Terrance Heath

What Makes a Family?

Filed By Terrance Heath | November 05, 2007 2:55 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Living, Media, Politics
Tags: LGBT families, media

So, I was on the radio Friday afternoon. On NPR, actually. I was invited to be on the broadcast of News & Notes, which was focusing on the question of "What makes a healthy family?", specifically where black families are concerned. I was in the middle of a board retreat for Rainbow Families DC (during which I somehow got nominated and elected as vice president), where we spent the day talking about how to support and connect LGBT families in our area. So it seemed appropriate to take a few minutes out of the day to talk to a broader audience about gay families.

You can listen to my portion of the show here. You can listen to the recording the rest of the show, and what Dr. Dorothy Height had to say about gay families here.

Host: So when you think about a family like Terrance Heath's, two gay men raising a child, does that fit into the traditional value structure you're talking about? Is that a structure that is open families of different composition, and is more about the energy you bring to it, or do you make a distinction between different kinds of families?

Height: No, we recognize it. In this country we've accepted the nuclear family, but we we also recognize many different kinds of families. And the important thing about it is the extent to which the family cares one for the other, and that they take care of each other, and that they have a commitment to being part of life together.

As I listened to the rest of the show, I was struck that Dr Height and I used the same word -- "commitment" -- in talking about our families. When the host asked me what I thought was the most important thing a child needed in a family. I meant more than just commitment to one another between parents and/or extended family, but commitment to making sure a child grows up in a home where he/she knows he/she is loved, wanted, protected, respected, and accepted for who he/she is, in a place where he/she is safe and cared for.

I expect, or at least hope that what Dr. Height recognizes is something I tried to put into words a while back; that the commitment that creates families is the same commitment that creates communities, and strengthens them.

It came home to me in a very real way a few weeks ago, and helped me give voice to an understanding I don’t think I had before entering a committed relationship and becoming a parent. Like Wallis’ experience watching the finale of Survivor, I had my epiphany while watching television. The hubby and I were watching Noah’s Arc, and one of the characters (Ricky) who was struggling with his first real relationship mused that “When you fall in love with someone that way, you’re supposed to be shutting out a world of trouble.” (Or something close to that.) Without even thinking about it or intending to speak, I heard myself saying “That’s not true!”

It took me a minute more to articulate what I meant, but it comes down to this. Making a commitment to another person, as a partner or a parent, is the furthest thing from “shutting out a world of trouble,” because it means making yourself even more vulnerable to an already troubled world; something that really comes home to you when you’re loved one’s walk out the door to go to work, school, etc., and you realize how vulnerable they are, how much can happen “out there,” and how little you can do to protect them. It means, or it can mean, committing to making the world you and your loved ones journey through each day a little less troubled if you can. By extension that means, or can mean, doing the same for and alongside the families in your community.

It means investing in hope that the world you and your loved ones live in can change and the others will take up the work with you, if you make a start. In fact, given the degree of commitment required for most gay people to become parents, and the obstacles or “flaming hoops” between us and parenthood, it’s possible that we have to invest even more in hope and in the creation of community.

We create families, create communities, and make our contributions daily, in hopes of making those communities better for our families and the families who share them with us.

I remember a few weeks ago, I was heading out one morning. It was windy. Gusty, actually. And as I stepped out I noticed that the front door of the house across the street was standing open. I stopped in mid-step, thinking that something wasn't right about that, and after debating with myself for a minute, approached. I was worried that perhaps they'd been robbed, or that perhaps someone was hurt inside. (It didn't occur to me that if either were true then whomever might still be in the house.)

I knocked on the door and called out a couple of times to see if anyone was in the house, and it turned out someone was. The house-sitter answered. An older woman, late sixties or so. She was watching the house while the family was on vacation. (I'd see her walking the family dog several times later that week.)

The wind had blown the door open and she was in another room. Everything was alright. She thanked me for knocking, and I went on my way.

I knocked because I wanted t make sure the nothing had happened to the family across the street, and because I'd want someone to knock on my family's door and make sure we're alright.

I knocked because that's the kind of community I want to live in. For my family's sake, and for the sake of all the families in our community.

Crossposted from the Republic of T.


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Terrance, thanks for your insights. I have to agree with you that building a family as an LGBTQ person takes even more commitment than it does for straight folks. We don't get any of the "benefits" (like tax breaks, etc.) that straight folks do. So what's in it for us besides love and commitment?

Terrance, you and Rick certainly do take on more than your share of visibility for the LGBTQ parenting community. Congrats on making NPR and getting the message out there. The word commitment is key. I'm glad to see it emerge from multiple mouths.

I'd want someone to knock on my door if it had been left open as well!

Hi Terrance:

Here in Florida, not only can my partner and I not get legally married, we cannot even adopt a child. Yet, we still consider ourselves a family unit. Whether by choice or circumstance, please remember that childless couples are families, too!!!!!!