MY PARTNER, LINDA, and I had an unexpected revelation about childrearing three months after our daughter Helen was born: if you can’t feed your baby, she’ll hate you.
When my maternity leave ended and I returned to work, Linda left her job to stay home with Helen. Our three-month-old was accustomed to nursing and wanted nothing to do with a bottle. So she went on a nine-day strike during which she would eat only when I was with her. Linda was miserable and wanted to go back to work. I was miserable and wanted to come back home. Helen was just plain miserable. But we stuck it out, and now our five-month-old will happily take her nourishment from a bottle as easily as she will from me. More important, now she’s just as attached to Linda as she is to me. Maybe we should have anticipated Helen’s huge protest, but we didn’t. After all, we’re both mothers. We both expected to tend to our baby in a primary-caretaker kind of way.
The experience led to a second revelation: no wonder most fathers are so hands-off with their newborn infants. Their babies hate them!
Our conclusion? Two moms are better than one.
My sister Deborah, who is an authority on all things concerning motherhood (though her expertise goes unrecognized beyond the confines of our sprawling Irish-Catholic family), is with us on the benefits of two-mom parenting. A few years ago, a study came out reporting that lesbian couples make better parents than straight couples. I immediately called Deborah, who is married to a man with whom she has three children, to hear what she thought. "Of course lesbians make better parents," she said. "They’re women."
None of this is to say that men can’t parent like women. We know several who actually do. With one exception, they’re all gay.
Now, I find it hard to believe that Linda, my sister, and I are the only people ever to have observed that lesbians make great parents. (Actually, we’re not. In "Nobody Does It Better," a hilarious October 5, 2000, essay for Salon, Hank Pellissier, a straight dad and a donor for the child of a lesbian couple, explains why "gays make the best parents." You can read it at www.salon.com/mwt/feature/2000/10/05/gay_parents/.) But you’d think we (and Pellissier) were the only ones who have noticed, given the nonsense prompted by Nickelodeon’s decision last month to air My Family Is Different, a news special hosted by Linda Ellerbee about children with gay parents. In the show (and the national hoopla surrounding it), no one considered what children stand to gain from having gay parents. Instead, the "discussion" gave significant weight to conservative religious diktats about homosexuality. And as a result, the middle ground on this issue was skewed to the right. While interviewing Ellerbee on the Today show, for example, Katie Couric said: "Well, some people just have issues with the gay lifestyle.... They don’t feel comfortable. Some people, for religious reasons, object to it." The New Republic’s Michelle Cottle pronounced the idea of gay men and lesbians parenting children just as "controversial" as partial-birth abortion and human cloning. Don’t forget, these are moderates speaking.
THE NICKELODEON special was the first of three shows about "different" families to be hosted and produced by Ellerbee. The others will tackle families headed by one parent and families dealing with racial issues. It was the 37th special produced by Ellerbee for the network. In other "Nick News" shows, she’s dealt with the September 11 terrorist attacks, guns in schools, and the Bill Clinton–Monica Lewinsky contretremps (for which she won a Peabody Award).
The gay-parenting special was the first of her shows I’d ever seen. Guessing from the ratings generated by the program (nearly one million viewers aged 18 to 49 tuned in, setting a record for the Nick News specials), it was the first of Ellerbee’s shows to be seen by hundreds of thousands of others, as well. Of course, high ratings were guaranteed after the Traditional Values Coalition (TVC) organized a protest against the network for airing the show. The group whipped its faithful into a frenzy with direct-mail appeals that said, "Nickelodeon leaders must get the message that they should not be promoting sodomy to children!" The campaign generated more than 100,000 phone calls, faxes, and e-mails to the children’s network, which had to set up a separate server to handle the increased e-mail traffic. (I wonder how many of these fundamentalists, upset that Nickelodeon would air a program dealing with homosexuality, let their own kids watch the network? After all, one of its most popular offerings is SpongeBob SquarePants, which chronicles the adventures of a cartoon character who lives in a pineapple under the sea — a scenario that surely has more in common with any number of pagan cults than with biblical scripture.)
But despite the build-up and large viewership, the show was boring. That was all but guaranteed by its stated purpose, as expressed in a Nickelodeon press release, to look at the "day-to-day lives of these families" as well as "voice the concerns of those who disapprove of gay parenting." Now, a show on the daily realities of gay parenting could be interesting. Especially if it provided insight into something apparently noticed only by me, Linda, my sister, and Hank Pellissier: that your average gay and lesbian couples seem to work more cooperatively in taking responsibility for their kids than your average heterosexual couples do.
