As a recent article in the Los Angeles Times addresses, lesbian and gay parents are often rearing children in unexpected places. Namely, according to the analysis of U.S. census data, more than one in four same-sex couples in Salt Lake City, Utah, are rearing children. Besides the Utah capital, other large urban areas where high percentages of same-sex couples are raising children include Virginia Beach, Va.; Detroit, Mich.; and Memphis, Tenn., all of which are places where more than a fifth of same-sex couples are bringing up children. Indeed, according to the article, “a striking percentage of same-sex couples are rearing children … in conservative places not known for celebrating gays and lesbians.” For example, among states, Mississippi has the highest percentage of gay and lesbian couples raising children (26 percent), according to the analysis of U.S. census data.
As the Los Angeles Times article notes, “this fact may seem at odds with perceptions that San Francisco and New York are the centers of gay and lesbian life. Pop culture depicts gays and lesbians turning to adoption, sperm banks or surrogacy to form families in decidedly liberal cities such as Los Angeles.”
So why are same-sex couples raising children in these areas, as opposed to moving to more gay-friendly and urban areas? Among the key reasons are cost of living and family ties. Indeed, as I told the Los Angeles Times, “When you ask, ‘Why are you living here?’ [lesbian and gay parents in rural areas] almost always say family. It shouldn’t really be surprising. They value family — and now they’re creating families of their own.”
Little research has focused on the experiences of lesbian and gay parents living in rural and/or conservative geographic areas. Yet it should. As I describe in my book Gay Dads: Transitions to Adoptive Fatherhood (NYU Press, 2012), lesbian and gay parents — and prospective parents — in rural and/or conservative areas of the U.S. often encounter many barriers and challenges related to their sexual orientation. In an ironic twist, many of the states with the highest percentages of same-sex couples raising children are those with the most anti-gay laws. For example, they are among those with constitutional amendments banning marriage for same-sex couples, and those that prevent same-sex partners from jointly adopting children. Thus, lesbian and gay parents living in these areas encounter legal obstacles in building and protecting their families, which contributes to a sense of legal vulnerability. As Gregory, a 40-year-old gay man whose partner legally adopted their son because their state did not allow same-sex partners to jointly adopt a child, shared with me, “It’s not just my rights. It’s the child’s rights. If I get killed in a car accident … the child has no rights to inherit anything from me. He has no rights to my Social Security. No one does, actually” (Gay Dads p. 83).
Becoming parents may make same-sex couples more sensitive to legal inequities and the importance of legal equality (e.g., with respect to gay adoption, and with respect to marriage equality). For example, I found that many of the gay men in my study felt that parenthood had fostered in them a greater sense of awareness — even activism — about legal equality, such that they were more impassioned advocates of gay rights than they had been pre-parenthood. The couples I interviewed voiced their sense that not only would access to adoption and marriage provide legal recognition of their family ties, but it would provide social recognition. They felt that being able to have both men adopt their child, and being able to get legally married, “would probably add some validation to our family as a unit … in the eyes of … society in general.” As Russell, 41, explained, “It’s weird that [my feelings about marriage equality] have changed, but [they have]. I think that with the addition of Christopher, it becomes more important. I don’t want him as a child to feel second-class status about his family” (Gay Dads p. 89).
Now well into the second decade of the 21st century, we are marching toward a future where equality for LGBTQ people seems possible — at least in some parts of the country. But it is important not to forget all those LGBTQ people, and same-sex couples with children specifically, who reside in the “less obvious” places in the U.S., and who deserve — but often lack — legal rights and protections. Moving is neither possible nor desirable for many of these families. Thus, our efforts to secure equal rights for all families must extend into these regions, until equality becomes the national language.