The Long Arm of the Law in Lesbian Families

by Jonniann Butterfield and Irene Padavic

This research was born of living in one of only a few states that explicitly prohibited “homosexual” adoption in 2010. In that hostile climate, I noticed a troubling pattern among friends in lesbian relationships: loving, equality-seeking couples became embattled once a child was introduced into the relationship. I wondered if the marked change I witnessed was specific to my circle of friends or if a broader pattern existed; this line of inquiry served as the basis of this study. In particular, we investigated the effects of legal restrictions on lesbian families’ prospects for creating egalitarian families.

Our data came from in-depth interviews with lesbian parents living in a mid-sized city and surrounding counties in Florida. Participants were members of a lesbian couple raising a child conceived within the relationship via artificial insemination and living in households with no children from previous relationships. Of the 27 interviewees, eight were birth mothers and 17 were co-parents (women who had not borne a child but co-resided with the child and birth mother and were regarded by themselves and others as co-parents), and two were both.

We entered the research site with the expectation, based on the research literature, that interviews would reveal a strong commitment to equity in relationships, and our results indeed confirm the importance of equity to these women.   Despite this commitment, the co-parents’ lack of legal rights produced a power imbalance that led to traditional patterns of inequality in the relationship, disrupting attempts at equality and power-sharing. We found that co-parents’ legal vulnerability translated into insecurity in their relationships, leading all of the 17 co-parents who lacked birth children to engage in at least one of three strategies—acquiescing, creating dependency, and activating community accountability—to minimize the likelihood of relationship dissolution and thereby reduce the chance of being kept from their children. These actions, often acts of intentional manipulation, had the unintended result of shaping family dynamics to more closely resemble those of a patriarchal, heterosexual relationship of a bygone era rather than the equitable planned lesbian families they desired to be.

These families actively sought equality and nevertheless produced an inequality reminiscent of earlier times. Why? We point to two reasons. First, innovators, by definition, are ahead of the cultural curve and thus must conduct their change projects in less than ideal circumstances. Heteronormative principles of gender inequality, of biological relatedness, and of the “one mother/one father” template are embedded in the institution of family law and inform the interactional behaviors of all families, even those who seek to repudiate them. Because of their status as pioneers, they also must forge their own path, a task made harder when few alternative visions are available.  This is our second reason for the behaviors we observed: Revolutionary change requires a vision of alternatives, of how things could be, of how women can construct an egalitarian relationship, and lacking relevant examples inhibits formation of such a vision.

Our results highlight the importance of the availability of legal second-parent adoption for achieving equality in lesbian relationships. Innovation is impeded when the state squelches alternative ways of organizing family life. It is important to understand the real-life effects of discrimination on same-sex families because perhaps a deeper understanding of how same-sex families are hurt by social and legal discrimination will galvanize social change.

Jonniann Butterfield is assistant professor of sociology at Austin Peay State University. Irene Padavic is professor of sociology at Florida State University. Their article, “The Impact of Legal inequality on Relational Power in Planned Lesbian Families,” is published in the October 2014 issue of Gender & Society. To read the article, click here.



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