Terrance Heath

Poisonous Parenting: Confused, Pt. 2

Filed By Terrance Heath | May 11, 2008 3:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Marriage Equality, Media, Politics
Tags: gay parents, LGBT families, lgbt parents, parenting

I was halfway through writing the previous post when I came across something that made me realize this would be a two-part deal. That's when I cut the post short and wrote:

The last time we visited Parker's pre-school, one of teachers said she remembered when we came there with Parker as an infant. She remarked about how well Parker has grown up, and was happy to see that we are raising Dylan too. I think I know what she sees when she looks at our family now. She sees a family with two devoted parents, and two thriving children.

What other people see, I can only imagine. And I can only wish I didn't have to care.

But it's obvious that I do have to care.

I imagine that Dawn Stefanowicz would look at our family and simply see a mirror reflection of her own, if this Washington Times piece is any indication.

Left out of the debate over gay marriage and gay parenting is the potential devastation wrought on the child, said Dawn Stefanowicz, who tells her story of growing up with a gay father and a chronically ill and passive mother in her memoir, "Out From Under: The Impact of Homosexual Parenting."

Mrs. Stefanowicz said she wrote the book, published in 2007, to give other adult children the opportunity to express their stories while encouraging her own healing. It was not until the death of her parents, Judith and Frank (she does not give their last names in the book to protect their identities), that she felt free to share her story of unmet needs and neglect and to describe the other side of the sexual revolution -- that of the unspoken, negative affects on the children of gay parents.

"The child is not the central focus in these relationships," she said. "I felt like a commodity, or a pawn moved around."

Not the central focus? I'm tempted to laugh, but I know Ms. Stefanowicz is serious, and maybe that's how she really felt as a child. But it doesn't make my family even remotely like hers.

Mrs. Stefanowicz describes growing up during the 1960s and 1970s in an emotionally exhausting environment full of chaos. She said her father, who was sexually and physically abused as a child, was more interested in meeting his own emotional needs through his gay lifestyle than meeting the needs of his children -- Dawn; her twin brother, Thomas; and their younger brother, Scott.

Mrs. Stefanowicz felt unwanted by her father, whom she said was frequently absent, self-indulgent and self-serving. (Later, he sought to restore relationships with his children after he was diagnosed with AIDS, dying of it when she was in her late 20s.)

While her father was controlling and demanded that his family follow his agenda without negotiation, her mother, who was starved for Frank's affection and attention, was distant, distracted and depressed, Mrs. Stefanowicz said. She described her mother as weak, subservient, reactive, and, at the same time, put her own needs and wants ahead of those of her children.

The article does include a couple of paragraphs, with a statement from PFLAG spokesperson Steve Ralls, who mentions the research available on children of same-sex parents, none of which indicates anything except that our children "do not differ in well being or child adjustment compared with their counterparts in heterosexual-parent families." That is, they turn out about the same as their peers with heterosexual parents; no better and no worse.

They might have a slight advantage, though, given that gay parents are likely to be more involved in their kids' education (PDF). [Via Ed.] And they might benefit, as any kid would, from seeing their parents in a happy, loving, devoted relationship. And gay couples are just as devoted in our relationships, even without the benefits and protections of marriage. (In fact, we have to be because we don't have the benefits and protections of marriage. There's a lot less we can take for granted.)

And that's one area where my family differs from Stefanowicz's family, however much she wants to believe (and wants others to believe) every gay family is as unhappy as her own. Our son's witness a relationship between the hubby and me that is held together by mutual love, respect, and passion. I hope that we're modeling commitment for them in that way. Our relationship isn't perfect, but then none is. No matter what difficulties we have, though, at end of the day, our relationship is defined by love, compassion, communication, shared responsibility, respect, and the vows we made to one another.

By her own description, her parents marriage wasn't a happy one. Her father was absent and distracted, and her mother was distant and depressed.

"It's important for both genders to be equally valued, loved and seen as uniquely important for a child's development and future," said Mrs. Stefanowicz, who thinks that monogamy is not typical in gay relationships. "We really need a mom and dad who are married, who love each other, who are committed for life. ... It helps the kids have a strong sense of who they are."

Mrs. Stefanowicz's father, president and owner of his own executive recruiting service, wanted the normality he thought marriage could bring, using it as a cover for his homosexual lifestyle, she said. He brought her along to gay meeting spots and porn shops, though she was still a child, and introduced her to explicit sexual practices and exposed her to the health risks of the gay lifestyle, she said.

