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On the Family: A Rainbow Families Agenda

“We undeniably …should be able to adopt and foster parent without stigma and opposition.  But shouldn’t we be also fighting against barriers that unfairly exclude our heterosexual friends and families as well?  What about the realities of single parent families…Could what we promote for ourselves also benefit the heterosexual single mom or dad down the street?  I think we would all answer yes, of course.  But this framework – of pursuing a socially just agenda rather than just a gay one – is not the dominant frame of the GLBT movement.”

This Keynote was given on April 12, 2008 at the Rainbow Families Conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  Copyright 2008 Urvashi Vaid.

Copyright 2008 Sophia Hantzes

Copyright 2008 Sophia Hantzes

When it came time to prepare what I wanted to say at this conference of mostly queer parents, I must admit I was a bit stumped.  First of all, I don’t have kids, or as my girlfriend Kate Clinton often says – none that I know of!!!!   I actually read and believed that memo in the 1970’s that told us that women did not have to have kids!!!   But while I am no expert on parenting, I have worked in the GLBT movement for a long time, and I have long argued that we should engage in our work from a social justice perspective. From that vantage point I hope I can offer some ideas about two things – the movement’s family agenda; and  the consequences of that agenda’s lack of intersection with issues of race. In the course of the talk I will certainly be commenting on the larger context of  GLBT activism within which our work as family activists lives.

So, first, I’d like to share some basic facts about GLBT families and the landscape in which we can locate this gathering.  Second, offer some thoughts on the substantive family policy agenda we have generated for our movement and whether it is adequate to address the realities of our complex families.  And third, I’d like to explore how this agenda could encompass issues of racial and social justice and why that might be important to our families and the larger GLBT movement.

Family Facts

What do we know about GLBT people and families?  Both a lot and very little.  We are not routinely included in many random sample social science surveys so our chief forms of knowledge about ourselves  comes from analysis of self-reported data in self-selected samples.  The most objective data set is the census one  and it has allowed same sex couples to self-identify for years.  Many studies have analyzed these data and the statistics I will cite come primarily from that source.  In addition, more than 100 studies have been done on GLB parents and summarized in a meta analysis of them done by two researchers in 2003.  But even with all of this information, we lack basic information to better understand the needs and challenges faced by our GLBT families.

Here is what we do know –

  1. About 4.1% of Americans identify as GLB (or 8.8 million people) according to analysis of census data and the work of the excellent researchers at the Williams Institute at UCLA. Minneapolis is among the top ten Metropolitan areas with the highest number of GLB adults (estimated at 5.7%).  Statewide GLB adult population estimated at 4.7%!  (Gates, Same Sex Couples and the GLB Population: New Estimates from the American Community Survey, October 2006, Williams Institute.)
  2. Same sex partners head up at least 1% of all coupled households in the US (the number is likely to be larger but self-identification is our primary means of getting to these numbers and self-identification – being out—remains low). They live in 99% of US counties, they are racially diverse; they have a median income of 10% less than heterosexual couples and  they  are nearly 2x more likely to lack health insurance than married heterosexual couples.  (MAP Project citing Badgett and Ash, Separate and Unequal: Contemporary Economics, Williams Institute 2006)
  3. The percent of Same sex couples reporting on census surveys grew 30% between 200-2005 (Gates above).
  4. No one knows for sure how many kids have gay parents and how many gay parents are raising kids.  Estimates vary from 250,000 kids to millions.  We do know that 27% of same sex couples who self-identified in the 2000 Census reported having at least one child under 18 living with them.  From these data, we know that one in three lesbians have given birth and one in six gay men have fathered or adopted a child.
  5. Analysis of census data reveal that same sex couples raising children are more diverse by race than heterosexual couples.  42% of same sex couples reported being of other races than white (20% Latino; 14% African American; 8% other); and 45% of their kids were kids of color (23% Latino; 15% African American; and 7% other). (MAP Project citing Sears et al., Same Sex Couples and Same Sex Couples Raising Children in the US, Williams Institute,  2005).
  6. When it comes to adoption, gay and lesbian couples are raising 4% of all adopted children in the US.  Indeed researchers from the Urban Institute and the Williams Institute who collaborated on this study noted that GLB couples are adopting at a higher rate than single heterosexuals (3%).  Yet, the Evan Donaldson Institute did a survey of 307 adoption agencies nationwide in 1999 and 2000 and found that more than a third would reject a gay or lesbian applicant.
  7. When it comes to the needs of foster children, the situation is also interesting and rather sad.  There were more than 3 million investigations of child abuse done by state welfare agencies in 2004.  There are an estimated 500,000 children in foster care and 3% of them are being raised by gay and lesbian parents. (Gates, Badgett, Macomber, Chambers report on Adoption and Foster Care by Gay and Lesbian Parents in the US, Williams Institute and Urban Institute, 2007)

