Gay dads Mitchell and Cameron of ABC’s “Modern Family” were looking for a preschool for their daughter Lily in the Oct. 20 episode of the hit series. Mitchell was worried that a failure to get into the “right” preschool would have a negative impact on Lily’s future. They come to believe, however, that they’ll be a shoe-in for the most prestigious preschool in town. Even though they’re white, they’re a gay couple with an adopted Asian daughter, and schools love to brag about their diversity. Things go awry, of course, when an interracial lesbian couple, one of whom is in a wheelchair, show up with their African-American adopted daughter. Cam and Mitchell have just been out-diversified.
Wait. Is there a time warp? I feel like I’ve just been transported back to 2008, when Showtime’s “The L Word” featured moms Tina (white) and Bette (half black and half white) trying to get their daughter Angelica into preschool. Bette was stressing about what not getting into a good preschool would mean for Angelica’s college prospects. They think they’ll have a good shot, though, since Angelica is a “bi-racial daughter of lesbian moms” — but then they meet a white gay male couple trying to get into the same school. One of the men says he thinks their son’s chances of admission are good, explaining, “Ed’s a Christian and I’m Muslim. Lucas is adopted, and he’s half Jewish, a quarter Latino and a quarter Chinese.” Out-diversified again.
Sigh. So few shows on television that feature LGBT families, and they can’t even come up with different storylines?
This shouldn’t surprise me, of course. I’ve written before about the “wacky antics of lesbians in search of a sperm donor” plot that seems to pervade most shows involving lesbians. Originality doesn’t seem to count for much here. And most LGBT characters on television are white and upper-middle class. (I use the term “LGBT” cautiously, however, since transgender characters are nearly nonexistent, and bisexual characters only slightly less so.) Prestigious nursery schools go with the white, upper-middle class territory — as do plotlines around them.
The reality is somewhat different. Research by Gary Gates of the Williams Institute at UCLA has shown that almost four times as many lesbian couples raising children (and two-and-a-half times as many gay male couples with kids) receive public assistance, compared to opposite-sex married couples with kids. One in five children being raised by a same-sex couple lives in poverty.
In terms of race and ethnicity, 72 percent of all same-sex couples identify as white versus 79 percent of opposite-sex married couples — not too different — but only 59 percent of same-sex couples with children identify as white versus 73 percent of opposite-sex married parents.
What can television networks do, then, to increase the diversity of LGBT characters and families on their shows? Hiring LGBT writers with differing backgrounds may help, but that alone is still likely to provide the perspective of only a limited number of people per show.
What writers and producers need to do, I believe — regardless of their own orientation — is tap into the increasingly rich vein of stories LGBT parents and our children are telling. There are essay collections such as “Who’s Your Daddy? And Other Writings on Queer Parenting” (ed. Rachel Epstein) and “And Baby Makes More: Known Donors, Queer Parents, and Our Unexpected Families” (ed. Susan Goldberg and Chloë Brushwood Rose). There are books with insights and stories from teens and adult children of LGBT parents, such as “Families Like Mine: Children of Gay Parents Tell It Like It Is,” by Abigail Garner, and “Let’s Get This Straight: The Ultimate Handbook for Youth with LGBTQ Parents,” by Tina Fakhrid-Deen. There is social-science research full of anecdotes such as that compiled by Dr. Abbie Goldberg in “Lesbian and Gay Parents and Their Children.”
There are also LGBT parenting groups at community centers and elsewhere. While the group members might not want a television writer sitting in on a gathering, they might be willing to speak on an individual basis.
Online, there are stories told daily by LGBT parents and our children in blogs and other forums. (I have listed many of them in the Resource Directory of my own Mombian site.) They chart the pathways of our lives, from the unique and quirky to the mundane.
We, the audience, also have to tell the networks when they get it right, when they offend, and when they simply fall into stereotype. Even ostensibly positive stereotypes — like being financially well off — have a downside. They limit people’s perceptions of LGBT families and ignore the fact that we exist throughout the population — whether one looks at geography, race/ethnicity, age or economics.
Mostly, though, we need to keep telling our stories, whenever and however we can. Not because a TV writer is likely to overhear us in the supermarket or stumble upon our blogs, but because as more people in our neighborhoods, schools and workplaces get to know LGBT families, the more they also will realize the narrow lens through which most media portrays us. They are then more likely to consider us based on the individuals we are, not on the labels we may have.
If I also never have to watch another same-sex couple on television try to out-diversify another to get their kid into preschool, so much the better.
Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian (www.mombian.com), a blog and resource directory for LGBT parents.