What it’s like having gay parents in 2016

(Erin Jeffery, centre, and her mom Judy Jeffery on the right and her mom’s partner, Karen Avery on the left. Photo: Courtesy of Erin Jeffery)

Growing up in the small town of Mill Bay, B.C., Erin Jeffery remembers feeling relatively normal—until she turned 12. That’s how old she was in 1984, the year her mom came out and announced that she was moving to Vancouver with her girlfriend.

The news came as a shock, and Jeffery admits she had a hard time dealing with it. But she’s quick to point out her world came crashing down not because her mom was gay but because she was leaving. And then there was the fact that sexual orientation was not the open topic of discussion it is today, especially in a former mill town with a current population of 3,200.

“I’ve told my mom, ‘if you ever have the chance to do it again, don’t do it just before your child goes through puberty,’” Jeffery says. “It was a rough time. It was 1984 on Vancouver Island. I don’t think I knew what a gay person was. I remember writing in my diary, ‘I want to be normal.’”

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Her mom happened to read that entry (what mom doesn’t?) and lectured her daughter on the fact that she was, in fact, “normal.” But she also cautioned Jeffery not to tell her friends until she was ready. That’s what made Jeffery feel out of place.

“She assumed she would be judged, she would be shunned, and that it would all come down onto me,” Jeffery explains. “So I told almost no one. It was very, very, very hard.”

Today, Jeffery is a mom herself, her mom has been with the same partner for the last 20 years, and her mother and father remain best friends. Things have changed since she was growing up: Jeffery’s young son knows that friends in his elementary school might have two mommies or two daddies—and it’s no big deal.

“It doesn’t matter to him,” says Jeffery, who now lives in New Westminster. “He knows he has a grandfather and two grandmothers [on my side], and it doesn’t need to be explained.”

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Beginning in 2001, children living with two parents could be distinguished in the Canadian census as living with either opposite-sex or same-sex parents.

There were 7,700 people aged 24 and under living with female same‑sex parents in 2011, and 1,900 living with male same‑sex parents.

Research shows that children raised by same-sex couples fare just as well as those who grow up with heterosexual parents.

Claims that children need both a mother and father to thrive presume that women and men parent differently in ways that are crucial to development; however, those claims generally rely on studies that conflate gender with other family structure variables, noted a 2010 study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family. The study concluded that parents’ gender affects neither kids’ psychological adjustment nor their social success.

Organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association support same-sex families, and LGBTQ groups across the country offer parenting groups.

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Zach Wahls is a child of same-sex parents who has shone a light on what family really means. In 2011, he made a presentation to Iowa’s judiciary committee legislators in support of same-sex marriage, and his speech became that year’s most-watched political video, with more than 18 million views. It led to the publication of his 2012 book, My Two Moms: Lessons of Love, Strength, and What Makes a Family.

“The sexual orientation of my parents has had zero impact on the content of my character,” Wahls concluded in his speech to state legislators.

Although progress surrounding the acceptance of families headed by same-sex parents has been tremendous, current circumstances are far from ideal.

Thirty-seven per cent of youth with LGBTQ parents reported being verbally harassed about the sexual orientation of their parents, according to a 2011 survey by Egale Canada Human Rights Trust called Every Class in Every School–the first national climate survey on homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia in Canadian schools. Sixty-one per cent of students with LGBTQ parents reported that they feel unsafe at school. They were are also more likely to be verbally harassed about their own gender expression, perceived sexual orientation or gender identity, gender, and sexual orientation.

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Ann-Marie Sanders and her female partner are parents to an eight-year-old girl; the family recently moved back to Vancouver after having spent a year in a smaller B.C. city.

“We got a lot of stares at the school,” Sanders says. “We just didn’t feel comfortable and didn’t want our daughter growing up in an environment where there was any sense that we weren’t ‘normal’ or where there was any intolerance or unacceptance of our family.

“Vancouver is far more open and accepting,” she adds. “A lot of people take that for granted.”

For Jeffery, meanwhile, her mom’s coming out so many years ago provided a valuable life lesson.

“She was teaching her child it’s important to be true to who you are,” Jeffery says. “It really showed me how important it is to be proud of who you are.”

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