Kim’s Corner: Family

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This is the latest posting in a series being written by Kim Fidler, who joined the Spencer Pride Inc. Board of Directors in 2013.  You can contact Kim directly by e-mailing her atKim@SpencerPride.org.

I had the wonderful experience of attending a White River Valley PFLAG Education Night on May 18, 2014, at the historic Tivoli Theatre in Spencer, Indiana. Members of the audience were given a presentation of the history of this local PFLAG by Cathy Wyatt, Chapter President. Cathy’s husband, Dan, provided entertainment prior to the session by playing the guitar. Wonderful food was served. Jacob Balash provided the decorations.  Spencer Pride volunteer Felix McBeath, helped to secure a grant to provide for the event.

Cathy informed everyone that the national PFLAG organization began in 1972 when Jeanne Manford participated in New York’s Christopher Street Liberation Day March in honor of her son, Morty.  PFLAG now has 350 chapters and over 200,000 members in all 50 states. In Spencer, Indiana, PFLAG was the first organization focused on issues of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community.  Spencer Pride, Inc. was the second such organization.  Spencer Pride, Inc. was founded as an off-shoot of the White River Valley PFLAG in order to focus on what would become a major rural event in the state of Indiana.

The educational program was presented by Brian Powell, of the Department of Sociology from Indiana University – Bloomington (See below for more information.). Brian presented Atypical Family Forms – The Evolution, Revolution: Americans’ Changing Views Regarding Same-Sex Marriage.

I would like to discuss my view of family, and with the perspective of my job as a UniServ Director who works with teachers in ten different school corporations as their union representative at the state level. One of the important roles of my job is to bargain teacher contracts. I work to get salary increases, insurance benefits, etc. for teachers.

It has been very interesting to me that it has been somewhat of a struggle to get domestic partner benefits included in public school contracts for teachers. What is even more interesting is that each of my contracts provide for the use of benefits to cover the teacher, the teacher’s family, and anyone living in the household of the teacher. This language extends to cover the use of Family Illness Leave, Bereavement Leave, etc. Teachers, administrators, and school board members are often the most educated people in any community. Many of them hold several degrees, however, there is a hesitation to add domestic partner benefits in many of the contracts.

I wonder why many of these people still believe that marriage is fundamental to considering two or more people a family.

Brian discussed this aspect of a family when he asked the members of the audience to consider exactly what the true definition of a family is.  Is a family only a mother, father, and children? Could it be two mothers and children, two fathers and children, a husband and a wife, a single mom and children, a single dad and children, OR is it my definition of a family, that includes anyone living under the same roof?

I continue to firmly believe that feelings – much more than blood relation – the adoption of children, & caring for foster children really determine who and what is a family. Do we become a family only by blood-relation? Could non-blood-related roommates who are friends be considered a family, whether they are opposite-sex or same-sex? I believe that yes, we can and do consider people who are true friends to be family.

When I consider some of the members of my own blood-relation family, I know that I am much closer to friends who are not related to me at all. I am a single-mom. I live alone in my house. My son and daughter are 18 and 21. The door is always open to them. They do stay with me often. I do not think that anyone would say that we are not a family. However, why are some so hesitant to extend the definition to any two or more people who truly care about and make sacrifices for one another?

I believe that words such as care, commitment, relationship, and love mean more in the family definition than marriage, mom, dad, children, husband, or wife. Does marriage mean some type of guarantee? I wish that it did. However, when I divorced after 28 years with the same person, I know that there are no guarantees in life. Do I still love that person? Of course, I always will. There simply was no guarantee that we would both want the same things for our entire lives. Are we still family? Some would say no. I would disagree.

So, what factors influence how Americans define a family? According to Brian, typical the more education that a person receives, the more modern they are in their view of what constitutes a family. Younger people are also more expansive in their definition of a family and more supportive of same-sex marriage.

The unfortunate part of this is that young people tend to vote less, and therefore aren’t able to express those views in one of the most important ways that they can. To add to this, young adults view being gay/sexual preference as genetic or as God’s will. The more conservative people view being gay/sexual preference as a choice that is influenced by parenting, friends, environment, and that it is likely to be changeable. 20% of Americans say that they do not know anyone who is gay. 20% said they are not close to anyone who is gay. 60% of Americans say that they do have a close friend or relative who is gay.

I am optimistic that as people are more open and visible about being gay it will be harder for others to deny their rights and to oppose gay marriage.

I have to wonder if the media is helping or hindering this progress. I wonder if movies and television shows are helping or hindering this progress. I remember the first movie that I saw that featured a gay character. It was “The Object of My Affection”. I also saw “The Next Best Thing” with Madonna and Rupert Everett. Both of these movies focused on one straight and one gay person who wanted to have a family together. In “Brokeback Mountain”, two men who loved each other were forced to marry and have a traditional family, while meeting each other in secret.

I am encouraged that my favorite soap opera, “Days of Our Lives”, now has a gay couple. However, following the same theme, one of the men had a child with a straight woman, rather than marrying his true love and having a child in that relationship.

So many things shape the views of Americans. Whether it ends up being our friendship with a gay person or how gay relationships are represented on the screen, things are changing.  It is slow. Acceptance is on the horizon.

I continue to be a proud board member of Spencer Pride, Inc.  It allows me to have a greater understanding of the feelings of others.  It allows me to speak to those who are not part of the LGBT community to promote acceptance. I encourage everyone to have an open mind and an open heart.  What do you consider family? 

More About Brian Powell

Brian Powell is James H. Rudy Professor and Co-Director of the Preparing Future Faculty program at the Department of Sociology. Brian’s research interests have focused on family sociology, sociology of education, gender, and social psychology. With grants from the National Science Foundation, American Education Research Association, and the Spencer Foundation, Brian has examined how families confer advantages (or disadvantages) to their children and how structural and compositional features of families (e.g., parental age, family size, birth order, one vs. two-parent households, inter-racial composition, adoptive vs. biological parents) influence parental social, intellectual and economic investments in children. He is especially interested in several increasingly visible groups of “atypical” family forms: families with older parents, bi/multiracial families, adoptive families and gay/lesbian families.

Brian Powell’s COUNTED OUT: Same-Sex Relations and Americans’ Definitions of Family (Russell Sage Foundation, 2010), coauthored with IU PhDs Catherine Bolzendahl and Claudia Geist and Lala Carr Steelman from the University of South Carolina, moves beyond previous efforts to understand how Americans view their own families by examining the way Americans characterize the concept of family in general.

COUNTED OUT reports on and analyzes the results of the authors’ Constructing the Family Surveys (2003 and 2006), which were collected while Brian was the Director of the Sociological Research Practicum.  These surveys asked more than 1500 people to explain their stances on a broad range of issues, including gay marriage and adoption, single parenthood, the influence of biological and social factors in child development, religious ideology, and the legal rights of unmarried partners. With current IU graduate students, he is examining patterns from the 2010 Constructing the FamilySurvey.  In addition, he is exploring Americans’ views regarding the role of parents, children, and the government in college funding.