Are Two Dads Better Than None?

In The Sunday Times Magazine last month, gay film actor Rupert Everett said he "can't think of anything worse than being brought up by two gay dads." Everett wasn't misquoted, and he even went on TV to defend his views, saying:

I'm not against anybody doing anything. I think the reason that's great about living in England is we can do more or less what we want. ... I'm not one of those people who wants to say, "Oh, no, you can't do that. We've got to pull the clocks back." Just I personally feel like that. ... I have lots of gay friends with children. I have lots of gay friends who have got married. I've been to lots of gay weddings, but I'm not big into marriage, straight or gay, to be honest. I'm very out of kilter with the rest of the world, I realize, but you know, I'm just an individual.

Everett's opinion is shared by many people around the world, and for many reasons I feel that it's an ignorant position and quite offensive to gay parents and the children of gay parents. However, this blog post isn't concerned with destroying Everett's character or beating down his comments with aggressive gay-defense talk. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion. But his comments have brought the debate about gay parenting back into the public sphere, so I thought it was an ideal opportunity to stick my oar in.

Between 2010 and 2011 the number of children in care in England increased from 64,400 to 65,520. The majority of these children were living with foster parents, but almost 8,000 were in some kind of residential care. Now, I'm not sure whether you're shocked by those figures. To be honest, I can't really say what my guess would have been before seeing those numbers, but whichever way you look at it, it's pretty clear that there are a lot of children in England (and throughout the rest of the world) who are growing up outside loving homes, without familIes to take care of them, love them, ecourage them and ultimately shape their futures.

There are various reasons that children are taken into care, but shockingly, of the 65,520 English children who were living in care in 2011, 40,410 had been taken into care because of neglect or abuse by their families. A further 8,930 were in care due to "family dysfunction." I couldn't find figures that broke down how many of these families were headed by gay parents, but my assumption (and I'm open to discussion about this) is that few of them were. I base that assumption on the sheer number of "traditional" families with straight parents compared with the much more modest number of families with gay parents. I guess it doesn't really matter, though. My point isn't that straight parents are worse than gay parents; that would be ridiculous. My point is that there are many parents who, for whatever reason, are unable to care for their own children -- so many, in fact, that tens of thousands of children are removed from their families and placed in care homes and residential units.

I'm friends with a couple whose daughter is adopted, and they do a great job of looking after her, loving her and showing her right from wrong. Two and a half years passed between their first communication with the adoption agency and the point at which they were given custody of their daughter, and this time was filled with interviews, observations and judgements being made as to whether they would make good parents. They obviously passed the relevant tests, and it was decided that they were competent to take care of a child. My friends are a straight couple, by the way. No one could disagree that this little girl is better off in their care, growing up in a loving, caring home. But what if my friends were gay? What if they were two men? I believe that a home with two dads would still be a much more stable environment for her to grow up in than a care home.

"But she won't have a mum," some people would say. "The poor thing will get bullied at school," others would claim. But the fact of the matter is that the little girl, if adopted by two gay men who were in a loving, stable relationship and had passed all the same tests as any couple going through the process, would be growing up in a safe, nuturing home rather than an underfunded, resource-starved care home with no mother or father to speak of. As for the issue of bullying at school, children get bullied for having the wrong trainers, but that doesn't mean we should ban cheap footwear brands, does it? In my experience as a youth worker, schools want to do their best to stamp out any kind of bullying, so the reason for the bullying is not really important. We can't deny a child a loving home just because some of their classmates might have an issue with it years down the line.

I hope that the majority of you agree that a child placed in a loving home with gay parents would be emotionally better off than if he or she were left in the care system. If you don't agree, then I'd be happy to hear your argument. (There's a comments box underneath this post for a reason!) However, this brings me on to the crux of the entire debate, which is the question of whether having gay parents is worse than having a mother and a father. The answer? It depends on the parents. It's as simple as that. I could use the argument that most gay fathers or gay mothers who have kids make the conscious decision to do so, so those children are surely wanted, but it's not always the case that the unwanted pregnancies of straight couples produce unloved children. I could point out that in my job I've met some truly awful straight mothers and fathers who beat their kids, abuse them and show not an ounce of love toward them, but we already know these parents exist. I could play devil's advocate and suggest that children who grow up in single-parent families will somehow turn out damaged as a result of having an absent parent, but I find this suggestion offensive. I know many single parents who make it their life's goal to give their kids a good life, and the lack of a second parent does nothing to shake that.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that people who share Rupert Everett's view that children brought up in families with same-sex parents are somehow predisposed to a less enriching life than are children brought up in "traditional" families should stop and consider what it is that they are suggesting. In an ideal world Dad wouldn't take heroin in front of his kids. In an ideal world Mum wouldn't be an alcoholic and forget to pick up her kids from school. In an ideal world Dad wouldn't beat the crap out of Mum with the kids listening from upstairs. In an ideal world Dad wouldn't have an affair and leave Mum to raise the kids on her own. In an ideal world Mum wouldn't die of cancer, leaving dad to raise his three young daughters. But we don't live in an ideal world, Rupert. We live in the real world, where bad shit happens. Having both a mother and a father isn't a magical recipe for a golden childhood. It can be, but that depends on the quality of the parenting, the love they have for their children and the relationships they work on forging with their children.

Parents should be judged on their parenting, not on their sexuality. Kids are tougher than we give them credit for, sometimes, but if I were a kid living in care, I'd much rather have two dads who want me, love me and work two and half years to prove to some strangers that they can care for me than a mother and a father whose lives I'm simply a part of.