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Heather Barwick always found it easy to love her mom. But loving two moms? That was a bit more complicated.
Barwick was around 3 years old when her parents divorced, and her dad rarely visited afterward. Her mom began a relationship with another woman that lasted a decade. It wasn’t until Barwick entered kindergarten in Maryland that she realized other kids didn’t live with same-sex parents. The boys in school thought it was awesome her mom was a lesbian.
Yet, while Barwick knew her biological mom loved her, she felt troubled by the absence of a dad she barely remembered. “I felt like I had this huge hole. And it just ate at me. I didn’t understand why he wasn’t there, why he didn’t love me.” Her relationship with her “other mom” felt awkward. By age 10 Barwick had asked to see a counselor, and by 15 she was seeking male attention from boyfriends. “I really used sex at a young age as a way to feel loved.”
Dawn Stefanowicz and her brothers grew up in 1960s Toronto with a father who owned an executive recruiting business, drove a Cadillac, and vacationed among gay communities in New York, San Francisco, and Miami. Despite having three live-in, long-term partners over the years, their dad turned the house into a revolving door for gay lovers.
Stefanowicz felt depression from the age of 3. She stuttered, couldn’t remember school lessons, and fought nightmares. If she died, she wondered, would her dad finally notice her? “I had this feeling of not being valued. Not being as important as his other relationships that he had with men.” Time spent with her father sometimes included visiting a gay nude beach or cruising to meet gay men.
‘We don’t know, at age 30, the full impact of what we grew up in. Our ability to handle stress. Our ability to cope with change. To enter and stay in deep, intimate, lifelong relationships.’
Robert Oscar Lopez was the youngest of his biological siblings, and had no memories of his dad before his parents separated. His mother, a psychiatrist, began a relationship with a woman who also had kids, and the two families spent weekends together at an RV park. The women moved in together permanently when Lopez was a teenager.
Growing up in Buffalo, N.Y., Lopez was a nervous child who struggled to make friends. He succeeded in school but felt tension in his home, and didn’t feel at liberty to express his emotions or frustrations to his mom. In addition, he felt an inexplicable compulsion to have sex with men the same age as his absent father. By 16 Lopez had begun accepting money from men in exchange for rendezvous in vans, supermarket restrooms, and a local university library.
Barwick, Stefanowicz, and Lopez experienced different lives in different cities, but they shared this in common: They lived with homosexual parents and their partners. As Western acceptance of homosexuality has increased, so has the visibility of same-sex households: In the United States, about 110,000 same-sex couples had a child under 18 living with them in 2013, according to the Census Bureau.
Many children raised by gay parents are now young or middle-aged adults. Some say their upbringing was positive, but a growing number are beginning to speak out against what they feel is a dysfunctional parenting model. Barwick, Stefanowicz, Lopez, and others believe their same-sex upbringing left them longing for a missing parent, confused about their own sexuality, and rudderless in navigating healthy opposite-sex relationships.
Their experiences are in line with new research suggesting children in same-sex households face an increased risk of emotional and behavioral problems.
The new voices come at a time when the U.S. Supreme Court is considering whether to declare state-approved homosexual marriage a constitutional right. The debate over legal privileges for homosexuals has emphasized rights for adults, but these children, now adults themselves, say another right has been ignored: the right of children to have a mother and father.
Today Barwick, 31, lives in Columbia, S.C., with her husband and four children. She has never before publicly shared her story using her real name. For those like her, speaking out about same-sex parenting can be heart-wrenching: She still has a close relationship with her mom, loves her deeply, and is thankful for her constant involvement as a grandmother.
But Barwick believes it was impossible for her mom’s partner to fill the void she felt growing up: “I couldn’t let go of my dad. I couldn’t choose to love another woman as my parent.”
In school, she felt confused about whether she was supposed to feel romantically inclined toward other girls. “I really like her dress. Does that mean I’m attracted to her? Does that mean I want to kiss her?” she remembers wondering, as a preadolescent, about a best friend. She did kiss a girl when she was about 12.
In high school, her attention turned to guys. Boyfriends offered temporary affirmation, but inwardly Barwick worried people she loved would abandon her. Meanwhile, she earned A’s and B’s on tests—the kind of “success” metrics many adults were looking for.
IT’S RARE FOR ADULT CHILDREN like Barwick to go public with their stories. The political pressure to advocate for their parents’ lifestyle and legal rights is immense. Those who step out of place are pilloried.
Lopez has personally felt the wrath of gay activists. After being diagnosed with cancer in 1998, Lopez decided to reconnect with his dad. Rebuilding a relationship with his father gave him personal stability, and he soon afterward moved in with a girlfriend, who is now his wife.
Not until 2012 did Lopez publicly share his view that his same-sex upbringing was detrimental. Immediately, gay activists emailed administrators at California State University, Northridge, where Lopez works as an English professor, and accused him of being “anti-gay” and “gay-bashing.” One demanded Lopez’s email correspondence through an open records request. Elsewhere, universities canceled Lopez’s speaking engagements. Since then the Human Rights Campaign, a gay advocacy organization, has profiled Lopez on its website as an “exporter of hate.”
‘We’re coming together, we’re finding our voice. And we’re trying to be very independent from both sides because both the right and the left have a tendency to oversimplifying us.’
—Robert Oscar Lopez
Instead of cowering, Lopez has decided to fight back. Last year he co-launched an advocacy group, the International Children’s Rights Institute, whose mission involves defending the right of children to have a mother and father—their biological ones, whenever possible. Stefanowicz is on the organization’s testimonial council, along with other children’s rights advocates and children of gay parents.
“We’re coming together, we’re finding our voice,” said Lopez. “And we’re trying to be very independent from both sides because both the right and the left have a tendency to oversimplifying us.”
