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In the narrowest sense, the term lesbian and gay family refers to lesbian and gay individuals or same-sex couples and their children. The term is sometimes used to refer to same-sex partnerships or cohabiting relationships. In the broadest sense, the term can denote social networks that include lesbian or gay individuals and/or couples where some or all of the members self-define as “family.” These latter arrangements have also been described as “surrogate,” “friendship,” or “chosen families.”
Lesbian and gay families have become high-profile social and political issues since the 1980s. They touch on a broad range of sociological themes to do with family life and social change, family diversity, and alternative family practices. The topics of lesbian and gay families and families of choice have played an important part in debates on the demise of traditional conceptions of family, the legitimacy of new family forms, and contemporary reconfigurations of family obligations, responsibilities, and care. Existing sociological work on the topics includes theorizing and research into the historical, social, and political forces that have facilitated the emergence of lesbian and gay families and families of choice; theoretical discussions of their social and political significance; and studies of the meanings, structures, and social practices associated with them at local levels.
Several theorists have argued that the emergence of AIDS in the 1980s and political responses to it were key factors in shaping the current emphasis in lesbian and gay politics on family issues in Europe and North America. Initially, Moral Right responses to AIDS reinforced the historical construction of lesbians and gay men as a threat to the family. In the United Kingdom, for example, legislation was introduced in the late 1980s (commonly known as Section 28) that explicitly sought to ban the promotion by local authorities of homosexuality ”as a pretended family relationship. Such interventions, however, had the reverse effect of mobilizing a lesbian and gay family-oriented politics. Some theorists have further argued that community-based caring responses to AIDS were ultimately to underscore the importance of family-type relationships for lesbians and gay men. This view has been criticized on the basis that it undermines the existence of non-heterosexual caring relationships that preexisted AIDS.
While lesbian and gay families have long been of interest to scholars of sexualities, they have more recently come to the attention of sociologists of family life. This new interest is partly due to the current concern with family diversity and changing patterns of relating. Lesbian and gay families are now being explored for the insights they provide into the challenges and possibilities presented by detraditionalized family life. From this perspective, these family forms are studied for how they are structured and operate outside institutionalized norms and supports that have traditionally shaped ”the family. Because of the lack of gender-based differences in same-sex relationships, lesbian and gay families are also examined for the possibilities of organizing family without clearly defined gendered roles. A number of theorists have argued that because of the lack of gendered assumptions, lesbian and gay families are more likely to adopt a friendship model for relating, and operate according to an egalitarian ideal. Empirical studies that have set out to explore the meanings, structure, and practices of lesbian and gay families and families of choice suggest a complex picture.
A number of studies have explored the place, roles, and experience of children in lesbian and gay families. Until recently, such studies tended to be concerned with the implications of growing up in these family forms. Most of this research suggests that this experience is unlikely to have any discernible long-term impact on children s sense of well-being, social connectedness, or family or personal security. Because of the changing historical circumstances in which lesbians and gay men have become parents, most existing studies are of lesbian and gay families with children who were conceived through a parent s previous heterosexual relationship. Recent studies have, however, begun to focus on the experience of families with children, where same-sex couples, individuals, or friends have chosen to take advantage of recent opportunities to become parents through self- or assisted insemination, surrogacy, adoption, and fostering. Many of these studies have moved beyond the focus on children s experience to also explore the blurring of the boundaries between biological and social parenting and the negotiated nature of same-sex parenting.
- Ali, T. (1996) We Are Family: Testimonies of Lesbian and Gay Parents. Cassell, London and New York.
- Heaphy, B., Donovan, C., & Weeks, J. (1998) ”That’s like my life : researching stories of non-heterosexual relationships. Sexualities 1: 435-70.
- Weeks, J., Heaphy, B., & Donovan, C. (2001) Same-Sex Intimacies: Families of Choice and Other Life Experiments. Routledge, London.