Family agenda

Like many of you, I have a family of origin and a family of choice.   One chose me and one I chose.   In some ways they are similar.  Both are longstanding, stretching back decades, in one case to my birth, and in the other, to my early adulthood.  Both have their rituals, dynamics, histories, tragedies and times of intense joy.  My family of origin is protected and indeed nurtured by the law and by the larger society, which creates and defends various structures and expectations that revolve around main events called birth, marriage, illness, anniversary and death.   The family of choice has no protection from anything or anywhere outside of itself.  And increasingly, it has no movement that is fighting for its rights to be recognized and become protected.

My family of choice includes my dearest and closest friends, whose lives and travails I have shared in some cases for thirty five years in other cases for shorter periods of time.  My vision for this family of choice has always been one in which there would be a common commitment to interdependency, to living near one another, to sharing property, to aging together.  And yet, this has not occurred.

Each of us lives in various cities, with each couple or single housed in their privately owned real estate, with no clear plan for the future, and unless we explicitly agree at some point, no plan for caring for each other as we age.  We have no concrete ways to insure that each of us, who know each other in some instances better than our lovers or partners do, far better than our families of origin do, that we will be the determinants of each other’s lives and futures.

When my friend Eric Rofes died suddenly of a heart attack in Provincetown about two years ago, not only did we have to fight with the crematorium to honor the wishes of his life partner of 15 years, rather than reach out to his mother which they wanted to do; but we also had to deal with the ambiguity of being the people who planned the services, organized the obituaries, closed up the apartment and disposed of the property, thought about his literary legacy – all in a sort of awkward arms length with the family or origin, which in this case was extremely friendly and clear that our role was appropriate.  We all know many stories in which the families of origin have not been so accommodating.

What Eric’s death pointed out to me in stark terms was that despite all the progress we have made, despite my friends commitment to radical social politics and sexual freedom, each of us was bounded by a framework of tradition in family operations that we have not transcended.  And we were bound by a framework of laws that we have not transformed.

The Family agenda that our GLBT movement pursues is a fairly narrow – albeit vital –one.    It has several laudable goals:  to add legal recognition of our families in laws and policies; to end GLBT exclusion in all the institutions by which GLBT parents and partners are excluded; and to gain support for the creation of GLBT families and support for the lived experience of complex families we have created.   In the legal domain, we seek recognition for our relationships (DP, civil union, marriage); we seek recognition for our parenting relationships (as birth parents, as partners of birth parents, as adoptive parents and as foster parents); and we seek recognition and equal treatment of our parenting units by the various institutions with which we interact (schools, churches, government bodies, health care institutions, airlines, etc).

You know better than I the hundreds of ways that our families are rendered invisible or illegitimate in forms that we have to fill out (what box do you check?); in the service providers that we interact with (how tiring was it to explain when I was in the hospital  to every nurse that Kate is my life partner not my business partner); and in myriad other ways.  Perhaps the most creative work we have done is in the arena of service development and provision.  Programs around the country like Center Kids at the NY Center or the work of OutFront on families or the work of scores of local and grassroots parents groups and kids groups – are all creative efforts to address the need that GLBT families have for support, community, learning and health.

This is a great and important agenda.  As we know – we remain illegitimate:  not legally recognized in our relationships; denied the right to adopt in three states (Florida, Utah, Mississippi); threatened with ballot initiatives to stop us from being parents; and defamed by the right wing again and again. Discrimination is far from over so our basic rights agenda must go forward.

I would argue however, that although we need coverage of our partnered relationships that is equal to marriage and to the partner protections available to heterosexual friends and families, we know from our own experience that parenting families are not the sole form of family to which we belong.  What about our families of choice?  How do we actively advocate for a set of policies that don’t just reinforce the traditional forms of heterosexual family, but that also honor the bonds of blended and extended families?

We undeniably need second parent rights for non-biological partners and spouses and we should be able to adopt and foster parent without stigma and opposition.  But shouldn’t we be also fighting against barriers that unfairly exclude our heterosexual friends and families as well?  Should we be fighting for the best adoption policies that could help kids in need of adoption – regardless of the sexual orientation or marital status of the parent?

