Can women ‘father’ and men ‘mother’

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In today’s contemporary society, we now find ourselves being confronted and having to both readily and reluctantly acknowledge the reality and emergence of increasing diverse familial set-ups. For although we have begun to recognise that homosexuals and lesbians now play a prominent role in fatherhood and motherhood, continuing controversy and suspicion surrounds these alternative egalitarian relationships.

Regrettably systematic homophobic prejudices lay embedded within religious and political bodies alike, which continue to condemn and oppose lesbian and homosexual parenting in their struggle to re-establish the heterosexual institutional ideology of the ‘traditional family’. But given the diverse nature of familial types which are prevalent within our society: fostered, adopted, step, lone parents etc., which are seen to be replacing the so-called ‘traditional family’ (nuclear) ideal (see Sullivan, 1997).

What supporting evidence, if any, exists to corroborate with the opposing religious and political institutions that non-heterosexual parents make less desirable role models than heterosexuals, bearing in mind that domestic violence, and both physical and sexual abuse occurs within heterosexual families?

Therefore the apparent issue in contention, would seem to be determinant upon one’s sexual identity in relation to what constitutes acceptable parental role models, together with the institutional enforcement of traditional hegemonic norms and values. For gender theorist’s homosexual and lesbian sexual identities are entrenched in essentialism (De Cecco and Parker, 1995), for essentialism is the belief that sexuality and/or gender are determined by features of an individual’s biology or psychology. Whilst in the opposing corner social constructionists rejected these essentialist theories, on the grounds that the homo/hetero and male/female distinctions are themselves cultural constructs subject to constant changes, and that lesbians and homosexuals were the result of historical, cultural and political milieu (Kitzinger, 1987).

Within the essentialist argument, the fundamental issue, which represents the very foundation and stability of our society, is the continued existence of the ‘traditional family’. Which in its familial form is entirely heterosexual in nature, and fails to neither recognise nor accept any non-heterosexual familial forms.

The ‘family’ is a stereotypically patriarchal institution, and its staunch supporters are namely conservative religious and political institutions who condemn the very idea of homosexual and lesbian parenting. The religious argument is that homosexuality and lesbianism is sinful, perverse and unnatural, and that heterosexual conception and child rearing form the grounds of Christian principles.

Therefore lesbian and homosexual parenting is seen as “an insult to nature”, especially when lesbian and homosexuals use joint parenting and donor insemination, for the vagina is “designed” for a penis (Braun & Wilkinson, in press). Therefore the only natural and moral way to have and raise a child is within a heterosexual relationship. For gay parenting is seen as a direct threat to family life, for it not only challenges the biological naturalness of the family. But also attempts to disrupt the “natural order” of our society by affecting the reproduction (decline in birth rate) of our future society, which can be seen to undermine patriarchal authority. For these opposing parties gay parenting should and must be discouraged at all costs, for it is seen to be both detrimental and damaging to the psychological well-being of our children.

As Phillips (1999) argues the presence of men in a heterosexual marriage provides the gender balance which children need, since gay parents cannot provide the stability and fidelity which marriage guarantees, and if we were to accept gay parenting, then this would undermine the heterosexual union and be damaging to our children.

Tasker and Golombok (1991, 1983) also supported this ideology by opposing non-heterosexual parenting rights, and argued that gay parents lack the stable relationship that heterosexual marriages guarantees for the lack of balance of male/female role models threatens the psychosexual development and identities of children, together with the isolation or rejection by peers and the emotional/behavioural problems which arise from the general stress of being brought up in such atypical family.

Before prior to and during the late 1980’s in direct response to the homosexual and lesbian parenting outcry voiced by politicians, religious groups and parents alike, new legislative measures were being introduced which were being designed to ‘statutorily fortify’ a sexual hierarchy of families (Cooper and Herman 1995). The following Acts were enacted: Sexual Offences Act 1967 whereupon all homosexual conduct (buggery) was illegal, The Human Fertilisation & Embryology Act 1990 was endorsed to control access to new reproductive technologies (donor insemination), Section 46, Education Act (no. 2) Act 1986, prioritised heterosexuality in sex education and Section 28, of the Local Government Act 1988 condemned pretend family relationships all of which sought to reaffirm heterosexuality as the ‘natural path’ to parenthood.

Children’s sexual identities are also the focus for concern, for children who are brought up by lesbian or homosexual parents will show disturbances in their gender identity (Falk 1989).

It has also been suggested that children themselves will become homosexual or lesbian (Kleber et al., 1986). Consequently for a child to be brought up with either two mothers or two fathers would be confusing, since there would be no alternative sex role models for the child to follow, hence the child would become confused about their sexual identity.

Therefore children need both a mother and father as correct gender/sex role models in order to thrive in our culture, ideally they need to experience unconditional mother/father love where love is committed to the child and its parents. Children’s experiences of role models from each gender not only promotes, but secures a child’s sexual identity. Therefore the child’s concept of self defines the child’s sex role behaviour which society deems appropriate for males/females.

The concern regarding lack of male role models in lesbian families taps into broader fears about “fatherless families” in western societies. Blankenhorn (1995) describes fatherlessness as “the most harmful demographic trend of this generation.”

