What’s a Family?

By Jaime Grant, Contributing Editor, Genders and Sexualities

As recently as a generation ago, conventional wisdom held that LGBTQ people had no family. The story told was this: cast out of our families of origin, social pariahs “incapable” of creating our own families, LGBTQ people led lonely, singular, queer lives.

The truth is that despite powerful obstacles and a modern movement for LGBTQ liberation that is only 50 years old, LGBTQ people have always formed families – working against institutions and attitudes that often prompted their more traditional families to deny them; creating new families out of extended kinship networks of friends, lovers and life-long beloveds; and finally, for some, choosing to parent in creative and multi-faceted ways against myriad social, legal and medical prohibitions.

Once a barely visible “wing” in the LGBTQ movement, the struggle to secure the rights of LGBTQ families has grown into a vibrant part of the larger LGBTQ movement. In 1979, a group of gay fathers came together to form what became the first national LGBTQ parents’ organization; at the same time, the first LGBTQ families programs were emerging at larger city-based community centers. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force founded its families program in the early ‘90s, launching a census education campaign to record same-sex partnerships and creating seminal coalitions with organizations like the Children’s Defense Fund and the National Association of Social Workers.

In November of 2008, I had the privilege of organizing a gathering of LGBTQ activists involved in organizing for family policy and services within the LGBTQ movement.  This article considers some of the vibrant, respectful wrestling that these LGBTQ family movement leaders undertook together over two days. We understood that only in approaching the topics that triggered our greatest anxieties – in some cases this meant defining fault-lines in our movement – could we begin to create the clarity essential to forging a vision for the future of our movement and our families. I note these conversations below, which we called “Pink Elephant” discussions because we chose to name the Pink Elephant in the room that we had all been previously avoiding.


What’s a family? How does the way we answer this question constrain or expand the possibilities? How does it shape law and society? How does it empower or afflict the LGBTQ families in our midst?

What do we mean as a movement when we say “family”? Are we conflating partnership and parenting? Are we privileging partnership? Are we positioning marriage as an ideal? What is an LGBTQ family?

Is there a tension between defining LGBTQ family to the larger culture – a concept that has been maligned and misrepresented to our social, economic and legal detriment – while our own internal definition of LGBTQ family within our movement is still “a work in progress” or “under construction”?

Attendees struggled with the basic limiters of the structure: Is LGBTQ family a unit defined by parents and children? Are we putting forth images that marginalize larger kinship structures, polyamorous family arrangements, single parents or single people? Many noted that while family as a concept is inherently relational, we need to be careful not to promote a version of family in which single people living on their own cannot locate themselves in our definitions or representations of LGBTQ family.

Advocates reported that while many families programs at the major LGBTQ centers were founded to address the needs of LGBTQ people navigating a path toward parenthood and raising children, there is a need for the LGBTQ family movement to construct and position the broadest possible definition of family.

The benefits of an expansive definition of family were described as manifold:

  • It would prompt the movement to consider policy priorities in the broadest possible terms, addressing the needs of perhaps the “most queer” within our communities. Those who are most disenfranchised in the larger culture are often most vulnerable at the hands of institutions that typically ensure our well-being such as the workplace, health-care settings, criminal justice system, etc.
  • It could lead to deeper engagement with our processes of considering and defining family, as illustrated by one participant, an adult heterosexual daughter of a gay father, who asked: “Is the family that I am creating an LGBTQ family? Or just my Dad’s?”
  • It could provide a natural bridge to allied communities’ struggles for legal and economic security and provide the opening for connective conversation and action.

Participants noted that “traditional” family models can be extremely constraining and stigmatizing for heterosexual people as well. A participant said: “The struggle of limited and restrictive policies privileging some mythic ‘traditional’ family is a heterosexual problem as well. We have to break these stereotypes about how we define ourselves.”

By leading with the value that people should be able to define their families and who sustains them without fear of discrimination or oppression, we can build a larger movement among LGBTQ people and our allies, joining with communities facing similar attacks in terms of family recognition and rights. Many other vulnerable families, such as single mothers, large families and families with limited incomes, are stigmatized and read as “Queer” (i.e. not legitimate) by the larger culture.