"What makes it so hard for a girl to grow up with a gay father is that she never gets to see him loving, honoring or protecting the women in his life," Mrs. Stefanowicz said in her book.

What's interesting, and telling, is what the article doesn't say. Stefanowicz grew up in the 60s and 70s, so her parents marriage was "pre-Stonewall," when there were far fewer options for same-sex oriented people, no community to speak of, and no support for choosing to live openly and/or with a same-sex partner. Sure, people did it then, but in far fewer numbers and at far greater risk.

At that time, there were a lot of marriages like her parents' marriage. I'm thinking of marriages like Larry Craig's. I'm thinking of marriages like my college English adviser and his wife.

I'm reminded of an adviser I had in college. He was a retired professor, but his emeritus status enabled him to maintain an office in the department and even in retirement he worked part-time as an adviser. It wasn't until later, after he was no longer my advisor, that I heard the rumor that he'd been arrested at least once in a police sweep of a park that was a well-known "cruising area" for men seeking sex with men, and that his wife got called to pick him up from the police station. It was over 20 years ago that I heard that.

I couldn't help but wonder what he and his wife might have self at that time, caught between the realities of his presumed attraction to men, the consequences of of acting on that attraction, and the consequences of suppressing it. Years later, the reality of that story -- lived by many people in that era, whether the rumors about my advisor were true -- came home to me when my fellow co-director of the LGBT student group and I successfully lobbied the University Council to pass a non-discrimination policy on sexual orientation concerning work and/or study at the university. We were invited to be part of the faculty committee that would hammer out the actual policy. And during the course of those meetings I learned that my former advisor's wife was on that committee.

The consequences were pretty stiff. In some locales, an arrest under those circumstances meant having your name published in the paper, and the result was often lost jobs, lost families, and ruined lives. Even if there was no public humiliation, there was always the threat of a call to an employer to set the same wheels in motion.

Worse, in some places you could find yourself locked up in a psychiatric facility for no other reason than same-sex attraction. It happened in places like Sioux City, Iowa, and Greensboro, North Carolina. This was around the same time that the "Lavender Scare" was underway, and people were persecuting "queers" with as much fervor as they persecuted "commies," maybe even more.

While not excusing the bad choices Stefanowicz's father made, it's telling that she doesn't acknowledge — nor does the Times article — how few real choices, let alone good choices, men like her father had at the time he and her mother got married. A heterosexual marriage may have been the safest place to be for a gay man at that time, but it certainly wasn't the happiest place, especially for the rest of the family. That's as true today as it was then.

We periodically see stories about married men in public life who are gay or have been implicated in homosexual behavior -- such as Senator Larry Craig (R-Idaho), who was arrested last summer for allegedly soliciting a male police officer in an airport bathroom, and former New Jersey governor James McGreevey, who proclaimed that he was a "gay American" when he announced his resignation from office. While the media focuses on the men, I watch their wives standing next to them and wonder about the suffering, lies, emotional confusion and rage that they may be living through. Because I've lived it all.

There are so many obvious questions for a wife like me: Didn't I realize he was gay? Did I ignore red flags? And if I had suspicions, why didn't I confront him earlier or divorce him?

But Stefanowicz and the Times reporter stop there, without even attempting the leap that one ex-wife of a gay man managed with extraordinary grace.

Marrying a gay man completely reshaped my life and altered some dearly held values in ways I'd never planned. I am living proof that you can be religious and conservative yet also care for, and even get along with, a gay former spouse. I now know that you can recover from an experience that shakes your identity to the core. Somehow, I'm an even stronger person because of the pain I endured.

I have marched for gay rights and spoken about my experience to groups of gay fathers, because I believe it was intolerance and the fear of homosexuality that put me and my family through complete hell -- and I hope none of that was in vain. Everyone has a fundamental right to be who he is, and I pray that Americans as a whole can become more accepting of homosexuals. Perhaps then, gay people won't feel the need to pretend they're straight and get married as a way to "prove" it to everyone else.

Stefanowicz and the Times reporter stop short of imagining a world in which men like her father have "a fundamental right to be who they are" and don't feel the need to "pretend they're straight" and "prove it" by getting married.

