Parenthood, beyond gender and sexuality


“I believe this child should have the opportunity and the option to live in a non-lesbian world.” It was with this declaration that an American judge, in 1995, preferred to entrust the custody of Cassey, 12 years old, to John Ward, his biological father, already condemned for the murder of a former spouse, rather than to Mary Ward, her biological mother, in a relationship at the time of the trial with a woman, and who would therefore have raised her in a lesbian family.

Ward v. Ward is reported by Scottish psychologist Susan Golombok in her book We are family , published in 2020. The example serves in a way as a yardstick by which to account for the role of social science research in the evolution of conceptions of the “good” family.

Indeed, the first research on non-heterosexual families was carried out in response to the need to develop psycho-legal expertise to assess the parental skills of lesbian mothers divorced from a heterosexual spouse and whose custody of the children was contested by their ex-spouses on the basis of their lesbianism.

Four decades of research

Beyond the anecdote, Susan Golombok underlines how much the perception of the capacity of homosexual parents to provide a healthy and adequate environment for their child has evolved during the last decades.

We now have more than four decades of research in psychology and sociology, which have sought to find out whether the homosexuality of the parents was likely to have an impact in terms of parenting skills (for example their ability to supervise and to reassure their child), the well-being and development of children, their relationships with their peers, the propensity of children to identify as cisgender or heterosexual, etc.

This research clearly demonstrates that same-sex parenting or lesbo-parenting does not change the well-being and psychological development of children . Thus, compared to children of heterosexual parents, children raised by two mothers or by two fathers do not have more difficulty identifying their gender, do not experience more anxiety or difficulties with social integration, and are not more at risk of experiencing sexual abuse or becoming gay or lesbian.

The only difference that consistently emerges is the openness of their children (once grown up) to questioning the assumption of heterosexuality to which they are subjected and to experimenting with partners of different genders .

While we have only just begun to document the impacts of transparency on children, the first results of the surveys support these same conclusions, with the difference that the ease with which children experience the transition of a parent can be greatly mitigated by the acceptance shown by those around them towards the trans parent.

Regardless of the gender identity and sexual orientation of the parent(s), it is love, presence and support for the child(ren) that is important for a child to feel good and grow up in the best conditions. The question is therefore for all intents and purposes settled scientifically.

The fact that we continue to ignore it and to question as soon as possible the “consequences” for a child of being raised by two fathers, by two mothers or by a trans parent shows that what is at stake is rather the ideology. It’s not that we don’t know, it’s that we refuse to recognize that it’s possible to have a family without betting on male-female complementarity.

Parent 1, Parent 2

It is this same difficulty in apprehending parenting outside of the gender binary that is at stake when efforts to degender language sporadically arouse outcry. One of the latest, in France, dates back to February 2019. A majority MP tabled an amendment to the Blanquer bill – named after the Minister of National Education at the time. It is a question of replacing the mentions father and mother by parent 1 and parent 2 on the administrative documents, so as to take into account the variety of family configurations in which the children evolve.

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Immediately, the conservative movements get carried away. La Manif pour tous, for example, denounces an “absolutely dehumanizing” text. Even the Association of homoparental families, whose enthusiasm for this measure could have been presumed, regrets that these designations contribute to establishing a hierarchy between parents. The Senate was quick to remove this measure, against which Minister Blanquer had also spoken.

The situation raises questions, particularly with regard to the vehemence of the opposition reactions to these attempts to degender the language. Indeed, how is it that the very idea of ​​expanding representations to include a diversity of individuals and families hitherto unrepresented or poorly represented generates so much resentment?

In the introduction to an issue of Cahiers du Genre on inclusive language, researchers Marie Loison and Gwenaëlle Perrier note that the majority of debates around non-sexist or inclusive language are not carried out by language specialists, but by “opponents of feminist and LGBTQI causes”. The issue would therefore not be so much linguistic as eminently political and, as such, would be part of the movement of other controversies such as those relating to marriage for all and the ABCDs of equality.

Inclusive language, neutral language

The use of the terms “parent 1” and “parent 2” questions the ability to degender or “gender differently” the French language. If these questions have only recently mobilized the public interest – in France, especially with the controversy generated by the inclusion of the neuter pronoun iel in the Robert dictionary – they have long been of concern to feminist and queer movements .

Lawyer Florence Ashley distinguishes inclusive French from neutral French . The first would seek to promote the equal representation of women in the language, for example by using long doublets (“teachers and teachers”) or the midpoint (“teacher s”). The second (a variation of the first) aims rather to adapt it to non-binary gender identities, by using epicene formulations (e.g. “parent”), by reactivating terms or by inventing others (” authors”).

The domains of pregnancy and parenthood are by default very gendered in a binary way. This means that it is considered that roles necessarily and always fall on the mother, because she is a woman, and on the father, because he is a man. So the mother would be the person who provides the egg, who carries the child, who cuddles, who takes most of the parental leave. The father would provide the sperm and therefore would have a role of companion during pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding (when it takes place). He would be the one teasing, tickling, encouraging risk-taking, etc.

It is in the context of these binary conceptions of gender roles in parenting that we speak of “new fathers” (those fathers who are involved in the daily care of their children, a territory falling disproportionately on mothers in heteroparental families) or the domestic mental workload of women , this unequal distribution of domestic and educational tasks which is exercised to the detriment of women in heterosexual couples.

It is also this idea that the genders would be complementary in parenthood that is undermined by the results of decades of empirical studies on homoparental or lesboparental families.

Author Bio: Gabrielle Richard is as Gender Sociologist at Paris-Est Créteil Val de Marne University (UPEC)