The other gay life: raising children in the South

by on January 19, 2011  •  In Culture, Family law, Race, Social science

From today's NY Times, excerpted:

Being gay in [Jacksonville, FL] was once a lonely existence. Most people kept their sexuality to themselves, and they were reminded of the dangers of being openly gay when a gay church was bombed in the 1980s. These days, there are eight churches that openly welcome gay worshipers. One even caters to couples with children.

The changes may seem surprising for a city where churches that have long condemned homosexuality remain a powerful force. But as demographers sift through recent data releases from the Census Bureau, they have found that Jacksonville is home to one of the biggest populations of gay parents in the country.

In addition, the data show, child rearing among same-sex couples is more common in the South than in any other region of the country, according to Gary Gates, a demographer at the [Williams Institute]. Gay couples in Southern states like Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas are more likely to be raising children than their counterparts on the West Coast, in New York and in New England.

The pattern, identified by Mr. Gates, is also notable because the families in this region defy the stereotype of a mainstream gay America that is white, affluent, urban and living in the Northeast or on the West Coast. “We’re starting to see that the gay community is very diverse,” said Bob Witeck, chief executive of Witeck-Combs Communications, which helped market the census to gay people. “We’re not all rich white guys.”

Black or Latino gay couples are twice as likely as whites to be raising children, according to Mr. Gates, who used data from a Census Bureau sampling known as the American Community Survey. They are also more likely than their white counterparts to be struggling economically.

Experts offer theories for the pattern. A large number of gay couples, possibly a majority, entered into their current relationship after first having children with partners in heterosexual relationships, Mr. Gates said. That seemed to be the case for many blacks and Latinos in Jacksonville, for whom church disapproval weighed heavily.

“People grew up in church, so a lot of us lived in shame,” said Darlene Maffett, 43, a Jacksonville resident, who had two children in eight years of marriage before coming out in 2002. “What did we do? We wandered around lost. We married men, and then couldn’t understand why every night we had a headache.”

Moreover, gay men who have children do so an average of three years earlier than heterosexual men, census data shows, Mr. Gates said. At the same time, there are fewer white women of childbearing age nationally, according to demographers, while the number of minority women of childbearing age is expanding…

[L]ast summer, [Valerie] Williams became pastor of St. Luke’s Community Church, one of the oldest gay-friendly churches in the city, and immediately set up a youth program. Attendance by the mixed-race congregation swelled to more than 90 from 25 in just a few months. “All of a sudden you started seeing all of these women coming out,” Ms. Mafett said. “All of them had children.”

In 2009, the Census Bureau estimated that there were 581,000 same-sex couples in the United States, Mr. Gates said; the bureau does not count gay singles.

About a third of lesbians are parents, and a fifth of gay men are. Advocacy groups argue that their children are some of society’s most vulnerable, with fewer legal protections and less health insurance than children of heterosexual parents.

Even so, their ranks have been mostly left out of national policy debates, because the Census Bureau did not conduct its first preliminary count of same-sex couples until 1990. This year, the bureau will count married same-sex partners for the first time. “We don’t know a lot about this group,” Mr. Gates said. “Their story has not been told.”

About 32 percent of gay couples in Jacksonville are raising children, Mr. Gates said, citing the 2009 Census data, second only to San Antonio, where the rate is about 34 percent…

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