Lopez and Stefanowicz say dozens of other children of gay parents have personally contacted them, but are usually unwilling to go public with their stories. Such persons face their own potential backlash from activists or family members.
Up to this point, the supposed consensus in the field of sociology has been that children of same-sex parents are no worse off, on average, than other children. “What We Know,” a research portal hosted at Columbia Law School (and directed by a researcher who is gay himself), claims 71 academic studies show that children of same-sex couples do not face special disadvantages, while only four studies have found they do.
‘I’m not gay, but the relationship that was modeled before me was a woman loving a woman. So I’ve struggled as an adult figuring out how to be in a relationship with my husband.’
But the majority of the studies finding no disadvantages are of dubious quality: They rely on small numbers of survey participants, often recruited through gay advocacy events, websites, sperm banks, parent forums, word of mouth, or other nonrandom methods. Such “convenience samples” can produce useful data but are prone to bias—where the families most likely to respond are those already faring well.
A new study, published in February in the British Journal of Education, Society & Behavioural Science, avoids that problem. It examined a survey database from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, involving random interviews with tens of thousands of U.S. households.
In analyzing data from 512 same-sex couples with a child under 18 living in the home, study author D. Paul Sullins—a sociology professor at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.—found that children raised by same-sex parents were twice as likely to suffer emotional and behavioral problems as children with heterosexual parents. When compared only with children raised jointly by their own biological parents, the difference was even more stark: Children from same-sex households were four times as likely to suffer problems such as depression, anxiety, defiance, or inattention.
When Sullins looked at heterosexual family situations involving stepparenting or cohabitation (where children were missing one or both biological parents), the emotional risks for children were just as high as in same-sex households. That suggests the risks to children may stem mainly from the absence of one or both biological parents from the home—an emotionally difficult situation for children, but one that is inherent to same-sex households.
“The point is not that same-sex persons, whether married or not, are somehow less loving or effective as parents—I have no evidence for this one way or the other,” Sullins said by email. “But that, unlike opposite-sex partners, they cannot jointly procreate a child, which is the type of natural relationship in which children thrive best, by far, with regard to emotional health.”
Critics of Sullins’ study claim it can’t tell us anything meaningful about same-sex parenting because it includes children of divorce, who are themselves more likely to suffer from emotional, behavioral, and academic problems. In order to fairly represent gay parents, critics seem to suggest, surveys should only include children who did not experience divorce and were raised from infancy by stable gay couples. In other words, the childhoods Lopez and Barwick experienced should be tossed out of the data pool.
But such “ideal” same-sex parent situations are rare and would be difficult to measure using a random representative survey. Besides, is it fair to ignore the very factor that often precedes same-sex parenting situations: divorce?
“[Divorce] is still, so far as I can tell, the primary means by which a child comes to be in a same-sex household,” said Mark Regnerus, a University of Texas at Austin sociologist whose own survey of same-sex households in 2012 found children of gay parents were more likely to be unemployed, depressed, unhealthy, promiscuous, and to have a negative view of their childhood. “I think we should evaluate reality as it exists, not complain about the ideal data situation that does not.”
In his study, Sullins noted that while kids from same-sex households showed increased risk (17 percent experienced serious emotional problems, and about 19 percent experienced developmental problems like ADHD or learning disabilities), the majority were apparently well-adjusted.
At least so far. Some adult children say problems stemming from same-sex parenting might not be obvious until later in life.
“We don’t know, at age 30, the full impact of what we grew up in,” said Stefanowicz, who is now married and has two teenage children. “Our ability to handle stress. Our ability to cope with change. To enter and stay in deep, intimate, lifelong relationships.” Stefanowicz is a Christian and credits Jesus for bringing her through childhood struggles, but says she spent two decades processing emotional and psychological issues. (Before her father died of AIDS in 1991, he professed faith in Christ and became abstinent.)
“We today have this idea that all different types of family structures are equal, and have equal outcomes for children. They don’t,” said Stefanowicz. “I’m concerned about children who haven’t had a voice, and haven’t been heard.”
‘I’m not bitter. I’m not angry. I forgive my dad.’
IT WOULD BE INCORRECT to suggest gay moms and dads are incapable of being capable parents. Or to suggest their children are necessarily maladjusted. Katy Faust, who grew up in Portland, Ore., got along well with her mom and her mom’s lesbian partner, who have maintained a stable relationship for nearly three decades: “At my mom’s house during my adolescence and high-school years I don’t recall major strife stemming from their relationship with each other or with me.” She views her mom as an “exceptional parent”—communicative, caring, and involved.
Nevertheless, Faust, 38, is opposed to the legalization of gay marriage. Her biological parents’ divorce when she was in fifth grade was inwardly traumatic. All children desire to live with and be loved by their mother and father—and thrive best in such a scenario, she told me. “Marriage laws should reflect and encourage that ideal.”
At the risk of provoking additional ire from gay rights activists, Faust, Stefanowicz, and Lopez have each filed amicus briefs in federal appeals courts sharing their stories and expressing their opposition to gay marriage. All three plan to submit briefs to the Supreme Court.
Barwick said she only found healing for her “father wound” after she began attending church with her future husband. “It really wasn’t until I came to Christ that I felt that burden lifted off of me. And I’m not bitter. I’m not angry,” she said. “I forgive my dad.”
Still, there have been long-term consequences: “I’m not gay, but the relationship that was modeled before me was a woman loving a woman. So I’ve struggled as an adult figuring out how to be in a relationship with my husband.”
She’s concerned her voice hasn’t been heard. She’s concerned about other kids missing out on a mom and dad. For those reasons she’s planning to add her name to a Supreme Court brief.
For Barwick, it’s possible to oppose gay marriage and still love her mom: “It’s sort of a delicate balance between me speaking up and honoring her.”