Special Father’s Day Wonky Wednesday
By Conor Ahern, Task Force Ford Foundation Law Fellow
Last week, Pew Research released a slew of polls cataloguing LGB* Americans’ views and characteristics on a broad array of issues. It’s a fascinating deluge of data that variously reinforces, undermines and qualifies the contours of the experiences of lesbians, gay men and bisexuals. With Father’s Day just past us, the findings on queer parenting and queers’ relationships with their parents seemed especially apposite. Pew released its own distilled analysis of queer fatherhood, so I would like to focus on the data regarding LGB people and their own parents.
Confirming what many of us have experienced or learned anecdotally, relationships between fathers and their LGB children do not always merit a holiday or mawkish Hallmark card. 56% of LGBT adults have told their mother of their sexual orientation or gender identity, while 65% have told a sister, and 59% have told a brother. In stark contrast, only 39% of LGBT individuals have told their father of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The rate at which LGBT people report not having a relationship with their father because he is deceased or not at all a part of their lives is more than double the rate for mothers of LGBT children (21% to 10%, respectively).
For those who’ve told a parent of their sexual orientation or gender identity, the majority reports that doing so was difficult. Again, this number is higher for fathers than mothers (65% to 59%, respectively), with 74% of gay men reporting that telling their father of their sexual orientation was difficult. Moreover, LGB people report better outcomes from having told their mother of their sexual orientations (39% say the relationship improved, with 14% saying it deteriorated) than their fathers (32% reporting improvement, 13% reporting deterioration). We might also infer that the greater tendency to hide one’s sexual orientation from one’s father indicates an expectation of a deterioration not reflected in the above numbers.
I had my doubts about coming out to my own father, but he has been tremendously supportive, mostly by affirming that nothing would change between us. Aside from the fact that he now tears up at the awkward dinner scene in “The Family Stone,” he has kept his promise. And that is how it should be.
By celebrating Father’s Day, we acknowledge that fatherhood is special, that it warrants recognition. But whatever it is that makes fatherhood special, valuable and distinct from motherhood, it surely can’t be that the ideal father prevents his child from being true to him or herself, or encourages dishonesty with others, or heaps additional hostility and alienation onto the persecution his child already receives from the outside world. The ideal of parenthood is to love one’s children for all of their traits: proud of the good qualities, in spite of the bad, and appreciative of the rich variety of neutral characteristics – such as sexual orientation and gender identity – that sum to make us unique as individuals and as their children.
And so when I read these reports, I don’t see it as a smear on fatherhood; rather, it’s an exhortation to live up to a standard, so that fathers and their LGBT children can enjoy the full extent of what should be a special bond, different from but as honest and as positive as the relationships between LGBT children and their mothers. These data should function as a reminder to all fathers – to all parents and all people – that one’s sexual orientation should never undermine the strength or integrity of a personal relationship.
With approximately 12 months to go until the next Father’s Day, let’s challenge all current and future fathers to uphold this standard so that we may ensure the equitable treatment of LGBT children and better celebrate fatherhood going forward.
*Transgender individuals’ answers to questions were mostly excluded because the limited number of respondents precluded precise findings.