Activist daughter defends rights of gay parents

When the public debates the validity of their families, children suffer, author says

Family Matters

October 03, 2004|By Camilla A. Herrera | Camilla A. Herrera,THE STAMFORD ADVOCATE

When Abigail Garner was in eighth grade, she confronted two classmates who repeatedly used the word M-tgayM-v to describe something as M-tuncoolM-v or M-tdumb.M-v M-tOne of them said, M-fWhatM-Fs your problem? Is your brother gay or something?M-F M-v she recalls in her Web site, www.familieslikemine.com, a forum for teen and adult children of gay parents. M-tM-FNo,M-F I responded. M-fMy dad is.M-FM-v It was 1985, Garner remembers, a time she felt so isolated, she believed she was the only one in the world with a gay father.

M-tBeing surrounded by [abusive] jokes on a daily basis hurt me a lot,M-v she adds. M-tWhat hurt even more was that the same teachers who punished students for saying something racist would just ignore anti-gay comments. I knew in my mind that jokes about sexual orientation were just as bad as jokes about skin color or ethnicity, but teachers were setting a bad example. And my classmates followed.M-v

Garner, who was 5 when her mother and father divorced and her father came out, recoiled at the homophobic comments and tasteless jokes. These influenced how little she shared about her father and his partner. She was selective about her friends.

M-tEven so, I worried about how friends would react,M-v she says. M-tI would get so nervous about it that when I would start to say it, I would begin to tremble and my eyes would fill with tears. It was not until I was in college that I could mention it as casually as other information about my life.M-v Garner was 22 the first time she met another person with a gay parent.

M-tI had so many questions for him: Are your mom and dad still in contact? What do you call your dadM-Fs partner? How out was your family when you were growing up?M-v she says. M-tAs a teen, I missed the opportunity to meet other teens with gay and lesbian parents, ... to share experiences and know that I was not the only one.M-v That encounter sparked an activism that is her lifeM-Fs work, explained in her newspaper column, M-tFamilies Like Mine,M-v her book, Families Like Mine: Children of Gay Parents Tell It Like It Is (Harper Collins, $24.95) and her Web site.

In the spotlightM-Fs glare

Garner is among an estimated 10 million daughters and sons of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender parents in the United States. It is a population group getting much attention lately, as increased public debate focuses on legal battles over gay marriage and a call for a constitutional amendment by President Bush to ban it., M-tEvery time I hear any media or political debate about the human rights of people based on sexual orientation, or the validity of gay families, I immediately think of how the sons and daughters are processing this information,M-v says Garner. The current spotlight on gay families, she adds, highlights the homophobia the children face at school and in their communities and that the increased media attention makes it harder for them make sense of it.

M-tThat our families are supposed to wait for other people to decide our rights is so difficult to comprehend,M-v she says. M-tAnd IM-Fm 32. How do you explain that to a 6-year-old?M-v As the political climate heats up toward election, Garner hopes gay and straight parents alike are talking to their children.

M-tI want to continue getting everyone involved to realize that these children are not hypothetical; our families are not to be debated,M-v says Garner. M-tStop asking, M-fWhat if gay people have children?M-F Gay people have children, theyM-Fre here and the children are listening carefully.

M-tAny culture, regardless of faith, teaches us to honor our parents. I wish that that would be remembered when [others] are insulting our families, calling our families immoral, ... and labeling us as damaged.M-v

Skewed expectations

Garner admits that speaking freely can lead to backlash. M-tAnti-gay rhetoric is that gay people should not have children, that those children will be damaged and confused,M-v she explains. M-tGay activists are more comfortable with presenting a ... positive image of the perfect gay family. Both myths are oppressive to the children in gay families. One causes people to pity us and the other causes people to expect superhuman results.M-v

M-tThe fear in many gay-parent communities is that evidence of what is called M-fsecond generationM-F will then be used as so-called proof that gay parents are recruiting their children to be gay,M-v she explains. M-tThe cost of this concern is that parents feel pressured to emphasize how many of their kids are heterosexual. This sends an implicit message to stay in the closet.M-v Heterosexual children, on the other hand, might become more sexually active in a misguided attempt to prove that they are straight. In many cases, the homophobia faced by children of gay parents also causes them to keep their family in the closet, she says.

The Stamford Advocate is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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