Religious conservatives are regularly referring to the “traditional family” as a foundation for their beliefs, but there is no such thing. The conservative interpretation of the so-called traditional family is a relatively modern invention, created to fit the conditions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Western Europe and North America. In earlier times, and other parts of the world. family structures varied enormously from this particular model.
Family history, like all other history, is constantly changing to fit new circumstances, so it should be no surprise that conceptions of family in the twenty first century are continuing to evolve, to fit a world that is no longer what it was in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Some of these changes are obvious, but like so much that is familiar, can easily be “hidden in plain sight.” A new study by sociologist Brian Powell brings this into plain view. (His study is specifically of American views, but with the emergence of a shared world culture, many of his findings will also have relevance across a much wider geographic region.)
The central finding is that people no longer define “family” as mom pop and kids, but also include same-sex couples with children (Children seem to be central: childless couples, gay or straight, are not seen as “families”, but just as couples). However, there is an increasing movement towards acceptance. An important finding, familiar from previous studies on the subject, is that people who know gay people (more accurately, who recognize that people they know are gay), are more supportive than those who are not aware that family members or acquaintances are gay. This simply reinforces the necessity for the wider political struggle, that wherever possible, gay men and lesbians should come out openly, in as many contexts as possible. Coming out personally will improve acceptance in our circles of friends and family. Politicians and other public figures who come out do so indirectly for the wider community.
I particularly liked an argument on gay adoption that I have been using regularly: framing arguments in terms of the “the best interests of the child” can work to our advantage, not those opposed to gay adoption. (In adoption considerations, the best interests of the child require placement with the best parents available. Sometimes, they will be gay). Indeed, the claim made (but not elaborated on in the reports I have seen), is that the interests of children may well be a more effective argument than others in making the case for more general equality of same-sex couples.
A majority of Americans now say their definition of family includes same-sex couples with children, as well as married gay and lesbian couples.
At the same time, most Americans do not consider unmarried cohabiting couples, either heterosexual or same-sex, to be a family — unless they have children.
The findings — part of a survey conducted this year as well as in 2003 and 2006 by Brian Powell, a sociology professor at Indiana University, Bloomington — are reported in a new book, “Counted Out: Same-Sex Relations and Americans’ Definitions of Family,” to be published on Wednesday by the Russell Sage Foundation. Since the surveys began, the proportion of people who reported having a gay friend or relative rose 10 percentage points, said Professor Powell, the book’s lead author.
“This is not because more people are gay now than in 2003,” he said. “This indicates a more open social environment in which individuals now feel more comfortable discussing and acknowledging sexuality. Ironically with all the antigay initiatives, all of a sudden people were saying the word ‘gay’ out loud. Just the discussion about it made people more comfortable.”
The book concludes that framing the equality of same-sex couples in terms of “the best interests of the child” might prove to be a more successful political argument than others.