In his second inaugural speech, President Obama linked “Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall”—the birthplaces of the women’s, Black, and LGBT equality movements—and reminded us of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words that (as Obama paraphrased) “our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.” Two new books about LGBT parents, one a personal memoir and the other a sweeping synthesis, remind us that LGBT equality is indeed bound to the need for racial justice.
American Family: Things Racial, by partners Stacy Cusulos and Barbara Waugh, is a wrenching, must-read memoir of the two White women's adoption and raising of their Black daughter and son from infancy to adulthood. More than a family portrait, however, the book is also a hard look at the very personal effects of systemic racism and homophobia in our country today.
Cusulos is a minister and diversity trainer; Waugh a now-former executive at Hewlett-Packard. Before adopting their children, they had never realized their many privileges would not protect their family from the racism still deep in our society.
Their young son is labeled uncontrollable for exhibiting behaviors that are tolerated in his White peers. The moms later find themselves fighting school officials and the police to defend him against specious charges. They struggle to give him self-confidence along with the skills he will need to survive in a society that automatically treats Black men with suspicion. They must also work to keep their daughter safe as she faces assumptions and expectations based on her race and gender, and to support her when tragedy strikes.
Cusulos and Waugh share the difficulties—and joys—they encounter while learning to navigate among the White community, the Black community, and the White ethnic communities of their own families of origin. They show us their family, warts and all, not afraid to point out their own errors and prejudices or their children’s social and emotional struggles. (They wrote the book with their now-grown children’s permission.) Their point is not their own shortcomings, however, but rather the ongoing effects of racism on families today.
Despite the infuriating and tragic situations their family endures, their story is ultimately one of hope. The parents find unexpected allies both Black and White, gay and straight. They find strength in their children and each other.
Nevertheless, they leave us with the knowledge that there is more work to be done. At the end, they make suggestions for how people can support other “families under siege” from bias. They offer suggestions for how to begin to talk about racism. (Further resources are on their Web site, thingsracial.com.)
Part of their motivation to publish the book was a quote from Attorney General Eric Holder, who said that average Americans “simply do not talk enough with each other about race.” American Family: Things Racial is their attempt, personal and poignant, to start a conversation.
On a somewhat different note, Family Pride, by Michael Shelton, is a good book with a bit of an identity problem. The subtitle, “What LGBT Families Should Know about Navigating Home, School, and Safety in Their Neighborhoods,” makes it seem like a parenting guidebook. The back cover further says it will offer “concrete strategies that LGBT parents can use to intervene and resolve difficult community issues, teach their children resiliency skills, and find safe and respectful programs for them.”
While it does contain some actionable information for LGBT parents, it feels less like a guidebook and more like a readable synthesis for all audiences on the state of LGBT families in our country today. The book should be as valuable to allied policy makers, teachers, doctors, and youth and faith leaders as to LGBT families ourselves.
Shelton, a therapist and author, draws from academic works, news coverage, and personal interviews to paint first a broad picture of the demographics and structures of LGBT families. Notably, he emphasizes the racial and economic diversity of LGBT parents, and even reminds us that some LGBT families may include undocumented parents.
Shelton also looks at the obstacles we may face in coming out, and the frequent pressure of wanting to appear a perfect family in order to banish societal doubts about our ability to raise children. He then looks at specific challenges related to schools, health and mental health care, recreation and leisure, religious institutions, and the legal system.
I have a few quibbles. Despite the many sources Shelton uses (including this column), he overlooks the National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study, the largest and longest-running study on lesbian families. The book’s concluding recommendations also rely too heavily on the recommendations of the Movement Advancement Project’s All Children Matter report—and while that is an excellent report with fine recommendations, one wishes Shelton would have given us some further ones of his own. It is also misleading to say that Barack Obama was the first President to acknowledge LGBT Pride Month, without noting that President Bill Clinton proclaimed Gay Pride Month in 1999. Additionally, the book could have benefitted from better copyediting; it contains a number of obvious typos.
Nevertheless, Shelton has produced a valuable work that should help both LGBT families and others better understand our diverse nature and the societal pressures and inequalities that impact us. As Cusulos and Waugh have done in a different way, he shows us that only through mutual understanding, across lines of race and class as well as sexual orientation and gender identity, can we find the way forward.
Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian (www.mombian.com), an award-winning blog and resource directory for LGBT parents.