Home > adoption, civil unions, Equality Forum, family law, Gay Rights, Marriage Equality, politics, sexuality > Equality Forum Day 3 (Part 2): It’s Always Personal

Equality Forum Day 3 (Part 2): It’s Always Personal

Family Law is an exciting yet weird course to teach. The law school model (now admittedly under both siege and reconstruction) emphasizes legal reasoning and analysis, the parsing of cases and statutes, and the occasional foray into broader constitutional issues. Of course, very few legal scholars or students today think that a legal result can be fully explained by logical analysis, but we continue — in most courses, anyway — to mostly pretend otherwise in order to get some actual material covered. This polite fiction kind of falls apart in Family Law. Students can’t refrain from talking about their divorced parents (or their own divorces), the annulment that wiped out a student’s parents twenty-year marriage, their extended families, their own adoptions, etc. And at least one professor (me) is complicit, peppering the discussion with examples drawn from people I know, as well as from celebrities. Why? Because it’s interesting stuff. Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones have a pre-nuptial agreement that increases her “take” if he’s adulterous; Madonna has trouble adopting a Malawi kid despite her international clout; and Britney Spears (remember her?) marries and immediately “takes it back” in Vegas. Try matching that, “Sales and Leases”!

Given my experience in the classroom, I therefore wasn’t surprised when last night’s Same-Sex Families panel was dominated by discussion not of the legal and political issues surrounding gay families, but by stories about the families themselves. To a great extent, this emphasis was directed by the moderator, long-time Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Gail Shister, who began by asking the couple how their families “came out,” and later asked about how the couples decided on what names they’d use (“daddy” and “papa” seem to be close to universal for gay men; lesbians have to be more creative). But for gay families (maybe for all families?), every personal question calls for a somewhat political answer.

Thus, consider these responses to the “coming out” question. Jennifer Chrisler, Executive Director of the Family Equality Council, noted that her seven-year-old  twins have to constantly explain who they are and where they came from. Philanthropist and founder of thebody.com, Jamie Marks, talked about his discussions with potential nursery schools over such matters as how they dealt with Mother’s Day. (One school said that the kids would just do a special project for “mom” and then give it to whichever gay dad was “the mother.” Next!) Nancy Polikoff, a law professor at American University in Washington, D.C., noted that her daughter was 26 so that it was harder for her than it likely is now: the numbers of kids being raised by same-gender couples was truly tiny back then. Penn psychiatrist Steven Sokoll explained the decision-making process that led his family (including a son and a daughter) to a supportive suburb, and to a public school there. The importance of such support has caused the parents to leave their daughter in the public school despite what he described as a less-than-ideal academic fit.

On the names issue, Chrisler’s response was particularly interesting: Names matter. Who are these people to the family, and how should we describe them to create the appropriate relationship between them and our families? For adoptive kids, that might mean referring to “birth mother”; for kids conceived through surrogacy, parents who want to make clear that the sperm donor isn’t a father shouldn’t use that word in describing him.  In a way, I understood Dr. Sokoll’s point about forms to be a qualification to Chrisler’s comments: Yes, we decide what names to use, but we’re not the only “deciders.” Schools, businesses and governments send messages about our families too, either by changing forms to reflect the reality of same-gender parents (or not, as I discussed in this earlier post about my experience with the Social Security office), or by granting us the name and status of marriage (as opposed to no recognition, or the more limited “civil union” status).

Shister, who has a terrific sense of humor but was somewhat out-of-date in her knowledge of current developments, did move the discussion towards more scholarly, educational topics at times. Polikoff, one of the nation’s leading experts on cutting-edge family law issues, was given just enough time for a breathless run-through of some of the difficult issues that same-gender parents face, including having to adopt their own children (think about it!). I urge anyone interested in this and other topics of interest to gay families to pick up her excellent book, “Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage: Valuing All Families Under the Law.” I devoured it last summer. Polikoff is good at explaining complex issues in a common-sensical, clear way. The book changed my thinking about the importance we assign to marriage over other forms of families that also need legal protection and social support.

The final question, about the importance vel non of opposite-gender role models, became the highlight of the session. Polikoff situated the question within its sociological context, reminding everyone that the data show that parental gender doesn’t matter (a new, meta-analysis of the data making the point even more decisively is about to come out, she said). Marks related a story about a friend, who, on seeing Marks’s daughter having trouble removing her nail polish, said: “You too?”

Then Chrisler brought down the house. Rising up in an escalating indignation, she went after the supposed need for “role models” of the same sex, calling it “based on social gender stereotyping” that, in turn, is code for slamming same-sex parents as deficient in parenting because the couple is “missing” a gender.

Please don’t make me teach “Sales and Leases.”

  1. May 4th, 2010 at 13:44 | #1

    I appreciate people who are interested and learn about this kind of work. I am currently in a surrogate process with my sister who is my Surrogate Mother. We had to get an attorney that knew what we need to get clear thru the courts.
    I wouldn’t have had any idea. Good job, literaly.

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