Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Diverse families: homosexual-headed households

The issue of diverse families and the rhetoric of “family values” with specific reference to homosexual-headed households’ as members of an invisible and stigmatised minority will be addressed in this blog.

In line with the objective of deepening democracy and social justice, the position taken in this blog is that same-sex couples are every much as capable of parenting and should therefore be legally allowed to adopt without facing institutional barriers and societal prejudices.

The contestation prompted by this topic and the power dynamics that shape the debate will be addressed. Through the use of 7 news articles, I will illustrate the various ways in which this topic has been constructed and contested in various contexts. In doing so, I will respond to the contestations surrounding the issue with regards to whose interests are at stake and why the issue has become so contested. I will also go further so as to analyse who benefits from the different constructions of the issue. Thereafter, I will look at who would like to fix or close down the issue through hegemonic discourses. Lastly, I will look at who would like to open up the issue through the creation of new meanings.

The American Society for Reproductive Medicine, the leading voice in reproductive medicine, found “no persuasive evidence that children raised by single parents or by gays or lesbians are harmed or disadvantaged by that fact alone" (Gayparents.co.za, 2009: 1). Jesse Levy, the son of a lesbian couple says that he believes in family values; but that family is about taking care of your children and about respect for each other rather than sexual orientation (Blake, 2009: 2). However, myths like lesbian and gay adults are causing the breakdown of the family continue to circulate (Gayparents.co.za, 2009: 2). Pam Wilson says that children need love, security, acceptance, nurturance and consistent care to develop into productive members of society and that this is best achieved by a child being part of a family (Parent24.com, 2009: 1). Today, the term family can mean so many different things given the prevalence of divorce, death, live-in partners and poverty. So the construction of ‘family’ has changed so much already that it can be argued that there is no such thing as a ‘normal’ family. ‘Normal’ no longer exists, and if so, few families would be able to fit into this category. Hence, there should be space in society to accept same-sex headed households as merely another type of family structure.

This topic engenders major contestation. Homosexual couples as parents are particularly threatening to patriarchy and the idea of the nuclear family as it goes against heteronormative notions of family and religion and goes against stereotypical gender roles. Naturally, homosexual couples cannot conceive. Hence, there are repercussions revolving around the idea of the nuclear family and traditional gender roles. Motherhood is usually equated with notions of pregnancy and birth within a heterosexual marriage. Thus, homosexual parents pose a challenge to the traditional family structure as seen from a heteronormative perspective and provide a different meaning to the idea of the ‘family’. Homosexual parents also challenge norms with relations to ideas revolving around gendering as it assumed that a male is necessarily gendered as a man and a female as a woman. Hence, assumptions linking sex to one particular gendering will find homosexual families as threatening to societal norms as they challenge notions of motherhood and fatherhood.

A major area of contestation is whether it is bad for children to be raised by homosexual parents and the influence this may have on their sexuality. Author, Dale O’Leary states that all children have a natural desire for a parent of each gender (Blake, 2009: 1). She fails to recognise that sex and gender are not one and the same and that one’s sex is not directly correlated with gender as it is socially constructed. O’Leary goes further to say that these children are more likely to experiment with same-sex relationships and that they are more likely to be confused and hurt (Blake, 2009: 1). However, research provided by the American Psychological Association has shown that most kids from same-sex households identify themselves as heterosexual in roughly the same proportion as conventional families (Blake, 2009: 2).

There are various power dynamics that shape this particular debate. For instance, critics of same-sex marriage say people raised in same-sex homes will grow up shunned and sexually confused (Blake, 2009: 1). However, Levey (29), a son of a lesbian couple refers to himself as a “well-adjusted heterosexual whose upbringing is proof that love, not gender, makes a family” (Blake, 2009: 1). Also, children of same-sex couples face assumptions from society regarding their sexual orientation. This is evident of the narrow-minded myths that are of the opinion that sexual orientation can be hereditary or changed. Most of the objections found in the news articles are based on myth and opinion. There proves to be no scientific proof to substantiate that same-sex couples are less capable or incapable of rearing children successfully. The idea that same-sex couples may ‘convert’ children to homosexuality is thrown out by John Money, a psychologist who researched gender and sexuality. He concludes that sexual orientation is fixed at a young age and that a lesbian cannot ‘make’ her child gay (Polikoff, 2009: 7).

The issue of same-sex headed households has been constructed and contested in various ways. From a religious perspective the topic has been contested as it is seen to go against religion. It is also seen as unAfrican by many African people and societies. In terms of South African law, same-sex couples are legally allowed to adopt (Parent24.com, 2009: 1). However, despite the laws, these parents are not protected from social prejudices, and the adoption process is not made easy either. So while there may be theoretical changes in the law, there are still major practical disparities particularly in the social environment in which marginalised people like this find themselves in. Homophobic discrimination is both socially acceptable and politically popular (Polikoff, 2009: 4) as it goes against the interests of dominant members of society; that being heterosexual members.

There are numerous consequences of coming out as homosexual. For instance, there is the strong possibility of social exclusion, family disownment and barriers to equality by law, religion and society. In Denmark, the legislation does not fully equate homosexual unions with heterosexual marriages. It prevents homosexuals from adopting children and terms homosexual unions ‘registered partnerships’ rather than marriages (Abend, 2009: 73). The interests of the children of gay couples are at stake as they may live closeted lives due to society’s refusal to accept their families as “families” due to patriarchal and heterosexist assumptions regarding family. However, some children state that their upbringing actually makes them psychologically stronger (Blake, 2009: 2). Also, due to their invisibility and isolation from mainstream society, these families may decide to live low-profile lives to their detriment and to suit society.

