Discussing gay and lesbian adults’ relationships with their parents
By Corinne Reczek
The growing support for same-sex marriage rights represents an important shift in the everyday lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people in the United States today. However, the continued focus on same-sex marriage in the media, by states, and by local governments, and by scholars and researchers leaves other arenas of the family lives of gay and lesbian adults relatively unexplored.
Of course, like all other Americans, gay and lesbian adults have primary relationships outside of their romantic partnerships. The adult child-parent tie is one of the most enduring and central of our social relationships, with most parents and children having weekly contact, exchanging support and love, and of course experiencing conflict. Indeed gay and lesbian adults keep in steady contact with their family of origin members–most especially parents–as they age into adulthood. Yet, we know virtually nothing about the nature of these intergenerational ties for gay and lesbian adults. While some attention has been paid to the importance parents for LGBTQ adolescents, what happens to the adult child-parent relationships of gay and lesbian adults as they age into mid- and later-life? Do they remain intact? Or are they estranged? Do adult children experience conflict or support? What do these relationships look like?
It is important to pay attention to the adult child-parent relationships of gay and lesbian adults. A child’s non-heterosexual identity has been shown to be associated with negative interactions with later-life parents; later-life parents may be especially unable to accept their gay or lesbian child because they grew up in a sociopolitical era where a gay or lesbian identity was unspeakable at best and pathological at worst. As a result, gay men and lesbian women appear to have fewer family confidants than heterosexuals, and tend to rank social support from friends as more consistent and important than support from family. Yet, gay men and lesbians do maintain contact with parents, even if parents are disapproving of children’s’ sexual identity. How, then, are these relationships negotiated and understood by adult children?
In a recent study on gay men and lesbians in long-term intimate partnerships, I show that there are specific markers of support and strain in gay and lesbian adult child-parent ties. For example, parents demonstrate their support of a gay or lesbian adult child by inclusion through language such as “in-law,” affirmations of support by joining gay rights advocacy groups, and via the integration into every day and special events in ways similar to other adult children. I also found that gay and lesbian adult children know their parents are accepting because parents rely on adult children and their partners for social support and caregiving. While providing social support to parents may be time-consuming and stressful, it is critical for parental well-being and provides an important opportunity for parents to demonstrate trust in gay and lesbian adult children.
The picture, of course, isn’t entirely rosy. The gay and lesbian intergenerational tie is embedded within broader institutional norms of heterosexuality and homophobia, and these broader structural constraints of homophobia and heterosexism contour these negative family interactions–with implications for both generations well-being. It appears, in the present study, that conflict is experienced in ways that are similar to when conflict is experienced in other central aspects of identity or life circumstances, such as religious values, finances, and unemployment. For example, adult children might experience significant rejection in their everyday encounters with parents and experience traumatic events of disownment by their parents. Moreover, adult children suggest that they are scared that their property may be usurped by a parent, rather than be taken care of by a partner, if something were to happen to them.
There’s hope for people who have strained relationships with their parents, however. Key moments, such as family death, illness, or injury, were described as transformative in ways that altered the structure of the adult-child-parent tie from negative to positive. Also, there has been remarkable legal and social change over the past decade, including the federal and state-level legalization of same-sex marriage and decreased public and institutional stigma against gay and lesbian identities. Given this social change, there is strong potential for changing the nature of conflictual intergenerational relationships. Clearly, the years after these social and legal changes may provide new opportunity for supportive intergenerational relationships for adult children coming of age in a new social and political era.
Dr. Corinne Reczek is an Assistant Professor in the departments of Sociology and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Ohio State University. Dr. Reczek’s research focuses on gay and lesbian families, including relationships between parents and gay and lesbian adult children, same-sex marriage, and the health of minor children in same-sex relationships. Her work was most recently published in The Journals of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological and Social Sciences, her article “The Intergenerational Relationships of Gay Men and Lesbian Women” is freely available to read now” You can find Corinne on Twitter @CorinneReczek.
The Journals of Gerontology® were the first journals on aging published in the United States. The tradition of excellence in these peer-reviewed scientific journals, established in 1946, continues today. The Journals of Gerontology, Series B® publishes within its covers the Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences and the Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences.