When Laura McAlpine of Chicago helped her 18-year-old daughter Amalia fill out college applications, she struggled with the most basic portion of the form-filling in "father" and "mother." Amalia is the daughter of two lesbian moms, borne of one and legally adopted by McAlpine.
"There's nowhere on the forms to reflect our family accurately. In the forms, you can only put down single," McAlpine says. "When I called up (the colleges) about it, they just confirmed that that's what I have to check. I got off the phone and cried."
Day after day, gay and lesbian families are confronted with the fact that their family doesn't fit society's standards of what makes a real family. "They face structural and social inequalities every day. The kind of laws that they have to deal with disadvantage their families," says Dr. Abby Goldberg, author of Lesbian and Gay Parents and Their Children: Research on the Family Life Cycle. "The way school forms are created, there's a space for mother and father. Where does the other parent go? So many parents are sick and tired of crossing things out (or) where they're told, 'We don't have a spot for that.'"
To make matters worse for McAlpine, even though she is legally Amalia's second parent, a recent request for Amalia's birth certificate for passport purposes revealed how the government classifies her. When she opened up the document, it listed Amalia's birth mother accurately. But she found her own name under "father."
"I don't feel like a father," she says.
"Once in a while, we all have to say, this doesn't apply to my family," Goldberg says. "Imagine dealing with this every day, and undermining your family."
But there's one form that is going to begin reflecting the true makeup of American families-the 2010 U.S. Census form, which begins counting our population this month. For the first time, gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexuals will be able to self-identify themselves and be counted for who they really are.
Rainbow Program reaches out
When it comes to seeking help for family or relationship issues, what works for heterosexual families doesn't necessarily work for those headed by gay and lesbian parents. That's why the Family Institute at Northwestern University has created the Rainbow Family program as part of its Lesbian/Gay Counseling Program.
"The challenges (for the families) are different," says psychologist Aaron Cooper, director of the Rainbow Families program. "Very compelling and thorny questions sometimes come up." The program's Web site features a blog with topics of interest to Rainbow Families, as well as e-mail alerts about events and activities throughout the Chicago area.
For information, call (847) 733-4300 ext. 1118.
"The beauty of it is, if someone believes they are married, then they definitely put down married. It's self-identifiable-it doesn't matter how you live, it's how you feel about your relationship," says Elizabeth Lopez Lyon, LGBT partnership specialist for the Census Bureau.
Recent studies, including the 2000 census that classified these parents as unmarried partners/roommates, indicate that 20-25 percent of same-sex couples have children living in their household, says Martin O'Connell, chief of the fertility and family statistic branch at the U.S. Census Bureau.
Experts like Aaron Cooper expect to see those numbers increase. "The 2000 census had an impressive number of gay families raising kids, and I think 2010 will show a big jump in that," says Cooper, director of the Family Institute of Northwestern University's Lesbian/Gay Counseling Program.
But while gay families will be counted in the same way as heterosexual couples, it's only one pebble in a mountain of discrimination.
"We are invisible to the world outside in terms of our identity as a gay couple and as gay dads. Heterosexual couples with children tend not to be invisible," says Cooper, himself the gay dad of a son who is now 25. "We have had people say to us, when we walk in somewhere with our son, 'Where's the boy's mother?' So we appear to be an incomplete family, an invisible family. That's a level of psychic stress for anyone … to live your lives where your identity isn't corroborated by the world around you. And when a child hears that, it challenges the child's perception of the family."
Taking gay families out of the shadows by collecting information through the census will not only begin the validation process for these families, it provides real statistics versus the anecdotal information often thrown about when discussing gay and lesbian families. "It's breaking those myths, that they're only in one area …because they're in 99 percent of the counties in the United States," says Lopez Lyons. "If they are wanting to make changes in an area, they'll be able to say, here's how many we have in this area. Listen to us, Congress."
O'Connell says the data will show same-sex couples "living as families just as everyone else."
And it will be one form where a woman like Laura McAlpine won't be called a father.
Liz DeCarlo is the senior editor at Chicago Parent.
See more of Liz's stories here.