What about the realities of single parent families – those led by GLBT people as well as non-gay folks?  How do we align ourselves with the concerns and issues they have?  Could what we promote for ourselves also benefit the heterosexual single mom or dad down the street?  I think we would all answer yes, of course.  But this framework – of pursuing a socially just agenda rather than just a gay one – is not the dominant frame of the GLBT movement.

The roots of the GLBT families movement were in this kind of approach.  We sought to make common cause with all sorts of nontraditional families.

I was at NGLTF when we established the Families Project in 1989.  You know our first goal?  To try to get sexual orientation as a category added to the US Census.  We succeeded in getting the category of same-sex couples added and that has been an unbelievable source of good data!   But our other early goals were this notion of common cause.  We talked about the challenges facing grandparent led families (especially in communities of color) and how their issues might intersect with the issues of GLBT blended families.  As an aside, nationally, over 4.5 million children are living in grandparent headed households.  In Texas more than one-fifth of the more than 500,000 grandparents living with kids lived in poverty.   (Center for Community Health, University of North Texas Science Center, Fort Worth, “Grandparents Raising Grandchildren:  The Skipped  Generation,” March 2008)

Equal marriage rights, civil unions, domestic partnership issues and other forms of partner recognition, adoption rights, rights to foster care have and remain the central anchors of the GLBT families agenda – but they are not the only issues on which we should focus.

A social justice agenda for our families movement would include wide ranging issues that could help all sorts of traditional and nontraditional families – whether they were gay, straight, single mother, single father or grandparent.    Issues such as: universal and affordable child care; universal health care for all regardless of job status; free and affordable higher education for our young people and old; the rights of young people to determine and control more of their individual freedom and identities.

  • A social justice based families movement might fight for better public schools and the taxes to pay for them; alongside the fights we wage on curriculum and classroom inclusion.
  • A social justice based movement of GLBT parents would push aggressively to question our society’s hypocrisy around kids, and truly make this society live up to its child friendly rhetoric –that would mean challenging government and private industry to create family friendly workplaces and employment practices.
  • A social justice based GLBT family movement would be a relentless and powerful enemy of violence.   We are a people who have lived through many kinds of violence – in the home, in the streets, in the pews and in the rhetoric of the public sphere.  We should be leaders in an antiviolence movement that finds common cause with women, people of color, religious based advocates, health care practitioners and all who are against abuse, sexual assault, battery and all forms of violence.
  • As a families movement, we must take up the cause of homeless youth – a living testament to the violence, dysfunction and hostility of too many heterosexual families, 40% of these youth are estimated to be GLBT.

The great news is that increasingly our grassroots movement is willing to approach the world with a social justice lens.  I am thinking of the community and health centers around the country, who are the front line developers of GLBT social services.  I am thinking of a recent report by a national education organization that found that GLB parents had very high levels of involvement in their kids schools.  I am thinking of the lawyers who have helped to address some of the policy gaps I mentioned.

Yet politically, our agenda still gets framed in fairly narrow goals of recognition and reform rather than as an agenda seeking full human rights for a wide range of families.

Racial Justice

A focus on a broader family policy agenda would be a vital link to enable us to advocate more directly for the needs of GLBT people of color and for the needs of people of color families in general.  There are many reasons for us to engage as racial justice advocates.  I will offer four reasons why GLBT people should work on racial justice – as OUR issue. All are valid, but I want to focus especially on the last one.  The four reasons can be summarized as an argument rooted in justice; an argument grounded in the idea of reciprocity; an argument for recognition and inclusion, and an argument based in self-interest and the linkage between  the issues involved.

Arguments for justice are fairly straight forward.  We should work to end racial inequality and disparities because we are committed to creating a world in which opportunity exists for all, a world in which the structural inequalities that serve as barriers to all sorts of people because of their racial and ethnic background are finally eradicated. Racial justice should be a part of our GLBT movement simply because we are ourselves a subset of an older, broader, civil rights struggle and our success depends on the success of that broader movement’s agenda.  This is one of the arguments I made in my book Virtual Equality, and I think it stills stands.   Indeed the evidence of the past decade clearly shows that when there are progressive (defined as pro-choice, pro-union, anti-death penalty, pro-immigrant, pro-freedom and civil liberties, pro-opportunity pro-civil rights) law makers in state houses or on court benches or at the national level, we advance GLBT rights.

