At the age of 18, Andy Drouin knew two things: She wanted to live her adult life as a lesbian and she wanted to be a mother. Today, 15 years later, the Halifax resident has achieved her dual dream: She has a committed female partner and a two-year-old son. “We were working on conceiving through donor insemination, when the opportunity to adopt fell into our laps,” she says. “I work full-time, my partner stays at home, and I take our son to swimming lessons. Motherhood and family life are everything we expected.”
Drouin is young enough to have come of age at a time when the barriers to parenthood were starting to break down for same-sex couples. A generation earlier, the choices available to Drouin and her partner would have been unthinkable. Same-sex couples who loved children had to settle on the role of favourite uncle or eccentric godmother. Today, these same couples view parenthood as not only a right but an achievable life path.
And it’s a path that gay parents are no longer willing to pave over with secrecy or silence. When gathering information for this article, I thought I might have trouble locating families to share their stories. On the contrary, I was deluged with responses from parents eager to see their experience reflected in a national magazine. And that experience, as I discovered, includes all the everyday joys and frustrations of family life as well as a sharp awareness of the barriers that remain to be toppled.
According to Katherine Arnup, director of the Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, this extroverted enthusiasm is the culmination of a sea change that began in the late 1970s, when conventionally married, closeted parents started to “come out,” dissolve their marriages and expose their children to the new same-sex unions they were forming. “But the stigma was still huge,” she says. The author of the first published Canadian article about custody and lesbian parents, Arnup says the initial cases met with brick-wall resistance in the courts. By the 1980s, however, “judges began to acknowledge the existence of the ‘good lesbian mother’ — the one with the car, dog and picket fence — and the barriers to custody began to crumble.”
At the same time, reproductive technology was gaining in sophistication, with procedures such as in vitro fertilization (IVF) yielding increasingly high odds of conception. These advances weren’t lost on lesbian women, who began to pursue donor insemination (DI) as a route to procreation. Social attitudes were also changing, making it easier for single people to adopt and raise children on their own. People in same-sex partnerships still couldn’t legally adopt in Canada — that would come later — but many of them got around the constraint by adopting as singles, notes Arnup. By the mid-1990s, same-sex parent support groups were springing up all over the country, and the trend had reached a critical mass. “Women led the way, then men started to adopt their own children.”
While still exceptional in some parts of the country, same-sex parenting now raises relatively few eyebrows in major Canadian cities, and many social commentators believe the “gayby boom” is here to stay. Data from the 2001 Census — the first to inquire about same-sex partnerships — found that 15 percent of the country’s 15,000 lesbian couples and three percent of its 19,000 gay male couples were living with children. A considerably larger number of Canadian children — between 100,000 and 900,000 children, by one estimate — have at least one homosexual parent.
Quests and Hurdles
For all their gains, same-sex parents do face their share of opposition. Not content to simply rail against the status quo, many of the parents I interviewed sought to change it. They talked to principals to have traditional language on school forms (“mother’s name, father’s name”) amended to more inclusive language (“parent 1, parent 2”). They wrote letters to the editor to sensitize their community to homophobia in the print media. Some of them, like Mona Greenbaum of Montreal, even took on the law.
When Greenbaum gave birth to her two sons through DI, her long-time partner and co-parent had no legal claim on the kids, a fact that disturbed them both. “What would have happened if there was a medical emergency and I was unavailable to sign an authorization form?” she asks. The couple met with the Quebec minister of justice to argue their case — successfully, as it turned out. “We no longer have to go to court to adopt our own children,” says Greenbaum. “Now the birth certificate of children like ours has the names of both same-sex parents on it. It’s one of the most progressive laws of its kind.” Ontario and BC have enacted similar laws.
Imbalances persist, however. Adoption agencies in many foreign countries, China being a notable example, still don’t do business with same-sex couples. Even in Canada, where adoption by same-sex couples has been legal since 2001, “same-sex couples may be at a disadvantage when dealing with agencies specializing in open adoption, because it’s up to the biological parents to decide if they wish to consider such couples,” says Anne Carin, clinical director of Choices Adoption and Counselling Services in Victoria. As a result, “same-sex couples seeking open adoption often go to the US.”
