Gay Fathers and Lesbian Mothers–Sameness and Difference

If you look back over the past several weeks, you’ll notice that many of my posts are about legal matters related to gay fathers or lesbian mothers.   (You’ll find them if you use the tags.) That’s not surprising.   As I’ve noted, lesbian and gay parents have become a visible center of the broader struggle around lesbian and gay rights generally, and lots of these struggles get worked out either in the courts or the legislature.

In many ways, lesbian mothers and gay fathers have much in common.    Anti-same-sex parenting campaigns rarely if ever distinguish between them.  For example, proposed statutory restrictions bar all unmarried couples–including both lesbian couples and gay couples as well as unmarried heterosexual couples–from adoption.   Lesbian mothers and gay fathers, and perhaps especially lesbian and gay couples who are parenting, are seen to threaten the fundamental gendered dynamic of parenting.   Lesbian and gay parents don’t offer children the proper gendered model of the world.

But even as lesbian and gay parents may challenge gendered practices, lesbian and gay parents also live in a highly gendered world.  As I’ve noted before, there are some real differences between men and women with regard to the process by which children are brought into the world.   I mean, of course, that women are pregnant and give birth while men (with a very small number of exceptions) do not.   Beyond that, while the individual day-to-day performances of male and female parents vary widely, the idea of “mother” is quite distinct from the idea of “father.”   

So it seems to me that despite the commonalities, lesbian and gay parents are also quite different.   Lesbians, in the end, are mothers.   Gay men are fathers.   Children of lesbian couples are said fatherless, while children of gay male couples may be seen to be motherless.

If you look at those recent past posts, and even ones further back, you’ll see some striking differences there, too.   For example, there’s a long string of cases in which two lesbians are fighting over custody of a child born or adopted into their relationship.   In the course of that struggle one woman (generally a woman who has given birth to the child, but sometimes the first to adopt) attacks the parental status of the other woman.   You won’t find mention of a single similar case involving two men in this blog.   (I have heard about a few cases with gay male parents, but have never seen one reported in the press.  I don’t even think I’ve ever seen an unpublished court opinion on the topic.)

There are other examples of differences here that are worthy of note, too.   For example, lesbians can become parents by giving birth.   Of course, to do so, lesbians need sperm, but sperm is not exactly hard to come by.  Neither is assisted insemination a terribly high-tech process.  It can, indeed, be DIY, though many get much better results with a slightly higher level of medical involvement.   (I’m thinking here of intrauterine insemination.)   This means that even in Florida, say, which has very restrictive adoption laws, lesbians can be mothers.  (This does only lead to parenthood for the woman who lives birth.  Thus, it’s not a solution for lesbian couples who wish to raise a child together.)

It’s much harder for a gay man to become a father in Florida.   Since adoption is off the table, the option left for him is surrogacy.   That’s a far more expensive and complicated proposition.  Indeed, in general, surrogacy is much more important to gay male parenthood than to lesbian parenthood.

There’s a good deal more to say here about the differences between lesbian mothers and gay fathers.    I don’t mean to set this up as a rivalry of any sort, either.   But I’ll come back to it again to look a little more closely at what we can learn here.


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