Family Ties: Telling Others You’re Gay
After the Divorce, Should I Tell My Kids that I Have a Partner of the Same Sex?
Q: I am divorced with two children, ages 10 and 14. My ex-husband, Bill, shares custody of our children. I am now in a relationship with a woman, Karen, who has a great relationship with my children. I suspect my older child knows that Karen and I are more than friends” but I have not discussed the nature of our relationship with my children. I am also not out” to my siblings, parents, and co-workers. The reason: I am afraid that if I go public, Bill will try to get full custody of our children. But I am tired of living a lie. What should I do?
A: One in three lesbian women has given birth, and about one-third of lesbian couple households have children present in the home. Many lesbian women with children had previous heterosexual marriages, and you are right that some ex-husbands have used the sexual orientation of their ex-wives as grounds for a custody battle.
Several respected national organizations “ including the Child Welfare League of America, the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and the National Association of Social Workers “ have taken the position that a parent’s sexual orientation is irrelevant in determining child custody. This is because research on gay and lesbian families overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that the home environments provided by lesbian and gay parents are just as likely as those provided by heterosexual parents to be nurturing and that children with lesbian and gay parents develop just as well as their peers.
Nevertheless, some court judges are biased against lesbian and gay parents in custody and visitation disputes. For example, in 1999 the Mississippi Supreme Court denied custody of a teenage boy to his gay father and instead awarded custody to his heterosexual mother who remarried into a home in characterized by domestic violence and excessive drinking. In states that have various forms of legal recognition of same-sex couples (California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Vermont) the courts may be more likely to protect parenting rights of gay and lesbian couples.
But even in other states, courts increasingly are protecting the parenting rights of gay and lesbian individuals. For example, in Tennessee, a lesbian woman had primary custody of her young son after her divorce from the child’s father. The father sought a change in custody, claiming that his ex-wife’s sexual orientation would harm their child. A trial court granted the father’s request for custody, but an appeals court reversed the decision, noting that the boy was doing well with his mother and that there was no evidence her sexual orientation had any adverse effect on him. You should consult with a family attorney for advice concerning a potential custody fight.
As for telling your children, you and your partner need to decide if, and when, to tell them. A Human Rights Campaign (www.hrc.org) publication called Resource Guide to Coming Out offers the following advice for gay and lesbian parents who want to come out to their children:
- Tell your children in a private space where the conversation will be entirely confidential.
- Allow for plenty of time to continue the conversation over the next few days and weeks “ and years.
- Explain your sexuality in an age-appropriate way.
- Reassure your children that you love them and that they are your top priority.
- Connect them with other children of gay or lesbian parents. Let them know that they are part of a caring community.