Parenting from the fringes

Anti LGBT protesters using their children as human shields have been all over the news this spring. Apparently learning not to bully classmates who may come from families who do not fit the model of the Brady Bunch is worthy of death threats and false claims of pornography being shown to 5 year olds.

Amid all the hate and anger I have wondered about this impact on parents who belong to gender, sexuality and relationship minorities. In this piece I hope to explore some of the research, pressures, and joys of GSRD parenting.

There has been a lot of research into LGBT parenting – or at least into some iterations of it. As described by Tasker (2006) the research can be largely categorized into 3 main areas

  • Concerns about children’s sexual development, based on the Freudian and Kleinian ideas of sexual identity developing in a process of object relations.
  • Concern about the general emotional development of the child, and
  • Concern about the response of the world to a child of lesbian and gay parents.

Studies have tended to assume that deviation from the norms of hetrosexuality is a failure, for example, if the children of lesbian parents grow up to be queer because they do not have male role models this is seen as a failure of lesbian parenting, rather than a positive or neutral.

One of the largest studies of the impact of having LGBTQ parents, by Trasker. highlighted the difficulty of finding representative samples. I would go further and say that often apples and oranges are being compared. The impact of a parent coming out and family breakdown is very different to the impact of growing up with a queer parent who is always out and/or no divorce and breakdown. Trasker does explore some of the different findings between these groups, but many studies do not seem to differentiate.

Perhaps as a result of the determination of LGBTQ parents to present as non problematic, very little research seems to have looked at the impact of being LGBTQ on the individual and therefore on their ability to parent.

LGBTQ parents have had to desexualise themselves to jump through the hoops demanded by society. It appears they have also had to conceal or erase the impacts of discrimination and minority stress on their mental health and ability to parent. A study by Ross et al (2012) seems to be one of the few which explicitly looks at the impact of marginalization and oppression as it is experienced, and how that might impact parenting. Given the high rates of mental ill health, sexual assault and domestic violence experienced by bi women this seems to be an area which urgently needs more light shone onto it. Perhaps the most telling line that appears in Ross et al is where they draw the “startling” conclusion that perhaps bisexual women are not the same as women of other sexual orientations. That we are still at a place where this needs to be stated shows how far research has to go.

There is some limited research on parents who transition. It is clear from Stotzler (2014) that we have very little data on trans parents, and much of the research, as always, focuses on the small part of their lives where they are undergoing medical interventions to affirm their gender. Some of the studies are so small, less than 20 people for example, that it is next to impossible to draw any firm data from them. This may explain why there does not seem to be an agreement, even within the paper on the impact of transition (as opposed to being trans) on the family structure. For example Stotzer argues that

it seems that for most transgender parents who transitioned, there were positive or no changes to the parent-child relationship”

Yet other research shows that 30 % of the children of trans parents are estranged, 33% experienced bullying and a number of children felt responsible for protecting their parents from negative reactions in what may be a process of parentification. It may well be that literature on parents who come out as gay after a mixed gender marriage may provide useful insights into how to support the entire family at this time.

I think it is important to highlight that negative or positive impacts on children should not be seen as a reason to come out, or not. This may take time to explore in therapy, and again there are parallels this time not only to the experience of gay and lesbian parents but to feminist theory. Perhaps it is worth noting that trans men have lower rates of coming out after having children. This may be for many reasons, but it is possible that the social conditioning of assigned female at birth people to put their families first plays a significant part. If this is impacting then it may well be that current cohort of generation X reaches their 50s and 60s we may see more later transitioning trans men.

In conclusion the available research has largely focused on lesbian parents, then been extended to gay parents, and barely touched bi, queer or trans parents. The focus of most research has been to prove, or disprove that children are damaged by having lgbt parents, with deviation from a heteronormative, cisgenderist norm being seen as signs of damage. Little research has looked at the impact of being LGBTQ on parents, and whole experiences and communities are conflated and erased. Most of the research studies are based on internalised homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and queerphobia. Whilst I understand the need to challenge the belief that queer people pose a threat control of cis women’s reproduction, and their reproductive rights has been a battleground on which lesbian and queer women who are parents have often been early casualties. When gay men have been studied they have had to fight ingrained beliefs about the unsuitability of men to parent, as well as the pervasive sexualisation of LGBTQ identties.

The wider attitudes of society towards GSRD people are reflected in not only how research is framed, but how we so often treat GSRD parents. One of the overriding challenges GSRD parents face is intensely personal, and it is around visibility. GSRD parents have always existed, but, the consequences of exposure, stigma, criminalisation of certain identities or behaviours have meant that invisibility has been vital to survival. Today unless you are in an acknowledged same sex relationship there are still choices to be made about visibility and safety. Ross et al (2012) discuss the impact of erasure and invisibility on Bi mothers. This is important as cis/het concepts of “passing” are often used to erase the very real harms of invisibility, particularly around the impact of community support on resilience and coping strategies.

So, a challenge only faced by some parents is whether to be out, how much to be out, and who to. Pallotta- Chiarolli (2006) in interviewing Nora and Gayle highlights how being visible carries its own risks. The NCSF supports parents whose BDSM activities/identities have led to children being removed. Historically this has happened to many lesbian parents, while being gay and male was seen as being uninterested in parenthood, to the extent that any interest in children was pathologized or seen as deviant and sexual.