A variation of the justice argument is the call for reciprocity. Again and again over the past decade as we have sought alliances with others they have aid, to get a friend, you have to be a friend.  Reciprocity is asked of LGBT activists from racial justice advocates. I think this is a fair demand. If we are asking people of color leaders and institutions to support equal marriage rights or civil unions laws, are we in turn asking our GLBT organizations to support affirmative action policies and efforts to challenge the over-incarceration of black men?  If we are asking groups to include us, are we equally committed to including them,?  How can we not address the racial diversity of our organizations if we raise issues of the sexual diversity of boards and other groups?

What about our engagement on issues of racial justice, such as immigrant rights?  Again, the experience on the ground –among those who have fought the right wing’s ballot initiatives  – in Oregon, Idaho and Colorado, for example — is that they have come to see the value of reciprocity and  through the experience of making common cause, have gained better commitment to the underlying values that they share.

The third argument for why the GLBT movement should work on racial justice could be called inclusion.  It focuses on the existence of GLBT families of color and gay people of color, and the urgent need for our movement to champion and advocate for them as well.  We know the evidence from data and from our lives.  A detailed analysis of the 2000 Census in California show that at least 52,000 same gender couples were raising at least 70,000 children.  More than half of all GLB African American, API and Latino couples between 25-55 were raising their own kids (43%, 45% and 62% respectively) versus 18% of white same gender couples.  Across all the racial categories California’s same gender couples with kids earned less than different gender married couples with kids ($13,000 less per household).  (“Our Families: Attributes of Bay Area LGBT Parents and Their Children,” LGBT Family Collaborative, 2007)

We know we are a racially diverse community.  And in order to accurately represent the interests of all parts of our communities, our advocacy organizations and movement need to become champions of racial justice as well as GLBT rights – because for these racially diverse and mixed families, racism is as vivid as homophobia.  The lack of information about the realities facing all GLBT families makes it hard for our movement to figure out specific interventions.  I want to encourage you to do research at the grassroots level, try to learn more about each others needs, try to find out what kinds of specific challenges we are facing and how these might be addressed.  There is no need for family to be a privatizing experience – especially when its benefits generate so much shared public good.

I think all three of these arguments are strong and each is adequate on its own.  But I think the final argument I would put on the table makes perhaps the most compelling case for why we should work on race – the issues facing people of color families, the kinds of policy challenges and obstacles thrown at families of color are intimately connected to the challenges and regulation of GLBT families.  You could call this the “same-struggle, same fight” argument.  The needs, realities and even the opponents of many families of color –especially black and immigrant families, but also native families – are intimately connected to the needs, realities and challenges to GLBT families.  Indeed, the success of our efforts to secure legal protection and recognition is linked to the success of efforts to broaden the definition of family and to undo the damaging regulations and harmful persecution that exists for families of color and of low income families in general.   Let me offer three illustrations of this argument as to why we are in the same struggle, the same fight.

Regulation of family forms

The history of American racial prejudice is littered with examples of how government regulations engineered the families of immigrants, African Americans and other low-income people.  From calls for sterilization because too many babies being born to poor people, to Moynihan’s 1964 report on how to address decline in the black family, to the welfare policies of the 1990’s welfare reform that punish certain kinds of family and reward others – all have been measures tried by the US government to regulate low income families in general, and in particular families of color.  These efforts to constrain and contain family forms in communities of color through government policy are linked of to the efforts to  ban our access to the institutions of family formation and protection.    Not only are they linked by the same forces being behind them – namely the right wing, but they are linked in policy terms:  when government can mandate one form of family as its sole desirable form, we all suffer.

In 2001, Sean Cahill from NGLTF’s Policy Institute published a very useful booklet analyzing how welfare reform harms GLBT communities.  He noted the reliance in these debates of  explicitly heterosexual “marriage promotion”; fatherhood initiatives that stigmatize homosexuality and gay and lesbian families; abstinence only sex education; and the charitable choice faith based funding initiative that delivered hundreds of millions to faith based social service programs that are free to deny GLBT clients. The restrictions on family planning and choice that are put in place for those who must access public health institutions – restrictions that do not exist for those of us who have private health care we can pay for – is another example of ways the government increasingly regulates the private, sexual and reproductive lives of individual people – something we must vigorously resist.

Another recent way in which the lives of people of color and their families are being threatened is through the attempts to expand criminal law to cover the reproductive conduct of poor women and men. The National Advocates for Pregnant Women has done a lot of litigation and education to resist the ways that drug laws, for example, are disparately enforced against women of color and poor women – to criminalize and incarcerate women for actions that in the tonier neighborhoods on the upper east side of Manhattan would be simply ignored.  See e.g.

