Southern culture plays role in gay-led families

Census numbers show high number of same-sex families with children in the South

by Matt Comer  Editor  editor@goqnotes.com
Published: February 5, 2011 in A&E / Life&Style

“Gay parents find South more accepting,” read a headline in The New York Times last month. Raleigh’s News & Observer was a bit less reserved: “Raleigh No. 3 in gay parents,” they said matter-of-factly.

The reports are driven by new data from the American Community Survey, yearly information gathering performed by the U.S. Census Bureau in years when the constitutionally-mandated, decennial census isn’t underway. Extrapolated and crunched by researcher and demographer Gary Gates at the University of California, Los Angeles’ Williams Institute, the numbers show the American Southeast — particularly the Deep South — as home to the largest numbers of same-sex couples raising children under the age of 18.

A map showing the concentration of same-sex couples raising children under the age of 18. East South Central U.S. (Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee), West South Central (Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas) and South Atlantic (Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia). The highest concentration nationally was in the East South Central U.S. with 26.3 percent. West South Central ranked second with 26 percent. The South Atlantic U.S. ranked last at 21.1 percent. Data: American Community Survey, U.S. Census Bureau; Williams Institute. Graphic: M.C.

That same data ranked the Raleigh metro area third in a list of metropolitan areas, with 29.5 percent of same-sex couples there raising children. In contrast, San Antonio, Texas, came in first with 33.9 percent, followed by Jacksonville, Fla., with 32.4 percent (Charlotte ranked at 36, tied with Columbus, Ohio, with 18.9 percent).

The rankings don’t reflect raw numbers. There are, indeed, a larger number of same-sex couples raising children together in other parts of the country and in other cities. Proportionally, however, the South is by far home to more gay parents.

But, back to that Times headline: Is the South really more accepting? Do gay parents flock here, or are they — like all of us, really — products of their raising, environment and culture? Brett Webb-Mitchell, author of the book “On Being a Gay Parent” and a qnotes contributor with a column by the same name, believes the answer lies with the latter.

Webb-Mitchell is a father himself. He had a daughter and a son with his former wife before the two split 15 years ago. Since then, he’s been partnered and has shared custody of his children with his former wife. His daughter, who has since graduated from college, and teenage son, who still lives at home, alternated weekly between their mother’s and the home Webb-Mitchell shares with his partner, Dean.

Webb-Mitchell isn’t a native Southern, though. Originally from Oregon, he moved here in 1985 to pursue his doctorate. In 1993, he returned to take a teaching position at Duke. He’s spent years researching, networking, discussing and delving into the issues faced by gay parents.

In all that time, he’s come to believe the South is unique when it comes to family culture and tradition. Such an environment, no doubt, permeates the upbringing of children both gay and straight.

“I think we tend to be attracted to that traditional, 1950s-style idea of what family is,” Webb-Mitchell says. “I think the propensity toward having kids and having two adults raise those kids, that tends to be part of that 1950s mindset.”

Webb-Mitchell says that traditional culture took root in the years following the World War II.

“We can’t even talk about the ‘nuclear’ family until there is something called ‘nuclear,’” Webb-Mitchell stresses.

Southern suburbia and sprawl contributed to the rise of the “nuclear,” mom-plus-dad-and-2.5-kids mentality as formerly close-knit, inner-city neighborhood ties gave way and individual family units became the central component of daily life. Though sprawl happened in cities across the country, he says, many older, more traditional ways of living were maintained.

“In other places around the country and the world, the understanding of what it means to be a family are a little bit more interesting, a little bit more creative than how we allow ourselves to understand here,” he says, pointing to extended family living arrangements like those in large Northern cities where “family” can often include the entirely-unrelated people living in apartments above, below and next to you.

Webb-Mitchell’s theory is captivating. After all, one is hard-pressed to make an argument, as the Times headline did, that the South and especially the highest rank states of Alabama, Kentucky and Mississippi are actually more welcoming to gays. Other factors might well play significant roles, as well, such as the rate at which Southern LGBTs marry and have children before coming out (a phenomena that occurs across the world, though it might be diminishing as coming out ages plummet).

Whatever the cause, the facts are clear: Southern LGBTs are raising families in astonishing numbers. Webb-Mitchell cautions, however, that culture and society have yet to catch up with reality. Media, governments and communities still malign, outcast, tokenize and offer no support for LGBT-led families.

“We don’t have enough stories that help us think about what it means to be our kind of family,” he says of mainstream and LGBT media alike.

And, even though he’s out to family, friends and community, Webb-Mitchell says this area’s culture continues to dominate and overshadow his family’s reality.

“We’ve been in certain social circumstances when Dean has been introduced as [my children’s] stepfather and the deduction is that he’s related to my former wife, instead of me,” he says. “We still have to operate underneath these world of ideas and notions of what is to be a ‘family.’”

Webb-Mitchell hopes such cultural ideas shift in the future. He says it’s incredibly important for LGBT families to speak out, stand up and be visible, even as media and culture continue to cast a cloak of secrecy and otherness around them.

“I miss our stories,” he says of gay families. “I just want us to tell our stories.” : :

more: Be sure to pick up qnotes’ Feb. 20 print edition for Webb-Mitchell’s next “On Being a Gay Parent” column.