How does our need to promote a version of the “perfect LGBTQ family” as a strategy to secure family rights affect our movement? How does it affect children of LGBTQ parents? How does this affect our research frames on our families? And how do these frames serve to police both parents and children around their gender expression, sexuality, and mental health?

Participants agreed that the positing of the “perfect LGBTQ family” as a strategy to “earn” our rights creates multiple tensions for LGBTQ parents and their children.

First, LGBTQ parents express fear when their children are evaluated in any arena as not meeting or exceeding the “norm,” because they do not want to fuel the Right’s insistence that our families create “bad outcomes.” There are endless areas for concern here, and they include such issues as social and sexual behavior, gender expression, substance abuse, and learning dis/ability. This fear silences and isolates LGBTQ parents dealing with important, possibly life-threatening challenges and increases the potential for negative outcomes. A participant reported: “It’s all about this fear. We’re always on the defensive. We’re always defending our right to have rights, our right to be a family, our right to exist and have the same rights and validation. The cost of that often comes in having to show that we are ‘normal.’”  One advocate said: “Politically, we need to accept a lot of different kinds of families. Then put all of those families forward as representing our families.”

Second, LGBTQ parents, whom we might assume would be very accepting and supportive of gender variance and a broad range of sexual identities and expressions in their children, may instead be exceptionally challenged by the notion of their children exploring their sexual orientation and gender identity. One researcher noted that some research suggests, “Children of LGBTQ parents are more likely to question their own gender identity and sexual orientation. Our kids have broader senses of many of the things in the world because they’ve been brought up in a community that faces homophobia, transphobia and other forms of prejudice. Because they’ve had their minds open to fluidity when it comes to gender and sexual orientation—that does make their experience different.”

Nonetheless, children of LGBTQ parents feel multiple pressures as well. Many are fiercely protective of their families, especially their parents, and feel pressure to perform as “Super Children” for the larger culture. This may cause them to hide or suppress debilitating or even dangerous challenges. In this vein, some may hide their gender variance or sexual orientation for the “benefit” of the whole. Others may identify with their parents or perceive a parental belief in the superiority of gender transgression or a lesbian, gay or bisexual orientation, pushing them down a path toward an inauthentic gender identity or sexual orientation. Others still may suppress an authentic LGBTQ identity because they resist the notion that, as one participant reported, “their parents made them that way.”

Finally, our panel of experts talked about how “poster family syndrome” comes into play in the arena of LGBTQ research. One participant situated in an LGBTQ research and resource center noted that: “Researchers face tensions about publishing research that is seemingly unfavorable toward LGBTQ people regarding parenting, monogamy, or relationship issues, because the Right may use it as a political tool for marginalization.” Others noted that our research frames themselves often belie a kind of internalized homophobia, such as the emphasis on “normal” outcomes in children of LGBTQ parents.

Much like the discussion about what a family is, the poster family discussion surfaced the deep tensions and challenges that “traditional” family constructs pose for LGBTQ families and efforts to advocate for them. We must dig deeper into these tensions to identify when to leverage our similarities and when to leverage our differences – because both are strengths — as a strategy to advance not only equality, but justice for LGBTQ families.



What are our values around racial and economic justice as they relate to assistive reproductive technologies, trans-racial adoption, transnational adoption, and surrogacy? How do we reconcile deep desires and limited options to parent with ethics around the potential for the exploitation of poor people and people of color in the creation of LGBTQ families?

LGBTQ family advocates appear to be caught between a rock and a hard place in discussing this formidable Pink Elephant. Given the concerted, virulent, well-funded opposition to LGBTQ people’s right to form our families and raise children – and given the reality that this opposition has gained some ground at the ballot box — any conversation that seems to judge or impede an individual family’s path toward parenting is extremely painful and fraught with difficulty.

Up against enormous attack, LGBTQ advocates must vigorously and continuously argue for our right to form family as we choose. But a serious question begs consideration: do we believe LGBTQ people have the right to parent by any means necessary?

Given these tensions and the reality that forming our families is an emotional and deeply personal path, LGBTQ advocates have not proposed or promoted an overarching value system or language around assisted reproductive technologies, trans-racial and transnational adoption, foster care, or surrogacy. In the absence of an articulated value system, or an offering of “best practices,” advocates note that the movement has essentially “left people to figure this out for themselves.”

Discussion in the community to date has been very parent-centered, which often ignores the governmental and economic forces that surround bringing a disadvantaged child into an advantaged nation, family or community. While most programs emphasize the “how-to” of bringing a child into one’s family, participants noted that the U.S. often creates the conditions (through war or economic policy) that undergird transnational adoption, yet these issues are not raised or considered thoughtfully in (most) adoption processes.

Racial and economic injustice is a key causal factor in the availability of children of color within the U.S. as well; we know that white LGBTQ parents are raising a significant number of adopted children of color and are looking for help to meet the needs of these cherished children. One director of a family project reported that they offer an eight-part series for parents of adopted kids of color that helps white parents “unpack our own racism. It should be a goal to instill anti-racist frameworks before children of color are brought into a family.”

Another advocate asked: “When is the time to ask ourselves how these children become available? We have to think beyond the simple story that these children were in terrible, distressed situations, and we are ‘saving’ them. What caused the extremity in these families? How are we as a movement working to address these underlying issues: war, the targeting of men of color for incarceration, drug economies in impoverished nations and neighborhoods, etc.”

A participant noted: “We don’t talk about the larger structural issues, power relationships and economic relationships. So, we’re only left with a conversation that feels very blaming about any individual choice.” One advocate reported with some distress that before coming to the gathering, a man whom she is very close to called her, jubilant that he had located a very inexpensive surrogate in India and was about to get on to a plane. “I care about him. I support his choice to be a father. What do I say?”

One expert in reproductive justice cautioned that the many different ways of bringing a child into a family should be carefully considered and also distinguished in our advocacy work. There are in fact many big conversations to be had about structural issues on several distinct fronts. Another advocate seconded this, noting that the conversation about anonymous donor insemination and its effects on children is a very under-researched and under-discussed arena in our families work.

At this point, a veteran advocate noted that a solution that has been posed in terms of the movement’s framework or strategic approach is that “while the current value system is very parent-centered, we might move toward a child- centered view in creating our litmus test for best practices.” An example of this might be, as in the case of transnational adoption, we could develop a series of best practices based on the voices and outcomes described in emerging research by and about transnational or trans-racial adoptees.

This might also shift the “rescue” narrative of foster care and adoption that can be counterproductive to the identity formation of fostered and adopted children. Finally, one advocate suggested that a child-centered approach would also likely recognize that children and parents need separate spaces to reflect on adoption, foster care, assistive reproductive technologies and surrogacy. In that case, this child-driven focus would create new programs and priorities at LGBTQ family organizations. With current estimates at one million LGBTQ parents raising two million children, it is apparent that whatever way forward is identified, it must include balancing both the immediate and long-term needs to the communities we are creating.


As has often been the case in our liberation work, drawing on the experience of being targeted as ‘deviant’ or ‘unworthy’ families due to gender identity and/or sexual orientation has created a history of survival strategies and critical thinking about families that can be useful across movements.

LGBTQ advocates working in the arena of family security, immigration, racial and economic justice and youth empowerment can all benefit from the multi-layered conversation offered by this gathering of experts.

Look for the release of a full book on the proceedings of the gathering, What’s a Family?, from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in the near future.

1 Comment

  1. Jim Campbell

    Lisa, a broader and deeper contextualizing of this discussion would be, I think, its situating in the evolutionary framework of the study of Morgan’s “Ancient Families” (?), and Engels’ “The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State”. Further, Diop’s basic response to Engels from an African historical perspective in his seminal African history whose title escapes me would enrich this discussion/analysis. This should make for an enlightening course of study over two semesters. This course idea has occurred to me since retiring and listening to and following this passionately earnest and very serious discussion for the past few years. The thesis of this course could be: ’the family is a conscious human social bonding creation/invention/development, and it is a continuously evolving conscious social bonding network between humans’. Just thoughts. Jim Campbell