It may seem trite to say so but the importance, or not, of being out is unique to each individual.It is vital to understand that there is no moral superiority in disclosing your identity, nor is it deceptive to do choose not to do so. A trans woman may choose to drop the adjective trans (with no indication of their trans history) or a submissive never mention what they consider to be private details of their sex lives.

This choice (even if it is a constrained one) to be visible or not extends also to children in relationships beyond lesbian and gay couples. Telling your child you are trans, or bi, or poly, is for many parents a decision which causes much anxiety, some may decide is is irrelevant, others that it is necessary to be their authentic selves. Authenticity can be around honest conversations about different relationship styles and the importance of consent, about values rather than identities.

In considering the challenges faced by the individual identities within the umbrella of GSRD therefore we need to look at the challenges faced by each individual, and what support and space they need to make their own parenting decisions.

I believe that we need to start acknowledging the negatives of belonging to sexual and gender minorities, the impact on mental health, and how this might impact. As GSRD kids are born to or raised by GSRD parents we need to step away from the idea that somehow success as a queer (or poly or kinky) parent is determined by raising cis het children. It may well be that showing children alternatives to the heteronormative monogamous model of marriage influences them. A radical move would be to consider this a positive rather than a negative.

In thinking of the experiences of LGBTQ parents I cannot help remembering the first time I knowingly encountered one. I am 18, in the Women’s room, at the LSE. A group of us are meeting to support 2 lesbian parents who have had their children removed. One of the questions they were asked by the judge was “what appliances do you use on each other?” We are voting on whether to allow a male human rights lawyer into the room to advise them

Sometimes I wonder whether thirty years have simply taught queer parents to be better at performative heteronormativity, at jumping through the hoops of a society which accepts them in a limited way. As explored by Epstein (2004) this has often involved desexualisation of queer people, and a rejection of any idea of the sexual being important in their identity in a way which doesn’t occur for heterosexual couples. For kinksters, who are largely defined by sexual behaviour, and poly people, who are assumed to be defined by sexual behaviour, this desexualisation is often impossible. Anecdotally I know that poly people are still being asked those questions which used to be common for lesbian and gay parents – questions that can be summed up as “will the children watch you having sex?” This stigma and judgement leads to the “cycle of secrecy” which can cause immense stress and anxiety.

Sex worker parents are, of course, automatically assumed to be sexually predatory, and social workers in the UK for many years were taught the Mary Bell case as a study of how sex workers treat their children. Despite the majority of research showing that sex work and motherhood are intertwined, with supporting children being a primary driver (Duff et al, 2004) it is still assumed that parenting and sex work are mutually exclusive. Duff found that the avoidance of interacting with social services due to a fear of having their children removed was common in the sex workers they studied. When sex workers were not white, and/or visibly queer/gender non conforming/trans these fears are more likely to be realised.

So, a near universal experience of GSRD folk is one of coercive sexualisation and of having to appear to be as desexualised as possible. But for some identities, including some racial identities, such as hypersexualised black men or “fast tailed girls” Parker (2018) this desexualisation is next to impossible, leading to the innate assumption they will be a danger to their own, and other children. The challenge for the future is how we get past the “we are just like you” sexlessness, and whilst upholding the right of anyone to form the relationship structures they desire (including vanilla and monogamous heteronormativity) uphold the right of people to have sexual selves alongside and contiguous with their parenting selves. We need to smash the either or binary and instead look at why we still demand parenting and partnership fit with narrow heteronormative norms. Alongside this we need to support GSRD parents who challenge these norms,including the challenges of race, gender, class, age and other intersections of identity, rather than presenting a cookie cutter copy of current patriarchal partnerships to follow.

I was prompted to write this by the protests in Birmingham, and I cannot help wondering at the impact on both children and parents of having to face daily othering and sexualisation. If it is not appropriation I am reminded of the pictures of Ruby Bridges attending school in !954. I can only hope that no more children will have to walk past hate to access the education they deserve.

I do not usually provide references for non academic articles but in this case it feels it might be useful to provide them, so people able to use them if they wish

Duff, P., Shoveller, J., Chettiar, J., Feng, C., Nicoletti, R., & Shannon, K. (2015). Sex Work and Motherhood: Social and Structural Barriers to Health and Social Services for Pregnant and Parenting Street and Off-Street Sex Workers. Health care for women international, 36(9), 1039-55.

Epstein, R. (2004). Queer parenting in the new millennium: Resisting normal. Canadian Woman Studies, 24(2/3)

Moore, M. R., & Stambolis-Ruhstorfer, M. (2013). LGBT sexuality and families at the start of the twenty-first century. Annual Review of Sociology, 39, 491-507

Pallotta-Chiarolli, Maria 2006, Polyparents having children, raising children, schooling children, Lesbian and gay psychology review, vol. 7, no. 1, pp. 48-53

. Ross, L., Siegel, A., Dobinson, C., Epstein, R., & Steele, L. (2012). “I Don’t Want to Turn Totally Invisible”: Mental Health, Stressors, and Supports among Bisexual Women during the Perinatal Period. Journal Of GLBT Family Studies, 8(2), 137-154.

Stotzer, R., Herman, J., & Hashenbush, A. (2014). Transgender Parenting; A review of existing research. The Williams Institute.Tasker, F., & Patterson, C. (2007). Research on Gay and Lesbian Parenting. Journal Of GLBT Family Studies, 3(2-3), 9-34. doi: 10.1300/j461v03n02_02

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