By Chris Crain
Mary Cheney’s announcement in December that she is pregnant with a child she will raise with long-time partner Heather Poe drew some predictably mean reaction from some predictable sources. The good Rev. Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family, for example, didn’t miss the opportunity to focus on the father.
“The two most loving women in the world cannot provide a daddy for a little boy,” said Dobson, “any more than the two most loving men can be complete role models for a little girl.”
But just as Mary Cheney can bring out the surprisingly tolerant side of her grumpy conservative dad, her decision to start a family has brought out the surprisingly intolerant side of some usually friendly liberals. None more so than Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr., who wrote this month that he agrees with Daddy Dobson to disagree with Mary and Heather.
“Fathers matter,” wrote Pitts, “something we seem to have forgotten, so busy are we pretending that women and men are interchangeable. My problem with Cheney and Poe is the same problem I’d have with a heterosexual single mom who decided to make herself a baby without benefit of a man in her life. It seems part and parcel of the diminution of fatherhood.”
Pitts seemed genuinely surprised when he was flooded with angry reaction from lesbian and gay readers and even penned a second column defending his disapproval. Pitts, who is African American, insisted his objections were pro-dad and not anti-gay, and he’s backed up by a long history of sometimes moving support for gay rights and acceptance of gay people within black culture.
But that same background has made him sensitive to our “toxic slide” into “a fatherless society,” where “the male parent is considered optional, irrelevant or interchangeable.” Like Dobson, Pitts cites a familiar wealth of social science research for the proposition that a child raised without a biological father is more likely to “live in poverty, do poorly in school, drop out altogether, become a teen parent, exhibit behavioral problems, smoke, drink, use drugs, or wind up in jail.”
That’s where Pitts gets into trouble. It’s one thing to list the problems faced by children raised by single mothers, but it’s quite another to say the missing father is the reason for that parade of horribles. And even if an absent dad is a factor, it’s an even bigger leap to conclude that a two-parent household of the same gender, whether two moms or two dads, would produce children who face the same maladies.
In fact, all the peer-tested social science data out there suggests that children raised by gay parents are at least as well adjusted and happy as those raised by two parents of the opposite gender. Does that mean dads don’t matter? Or, if two gay dads can raise happy, healthy kids, that moms aren’t important? Of course not.
Gay parents face their own unique set of challenges, just as every different sort of parent does, not the least of which is disapproval from the likes of Dobson. I was lucky enough to be raised by my mother and father together in a loving, supportive, middle-class family. But that still left us all ill-equipped to deal with my homosexuality, and it remains a huge barrier in my relationship with each of them.
The reality is that missing fathers are one significant piece in a much larger and more complicated puzzle: the decline in households with parents who are interested and financially able to become invested and involved in the lives of their children.
There are economic and cultural reasons for that phenomenon, and even the loss of “traditional values” no doubt plays a role. But the problem can be found almost entirely in heterosexual households, not gay ones.
And the daddy decline has absolutely nothing to do with happy lesbian couples like Mary Cheney and Heather Poe, who can financially afford the difficult proposition of having babies. These are the opposite of “accidental parents”; to the contrary, they are more prepared than most.
Of course, addressing the cultural and economic changes that undermined two-parent, heterosexual-led households is much more difficult and time-consuming than simply blaming gay parents. It is truly depressing to think about the time, energy and resources wasted making life more difficult for gay parents and their children, when it could have been spent addressing the real problems facing families.
But Focus on the Family wouldn’t be the media empire it is today if Daddy Dobson was pointing the finger back at his red-state constituents, even though the divorce rate there is much higher than in Massachusetts, the only state where gay couples can marry.
It’s still a real shame to see Pitts, who is scheduled to receive an award from Parents Families & Friends of Lesbians & Gays, take the same twisted leap of faith.
More and more, we are witnessing how concern over the decline of traditional mom-and-pop families has morphed into opposition not just to gay parents, but to gay marriage as well. The state supreme courts in New York and Washington both cited the need for a mother and a father as the main justification for laws that limit marriage to straight couples.
et’s hope as the world learns more about gay couples, like Mary and Heather, and like Melissa Etheridge and Tammy Lynn Michaels — showcased for the billions watching the Oscars this week — they’ll focus their attention back on the real problems facing families today.