What Can Society Learn from Gay Fathers?
Compared to fatherhood research in general, there is a paucity of research about gay, bisexual, transgendered and queer (GBTQ) men who become fathers. In fact, gay men have fathered and participated in the raising of children for many years, usually in the context of heterosexual marriage. However most of that experience was invisible. In the past 20 years more gay fathering is taking place in the context of open non-heterosexual identity, including gay men in heterosexual marriages who "come out" and same sex male couples or single men who become parents after coming out.
What's interesting about gay parent couples, from a research standpoint, is that two men are doing all of the caregiving, nurturing, playing, disciplining and teaching of children without the presence of a mother. Therefore, these two-father families negotiate and learn to share parenting roles in the absence of some of the gendered parenting expectations that tend to pull heterosexual mothers and fathers in the direction of "traditional" divisions of child care and housework responsibilities and sometimes lead to marital dissatisfaction (Cowan and Cowan, 1992). Therefore, one thing society might learn from gay fathers is expanded models of egalitarian and even degendered sharing of parental roles.
Some research suggests that gay and lesbian parenting couples have more equal divisions of parenting roles and tasks. One 1993 study, for example, which compared 28 homosexual couples to 27 heterosexual couples, found more equitable divisions of parenting roles in gay couples (MacPherson, 1993).
Another study which was part of the Yeshiva Fatherhood Project, a larger initiative that is looking at the experiences of fathers in a number of different American subcultures, found that some gay fathers are constructing a new parenting belief system, which they see as "degendered parenting, where parental roles are not described by gender" (Schacher et al. 2005). In this qualitative study of 21 men who were openly gay when they became parents, one theme that emerged was that these fathers felt able to take on the parenting roles that suited them rather than assuming assigned roles according to traditional gender role expectations. As one father in the study noted, "It's not about gender. Males and females can be equally mother and father." Another said he felt that two men parenting together had certain advantages in choosing roles because, "you don't have stereotypes to fall back on" (Schacher, 2005).
Research by FIRA's Andrea Doucet, professor of sociology at Carleton University, confirms that fathers with female partners, even those who are primary caregivers in their families, are very much affected by gender-based expectations around the primacy of the mothering role. "My observation is that in most families with mothers and fathers, parenting is a mother-led dance, and most fathers define their parenting in relation to the mother," says Doucet. Gay fathers couples can't do that because, there is no mother to lead the dance (some gay fathers do co-parent with women in various arrangements.).
Schacher and her colleagues proposed that by "degendering parenting, reconceptualizing family, and reworking masculine general roles, gay fathers are expanding role norms in novel ways that may serve as alternative models for all families."
However, this study also found that gay fathers were not completely free from the influence of gendered role expectations. Study participants spoke of being subject to the kinds of subtle (or not so subtle) social pressures that arise from the general societal expectation that looking after children is a female task and that when men do it, they are substituting for Mom. Men reported that when they were out with their children they would often be asked, "Where's mom," or similar questions.
It's interesting to note that in Doucet's study heterosexual stay-home or other primary caregiver fathers reported being subject to similar scrutiny. Stay-home fathers said that when out with their children, people often assumed they were babysitting or, as one man put it, "just tiding things over until... the person who really knew what they were doing would show up" (Doucet, 2006). Gay and stay-home fathers also share the gendered experience of feeling that they have to "prove" that they can provide primary care for children simply because they are not women. As one father in Schacher's study put it, "There's this perception that you have to be a super parent because ... some people think you can't do it." (Schacher, 2005)
Chris Veldhoven, of FIRA's Gay/Bi/Queer Fathers research cluster, encounters similar issues in the parenting classes he conducts for GBQT men who are considering parenthood at Toronto's The 519 Church Community Centre. "Men often start our course feeling that there could be aspects of parenting where they may be inadequate because they've internalized the belief that women are "better" at certain kinds of nurturing or emotional support," Veldhoven notes. To address this Veldhoven developed a group exercise where he asks the men to generate a list of the characteristics of "The Ideal Parent." The group then reviews the list and are asked if they would change anything if it were a list of qualities for "The Ideal Mother." Then Veldhoven asks the same question with respect to the "The Ideal Father."
"The class seldom has anything to change once they think about it," says Veldhoven. "In the few instances where someone does propose a difference, members of the class can identify either in themselves or in women they know, someone who breaks that traditional gender role difference. I then discuss that no one person - or two people - can meet all the needs of a given child. Children bring their own needs, some that may surprise us, and that one of our duties as parents is to listen to our children's individuality and then find people who can nurture those aspects that we can't."
Veldhoven says this exercise helps men move beyond limited gendered beliefs to the recognition of their individual strengths and weaknesses as parents, and helps them see that they can look for specific mentors or friends who can complement what they offer our children. "This helps participants realize that they can be successful parents who happen to be men, and leads us into the parenting strengths that can come from being gay/bi/queer/trans," he says.
Still, gay fathers, though they face these and other challenges such as invisibility and homophobia, do have the opportunity to work out parental roles with less gender constraint. Schacher suggests that gay fathers may be able to create new models of fathering that include more nurturing behaviour and emotional expression than in the past.
Another way in which gay fathers may expand traditional ideas of parenting stems from the different route they must take to parenthood. Because openly gay men must overcome so many barriers in order to become fathers, they cannot treat parenthood as a more or less inevitable stage of life the way heterosexual couples often do. Therefore, by the time they enter parenthood gay fathers have had to do a lot more negotiating, planning, and exploration of their own motives. Schacher and her colleagues suggest that due to this intentional path to parenthood gay fathers are developing a new model of what they call "conscious parenting," where parenthood is actively planned as opposed to "a pre-determined stage in life, or at worse, an unplanned and perhaps unwanted event" (Schacher, 2005).
It is clear that family roles evolve partly in response to societal changes. So when, as is currently the case, a high percentage of mothers with young children are working outside the home and some out earn male partners, we would expect to see more fathers in heterosexual families assuming the role of primary caregiver. And in fact, the proportion of all Canadian families with a stay-home parent where a father assumes that role rose from 4% in 1986 to 11 % in 2005 (Marshall, 2006).
Similarly, now that more non-heterosexual men (and women) are openly raising children in families where neither partner is assumed to have a primary status, we may see increased examples of equitable role and task sharing between parenting partners, which may provide an additional impetus for public discussion about the convergence of gender roles in parenting.
Cowan, C. and Cowan, P. (1992) When Partners Become Parents: The big life change for couples, Basic Books
Doucet, A. (2006), Do Men Mother? Fathering, Care and Domestic Responsibility. University of Toronto Press
Marshall, K. (2006) Converging Gender Roles, Perspectives on Labour and Income, Vol. 7 No. 7, July 2006, Statistics Canada.
McPherson, D. (1993). Gay parenting couples: Parenting arrangements, arrangement satisfaction, and relationship satisfaction. (Doctoral dissertation, Pacific Graduate School of Psychology, Palo Alto, CA). Dissertation Abstracts International, 54,
Schacher, S., Auerbach, C., Silverstein, L. (2005) Gay Fathers, Expanding the Possibilities for Us All, Journal of GLBT Family Studies, Vol. 1(3) 31- 52). Available online (with subscription). Click here for more information.