In the narrowest sense, the term ”lesbian and gay family” refers to lesbian and gay individuals or same sex couples and their children. The term is sometimes used to refer to same sex partnerships or cohabiting relationships. In the broadest sense, the term can denote social networks that include lesbian or gay individuals and/or couples where some or all of the members self-define as ”family.” These latter arrangements have also been described as ”surrogate,” ”friendship,” or ”chosen” families.
Lesbian and gay families have become high profile social and political issues since the 1980s. They touch on a broad range of socio logical themes to do with family life and social change, family diversity, and alternative family practices. The topics of lesbian and gay families and families of choice have played an important part in debates on the demise of traditional conceptions of family, the legitimacy of new family forms, and contemporary reconfigurations of family obligations, responsibilities, and care. Existing sociological work on the topics includes theorizing and research into the historical, social, and political forces that have facilitated the emergence of lesbian and gay families and families of choice; theoretical discussions of their social and political significance; and studies of the meanings, structures, and social practices associated with them at local levels.
Prior to the 1960s, homosexual relationships were subject to legal and social sanctions in societies and were culturally invisible. European and North American research on lesbian and gay families in the pre 1960s era suggests that they are best conceptualized as ”surrogate” family forms, made up of adults who provided mutual comfort and support in the face of hostile social environments. During the 1960s and 1970s, the politics of sexual liberation opened up distinctive possibilities for the formation of lesbian and gay identities that challenged heterosexist ideologies. Research suggests that while surrogate families continued to be important for some lesbians and gay men, other arrangements began to emerge, including self-consciously alternative family forms. While surrogate and alternative arrangements provided emotional and practical supports to their adult members, the latter more frequently included children from previous heterosexual relationships, and were more likely to be influenced by feminist and other political critiques of the role of the family in the reproduction of gendered and sexual inequalities.
Several theorists have argued that the emergence of AIDS in the 1980s and political responses to it were key factors in shaping the current emphasis in lesbian and gay politics on family issues in Europe and North America. Initially, Moral Right responses to AIDS rein forced the historical construction of lesbians and gay men as a threat to the family. In the United Kingdom, for example, legislation was introduced in the late 1980s (commonly known as Section 28) that explicitly sought to ban the promotion by local authorities of homosexuality ”as a pretended family relationship.” Such interventions, however, had the reverse effect of mobilizing a lesbian and gay family oriented politics. Some theorists have further argued that community based caring responses to AIDS were ultimately to underscore the importance of family type relationships for lesbians and gay men. This view has been criticized on the basis that it undermines the existence of non-heterosexual caring relationships that preexisted AIDS.
It is more generally accepted that lesbian and gay community responses to AIDS facilitated the institution building and increased cultural and political confidence that were essential in making possible greater social tolerance, if not acceptance, of lesbian and gay families. This increased confidence has also been argued to be crucial in opening up a new family vision amongst lesbians and gay men. This, some argue, is clearly visible in the sharp rise in lesbian and gay individuals and couples who are choosing to become parents as lesbians and gay men. It is also evident in the ways in which lesbian and gay politics has become organized around family issues such as the rights to parent, adopt, and marry. It is further evident in ways in which lesbians and gay men are nowadays likely to include accepting members of family of origin in their chosen families.
While lesbian and gay families have long been of interest to scholars of sexualities, they have more recently come to the attention of sociologists of family life. This new interest is partly due to the current concern with family diversity and changing patterns of relating. Lesbian and gay families are now being explored for the insights they provide into the challenges and possibilities presented by detraditionalized family life. From this perspective, these family forms are studied for how they are structured and operate outside institutionalized norms and supports that have traditionally shaped “the” family. Because of the lack of gender based differences in same sex relationships, lesbian and gay families are also examined for the possibilities of organizing family without clearly defined gendered roles. A number of theorists have argued that because of the lack of gendered assumptions, lesbian and gay families are more likely to adopt a friendship model for relating, and operate according to an egalitarian ideal. Empirical studies that have set out to explore the meanings, structure, and practices of lesbian and gay families and families of choice suggest a complex picture.
Existing research indicates various traditions of the usage of the family terminology in non-heterosexual cultures, and the complex and fluid meanings that family has for individuals. North American research has indicated that parental terminology of “mother” and “father” has been used by younger lesbians and gay men to refer to older, non-heterosexual friends and mentors in historically and contextually specific ways. The terms “brothers” and “sisters” have long been used by some lesbians and gay men to denote the affective and/or political significance of non-heterosexual friendship. The refrain of ”we are family” has also been used in lesbian and gay political life to refer to the affective political bonds that are perceived to underpin non heterosexual communities. Despite these traditions, the research indicates that while many lesbians and gay men embrace the terminology of family to talk about partners and friends, others see it as only applicable to relationships based on caring for children. Others still view the terminology of the family with hostility, and are critical of the normalizing potential of its employment in relation to lesbian and gay life.
