Lisa Cholodenko’s mainstream film about lesbian moms, “The Kids Are All Right,” is up for four Academy Awards this weekend: Best Picture, Best Actress (Annette Bening), Best Supporting Actor (Mark Ruffalo) and Best Original Screenplay (Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg). Whether they win or lose, the occasion gives us a chance once again to make lesbian moms and other LGBT parents part of a national conversation. Here are some of the lessons “Kids” can teach us — and that we can teach others using the film as a starting point.
1. Our kids are indeed all right. The film is notable for being one of the few representations of lesbian mothers in film or television where the women weren’t pregnant, trying to get pregnant or had very young children. Kids instead shows lesbians who have successfully raised children to near-adulthood.
2. But they’re not perfect. Studies have shown that children of LGBT parents may at times feel pressure to be perfect in order not to reflect badly on their parents and on LGBT parents as a whole. “Kids” acknowledges this when daughter Joni resentfully says to her mom Nic, “Now you can tell everyone what a perfect lesbian family you have.” The film shows both parents and children as far from perfect, however, thus exploding the myth while still portraying lesbian families in a positive light.
3. Not all lesbians want a man — and relationships are about more than sex. There has been much discussion in the lesbian community about whether Jules’ affair with sperm donor Paul is a pitiful throwback to the old cliché of “all a lesbian really needs is a man.” My take is that Cholodenko inverts the cliché by having Jules return to Nic in the end. Not only that, but even though Jules and Paul are shown as having better sex than Jules and Nic, at least during the timeframe of the film, Jules returns to Nic — making the point that our relationships are more than just our sexual activities.
Whether this makes Jules bisexual is a matter of her internal identity, which the film does not explore in detail — although it does make clear that her identity didn’t change as a result of the dalliance. When Nic asks Jules, “Are you straight now?” upon learning of the affair, Jules responds, “It has nothing to do with that.” Jules was simply looking for an affection she hadn’t been getting from workaholic Nic. Paul, with a ready-made connection to their family, was convenient. In the end, however, Jules found that her bond with Nic was stronger than her fling with Paul.
4. We don’t all create our families the same way. After seeing “Kids,” people unfamiliar with lesbian parents may assume that we all create our families like Nic and Jules, with anonymous sperm donors. Fact is, some of us adopt and some of us have children from previous opposite-sex relationships, as do gay men and transgender parents. Some use surrogates, and others use a mix of methods. Even those who use sperm donors sometimes choose ones known to them from the start, who will be involved in the children’s lives to various extents as they grow up.
5. We’re not even all lesbians. The bulk of LGBT parents in television and film today are lesbians, with the notable exception of Mitchell and Cameron of ABC’s “Modern Family.” While that may to some extent reflect actual demographics, it would be nice to see more balance in the media. Real-life gay dads are at least experiencing a celebrity surge, with Elton John, Neil Patrick Harris, Ricky Martin, Rufus Wainwright and their respective children much in the news.
Transgender parents, however, get much shorter shrift. Even when movies try to portray them in a positive light, as in 2005’s “Transamerica,” the focus is almost always on the shock when a parent comes out as transgender, and not on the ordinary, everyday parenting they do in the face of misunderstanding and discrimination.
6. We’re not all middle-class and white. Even leaving aside the wealth of the aforementioned celebrity dads, Nic and Jules’ spacious, well-appointed home is not typical of LGBT parents. New research from the Williams Institute at UCLA has shown that one in five children being raised by a same-sex couple lives in poverty. Almost four times as many lesbian couples raising children (and two-and-a-half times as many gay male couples with children) receive public assistance versus opposite-sex married couples with kids.
And while the number of nonwhite LGBT parents in film and television is pitifully small, the Williams research has also shown that black or Latino same-sex couples are more than twice as likely as white ones to be raising children — and more likely to be struggling economically.
Not only that, but same-sex couples in Southern states such as Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas are more likely to be raising children than those in “gay meccas” such as the West Coast, New York and New England.
While I’ll be watching the Oscars eagerly this Sunday, then, I’ll also be hoping for a future film about a black, working-class, lesbian couple in Mississippi, one of whom is transgender, trying to make ends meet and raise their children with integrity while fending off slurs, bullying and ostracism from their neighbors. If the name wasn’t already taken by another Best Picture contender this year, it could be called “True Grit.”
Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian (www.mombian.com), a blog and resource directory for LGBT parents.