02/28/2014 02:03 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

Not the Same or Different: A Better Way to Look at LGBT-headed Families


Photo: Lori Patrick

Griffin Raby-Milano was 2 when I first interviewed his dads about their family. Clean-cut, natives of the Midwest, steeped in solid middle-class values, Michael Milano and Greg Raby reminded me a little of Brian and David, the TV couple portrayed on The New Normal, a sitcom (canceled last year) about two gay men and the surrogate who agrees to carry their baby. Mike and Greg adopted. They were in the delivery room when Griffin was born in 2009 and a few months ago greeted their second adopted son, Hudson. Experiencing the happy addition with their other Facebook friends, I wondered: How different is their life from any dual-earner couple, gay or straight, caring for a preschooler and a baby?

Arguably, gay men have to be more conscious about family. As sociologists Timothy Biblarz and Judith Stacey concluded, "their daunting routes to parenthood seem likely to select for more strengths than limitations." Adoption and surrogacy (and for female couples, sperm donors and in vitro fertilization) require considerable investment, forethought and possible legal barriers. "The agencies force you to consider your vision, your desires," recalls Mike, "and to think about church, discipline, and what your parenting strategies are."

Although social acceptance is an ongoing challenge for some LGBT parents, so far the only discrimination Michael and Greg have encountered is related to gender, not sexual orientation. Michael's aunts rarely raise eyebrows in public with their two adopted 3-year-olds. "Two women with small children is a common sight," he says. That double standard was also evident recently when normally supportive family and colleagues were "shocked" about Michael taking a three-month "maternity" leave to be with Hudson. "It's socially acceptable for a woman to do this, and not a man," Greg laments.

But how different, really, is the Raby-Milano family? When they talk about their everyday lives, Greg and Michael sound like your average couple in the thick of the hardest parenting years. "Finding time is more difficult, and finding energy can be harder still," says Greg. "In most ways we share the same challenges, worries, and joys as all parents." Also typical of partners who become parents, they see less and less of old friends who don't have children. "We mostly socialize with straight couples who have children similar in ages to the boys," Greg adds.

"Where we differ is that many of them have more traditional caregiving roles, whereas Mike and I seem to more evenly share the responsibilities. We also do more together; other couples seem to divide chores. We grocery shop as a unit of four, spend time cooking together."

LGBT couples are -- theoretically -- freer to chose who does what, based on personality and preference, not gender. But Michael and Greg run an egalitarian household because it suits them, not because they're gay. They believe -- and research confirms -- that seeing both of them wield a wrench and soothe a boo-boo is good for Griffin and Hudson. Other same-gender partners might cleave to more traditional roles, especially if one is the breadwinner and the other is the stay-at-home parent. In lesbian families, if one is the "gestational mother," she might be the more hands-on parent -- or not.

"There are differences between individual families, and also in the individuals and what they bring to the table, including their genetics," agrees Nanette Gartrell, visiting distinguished professor at the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law. She's been studying two-mother households since 1986, just as the "lesbian baby boom" started gaining momentum. "You can't make assumptions based on parents' sexual orientation."

Every family is unique, a particular mix of three factors: the individuals, their relationships (in a family of four, there are six!), and their context -- the various settings and circumstances that influence them. To be sure, LGBT couples have unique challenges. Even in 2014, when six in 10 Americans say they have a close friend, work colleague, or relative who is gay or lesbian, stigmatizing and bullying are still a fact of life for these families. However, according to Gartrell, "their children are doing exceptionally well." Similar long-term data isn't yet available for families headed by gay men (that "boom" started in the early 2000s), but she says, "So far, we're not seeing differences in terms of child outcomes."

LGBT parents aren't necessarily "better," but the fact that so many of their children seem to be resilient enough to deal with whatever life throws at them is a testament to both the individuals and their relationships. The Gaby-Milano family mirrors what Gartrell found in successful lesbian-headed families -- indeed, what researchers find in all strong families: The adults -- both conscientious, caring men -- have good coping skills and a solid relationship with each other and with their sons. Michael and Greg are equally involved in their boys' lives. They are nurturing without being overprotective, and honest about their circumstances. When Griffin was 2, they had already started to say, "When you were in your biological mother's belly...."

All families face challenges. Those that can pull together as a unit are able to manage the everyday and the unexpected with grace. Parents set the intention. As Michael told me in 2011, "We have goals and objectives as a family, and Griffin is part of how we get there." And now, so is little Hudson.