It's unfortunate, but that's the home that Stefanowicz apparently grew up in, where both parents are unhappy in the marriage. Research shows, kids are affected by a parent's depression, and Stefanowicz was definitely affected by her parents' depression and unhappy marriage. But it's not the home my kids, or kids in a lot of other homes with same-sex parents, are growing up in.

The Times reporter writes that Stefanowicz's father allegedly (after all, he's not around to speak for himself) "brought her along to gay meeting spots and porn shops, though she was still a child, and introduced her to explicit sexual practices…" Stefanowicz herself says, "What makes it so hard for a girl to grow up with a gay father is that she never gets to see him loving, honoring or protecting the women in his life."

Her father did not, if he took her to cruising spots and porn shoes as a child, honor and protect at least one woman in his life: his daughter. No parent should expose their child in that way, let alone put the child's well-being in danger by taking her to places that are not safe for children. Cruising spots and porno shops make that list in my book. That's as true for heterosexual parents as it is for gay parents.

That's Stefanowicz's truth, and she has a right to it. But she doesn't have a right to project her truth on every other gay family; to make her reality our reality. It's like people who claim that every gay man is homosexual because he was molested as a child, and those who say they weren't probably haven't come to terms with it yet.

Stefanowicz can say "the child is not the central focus in these relationships," and maybe that's true in families where a gay man is unhappily married to a heterosexual woman. But in our family, most days both parents are at home, we have a family dinner, and spend time with the kids until they go to bed. Then the hubby and I may fold laundry together, catch up on housework, or maybe just sit on the couch and watch television together. Our weekends pretty much revolve around the kids, mostly activities for Parker; swimming lessons, bike rides, birthday parties, etc. Our kids don't even know what a cruise spot or porno shop is.

That's true of every gay family I know, and probably true of most kids with gay parents. Stefanowicz, though, is very narrow sample all by herself. As Dana pointed out, Abigail Garner, who wrote Families Like Mine: Children of Gay Parents Tell It Like It Is, is a good counterbalance to Stefanowicz, because she writes in absolute support of LGBT parents, without glossing over the challenges our families face.

Those challenges — and, really, what family doesn't face some challenges — are more easily overcome because most kids with gay parents today, unlike Stefanowicz, are growing up with parents who are out. They're growing up with parents who, because they're out, are more likely to be in happy, healthy relationships than if they were married to heterosexual spouses. They're growing up with parents who, because they are out, are able to build communities that can support and be resources for their families and their children.

Our families are not Stefanowicz's family, and her family is not ours. Stefanowicz may have grown up confused, and when it comes to gay families she's definitely confused. She's confused her truth for ours.

But the answer is right there in the Times article, in the couple of paragraphs given to the PFLAG spokesperson.

Research shows that same-sex couples are just as successful in parenting as heterosexual couples, said Steve Ralls, spokesman for Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians & Gays (PFLAG) in Northwest.

"Their children are healthy. Their children are happy," Mr. Ralls said. "There is no evidence in the research to support a general claim that same-sex couples cannot raise children. In fact, exactly the opposite is true. There are many children who grow up in heterosexual households who are abused and unhappy. We won't use those cases to say that heterosexual parents wouldn't make good parents. We shouldn't apply that here."

But Stefanowicz does. And an "advocate for families and children on the issues of marriage, parenting, sexuality and education," and "a resource for family policy, legislative, medical, research and scholastic organizations," Ms. Stefanowicz works overtime to spread her confusion to everyone else.

And so, I have to care, at least enough to counter arguments like hers.

Crossposted from The Republic of T.


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If society viewed gay marriage as commonplace, no one would feel the need to justify the existence of gay families. If society gave GLBT people the same legal rights as heterosexuals, this might not be an issue. It is only when society changes their views and sees ALL families as having the right to exist, then attitudes will (hopefully) change. I pray that day comes in my lifetime!

Terrance, your son is obviously a lucky boy to have you as a parent!!!!

It is interesting that he's dead and therefore can't respond to any of this. Interesting and convenient for her (and, no, I wouldn't put anything past people like these).

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | May 12, 2008 1:41 PM

In Chicago, I saw hetero parents teaching their children to run drugs in 2002. Pretty little girls in frilly dresses were the go betweens between parents and customers. Sad exploitive things do happen to children. I think the answer is to care about every child. I cannot discount the personal hell this woman lived through, but she only knows reality as she saw it, and came to her conclusions independently.

Keep doing good Terrance!