The recent Supreme Court ruling permitting same-sex marriage in all fifty of the United States has sent reverberations around the globe. As part of its deliberation on the matter, the Supreme Court justices acknowledged that marriage is not just a bond between two consenting adults, but the base upon which families are sometimes built. As such, they considered the welfare of children being raised by same-sex couples, asking, in effect, if Gay men and Lesbians are fit enough parents.
Here in Israel, the question of same-sex parenting is even more relevant since the community has overwhelmingly prioritized children over marriage. You might even say that there is a ‘gayby’ boom, since so many in Israel’s ‘Proud’ (a local term) community are raising families. Much press attention has been paid to the method by which we become parents (international, mostly third world surrogacy), but surprisingly few have followed the lead of the American Supreme Court and asked if gender and sexual orientation affect one’s ability to parent?
I doubt that the absence of this discussion is due to a lack of sexism or a love of Queer people, since Israeli society is quite gender conservative and at times downright homophobic. Rather, I suspect that the overwhelming desire to produce large numbers of Jewish offspring has trumped any real criticism of same-sex parenting. Certainly the critics are out there (the writer and media host Irit Linur is one of them), but like those who oppose single mothering, their voices are drowned out by the thunderous roll of baby carriages that comes with what might be termed the ‘national parenting project’.
So, what do we know about parents who are attracted to or in a relationship with a partner of the same sex? To begin with, most of us know what we feel and believe. Some are guided by a religious conviction that mandates the creation of a couple-based heterosexual family with a female preeminent parental figure. Others interpret the dictates of nature to mean that a child is best reared by a feminine force that gives birth and offers nurture. Any deviation from this seems unnatural and therefore unhealthy for a child. Still others use memories of the mothering they received as the basis for their feelings on the subject. More liberal-minded individuals want to believe that good parenting can happen regardless of gender or romantic orientation.
Few of us, I believe, are truly comfortable with the idea of one or two men tenderly and effectively raising children without the presence of a woman. Slightly more can see two women doing a decent job and after nearly three decades of debate, we have become more or less accustomed to single mothers.
But if we are — like the high-court Justices of America — going to pass judgment on this question, we should perhaps do as they have done and examine the research-based evidence. Studies conducted in North America and Europe since the 1970s consistently conclude that gay men and lesbians are every bit as good as heterosexual parents when it comes to parenting healthy, well-adjusted children. “Rarely is there as much consensus in any area of social science as in the case of gay parenting, which is why the American Academy of Pediatrics and all of the major professional organizations with expertise in child welfare have issued reports and resolutions in support of gay and lesbian parental rights” states Dr. Judith Stacey of New York University.
In fact, recent studies indicate that gay parents might be better than average, given their generally higher than average levels of education, intent and commitment to the parenting process. It would appear that what makes for a healthy child is good, planned and consistent parenting rather than the structure of the family unit or the gender of the parents.
Israeli society has, in some ways, instinctively understood this, even if it has done so passively and perhaps for the wrong reasons. Despite the fact that we have allowed religious considerations to surpass democratic principles when it comes to marriage, we are downright egalitarian when it comes to child-rearing. The ‘national parenting project’, meant to increase Jewish demographics, has more or less ignored the gender or marital status of parents, preferring to see as many of us involved as possible.
That seems like a good thing, though I think we can and should do much more in order to make it safe and comfortable for all parents to do their part in creating the next generation of Israelis. We need to acknowledge and value the fact that so many different types of adults are willing to sacrifice a great deal in order to parent. To begin with, we need to adjust the language of convention to reflect the diversity of family structures — any man who has gone to enroll for paternity leave in the National Insurance “Division of Motherhood” or any single parent who fills out a school registration form that presumes two parents, understands how these little things can demoralize.
Most importantly though, we need to create legal, medical and social-service structures that reflect and support the full range of parents and families. It needs to be much easier for same-sex partners to create legal family units and benefit equally from rights and protections in areas such as taxation. Men who make legal co-parenting arrangements with women to whom they are not married, need to have their contracts recognized and respected far more than is currently the norm such that they are not constantly vulnerable. It is time to recognize family units that include multiple generations and/or supportive adults who might not be related to nor partnered with the child’s primary parent(s).
Zionism set about to reconstitute gender roles, equality and child-rearing; Israel was one of the first nations to re-think parenting in the modern era. We need to be true to that legacy in our day by moving beyond our conventional understanding of family. As a person who did not grow up here, I am always amazed and pleased by the level of care and concern given to children. That care, I believe, needs to be extended to parents as well. Setting aside personal beliefs and comfort levels in favor of child-welfare such that we can accept and support all types of families, is in the end a great benefit to us all.