Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Feb. 9, 2010.
In the past, generations of gay and lesbian activists have described "queer identity" primarily as being in opposition to anything that smacks of "heteronorminativity." To many of those activists, gay and lesbian parenthood was, considered at best, a relic of the closeted past -- reminders of the mistaken marriages that took place before people were free to come out earlier in life.
But the large number of interviews included in Ellen Lewin's books -- "Lesbian Mothers: Accounts of Gender in American Culture" (1993) and "Recognizing Ourselves: Ceremonies of Lesbian and Gay Commitment" (1998) -- have demonstrated:
• That many gay and lesbian couples want to expand their own families by adding children.
• And that the family ties and commitment ceremonies between gay and lesbian couples can be just as "revolutionary" as any more traditionally defined examples of activism.
Lewin, a University of Iowa professor of anthropology and women's studies, proves those points anew in her most recent book, "Gay Fatherhood," in which she interviews various gay men about how they carved out identities for themselves as fathers in a culture that told them repeatedly how "it wasn't appropriate for them to want to have children." In the course of these interviews, Lewin found that the oppositional pressures experienced by gay men seeking to become fathers were "even more intense than those experienced by women." One of the couples, in fact, goes as far as to say, "We're not gay anymore. We're parents."
The strength of Lewin's book lies in the wide variety of men she interviewed:
• Couples who live in the established gay neighborhoods of Chicago and San Francisco.
• Couples whose have moved out of the gay neighborhoods into more family friendly suburbs.
• Single men who seek to prove their own maturity and stability by willingly looking for people to take care of.
• Couples with enough disposable income to hire a surrogate mother to ensure a biological link between them and their children.
• And a generation and a half of gay men who have opted for adoption -- usually accepting children who traditionally have been overlooked because of health, physical disabilities or skin color.
It's these detailed accounts of transformed identity that makes "Gay Fatherhood" a good read for any parent -- gay, straight; male, female; partnered, single; biological, adopted. Lewin may have found the pressures were more "intense" for gay fathers than for lesbian mothers, but the issues of identity brought on by parenthood seem to represent differences of degree more than differences of kind.
Lewin's book reminds us all that just as there is no monolithic model for what it means to be gay or lesbian, there also is no monolithic model for what it means to be a parent. And that's an important lesson for all Iowans to learn -- especially those who worry that last year's state Supreme Court ruling will somehow erode the foundation of the family in the state.
Rather than erode Iowa's sense of family, gay and lesbian parents are helping to expand it.