He argues that lesbian families “seek to deny the importance and even the possibility of any effective fatherhood in our society”. Further stating that the underlying concern is that every child needs a father/mother or a male/female role model so that the child can model maleness/femaleness in order to have a stable and balanced life.

This also presumes that children brought up within lesbian and homosexual families will have negative developmental effects, for example a common concept as Raymond (1992) points out is that “gay parents might produce gay children” or “perhaps could pressure a child into a same sexual orientation, or at the very least confuse a child with their oppositional sexualities”.

In summary, thus to preserve society the traditional moral spectators argue that since children are the centre of family life, the heterosexual union (marriage), the general public will never accord to lesbians and homosexuals in a heterosexual society (Kenny 1990).

In our society families are not just headed by heterosexual parents, but lesbian and homosexual parents alike whom themselves are dedicated, caring and responsible.

But contrary to this belief, both gay parents and their children are often stigmatised, and the subject of unfound societal prejudices because of their sexual orientation that tends to turn the judiciary, legislators, religious bodies and the general public against them which they endure on a daily basis.

Which produces negatives outcomes such as loss of physical custody, restrictions on visitation, and prohibitions against adoption (Falk, 1989). Unfortunately as with all socially stigmatised groups, the beliefs generally held in societies which are held against lesbians and homosexuals are often culturally emitted (Herek, 1991) and not personally experienced. More often than not, stereotypical images of gays as ‘perverts’ and lesbians as ‘man-haters’ remain the dominant cultural interpretation and perception.

But whilst there is increasing support from the general public for increasing the rights of lesbian and homosexual men, as Ellis (2001) points out “few are either willing or bold enough to recognise lesbian and homosexual families”. Since the vast majority of people continue to support the ideologies of the traditional ‘nuclear family’, which is seen to uphold the heterosexual institution of marriage and biological parenthood.

Lesbians and gays challenge the heterosexual argument by arguing who “says that the traditional gender division has to be perpetuated, why cannot men and women be themselves”. Since if we are to accept the differences between gender for our growing children, then why do our children have to come from a heterosexual mother and father? What evidence if any, supports or refutes that parental sexualities influence our children’s gender acquisition?

During the 1980’s studies in the USA and Britain attempted to compare and examine sex-role behaviour of children of lesbian mothers (Golomok et al. 1983, and Hoeffer 1981). Which found no particular differences of children with confused gender identities or sex-role behaviours. Arguments about role models are mainly directed at lesbians because more lesbians than homosexuals are parents. But some opponents argue that we cannot afford to exclude fathers from the family. Therefore parents do not appear to play as significant a role as is commonly held, instead gender identity might have other important influences which is perhaps either biological (inborn) or from the wider society (cultural).

Further studies have also looked at adult children of lesbians and homosexual men which also showed no difference in the proportion of those children who identified themselves as lesbian or homosexual, when compared with children of heterosexual parents (Tasker and Golombrok 1997).

Studies have also looked at lesbian mothers and their interactions with their children and found that lesbian mothers were equally as child orientated, warm and responsive as heterosexual mothers (Gartrell, Banks, Hamilton, Reed, Bishop and Rodas (1999).

In the midst of the sexual revolution the new Labour government began a campaign of equality, firstly by reducing the age of consent for homosexuals inline with heterosexuals, and secondly attempts were made to repel Section 28 in 2000, which unfortunately was unsuccessful in the UK, but was successful in Scotland.

The 1967 Sexual Offences Act although it did not apply in Scotland male homosexual conduct remained illegal until the passing of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 1980. The Children Act 1989 also enables lesbians to protect their status as co-parents. Subsequently campaigns for equal partnership rights as married couples in “civil ceremonies” have also bestowed the same property and inheritance rights as heterosexuals, although gay marriage is still not legally recognised in the UK.

Women who parent a child of a partner either through a previous heterosexual relationship, or though donor insemination (either alone or with a previous lesbian partner) are often referred to as ‘step-mothers’. Whereas women who are the non-biological parents in a relationship with a partner where they have jointly planned, conceived and raised a child are called ‘co-mothers’. In contrast, biological mothers are called ‘birth-mothers’ which can be seen to stigmatise, socially exclude and label lesbians as unnatural.

Akin to lesbian mothers, homosexual fathers may also have children from a previous relationship, and they may also adopt or foster after ‘coming out’. Men who come to parent a child, or a male partner who has had that child in a previous relationship are known as step-fathers, and men who co-parent a child from birth with a male partner who is the biological father of a child are known as co-fathers. Biological fathers who have also chosen to have children with lesbian mothers are also known as a co-parent where they share the role of parenting.

In summary from the areas covered in this discussion studies would indicate that children of lesbian and homosexual parents have normal relationships with their peers, develop individual sexual identities, and adopt appropriate sex-role models.

In conclusion, for advocates of non-heterosexual parenting there appears to be no evidence as such to suggest that lesbians and homosexuals are unfit to be parents, or that the psychosocial development amongst children of homosexuals and lesbians are compromised in any way when compared to children of heterosexual parents.

Therefore it would seem that opponents of lesbian and homosexual parenting constantly refer to arguments concerning the sinfulness and unnaturalness of lesbian and homosexual parenting, stressing upon the negative psychological and social effects of this alternative parenting. Which in effect can be seen to reinforce the heterosexual ‘status quo’ by the continued rejection of diverse post-modern familial types.

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