Abigail Garner's thoughtful new book explores the topic from the perspective of grown children of gay parents -- or "queerspawn," as some members of the gay and lesbian communities refer to them. Her findings comprise a sympathetic treatment of a complex subject. More important, Garner brings to light issues that have long been ignored. Families Like Mine addresses a number of concerns faced by children of gay parents, including dealing with divorce and same-sex breakups, the impact of HIV/AIDS on the children, second generation gays and the problems associated with being "culturally queer, erotically straight."
The daughter of a gay man, Garner disputes the progressive view that all children of gay parents are perfectly well-adjusted, happy, normal individuals. Why should these children be any less screwed up than the children of straight parents, she asks. The pressure to be perfect so as not to cast doubts on their parents' qualifications unfairly burdens these children.
Like heterosexual couples, gay and lesbian couples can be dysfunctional or their children may have problems completely unrelated to their parents' sexuality. Yet these children's experiences are often overlooked or denied for fear of adverse effects on the legal rights of an already embattled community.
On the other hand, the evidence is clear that growing up in a "queer" family does not force straight children into becoming gay adults, at least not sexually. The straight children of gay parents may relate better to "gay culture," but this could be the result of a widespread homophobia that creates the need for gay isolation -- or maybe it's just more fun hanging out with gays and lesbians.
But Garner makes an interesting observation: why does it even matter whether the children of gay couples grow up to be straight or not? This obsession, she says, is more about stereotyping and politics than it is about the welfare of the children.
One of the biggest hurdles these children face is the homophobia rampant in the larger culture. As young children, they are often frightened that someone will hurt the person whose job it is to protect them. Later they must endure the taunting of people who know about their family and the insensitive jokes and comments of people who don't know. "Since anti-gay comments are typically about gay individuals, not their children, [the] parents do not always understand that their kids internalize the hurtful words," Garner writes. Therefore, gay parents sometimes ignore the pain that homophobic rhetoric causes their children.
Homophobia is also closely linked to the issue of HIV/AIDS, which has been used as a weapon by opponents of gay parenting. Their reasoning is that gay men are more likely to be infected, thus either leaving their children orphaned or infecting them. This creates a chilling effect on the families of those who are affected, or potentially affected, by the virus. Children of gay men must deal with their fears and concerns in silence.
Families that are affected struggle with the stigma of the disease, feelings of isolation, the demanding medical regime, the financial strain, and the complexities of telling people - "who, when and how."
Basing her conclusions on her own experiences and the testimonies of other adult children of gay parents, Garner has come up with guidelines for gays and lesbians who are raising children. They should, for instance, be aware of how their own prejudices toward heterosexuals may affect their children and be sensitive about the impact of homophobia on their children even when those children are heterosexual. She also encourages parents to talk to their children about HIV and assure them that they are protecting themselves.
In spite of occasional lapses into pedantic prose, Garner's book will be useful to anyone involved in this issue and informative for those who are not. Garner shows us that the children of gay and lesbian parents have much to contribute to the ongoing dialogue about the rights of gay parents. They may also bring a heightened sensitivity to the heterosexual community, and their presence may ultimately make casual "gay bashing" as unacceptable as other forms of bigotry.