Outward

For Many Queer Adults, Parenting Still Isn’t Part of the Picture

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Many queer couples don’t have room for kids.

Pekic/Thinkstock

Hey, Daddy! is a monthly column exploring the joys and struggles of parenting from a gay father’s perspective. Got a topic idea or question for Daddy? Send your letter along to johnculhane19104@gmail.com.

It’s 2017. Why aren’t members of the LGBTQ community having kids in greater numbers? I mean, our neighborhood is crawling with gay and lesbian couples, yet only one other couple besides ourselves are raising children. So much for the “gay-by boom” that some were expecting in the wake of visibility and marriage equality.

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Though the numbers of gay men, bi people, and (more so) lesbians raising children has climbed in recent years, it continues to lag well behind the rates for straight couples. For this month’s column, I spoke to a number of gay men and lesbians whose lives don’t include raising children. I wanted to know how they’d come to their decision, and whether they thought they might one day be open to changing their minds. What does it mean to be LGBTQ, without kids, today? And what might it mean further into the future?

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For those I spoke to now in their 40s and 50s, the decision not to have children seems to have taken root at an early age, as part of a recognition that they weren’t going marry and live a traditional life. Recently, of course, marriage has become a reality for many—but, for the folks I interviewed, becoming a spouse hasn’t brought about a change in how they think about parenting. It’s still not for them.

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John Corvino, 48, is a philosophy professor (and Outward contributor) at Wayne State University in Detroit. His husband, Mark Lock, is 43. Corvino’s early recognition that he didn’t fit in with standard-issue heterosexuality led him first to the priesthood and then into a full embrace of his gay identity. He told me that, while he’d been able to shift his view to one in which he could marry the person he loved, he hadn’t made the same leap when it came to parenting. “I’d made one major change, but not the other.” Why not?

“I always think about default settings,” he told me. For gay men in particular, expanding our families to include children requires “extra steps.” While parenting is just something that “sort of happens” for opposite-sex couples, both adoption and surrogacy require great effort and, therefore, an intentionality born of some amount of self-searching. Or perhaps, as Corvino told me, it’s just too much to overcome the “inertia” of present circumstances.

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But parenting isn’t the only way to be generative. Corvino and Lock’s relationships with their four nieces and nephew are uncommonly deep. While Lock’s family is nearby, Corvino’s sister and her kids are a plane trip away—yet the couple makes the trip several times every year. And they’ve created college funds for this next generation, too. Corvino has even dedicated his new book, Debating Religious Liberty and Discrimination, to the five of them.

Of course, Corvino’s occupation—a college philosophy professor—also gives him plenty of contact with younger people. I also spoke to a college biology professor and a high school music teacher, who emphasized the importance they attached to the mentoring, sometimes shading into surrogate parenting, of so many young people. (Both requested anonymity out of respect for their partners’ greater privacy concerns, so I’m using pseudonyms.)

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The music teacher, Peter, and his partner, Jeff, both 34, have been together since they were in college. Despite being young enough to have imagined a “gay life” for themselves, their identity owes something to an older, perhaps less-coupled idea of gay. They own a (suitably fabulous) home together, but aren’t married and don’t completely share finances. And while they’ve got several gay and lesbian friends and neighbors with kids, neither has the least interest in parenting. They’ve got plenty to do with busy careers (Jeff is an architect who often works crazy hours), and don’t feel the need to try to fit parenting into the schedule. I had the sense that they’re very unlikely to change their views—but there’s still time, of course. What matters to 30-somethings isn’t always what matters to their older selves.

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The biology professor, Emma, feels as though her time for parenting is about up, and that “makes her sad.” She’s 41, but her partner—who more definitely does not want children—is 51. Of all the people I spoke with, she was the most ambivalent about her life without children. Orphaned at 12 and sent to live with relatives far from home, she didn’t accept her aunt and uncle as “parents,” and has, like Peter, gotten her young person fix through her students.

Yet that very relationship makes Emma realize what’s she missed by coming to the students’ lives at this relatively late stage—as a mentor, advisor, and friend to some. Her view of the parent/child relationship is clearly informed by her background in biology: “There’s an ‘obligate mutualism’ to the relationship,” she offered. Even in the child’s younger years, she said, the dependency goes both ways as the parent relies on the child for emotional content and identity. (She’s right: Go to any playground and marvel at the endless parental chatter about all things “kid.” What happened to the rest of the adults’ lives?) Worry born of her own experience seems a powerful driver of Emma’s decision. “There are parents whose kids move far away, or people who have lost their children—and that seems unrecoverable to me.” Then she added: “I do feel there’s some kind of a lack, but not having kids opens up all these other possibilities in life.”

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One thing teaching doesn’t do is provide someone who can care for us as we grow old and infirm. While Peter didn’t have that in mind, Corvino and Emma were quite direct about this concern. I’ll confess that it’s something that’s occurred to me more than once, though it seems hardly a powerful enough stand-alone reason to bring kids into a family.

I also spoke to a woman in her early 50s (let’s call her Liz) who works for a software company. She’s never wanted children. She’s been in several long-term relationships, and is currently seeing someone she’s known since high school. This new romantic interest has children of her own through a past relationship, but neither woman expects Liz to become a parent to those children. Unlike the others I spoke with, Liz doesn’t teach kids, but has several nieces and one nephew. She told me that she’s more interested in them when they reach their teen years, and her actions reflect that. As one example, she sent her nephew a subscription to the Economist when he was in college, trying to give him a more balanced view of the world than the one he was getting from his conservative parents. Her evil plan succeeded; he’s much more progressive than anyone else in his family.

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Liz is surrounded by kid-raising lesbians, most of whom went through sperm donation—although one couple she’s known for decades has fostered many children over the years, some of whom have serious disabilities. All this exposure to lesbian parents seems only to have affirmed her conviction that parenting wasn’t the best course for her.

In the end, LGBTQ folks do still seem to have different reasons for not becoming parents than our straight counterparts. Even today, our sense of possibility and self, formed early, has proven stubborn to change. And at least for gay men, there’s the additional problem of logistical hurdles to entry.

But some see these hurdles as more easily cleared. A 30-year-old single man, whom I’ll call Charles, sees his identity as a gay man as an invitation to think critically about how he’d like to become a parent. He likes the idea of having a biological child, but only if his future partner can also be biologically involved, at least in some way. (For instance, if there were a sister willing to donate an egg.) Absent that complex connection, he’d rather adopt. The son of Haitian immigrants, Charles was lucky enough to be raised by parents who sensed their son’s gay identity when he was young, and they’ve been supportive of him from the start—perhaps because of that, no possible route seems to him out of the question.

The future of queer parenting will depend on a mix of evolving legal paradigms and social norms, and even, perhaps, on technological advances. Of course, in all cases, the decision to parent is monumental and transformative; but for LGBTQ people there’s an added layer of complexity that will likely always keep it a decision reached after careful consideration, rather than an expectation fulfilled or denied.

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