The other kids in grade school talked about family life. Camping trips with Dad, hanging out with Mom at the mall. Kyle Michaels kept quiet. Nobody would understand. Not in her Texas suburb of Cedar Park. You talked about cool clothes, hip bands and cute boys. You cheered for the football team on Friday nights and you went to church on Sunday. "If you go around our neighborhood," she says, "everybody has a sign that says, 'We support God and our troops." If you didn't hew to traditional values, it seemed to her, you kept quiet. Cedar Park was certainly not a place, she felt certain, where you talked about your mom's being a lesbian.
Now a high-school freshman, Kyle no longer keeps secrets about life inside her two-story red-brick home. "I'm a lot more confident," says the 14-year-old. "I don't really care what people think about my family anymore." The turning point came three summers ago, when Kyle went to a camp for children of gays and lesbians in Provincetown, Mass. There kids played and joked, learned and commiserated. And Kyle discovered, at last, that she was not alone.
Same-sex marriage and gay parents, topics once verboten in mainstream America, have become hot-buttons in this election year. The issue comes up over and over on the stump and was the subject of a question in last week's vice presidential debate; on Nov. 2, voters in 11 states will face gay-marriage referendums. Rhetoric and politicking aside, though, one thing is perfectly clear: the number of kids who grow up with gay parents is on the rise. The 2000 Census found that more than 150,000 same-sex couples have at least one child under 18 in the home. Kids are being raised by gay parents in 96 percent of the counties in the United States. A study released last week found that black gay couples are more than twice as likely to be raising kids as whites.
Experts believe the Census numbers don't come close to a full count, since they exclude kids with a gay parent living outside the home. Include those kids and the number is in the millions, says the American Bar Association. For decades, most kids with gay parents were the products of marriages that dissolved, with one parent ultimately coming to terms with his or her homosexuality. (New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey recently put a high-profile face on that scenario.) But norms are changing fast. Informal surveys by advocacy groups for kids of gays estimate that by now, perhaps 50 percent of these children are born into same-sex households, usually through assisted reproductive technology or adoption.
No longer silent, the children of gays are beginning to find their voices--and each other. The Internet has enabled these kids to connect, sparking a "coming out" of an identity group that calls itself Queer Spawn. An advocacy group, COLAGE (Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere), says its membership has climbed 19 percent this year. The success of Family Week in Provincetown--3,000 members of gay-headed homes gathered there this summer--has spurred a similar convocation for kids of gays in Saugatuck, Mich. Meanwhile a flood of books on the subject has recently hit the stores, and television shows have focused on real-life examples of kids of gays.
For every child, adolescence can be exhilarating--and hellish. For kids of gays, the vast majority of them heterosexual (research shows that kids of gays are not more likely to be gay themselves), it can mean being caught between two worlds and feeling at odds with both. These are kids who love their parents and fear that bigots will hurt them, or that the courts will try to remove them from their homes. Beyond that they feel left out of the discussion. Bystanders in the culture wars, they are often reduced to caricatures: social conservatives tend to see them as damaged goods being reared by immoral pseudoparents; liberals are eager to cast them as comfortable and carefree--the Huxtables with a minor wrinkle. In fact, these kids often know isolation and fear of rejection from peers, as well as the shame and anger that come with lying about your family.
At first, Christine Bachman, a blond teen with a sunny disposition who lives in suburban Boston, found that hiding the truth was easy. Her father, who is gay, had gone to live in New York when Christine was little. She spent many weekends with him, but simply told friends her parents were divorced and that her dad lived elsewhere. Ultimately, though, she began to feel disloyal about making her dad invisible. She didn't know what to expect when, in the eighth grade, she screwed up her courage, and read a letter she wrote to her class. She spoke of the dad "I love so very much" being gay. Suddenly, a thunderous roar of approval swept the room. "They gave me a standing ovation," she says with glee. "I was very surprised."
The stress on these kids can come as much from within the home as outside it. Kids of gays say their parents often unwittingly, and with good intentions, place high demands on them to show that gay parents can raise children who live up to the all-American ideals of their straight counterparts. For Kyle, that pressure came from within herself--"so you can prove," she says, "your family's not so bad." In her bedroom, adorned with posters of the bands Simple Plan and Good Charlotte, she spends hours studying to earn top marks. She is on the school debate team. She runs the video camera for the cheerleading squad at Friday-night football games. She volunteers at an elementary school on Saturdays. She teaches dog training on Tuesdays. She did find time to attend her first homecoming dance with her boyfriend Anthony. Even as she soars, she feels the burden of having to be a model kid.
Studies have generally found few differences between children raised by gay parents and those reared by heterosexual ones. In one of the most widely cited reports, sociologists Judith Stacey and Timothy Biblarz in 2001 found that kids of gays have as much self-esteem as those of straights. But the former University of Southern California scholars also found, not surprisingly, that sons and daughters of gays tend not to be as rigid about traditional sex roles. The boys of lesbians--most of the research has centered on kids raised in female same-sex households--were found to be more nurturing than their counterparts, while the girls were a bit more aggressive. These girls were also a bit more sexually adventurous, the boys somewhat more restrained.
Elizabeth Wall, 15, of Lawrenceville, N.J., whose fathers just celebrated their 25th anniversary, says kids of gays are just like their peers, but have been taught to be more tolerant of differences. "We might be more open because we grew up taught to love everyone," says Elizabeth. It's not always easy. She recently organized a day of silence at her school to mark the deaths of people to homophobic violence. A dozen or so kids from a church group surrounded her and her friends, chanting "It's not OK! It's not OK!" Elizabeth tries to shrug it off. But she's just a teenager. "It's hard," she acknowledged. "You want people to like you."
People on both sides of the issue agree on one thing: the number of kids raised by same-sex parents will continue to climb. What's also clear is that these children aren't going to sit quietly. If these kids have a message for the rest of the world, it seems to be this: get over it. Jordan Wright, a 14-year-old Michigan girl, just tries to ignore the name-callers and hangs with supportive friends. She says her parents are capable of embarrassing her--but not because they're gay. "If my mom was dancing in a store," she said, "I'd be embarrassed of that." At that, her pal Diamond Jacobs, 12, quickly interjects: "I hate it when my parents do that." Gay or straight, it seems, parents can always be a little annoying.