Lesbian and Gay Parenting Questions & Answers Column With Arlene Istar LevDear Ari

A column by Arlene (Ari) Istar Lev

Kansas Custody Case

Posted By on September 4, 2010

Dear Ari:

My children are 9, 8, and 3 1/2. My two oldest children have a different father that my youngest. Since I have told my ex-husband I am a lesbian, he has decided that he wants residential custody of my two oldest children. He is threatening to take me to court because living “out” is an unhealthy environment for them, if I don’t agree to change the custody agreement. I have not told my children about my sexuality, but want to tell them. I think that they are old enough to understand, but I am not sure of the words to use. I want to tell them in a healthy, safe way before their father does it his way.  I want to know if my being gay has any influence over whether or not they want to live with their father. I am not in a relationship right now, so will my sexuality be too abstract for them to understand without a significant other?
—Jennifer Kansas

Dear Jennifer:

I wasn’t clear Jennifer, if Kansas is your last name or if you live in Kansas, at the gateway to Oz? Geography is a much more serious field of study these days, living as we do in these very un-United States. I confess that I do not know much about the politics of Kansas, but I won’t assume that no news is good news. Fighting a custody battle in a Red state is not a fight you want to engage in if you can avoid it. The first thing I would do is find yourself a good attorney who is familiar with working with gay families. Contact Lambda Legal Defense, or another LGBT legal organization to find out what the situation is in your state, and what you can do to protect yourself and your children.

My second line of defense is to work directly with your ex-husband to try to stay out of the courts. I virtually never think it is good for our children to have their parents fighting each other in a court system, and this goes way beyond gay issues. Can you find a supportive therapist in your area (and it’s worth a drive) who will work with you and your husband in a family mediation to help you decide what is best for your children? Is the only reason your husband wants the kids now because you’ve come out? What are his concerns? It is important to explore his concerns with respect. If people are ignorant or uninformed about homosexuality or gay parenting, they have some very frightening views of what it is we “do” to our children. The good news is that this is very easily addressed through education. In many ways a supportive heterosexual therapist might be the best one to set your husband’s mind at ease. The research has unequivocally shown that children raised in lesbian and gay homes grow up to have a healthy self-esteem, and do not have any additional struggles in their sexual or gender development. This research is easily found on the web, and can be made available to your ex-husband. The more you and your ex can work together to build an extended family system for your children to live in, where you are both sending them the same messages about intimacy, love, and relationships (same-sex and opposite sex), the healthier it will be for your children. Yes, I am aware this is not always possible, but should still be held as an ideal.

I agree that your children are old enough to know about your sexuality, but I don’t think children are ever too young to know about this. We are not talking about sex here, but sexual orientation. By way of an analogy, children of any age can know that babies are born from women’s bodies, without knowing the details of sexual behavior between grownups. Children can, and should, know that some people love women and other people love men, and that relationships and families come in all forms that are equally good and healthy. Your children can know that you identify as gay or lesbian, and that if were to date someone, it would likely be a woman. Children accept our position in life when it is presented in a matter-of-fact way, without explanation or defensiveness.

I have often given advice about exactly how to talk about children, but the simple answer is to do it directly, clearly, and proudly. Do not reveal it to them as if it is a secret, as if it is something to be ashamed of, as if it is in anyway a bad or dangerous thing. I would answer any questions that they have with simple directness. I can’t imagine why this information about your sexual orientation would change your children’s desire to live with you, unless they have been taught to believe that homosexuality is in some way evil. If so, you need to work hard to undo those messages, first, before you come out to them.

Coming out–like most important things in parenting (talking about sex, talking about drugs, talking about God)–is not something that happens once, in a hush-hush kind of way. It is something that needs to be an ongoing topic of conversation that is spoken about easily over the dinner table, without shame or fear. Children deserve to know what we grown up queers know, that being gay is a wonderful thing, a gift, a pleasure and a source of great joy.  Like many good things (chocolate comes to mind,) it has a down side. Near as I can tell the big down side of homosexuality has to do with other people’s opinions.

I do discuss this issue, and many others in my book, The Complete Lesbian and Gay Parenting Guide (Berkley Press, 2004) but each situation is unique, and each child is unique. I once worked with a family whose mom had recently come out, and her nine-year old son said, “I know you are gay, but you are not gay ‘like that,’ and he pointed to a book on my shelf with the words ‘gay parenting’ in it.” I asked him what “like that” meant, and he said, “Like Mommy and Daddy were. You don’t do that.”  It was okay for him to have a gay mom, but not okay for him to have a sexually-active gay parent. When his mom said to him, “Yes, I am gay just like that,” he eyes grew very wide. But slowly he said, “Ohhh, okay, I could get used to that.” In the same way kids have a hard time hearing that their straight parents are sexual, they may struggle with hearing that their lesbian parents are sexual. Of course, our sex lives are none of their business, but I do not see this as prying about sexual behavior, as much as their attempts to try and understand what gay or lesbian exactly means, and how that impacts them. As I am writing this, I’m aware that the same thing is true for your ex-husband. He may just be a confused nine-year old, who needs some hand-holding to understand what it means that your are gay, and some explanation of how the finer points will, and will not, impact his life.

Although I always think we should take the threat of legal action seriously, I also don’t think it should change our narrative at all. The story you tell your children about their family, our sexuality, and about love should be the same no matter how others try to define it. It’s a good story, and they’ll help you write the happy ending.