Studies indicate some considerable diversity in how lesbian and gay families are structured and constituted. However, lesbians and gay men generally appear to distinguish between the families they grew up with and the relationships they ”choose” as adults. Family, when used to describe the latter, can include partners, ex partners, children where they exist, friends, and certain members of family of origin. The inclusion of ”given” kin is not automatic, and is usually dependent on the quality of the commitment and emotional bond. The research does suggest, however, that lesbians and gay men are increasingly likely to maintain committed relationships with at least some members of their family of origin. This is especially the case amongst lesbians and gay parents who wish to develop generational links between their children and the families/parents they grew up with.
A number of studies have explored the place, roles, and experience of children in lesbian and gay families. Until recently, such studies tended to be concerned with the implications of growing up in these family forms. Most of this research suggests that this experience is unlikely to have any discernible long term impact on children’s sense of wellbeing, social connectedness, or family or personal security. Because of the changing historical circumstances in which lesbians and gay men have become parents, most existing studies are of lesbian and gay families with children who were conceived through a parent’s previous heterosexual relationship. Recent studies have, however, begun to focus on the experience of families with children, where same sex couples, individuals, or friends have chosen to take advantage of recent opportunities to become parents through self or assisted insemination, surrogacy, adoption, and fostering. Many of these studies have moved beyond the focus on children’s experience to also explore the blurring of the boundaries between biological and social parenting and the negotiated nature of same sex parenting.
The theme of negotiation has also emerged as an important one in research that has studied how lesbian and gay couples challenge or repro duce the norms and values traditionally associated with family life. Studies indicate that same sex couples value core beliefs about emotional commitment and mutual care and support. However, they can also structure and “do” their relationships in ways that are self-consciously opposed to assumptions and norms in heterosexual couple life. One fairly consistent finding concerns the extent to which lesbian and gay couples tend to be more reflexive and democratic than their heterosexual counterparts. This appears especially to be the case in relation to the organization and negotiation of domestic duties. Studies suggest that because same sex couples cannot assume domestic or partnership roles based on gender, there is more scope for the negotiation of couple practices. A number of studies have argued that this is indicative of an egalitarian ideal that is common amongst same sex partners. This, in turn, has been argued to be rooted in the friendship ethos that underpins same sex relationships, and is seen to open up creative possibilities for mutually satisfying relationships. Same sex couple negotiations and creativity have also been studied in relation to the negotiability of monogamy as a marker for couple commitment. While monogamy tends to be assumed in heterosexual couples, same sex couples tend to negotiate whether the relationship will be monogamous or not. Same sex couples often have explicit ground rules to guide the operation of non-monogamous sexual relationships and to protect the primacy of the couple’s emotional commitment. Sexual exclusivity is not, however, viewed as necessary or desirable for couple commitments or stability.
Friendship families have been regarded as the most creative form of lesbian and gay relationships and research has explored these as sources of emotional, economic, and social support. Most studies confirm the significance of these for emotional sustenance and various forms of material and social support. Some studies do suggest, however, that friendship families mostly provide a context for care in relation to “everyday” problems, and tend not to be relied upon in terms of long term physical care. While research has documented the crucial role of friendship families in caring for people with AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s, and some small qualitative studies suggest they are important sources of practical support in times of other health crises, it appears that the friendship ethos underpinning these families can inform a strong sense of what constitutes appropriate levels of physical care. The friend ship ethos, it is argued, emphasizes reciprocity and co independence. This implies that an expectation of long term physical care from friends can be viewed as inappropriate and undesirable. Long term couple partners, on the other hand, are most often identified in research as the first choice as providers of care should it be needed. Some studies indicate that ex partners can also have agreements to provide mutual care. A number of studies have, however, pointed out the difficulties partners and ex partners can face in juggling work and other commitments with long term caring commitments. This is especially the case where the caring role is not supported or recognized as legitimate by state agencies or employers.
The issue of care in lesbian and gay families raises a number of topics that could be fruitfully explored in future research, such as: the resilience or otherwise of lesbian and gay families as sources for care and support across the life course; the significance of children, friendship, and chosen families for supporting lesbians and gay men in later life; and the range of social and political factors that limit and enable the possibilities that lesbian and gay families have been said in theory to offer. Theory and research could also explore the implications for lesbian and gay families of their marginalization and/or normalization in different national, geographical, and social contexts, and the ways in which the challenges they face are common or other wise to other “new” family forms.
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