While fertility clinics now accept gay couples as a matter of course, some activists have argued that clinics specializing in the treatment of “infertile” couples discriminate against fertile homosexuals. And with the recent passing of Bill C-6, with its ban on the exchange of eggs and sperm for money, would-be gay parents fear that fertile Canadians will have less incentive to part with their gametes. The resulting scarcity, in turn, might drive some gay parents to deal in the international black market.
This threat notwithstanding, DI remains a popular route to parenthood for lesbian couples in Canada. For the most part, these couples have no trouble deciding who gets to bear the child. “It just seemed to work out,” says Greenbaum, echoing the sentiments of all DI parents I spoke to. “I wanted the experience of being pregnant, and my partner wasn’t quite as keen. There was no envy or wistfulness on her part.”
To Tell or Not to Tell
With very few exceptions, gay parents maintain that sexual orientation has nothing to do with the nuts and bolts of parenthood. “I’m a boring suburban hockey mom who goes to Price Chopper,” is how one lesbian mother put it to me. “I diaper, therefore I am,” joked another. But there’s one dilemma that confronts gay parents but not their heterosexual counterparts: Whom do you tell, and when, and how?
As it turns out, disclosure appears to be less of a hot button than I’d supposed. All the gay parents I interviewed disclosed their status, without deliberation or delay, to all parties with a high stake in their children’s lives: doctors, daycare providers, schoolteachers, even church. As for the rest of the world — the camp counsellor, classmate or curious bystander — many parents dispensed with explanations and let their actions speak for themselves.
Mona Greenbaum speaks for many when she says, “We’ve been open with everyone and have had nothing but support from all generations in my community and family.” Greenbaum concedes that she and her partner didn’t choose their community arbitrarily. “We live in an up-and-coming, culturally varied neighbourhood, and my older son’s school has many kids being raised by single parents, two moms, grandparents or other relatives.” In moving to Old Chelsea, Que. — a.k.a. the “Swish Alps” — Terry Brynaert, the foster-father of two young boys whom he and his partner plan to adopt, made a similar choice. “Part of the reason we gay parents are such survivors is that we use our antennae to put ourselves in good situations,” he reflects.
Opposition to Brynaert’s way of life certainly does exist in Canada, though on a smaller scale than in the United States, says Anne-Marie Ambert, a professor of sociology at York University in Toronto and author of books and articles including, “Same-Sex Couples and Same-Sex-Parent Families: Relationships, Parenting and Issues of Marriage.” According to Ambert, significantly fewer Canadians oppose gay marriage than the 30 to 50 percent who oppose it in the US. It comes as little surprise that “gay parents self-select regions of the country where their kids will be accepted, and avoid monocultural or very conservative communities,” Ambert says.
What gay parents cannot select are their own parents, some of whom disapprove of their children’s way of life. Even so, when dogma collides with personal experience — especially when children are involved — many grandparents find themselves reaching for new levels of tolerance. Tracy Campbell of Toronto, who grew up in a born-again Christian household, says her mother didn’t talk to her for a year after she left her heterosexual marriage, with a newborn and two other kids in tow, and came out as a lesbian. “She didn’t even want to see me at Christmas,” Campbell recalls. “Then she landed in the hospital with heart failure and realized she didn’t want to cut me and my kids out of her life.” Today, “my mother, partner and three kids spend Christmas at my sister’s house. We’ve come full circle.”
Growing up “Gayby”
The Canadian Psychological Association, a body representing 5,300 psychologists and psychology students across Canada, has stated that children raised by same-sex parents aren’t worse off psychologically than other children — a pivotal stamp of approval that validated what the gay community had been saying all along. REAL Women of Canada begs to differ. When the group appeared before the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights studying same-sex unions in February 2003, it argued that “[heterosexual] marriage provides the crucible for the socialization and raising of children” and that most studies of children growing up in same-sex households were marred by “flawed methodology.”
Methodology aside, Ambert says the results of such studies necessarily depend on the wider social climate. “If society disapproves of these kids, they suffer psychologically. If society accepts or welcomes them, they do fine,” she says. To some extent, “society’s views about such children become self-fulfilling.” That said, Ambert maintains that “the great majority of studies show that kids raised in same-sex households do no worse than any other kids, and may even have an advantage in terms of sensitivity and tolerance of diversity.”
