Tuesday, April 16, 2013

What We're Reading: Help for LGBT Families

Family Pride: What LGBT Families Should Know about Navigating Home, School, and Safety in Their Neighborhoods,
by Michael Shelton.

LGBT families have been a social fact for some time in modern American society, but for the most part they have been living under the radar in the midst of many communities. They have been more cautious about coming out as families than the individual members may have been, for a variety of reasons--mostly those centered on concern for their children. Unlike the situation with gay individuals, who are more mobile and for whom small supportive enclaves may exist and more informal social networks can be formed, families are more constrained to deal with the large established family support institutions in their community, like schools, medical services, and civic recreational organizations, that may not be gay-friendly. LGBT families must live family life in neighborhoods and communities among heterosexual families. The ability of gay families to keep this low profile is something that has started to change as gay issues, particularly the fight over adoption and gay marriage, has raised the visibility of LGBT people everywhere. Recent changes in law and civil rights have also sparked a backlash in some areas of the country. Minorities who have experienced hostility and discrimination have always gravitated towards more friendly environments, and LGBT families are no exception. Many have moved to those regions of the country (for instance large urban centers) where public opinion and state and local laws have been more supportive. But the reception of LGBT families remains various and often idiosyncratic across the country, and many families living in suburban areas and smaller towns, especially in more conservative areas of the county, are finding the new attention given to their lives uncomfortable. Family Pride is a book for all LGBT families, but it should prove particularly useful to those in less comfortable situations.

The first half of Family Pride gives an overview of the diversity of LGBT families, such as the differing parent and gender configurations, and it suggests as well some of the variations by class and race. As it turns out, it is hard to find comprehensive data. Few studies have been conducted, and LGBT parents have often been reluctant to participate in inquiries concerning their familial arrangements. Shelton finds that LGBT families go through the same stages of coming out and variations in level of self-acceptance and comfort associated with gay individuals. He discusses how various accommodations impact parents, their children, and the reception of these families in their communities. He examines the particular scrutiny faced by LGBT parents who have adopted children. And he explores the special pressures that LGBT families experience in the community spotlight, the additional burden of having to be “ideal” families. They fear that if they have a dysfunctional family like those of so many heterosexual families, their failures and trials as parents will be blamed on their sexual orientation. This section of the book gives a comprehensive overview of the subjective and self-defining issues that LGBT families must deal with and resolve before facing the social interactions with the public and private institutions that are such an important part of child-rearing and family life.

In the second part of Family Pride, Shelton looks at the characteristic challenges that LGBT families face in dealing with schools, professional services (especially health and mental health services) recreation and leisure activities, religious institutions, and in encounters with law enforcement and the legal system. The common theme is dealing with hostility and discrimination in these encounters that tend to deny LGBT families equal services or rights, behavior that sends out the message that LGBT families are not “legitimate” families. It is a message that can often be internalized. Much of this discussion is focused on the impact of hostile environments on the children of LGBT families. Solutions and alternatives are discussed, sometimes involving challenges from LGBT parents that demand changes in behavior; but often the solution involves parents finding out in advance about the character of organizations their children might join and seeking out groups and organizations that have a positive record of support for diversity and LGBT families. This book instructs LGBT parents on the questions to ask. In this peripatetic society, where many rights of LGBT families are not protected by national legislation, Family Pride makes it clear that LGBT parents must become familiar with variations in local and state laws that pertain to them and their children, matters like visitation rights, custody of children, and inheritance, issues that heterosexual families take for granted as uniform. The overview here is comprehensive, and the advice given in this useful handbook for LGBT families will help them protect their families and navigate an often unwelcoming environment in these changing and uncertain times.

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