A decade ago, two gay dads and a lesbian couple raising two teens helped change the face of American families. The fictional TV dads, Cam and Mitchell of “Modern Family” and the characters in the film “The Kids are Alright” pushed LGBTQ parents into the pop culture mainstream. Their appearance on the small and the big screens spurred news reports, scholarly articles and blog posts about the growing phenomenon of gay parenting. More importantly, they sparked a cultural conversation about something many gay people had been trying to say for years — kids raised by LGBTQ parents are no different than the children of straight marriages.
More importantly, they sparked a cultural conversation about something many gay people had been trying to say for years.
Now as “Modern Family” prepares for its series finale Wednesday night, I’m concerned that those portrayals may have had an unintended effect, leaving a generation of kids unprepared for the reality of the world we now live in.
At the time of the debut of “Modern Family,” I worked for an advocacy group championing the rights of the up to 3.7 million kids under 18 with an LGBTQ parent. My own children were among that group. So, as a gay parent and as a professional in the movement, I hailed “Modern Family” as a long overdue, positive depiction of our families. In the mid 2000s, we were fighting state laws and federal policies around foster care and adoption that prevented or jeopardized the ability of LGBTQ people to create or protect their families. Anti-gay forces seemed particularly adept at marshaling arguments to try and deny us legal rights, slander us in the media and demean our families in public.
In the face of this right-wing onslaught, “Modern Family” was a cultural counterpunch. It helped undermine negative stereotypes about gay and lesbian parents and set the stage for the following decade and increasingly positive representations of our families on everything from soup ads to sitcoms.
These positive narratives weren’t gay propaganda. Dozens of studies showed that the children of gays and lesbians had the same outcomes in life as kids raised by different sex couples. And we were quick to cite those to anyone who might deny our right to be families.
But a rainbow-washed depiction of our families as well-adjusted also did us a disservice. They created expectations that no family, gay or straight, could ever live up to. Gay parents felt a subtle pressure to always put a positive face on our parenting, especially in public. Carefully curated social media posts showed how happy and well-adjusted we were. When journalists came looking for media-friendly parents, I myself offered up newspaper quotes, volunteered my husband for radio interviews and posed my two daughters and our dog for cute photo spreads. It was all for the cause. Messaging about love and our families helped change public opinion about marriage equality and bolstered arguments that led to the passage of other laws protecting the rights of LGBTQ people.
But a rainbow-washed depiction of our families as well-adjusted also did us a disservice.
During that decade of progress, I remained mindful of how people might perceive us not only when we appeared in the media, but also casually, in carpool lanes and on soccer sidelines. And my kids, sensing my fear of an invisible, judging audience tried hard to play their part.
The result, I hoped, was that the world might see our family as special and exceptional. But that came at a cost. I was slow to recognize the times when they struggled with acceptance at school, with their own self-perceptions and with our identity as a family. In an effort to demonstrate how we fit into the mainstream of America, I forgot how just different our LGBTQ families are and the unique challenges our kids face.
In fact, African Americans and Latinos who are LGBTQ are more likely to be raising kids than their white counterparts. Those families have lower incomes than straight families. According to the Williams Institute, married or partnered LGBTQ parents with children are twice as likely as heterosexual couples with children to be living near the poverty line.
The complex diversity of some of our families is both a strength and a challenge. The Williams Institute also found that LGBTQ people and same-sex couples are six times more likely to foster and four times more likely to adopt than their non-LGBTQ counterparts. And same-sex couples with adopted children are twice as likely to be white. My own adopted daughters sometimes face questions about being part of a rainbow family that is part white, part black and all Jewish.
And while they are growing up in a country that increasingly is more diverse, my kids are living in a time where they must fight even harder for equity and inclusion. Hard-won battles of a decade ago are under renewed attack. In states such as Michigan and Tennessee, judges have ruled that religion-based adoption agencies can deny placements to LGBTQ parents. Working parents are closely watching the Supreme Court this term in case it rules on whether employers can discriminate based on sexual orientation or identity.
LGBTQ people are also among the minority groups experiencing a recent upsurge in reports of discrimination, bullying and hate crimes. It’s easy for the media to look at national coming-out month and pride festivities as evidence that queer people and their families have achieved full social acceptance. But in reality, our kids go to school afraid of celebrating their parents as gay or lesbian.
And while we are struggling to stitch ourselves more seamlessly into the American fabric, our country seems to be dividing. It’s a hard enough environment right now for us adults. It’s even harder for kids, especially those who are part of rainbow families.
Yet, the cultural conversation has also shifted over the last 10 years — hopefully in a way that’s more realistic. “Modern Family” helped pave the way for shows like “Transparent,” which reflected the very real presence of trans families in our country. Other TV shows, movies and even commercials now reflect how we LGBTQ families talk about and see ourselves in the world. As an example, my kids today have a more balanced view of gay families. They now see marriage equality in the world and yes, gay divorce. They see examples of people who have bad parenting moments, and who also happen to be gay. And my kids know they’re not expected to be model citizens for me nor the poster children for any cause.
As a generation, these kids face unique challenges in their lives — not because their parents are gay or lesbian, but because their gay and lesbian parents face legal discrimination, racial bias, economic inequality and social stigma.
Ten years from now, when my own kids begin thinking of starting their own families, I hope the climate and cultural conversation has advanced to an even better place. They won’t be the product of a modern family, just a normal, loving one. And no one will hold them up as exemplars for a movement. Until then, I want my daughters to realize they’re not perfect kids. We’re not a perfect family. And we live in a less than perfect America where they can’t always neatly fit in. And it’s alright.