Instead, viewers were subjected to the fake "balance" we’ve become accustomed to whenever homosexuality is discussed in this country: on one side, gay people (and now their children) talking about their victimization. On the other, fundamentalist right-wing homophobes. The adult line-up included Rosie O’Donnell; a gay New York firefighter who’s the father of three children; an openly gay school principal from Minnesota; a policy analyst from the liberal Human Rights Campaign; a policy analyst from the conservative Culture and Family Institute; and Jerry Falwell. As for the kids on the show, three were from families headed by gay or lesbian parents, and six were from families headed by conservative religious types who believe homosexuality is a sin.
The program’s set-up, based on cheap, outworn culture-war clichŽs — and yet cast in a tone where each side tried to outdo the other in the reasonableness department — made it impossible for anyone to say anything even mildly interesting. The kids of gay parents talked about how they get teased by other kids. The kids of the conservative religious types said they believed the best way for a child to be raised is with a father and a mother. I watched and thought: I am so glad my daughter and all my nieces and nephews are too young to watch this crap.
WHAT IS IT about the idea of lesbians and gay men raising children that makes people so uncomfortable? So much so that we give religious extremists a voice in the discussion? In interview after interview, Ellerbee said that Falwell was included in My Family Is Different for the sake of "balance." Really? It’s balanced reporting to ask a virulently anti-gay right-wing fundamentalist Christian leader to participate in a discussion on gay issues? A man who once warned his followers, with apparent seriousness, that the Teletubby Tinky Winky is gay? A man who, just days after September 11, blamed the terrorist attacks on "the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians"? If that’s balanced reporting, how come the same journalists who give Falwell a platform on homosexuality rarely, if ever, seek out opinions from racist extremists on the topic of affirmative action?
The controversy over Nickelodeon’s program was not generated by America’s vast mainstream. It was kicked up by religious extremists with an anti-gay agenda. The TVC is a hate group dedicated to spreading lies about homosexuality. It sponsors a "Homosexual Urban Legend" site at www.traditionalvalues.org/urban designed to, in the group’s own words, "provide reporters, editors, and other opinion leaders with accurate information on the relationship between homosexuality and the molestation of children." Some of the information dispensed here? "Homosexuals seldom openly admit that they want to sexually assault children, but their literature and their actions tell another story." The group dismisses studies showing that most of the sexual abuse of children in this country is perpetrated by the kids’ own (presumably heterosexual) fathers or stepfathers by noting that "[s]ince 98-99% of the population is heterosexual, it is technically correct to say that most molestations are done by heterosexuals." Huh?
There is a crisis of parenting in this country. In 1999, the last year for which statistics are available, 826,000 children were abused seriously enough to involve a child-protective-service agency, according to the National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information, a federally funded group. Of those, 171,000 were placed in foster homes. And 1100 died as a result of the abuse.
In this context, it is absurd to say that gay parenting is a "controversial" notion. Rosie O’Donnell came out during a March interview with Diane Sawyer on Primetime in order to publicize the plight of a 14-year-old, formerly HIV-positive Florida foster child who’s been raised from birth by a gay male couple. Since the boy no longer tests positive for HIV, the state of Florida, which prohibits gay people from adopting (while accepting them as foster parents), would like to place him with a heterosexual couple. Even Bill O’Reilly, conservative host of Fox News Channel’s The O’Reilly Factor, thinks this is pure lunacy. Just days after O’Donnell’s interview with Sawyer, O’Reilly interviewed Florida state legislator Randy Ball, who appeared on Primetime to defend Florida’s adoption law. Referring to five-year-old Florida foster child Rilya Wilson (who child-welfare officials only recently learned had been missing from her grandmother’s home for more than a year), O’Reilly said, "Mr. Ball, you’re going to sit there and tell me that’s a better situation for that little girl than two mature, responsible homosexuals who want to give this girl a home?"
As O’Donnell put it: "[I]f you think heterosexuals make better parents than homosexuals, I have 500,000 pieces of evidence to show you that heterosexuals are not always great parents. Virtually all of the children who are in foster care were taken out of heterosexual homes."
Yet the TVC cries sodomy when a children’s television network talks about gays raising children, and suddenly CNN is running an interactive poll on how people feel about gay parents? To paraphrase a song from Sesame Street: what’s wrong with this picture?
What’s ironic about this issue is that we all — from Falwell to My Family Is Different’s openly gay firefighter, both of whom are fathers of three — want what’s best for our children. Part of smoothing the way for your child, if you’re a gay parent, is to teach ways of dealing with homophobia. This isn’t sad. Or tragic. Or reason enough to say that gay people shouldn’t bring children into the world with that burden. It’s just life. African-American parents teach their children how to handle racism. Jewish parents help their children with anti-Semitism.
Our commonalities. Our differences. Our pride in who we are and where we came from. These are the kinds of things we should be talking about when we talk about parents who happen to be gay.
Susan Ryan-Vollmar can be reached at svollmar[a]phx.com