My point is that it would serve GLBT advocates well to worry about what is going on in the arena of the government regulation of families of color and low income families in general.   Social policies that seek to regulate families of people of color toward certain socially determined objectives ought to be treated with the same suspicion that GLBT people treat any family policy that purports to legislate that on a two parent family of the opposite sex parents is the best form in which to raise a child.

Definitions of Family

Significant numbers of POC families are nontraditional.  Some are single parent headed or grant parent led. Still others are extended family systems with cousins and relatives all sharing and living together in broader ways that constitute a different form of family than the hetero-nuclear couple form.  The legal challenges that arise out of these nontraditional living arrangements do impact GLBT people, just as how we frame our rights and efforts could impact these nontraditional families as well.  This is a key point of Nancy Polikoff’s new book, Beyond Gay and Straight  Marriage:  Valuing All Families.  As the historian John D’Emilio notes in describing her book, “Polikoff reframes the debate by arguing that all family relationships and households need the economic stability and emotional peace of mind that now extend only to married couples.  Unmarried couples of any sexual orientation, single-parent households, extended family units, and myriad other familial configurations need recognition and protection to meet the concerns they all share:  building and sustaining economic and emotional interdependence, and nurturing the next generation.” Polikoffs call to the movement to focus on a fuller family recognition agenda would help us and help GLBT families of color.


A final example of linkage between GLBT family policy and people of color’s lives can be seen in the immigration policy fights – which encompass family issues in profound ways.   Children account for at least 16% of undocumented people in the US.   According to the Opportunity Agenda, “immigrant families are facing stepped up efforts to have their rights to access food stamps, student loans, social security and health care taken away from them.“ State referenda such as California’s Proposition 187, which sought to bar undocumented children from attending public schools, have contributed to the growing trend of anti-immigrant legislation, even though some of these policies have been successfully challenged and blocked in federal courts.

What is the difference between these kinds of exclusionary policies that strive to limit benefits and access to services to some families under the argument that they are undeserving, and arguments that try to deny our GLBT families from accessing social services or any public benefit under the argument that we are immoral or bad for kids?    I feel an affinity with immigrant families when I hear of efforts to criminalize people for simply trying to get more opportunity for themselves and their loved ones.  When I see people being scapegoated for the economic woes of this country when they have had nothing to do with the financial shenanigans that are causing so much destruction.  We are a stronger nation when we ensure opportunity for everyone who lives here.  And I would argue the GLBT movement should have the empathy and experience of outsider-ness to be able to engage with communities of color being targeted for exclusion.


I’ve spent a lot of time on how GLBT people are linked to other kinds of family.  Let me close by affirming three very queer things I absolutely love about our families – unique dimensions that make us different.

First, my queer family is in many ways an army of ex-lovers.  Both my partner Kate Clinton and my exes are integral parts of our lives.  I count on them as friends; they are our support system in illness and in celebrations. I do not believe straight people have this same web of ex-lovers as family.  Second, my queer family has a really interesting set of parenting relationships – best friends or aunties are as central to the rearing of children of some of my lesbian and gay friends as they parents themselves.  I see my friends shouldering significant emotional and even financial responsibility for each others kids.  Perhaps this is something that parents do for each other (car pools, sharing baby sitting etc).  But I think I am talking about a deeper level of co-parenting, something that is as deep as the bond with the primary parents.  Third, research shows that our families produce kids who are more tolerant than those produced by straighter families.   This is another positive family value – that because of our own experience and sensitivity to exclusion, we are raising better adjusted kids who are more open to diversity of all kinds

Now when I shared these ideas with a friend, he said I was idealizing gay families. Kevin’s a hard bitten lawyer and he sees the painful divorces that our families have engaged in – the bitter custody battles between two lesbian moms, the manipulations and horrible claims made in courts to gain an advantage.  He, like Kate Kendell of the NCLR, argues that we need to challenge each other inside LGBT communities to conduct ourselves more ethically towards each other.

Maybe Kevin is right – we should not idealize or romanticize anything about being GLBT.  We are just human beings, as mixed up and messy as the folks next door.

But in our messiness, we are a people with a vision — trying to create a better world. I salute each of you for that vision.

May we keep on organizing and learning.  May we keep on believing in a plural and just world.  With your courage and commitment to that vision, we will get there.

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