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Out of the Closet: Raising Kids in Gay Families

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While it is becoming more commonplace for gay and lesbian individuals to raise children, finding community support isn't so easy. Here is one couple's story.

Gina Kaysen Fernandes: Vicky* remembers the moment she first held her adopted baby in her arms. "He was destined for us. There was never a doubt in my mind that he wasn't mine," says Vicky, who, along with her partner, Beth*, is raising a 6-year-old boy they adopted from Guatemala. Parenthood didn't come easily for the couple. They struggled with infertility problems and then took a tremendous risk by adopting internationally, which is illegal for an openly gay couple. But once the tumultuous adoption process was finalized, this non-traditional family continued living a very ordinary, suburban life. "It's just like any other family structure," says Brett Berk, M.S., a child development expert and author of The Gay Uncle's Guide to Parenting. In his experience, there's no lack of love in these households. "With gay parents, there's an intentionality about the desire to have a child. Kids do better if they're loved and wanted," Berk said.

lesbian parents

The novelty is fading for gays and lesbians who choose to raise children. The miracles of modern medicine allow same-sex couples to reproduce through artificial insemination or surrogacy. And more same-sex couples are adopting babies as a growing number of states relax adoption policies. An estimated 6 to 14 million children have either two mommies or two daddies. More than 65,000 adopted kids are living with a gay or lesbian parent in the U.S.

"If there was a man in the house, Diego* would probably use the boys' public restroom more often," jokes Vicky, who believes her son is very well-adjusted, despite not living with a father figure. Diego has a close relationship with his grandfather and "definitely connects with men," Vicky says. She and her partner speak openly with Diego about their relationship. "I don't have any hang-ups about talking to him about sex."

The biggest challenge is teaching kids about the concept of family and all the different configurations it can take. "The real conversation becomes about love and teaching that whoever we love is okay," says Michelle Golland, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in marriage and relationships. "If they're raised in a house that teaches tolerance, compassion, and acceptance, these kids will fare far better in the world," Golland adds.

But the world isn't always as accepting. Vicky and Beth felt some negative vibes from other parents when they lived on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon. The mother of one of Diego's classmates refused to have playdates. "I definitely felt like one of the Latina moms wouldn't connect with us, which was disappointing because I want Diego to connect with other Latino kids," Vicky says. Accepting that intolerance exists can be a painful lesson for kids. "You need to make a commitment to find a more tolerant, loving community. Be very cautious where you place yourself," Golland warns.

Diego and his moms eventually moved to Portland, where they've met new friends "who have been overwhelmingly supportive," Vicky says. Although people living in urban areas are considered more accepting of diversity, gay families are becoming the norm even in rural and suburban communities across the country. "You have to be up-front and honest and see how things fall out. Oftentimes they have to be the ones to educate their community," Berk says.

While celebrities like Melissa Etheridge and Rosie O'Donnell have become the poster moms for gay families, many people still have misconceptions about what it means to raise a child in a same-sex household. Conservative Christian groups, such as Focus on the Family, cite social-science studies that support beliefs that "children raised in a stable, married, heterosexual home do better than children raised in any other type of household. They are healthier physically and emotionally, do better academically, experience less poverty and commit fewer crimes" -- although there are no credible studies or facts that support that position. There's also no research that suggests children raised by gay parents are more likely to become homosexuals. "They may become more accepting of gay people and have a better understanding of sexuality, which I think is a plus," Berk says. There's also no evidence that gay fathers are more likely to molest their children. "That's just ignorant -- it goes against everything we know in terms of the psychology of pedophiles," Golland says. In fact, statistics show that 95 percent of all sexual abuse cases are committed by heterosexual men against young girls.

Homophobia is the driving force behind an ongoing legal battle over gay adoption in Florida. The future remains murky for two half-brothers who want to be adopted by their gay foster fathers who have raised them since 2004. The case is now in the hands of an appeals court. Florida is the only state that excludes all gays and lesbians from adopting, yet allows same-sex couples to be foster parents.

Kids can start learning about different family structures as young as 3 years old. "Some people might think that's pushing an agenda, but we're just being honest about normal sexuality," Berk says. It's important that gay parents communicate with their child's teacher "to help bridge the home-school divide," suggests Berk, who believes educating all children at an early age about family differences will help create understanding and acceptance.

* Names have been changed to protect identity.

next: The Mother Didn't Do It
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