of these agencies actively recruit prospective gay and lesbian parents. Brodzinsky, Patterson and Vaziri, “Adoption Agency Perspectives.”
7. In Florida, although two pro-LGBT parenting bills died in committee, the strict law banning “homosexual” individuals from adopting has been struck down twice at the trial court level, but the decisions have been stayed pending review by a state appellate court. Until its decision, the law remains in effect. In Arkansas, a law passed by voters went into effect January 1, 2009, that banned unmarried couples from becoming foster or adoptive parents. The law is currently being challenged in state court, with a trial expected some time in 2010. In Tennessee, for the past three years, supporters of LGBT families have brushed back attempts to ban unmarried couples from adopting children, leaving in effect an opinion by the Tennessee Attorney General stating that same-sex couples can legally adopt under state law. It is expected that anti-equality Tennessee state legislators will again attempt to pass the legislation in 2010. Human Rights Campaign, “Equality from State-to-State 2009.”
8. Compared with children of married couples, children of same-sex couples were twice as likely to be adopted, and children of same-sex parents were disproportionately of Hispanic and non-white race and ethnic origins. Sears and Badgett, “Same-Sex Couples.” Of the children adopted in California between 1 October 2001 and 30 September 2002, for example, 41 percent were Hispanic, 23 percent black, non-Hispanic, and only 29 percent were white, non-Hispanic. US Dept of Health and Human Services, “The AFCARS Report.” Qualitative studies of gay fathers likewise report high percentages of cross-racial adoption. Sbordone, “Gay Men Choosing Fatherhood;” and Schacher, Auerbach and Silverstein, “Gay Fathers Expanding the Possibilities for Us All.” Other, more recent studies show that gay parents are more likely to adopt non-white children, as well as children with disabilities. Gates. Badgett, Macomber and Chambers, “Adoption and Foster Care by Lesbian and Gay Parents in the United States.”
(Editorial: Amy Levin, Betsy C. Steve)