It has been found that problems in same-sex families arise due to divorce, homophobia, and discrimination from peers and politics; not because being homosexual results in bad parenting skills (gayparents.co.za, 2009: 1). Also, problems may arise from difficulties in managing societal pressures. For example, in Cameroon, tabloid papers publicly lashed at gay politicians, musicians and businessmen in a crusade against ‘deviant behaviour’ (Reuters, 2009: 1). So we can imagine the intensity of the situations that these families may find themselves in, and the effect and consequences this may have on their lives and dignities. Gay Kenyan men interviewed by Reuters asked to have their names changed out of fear (Reuters, 2009: 1). Even though their sexuality is a part of their identity they fear expressing it; they fear expressing who they are as the consequences could be damaging due to society’s intolerance of homosexuality. There have even been arguments that homosexual men will sexually abuse boy children. However, evidence shows that the probability is exceptionally higher with heterosexual men involved in close relationships with the child’s mother (Parent24, 2009: 1). Once again we see that arguments against homosexual parents have no scientific basis or proof, but are merely close-minded myths.

If this issue is constructed positively then people being raised in homosexual homes will fit in more easily and comfortably into society. Many adults that have grown up in these environments state that they had strong family values and were raised in loving, caring households (Blake, 2009: 1). However, given the current environments that these families live in, they are not able to express themselves and their lifestyles openly, nor do they have the right to choose how to live. Jeremy argues that there is a variety of traditional African family structures and questions why same-sex relationships cannot be a part of that (Reuters, 2009: 2). We see same-sex marriages occurring amongst African women for support as well as polygamous marriages. If same-sex marriages are constructed in the way Jeremy views it, as just another family structure, then African societies would accept the situation much easier, as an African family structure.

Hegemonic discourses such as religious institutions, the law and constitution in some cases, and society generally seem to be hostile towards civil unions as seen in the news articles. By labelling homosexual unions differently they are given a different significance, a lesser significance than heterosexual couples that enter into a ‘marriage’ rather than a ‘registered partnership’. In Denmark, activists are still working towards achieving adoption rights for same-sex couples as well as towards achieving the right to call their unions ‘marriages’ (Abend, 2009: 74). Dominant groups that fit the status quo would be more interested in closing down the issue as same-sex headed households do not fit the status quo or the ‘norm’ and goes against ideals of family and family values. This exemplifies intolerance towards difference and leads to invisibility of people within society as well as marginalisation and social exclusion. Also, homosexuality has often been seen as originating from the west, as unAfrican. Hence, homosexuality is not only seen as going against religion, law and family values in Africa, but also as an opposition to African culture. Punishments can range from a few years in prison to death (Reuters, 2009: 2). Because religion plays such a major role in shaping public opinion in Africa (Reuters, 2009: 2) we can see why there is such a high intolerance for homosexuality in African contexts.

State social workers, professors, psychologists and researchers have generally been advocates of allowing same-sex couples to be adoptive parents. This is because they have tended to focus on the individual needs of the children and the individualised determination of who makes suitable parents. They have also neglected myths, stereotypes and biases against homosexual people and have rather looked at the issue from a scientific and clinical perspective. It is the ideology and rhetoric that prevails in politics particularly that is less considerate of the lives of real people (Polikoff, 2009: 2).

Jensen states that people should have the lives they want (Abend, 2009: 74). Therefore, new meanings to the idea of what a family constitutes are fundamental in ensuring the visibility and acceptance of same-sex couples and their families. Many children learned that they did not fit the definition of the ‘right’ family and worried how others would react if they found out about their parents (Blake, 2009: 1). So we can see the enormous pressure on these children from society. Generally, it seems that these kids find comfort in their homes and with the situation but fear judgement, pervasive homophobia and taunting from society and peers as well as many questions about their ‘unusual’ upbringing. Therefore, we can see that it is not the issue itself that is detrimental to these children but rather the way society constructs the issue and the repercussions this has for these children.

As illustrated in the above blog, families with homosexual parents face social exclusion from society and often go unrecognised as ‘families’, nor are the partnerships even acknowledged as marriages. Adoption is a difficulty in most contexts and there are many myths about the parents’ sexual orientation being an impact on the sexuality of the children. Religion, law, the constitution and societal prejudices are the main challenges facing these families in their abilities to live their lives ‘normally’. Heteronormative discourses makes no space for the acceptance of such families and therefore these people go invisible in society and tend to be marginalised and outcaste as the ‘others’, as outside the ‘norm’. It is clear that the gendering of parents rather than their sex is what counts in children’s development and that there is no scientific basis to show that homosexual parents are less capable of parenting than heterosexual parents even though it is argued as such. There are still numerous societal prejudices and legal barriers for same-sex couples wishing to adopt even in contexts where same-sex partnerships are legalised. There also appears to be very little to support the social prejudices and resistance that is prevalent among the public. While the social facts and scientific evidence presented in the above essay speaks loudly in favour of same-sex couples wishing to adopt, there is clearly much room for improvement in terms of social attitudes.

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