It has been nearly 20 years since Lesléa Newman’s children’s book Heather Has Two Mommies first brought to light the idea that, contrary to popular belief at the time, children raised by gay parents could lead normal, well-adjusted lives. The book was a revelation for the suburban soccer-mom-and-dad set: Yes, gay families were already living among them, and yes, these families were a lot like their own.
Today, more than a third of lesbians in the United States have given birth, and one in six gay men has fathered or adopted a child. In Portland—which ranks third, after Oakland and Seattle, in the per capita number of female same-sex couples, and eighth in male same-sex couples—19 percent of all same-sex couples are raising children under the age of 18, according to Gary Gates, author of The Gay and Lesbian Atlas, a detailed geographic and demographic portrait of gay and lesbian families in all 50 states. And the numbers continue to rise all over the country, even in regions that are considered more conservative, like the Midwest and the South. Which is perhaps why sociologists are increasingly turning their attention to same-sex parents in order to shed light on the nature of traditional heterosexual parenting.
Could it be, they wonder, that straight parents actually stand to learn something from gay parents? Have gay parents—given their relative freedom from societal expectations and traditional gender roles—been able to construct new, perhaps even improved, models for sharing household labor? Do they have unique ways of communicating in their home lives? And in gay households in which one parent stays home and takes on the domestic duties traditionally assumed by a wife and the other takes on the breadwinning duties historically assumed by the husband, is the dynamic between partners any different than in straight-parent homes?
"Because those gender roles didn’t exist for us, we were able to create a team effort from the get-go."
Such questions are what have prompted researchers like Gates, now a senior research fellow at the University of California at Los Angeles’s Williams Institute, a think tank that conducts research on sexual orientation law and public policy, to begin gathering data in Portland. “Historically, Portland has been seen as gay-friendly and supportive of gay-parent families,” Gates says.
But the data that has been gathered in places like Portland, according to Gates, tends to represent the experiences of mostly “white, upwardly mobile gay couples,” who are better equipped to engage in the expensive process of adoption, surrogacy, or insemination than their counterparts in lower income brackets. Still, Gates says, it’s a start. “Gay people have always had kids, but what has changed is their level of visibility, their willingness to make their personal lives known in a more public fashion.”
To find out how some gay parents in Portland have dealt with the challenges inherent to parenting, I spoke with 12 same-sex couples who are raising children here. Half had adopted traditional family structures—with one parent as breadwinner, the other as stay-at-home caretaker—and the other half, a construct in which both parents work full-time and manage child care and chores together.
None of these couples claimed that they parent better than straight people, nor that they are immune to the typical stresses of maintaining a relationship amid the chaos of child-rearing. But almost all of them indicated that they feel freer—and, in many cases, happier—to assume gender roles in whatever way they see fit, because they are able to make the conscious choice to do so rather than automatically default into them.