Currently, gay rights activists seek tolerance and social justice for gay and lesbian people. Gay men and lesbians are fighting for legislation that, among other things, gives them legal protection from discrimination, grants them the right to legally marry and adopt children, and enables them to pursue hate crime prosecution against those who commit crimes against them because of their sexual orientation. These important objectives must be vigorously pursued until gays and lesbians have the same rights as all citizens in this country. However, what would it be like if as a society, we went beyond tolerance and fairness and actually recognized and prized the presence and contributions of gays and lesbians?
At a recent talk I gave for staff at a youth residential treatment facility, a participant asked me what the likelihood was that if one twin was gay, the other one would be also. I summarized the available knowledge in this area:
If the twins are monozygotic or identical, and one is gay, the other is more likely to be gay than a sibling who isn't a twin or is a fraternal twin. However, one gay twin does not guarantee that the other will be gay also. Only the luckiest families get TWO gay or lesbian kids."
The nervous surprised laughter that followed indicated how foreign-sounding it was to suggest that gay and lesbian children might actually be desirable
Not too long ago, Greenberg and Bailey wrote a controversial article arguing that, if the technology were available to determine that a child was gay before he or she was born, it would be morally defensible for parents to arrange to abort the fetus. If we really appreciated gay and lesbian people and their contributions, I would argue that such a notion would be irrelevant, preposterous, and such an article, unpublishable. If such technology had been historically available, and parents were able and willing to use it, the world would never have benefited from the contributions of famous gay men and lesbians including, (but certainly not limited to), Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Virginia Woolf, Oscar Wilde, Willa Cather, Alan Turing, and Truman Capote. Moreover we would have lost out on the more current contributions of Congressman Barney Frank's political leadership, Martina Navratilova's superb athletic ability, along with the contributions of Ellen DeGeneres and K.D. Lang to entertainment (again, this incomplete list just scratches the surface). We also would have missed out on the smaller but nonetheless important contributions of less famous gays and lesbians. If, like several tribes of Native Americans, we truly revered the presence and perspectives of gays and lesbians (and transgender people), the idea that parents might wish for two or more gay children, might not seem so surprising or preposterous.
Among the 65 parents of gay and lesbian youth I interviewed for the book: Coming Out, Coming Home: Helping Parents Adjust to a Gay or Lesbian Child (www.comingoutcominghome.com), several parents were eventually able to get to the point where they could see the benefits of having a gay or lesbian child. Some of these parents grew to believe that there were special qualities attributed to their sons and daughters being gay or lesbian that enriched their lives and relationships.
For example, this mother:
He has great taste. (Laughing) And always did! You know what? Looking back I should have known that. He has always been a clotheshorse. That is kind of cool. And he is sensitive. He has always been a sensitive man. He likes the kind of music I like. Some of those things we share. He likes the kind of movies I like... he likes a good love story... we can sit and cry together. That is good stuff.
And this father:
Gay people, transvestites...they're art! I think they have certain skills that the regular population doesn't have, I know that. And it's not limited just to cutting hair. Architects, engineers, designers...There are football players, basketball players, so it's everything and maybe more.
And this mother of a lesbian:
She's very protective of me.
Interviewer: Is she? And you think that's due to her being a lesbian?
Mother: I guess, yeah, because whether you believe it or not, boys have a tendency to protect their mothers.
Interviewer: And the fact that she's boyish makes her protective of you?
Mother: Yeah. With girls and their mothers, you always have that rebellion against each other you know? And with my lesbian daughter I don't have that.
And this mother of a gay son:
You know what? Gay people are nice people! They are very caring about everybody--the human race. I really like that. I like the fact that he is very understanding in most situations, and I think it has to do with that [being gay]. He is non-discriminatory, he just isn't at all. And I think it has to do with that also, and that is very pleasing to me.
Often these reports reflected common, albeit positive stereotypes such as mechanically inclined lesbians and sensitive, creative gay men. Positive stereotypes can be harmful and limiting when we believe people can do no more than what we expect them to be good at. For example, if we assume all gay men are artistic and all lesbians are athletic we might have trouble understanding that a gay man can be professional basketball player (John Amaechi) and that a lesbian can be a talented, highly successful photographer (Annie Lebowitz). Nevertheless, there sometimes seems to be a grain of truth in these stereotypes whereby, for example, gay men are certainly well represented in the fields of fashion. However, sometimes these stereotypical reasons for valuing a gay or lesbian person could be the start of a process of enlightenment that leads to important new perspectives:
As stated by this mother:
You meet a whole new group of people that you might not have met otherwise. I can appreciate that. And I have become more sympathetic to outsiders in general. It is very easy to be smug in life. You do develop a little more generosity toward any kind of racial or oppressed group. ... I mean we got involved through the parent and faculty gay/straight alliance. Then we got involved in the diversity group at our kid's school and stuff... and got involved with all sorts of issues which have to do with race and class. It was kind of very interesting stuff that probably would not have been so interesting to me had I not had a gay son. So I sort of recognize that is the positive thing that has come out of it.
Not surprisingly, all of the kids of the parents quoted in this blog post found that their relationships with their parents grew and improved once parents began to realize the benefits of having a gay or lesbian child. Thus, perhaps parents invoking stereotypes might be understandable and forgivable, particularly if they contribute to positive parent-child interactions and increase people's understanding that gay and lesbian people have important contributions to make to the world.