If nothing else, children conceived or adopted by same-sex parents are always wanted: By definition, they cannot be “accidents.” Fiona Nelson, director of the women’s studies program at the University of Calgary and the author of the book Lesbian Motherhood: An Exploration of Canadian Lesbian Families, has researched the psychological investment of lesbian mothers in children conceived through DI, and found that “both women have equally strong feelings toward the child, regardless of which one conceived it.”
Taking the conception issue to a new level of egalitarianism, Jack Cormorant, a physician who makes his home on Vancouver Island, and his partner mixed their sperm together before having it injected into the woman who had agreed to bear their children. (Cormorant is a pseudonym; as a busy doctor in a sparsely populated area, he chose to keep the details of his personal life off the public record.) Two inseminations later, they have a toddler and infant son to call their own. “It didn’t matter to us who would be the bio-dad,” Cormorant explains. “We love our kids just the same, though we sometimes have fun trying to figure out if they have my ears or my partner’s.”
While Cormorant’s kids are too young to question their family configuration, Greenbaum’s children are aware that most families don’t have two mothers. “But they’ve never doubted the validity of the arrangement because it’s all they’ve ever known,” she says. “They did ask us why we couldn’t get married, which we explained to them, and now that it’s possible in Quebec they want to be ring bearers.”
And what about exposure to opposite-sex role models? It’s one of the most common questions gay parents have to field. Mark McGovern, a gay father of three children (born of a previous heterosexual marriage) in Saint John, NB, gives voice to a common sentiment when he says, “We don’t make a conscious attempt to expose our kids to female role models because it happens naturally in the course of life. And positive role models come in all ages, sizes, races and sexual orientations.” By the same token, McGovern doesn’t concern himself with his kids’ ultimate sexual orientation, though he’s aware of the research suggesting they’re no more likely to turn out gay than any other children. “They will be who they are, and I’ll accept them.”
What does concern McGovern, and most gay parents I talked to, is the way their children’s home and school lives fit together. Rachel Epstein, coordinator of the LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgendered) Parenting Network of the Family Services Association of Toronto, says a series of focus groups conducted by her organization identified school as the number-one concern for gay parents. “They worry about name-calling in the schoolyard or heterosexist assumptions in the curriculum,” she says. Adds McGovern: “My sense is that homophobia is more of a problem for boys than for girls [brought up in same-sex families].”
His oldest child being a son — and a teenager to boot — McGovern says he keeps a keen watch for any signs of peer taunting. “So far there’s been nothing, even though we’ve taken no steps to hide our family life,” he says. “We often have his friends over for sleepovers.” When McGovern took his son’s basketball team on a road trip, he did overhear the odd that’s so gay in the bus, but “I realize it’s a generic term for many high school kids and wasn’t directed against Tommy, so I didn’t call them on it.”
Tommy, for his part, expresses no discernible angst about the lifestyle he has come to know. “Sure, it was a surprise when I first found out about my dad,” he says, “but not a surprise in a bad sense — just something to get used to.” As for now, “life is just normal,” he maintains. Yes, most of his friends know the score, and no, they don’t have a problem with it. Not even the odd snide remark? “There’s been nothing at all so far, and I don’t worry about it.”
Should peers ever give him a hard time in the future, McGovern has advised his son to “tell them to get lost with as much humour as possible.” But he feels confident it won’t happen often. “Yes, discrimination against gay parenting exists, but it’s often on an institutional level. I’ve found that when you bring it home, it changes people.”
Info and resources
The Gay Baby Boom: The Psychology of Gay Parenthood by Suzanne M. Johnson and Elizabeth O’Connor (New York University Press, 2002) Written by two developmental psychologists, this book reports on the findings of the Gay and Lesbian Family Study, a large-scale assessment of families headed by gay and lesbian parents.
A Donor Insemination Guide: Written by and for Lesbian Women by Lacy Frazer and Marie Mohler (Alice Street Editions, 2002) A guide to the practical and emotional aspects of donor insemination.
Gay Parent Magazine — With a strong focus on personal stories, this magazine also features news and current events.
2moms2dads.com — A one-stop web resource for lesbian and gay parents and would-be parents, including an extensive links section.
familypride.org — The online arm of the Family Pride Coalition, this site offers links to local and regional gay parent groups across Canada.
proudparenting.com — Chock-full of articles and stories, this site includes a Kids’ Room with reading material relevant to children raised in same-sex families.