Peggy Drexler Ph.D.

Our Gender, Ourselves

Father’s Day: Same-Sex Parents Are Springing Open Gender Traps

Same-sex parents are helping to overcome traditional sex-role connotations

Posted Jun 07, 2011

The Pope aside, same-sex parents are gaining wider rights and acceptance. Along the way they are helping to make "parenting"--unbound by traditional sex-role connotations--the operative verb in childrearing.

Gay and lesbian couples embody changing ideas about sex and sex roles. They are challenging us all to reevaluate the terms of marriage. Along with single parents raising children, they are also transforming the nature of parenting--and showing how Americans have transcended the gender-based definitions of parenting. We aren't mother or father anymore; we're just parents.

For years now, we've been celebrating fathers who change diapers and mothers who bring home the bacon as well as cook it. Gay marriage has been legitimized in five states and the District of Columbia with more to come in the near future. Obviously this has done much to validate gay relationships, including gay parenting. Now the terms "mother" and "father" are often archaic concepts.

Yes, the terms "mother" and "father" do still usually convey a biological distinction between who inseminates and who gives birth, but the rise of donor insemination and surrogate pregnancies open debate even on that.

Whether we acknowledge it willingly or not, the differing social roles the mother-father nouns once designated are rapidly converging. Certainly, there are still things that fathers undertake more than mothers, such as coaching the boys' soccer teams. Some things often seem to fall more to mothers, such as arranging child care. But each parent can, and does, tend to everything. Single parents have long blazed the way in performing the traditional roles of both mother and father; same-sex parents are pioneers on the same path. In today's America, no matter their gender, and no matter whether they are married or partnered or single, what people do is parent their children.

Parenting Is the Best Job Description

To parent: It's a verb that barely existed a quarter of a century ago. By now, however, with the advent of so many same-sex couples, parenting can be as useful as the verbs "to father" and "to mother."  "To father" refers to the biological function of making a baby; it is the provenance of paternity suits. "Fathering" is also about the social role of being a male who is an active presence in his child's life, performing the once-traditional masculine task of introducing his child into the world beyond the home. "Mothering," on the other hand, bears little genetic import at all; it primarily refers to the social role of caregiver. In our transformed world where men nurture and women behave paternally, "motherhood" and "fatherhood" do not reveal everything about who takes the kids to school or disciplines them, who earns the family income or stays at home, or who comforts children when they cry or who praises them for being brave.

The experiences of gay and lesbian families are providing a valuable instruction manual for parenting beyond gender. Films such as "Daddy and Papa," directed by Johnny Symons, and "He's Having a Baby," directed by Georg Hartmann, dramatize the dimensions of same-sex parenting. Books such as "Gay Dads: A Celebration of Fatherhood," edited by David Strah, and actor B. D. Wong's memoir of his newborn son's life-threatening illness, "Following Foo: (the electronic adventures of The Chestnut Man)," show the challenges and choices made by male couples heading families.

These contributions help us see how, for gays and lesbians, the words "mother" and "father" are barely even linguistic conveniences, much less terms that signify who does what in a family, or who's who. In our neighborhoods, schools, news stories, and what we see with our friends and family about gay and lesbian  parenting show how the task of raising children is rapidly becoming work without ties to traditional sex roles.

Ghost-Busting Old Sex Roles

By virtue of being same-sex parents, lesbian and gay couples are not shadowed by the traditional sex roles that still ghost heterosexual couples and that can harry single parents who can feel their families are deficient because both genders are not represented. When both parents are male, who acts as father? When they are both female, does one parent play daddy? As shown since 1996 in my own studies of two-woman households, homosexual parents have no choice but to roll their own roles--establishing their own responsibilities based on what suits their characters and temperaments, and what's best for their kids.

A gay man can grin and say ironically, "I'm a really good mother," which may mean that he performs the daily child care in his home, but his comment does not define him as a mom. Nor is a lesbian who coaches her son's hockey team a father. Both are just doing what parents do. And they are showing us all that we can raise children who believe a parent can do anything.

Portions of this piece originally appeared on Womens eNews.

Dr. Peggy Drexler  is a research psychologist, an assistant professor of psychology in psychiatry at Weill Medical College of Cornell University, and author of Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family (Rodale). Follow Peggy on Twitter and Facebook.

More Posts