Same-sex marriage is the cause célèbre of many politicians and celebrities, and is extensively covered in the news. As debates rage, one central issue is often overlooked, believes Canadian author and speaker Dawn Stefanowicz: how does being reared in a same-sex household affect children?
Many states already allow same-sex couples to adopt children, a practice that will be further cemented in law as more states issue marriage licenses to homosexual couples. Additionally, some homosexuals have children of their own from previous opposite-sex relationships. Dawn brings a rare voice to the public discussion; her father was actively involved in the gay lifestyle, and she describes herself as “raised under the GLBT [gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender] umbrella.”
Dawn was born in Toronto. Her father became an active homosexual at an early age. He was a successful businessman. Desiring children, he married, and the relationship produced Dawn and two brothers, one her twin. After Dawn and her brother were conceived, their father ended sexual relations with his wife, and pursued homosexual relationships at well-known gay meeting places in Canada and the United States. Dawn was often brought along to many of these locations, even as a child. Her father had numerous gay lovers, and brought them into the home. At age 51, in 1991, he died of AIDS.
Today, Dawn lives in Ontario, Canada. She is a licensed accountant, a Christian, a public advocate of children being reared in homes with opposite-sex, married couples, and a vocal defender of traditional marriage. She has been married to a man for 28 years, and has two teenaged children. In 2007, she published Out From Under: The Impact of Homosexual Parenting, a book about her experiences growing up in the GLBT world. On the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the release of her book, she spoke with Catholic World Report.
Why did you decide to share your story of being “raised under the GLBT umbrella” in your book and your speaking engagements?
Dawn Stefanowicz: I felt compelled. I made a public appearance before Canada’s Senate of Legal and Constitutional Affairs committee in Ottawa in 2004, asking that they not add “sexual orientation” to the existing hate-crime legislation due to restrictions on freedom of speech and religion. Later that month, I shared my testimony before a school board. Almost immediately, gay activists who had been bussed in—and I should say I dislike using the term “gay,” but it’s commonly used today, so I will—began shouting at me as I testified so that you couldn’t even hear what I was saying. A half dozen times I was interrupted. I was concerned for my safety, so I asked a security guard for an escort to my car. I went home and began writing my book. I wanted to share my experiences growing up in a same-sex household.
One thing you stress is that you didn’t observe a monogamous relationship in your home when growing up.
Stefanowicz: Yes. For children such as myself, just because our parents are “partnered,” doesn’t mean they are monogamous. Monogamy in the gay community means “serial monogamy,” you have a single partner for several months and then move on, or you’re in a relationship but have multiple partners on the side. Research shows that most male homosexual relationships become open within the first year. A recent New York Times article confirmed this—50 percent of same-sex male “marriages” become open to other sexual partners within the first year. My father could be in a “committed,” long-term relationship, but there was an agreement with his partner that there would be sexual relationships with others.
When I was growing up, I wasn’t surrounded by average heterosexual couples. In my home there would be my father’s partners and male friends, and they would often take me along to meeting places in the GLBT community. I was just a child, but I was exposed to overt sexual activity. When I was about nine, for example, my father took me to a downtown sex shop. He said he wanted to expose me to sexuality so that I wouldn’t be prudish. There was no sense of privacy around sexuality. Sex was very public; that was part of the gay culture.
He’d take me to see the work of gay artists, whose paintings and sculptures seemed to have phallic symbols worked into their art. He’d take me to nude beaches where gay men met one another. He wanted me to take my clothes off too, but I wouldn’t. It was at such places that men were involved in “cruising,” propositioning one another for sex. There were areas nearby you would go to for sex. There was a network; if the police were coming, they’d tip one another off and they’d stop their sexual activity.
This was before the Internet age, but there was still an incredible network that the gay community used to inform one another about their meeting places where they could go for a “quickie.” They could be public beaches, gyms, or even parks where children were playing nearby. My father would go cruising at locations all over Canada. He also loved coming to the States; his favorite cities included San Francisco, Miami, and Ft. Lauderdale. You could cruise, find someone in a few minutes, and go someplace to have sex.
My father also kept an apartment near his downtown office where he could meet someone for quick sex.
Once, when I was in the 10th grade, I was excited because my father came to school to watch me perform in the band. He never did before. I saw his eyes bug out when he saw all the teenage boys performing on the stage with me. Then I realized that he was not there for me, but to pick up young men.
As you got older, your father used you as “bait” to attract men he was interested in having sex with, too.
Stefanowicz: Yes. He’d tell me to dress provocatively, and wear this or that top, and we’d go out cruising. A man may identify himself as gay, but my dad knew they still liked attractive young women. Or, it could be a way to attract bisexual or heterosexual men.
My father liked well-dressed, “clean cut” men, who were about 10 years younger than he was. It was always a younger man, never the same age or older. I knew many gay men who had a preference for adolescent males who had just hit puberty. They would look for boys with absent fathers who were vulnerable.
Didn’t you object to being used this way by your father?
Stefanowicz: I didn’t like it, but I was torn. I wanted to please him and spend time with him. Ultimately I was seeking his love and acceptance. But instead, I had to accept him.
And your father also brought many men into the home for sex.
Stefanowicz: Yes. This was part of my childhood in a homosexual environment. It was not a safe one for children. To begin with, you’re exposed to many diseases. I don’t know how else to put this: gay sex is messy. I would see dirty bed sheets, covered with sperm, fecal matter, and lubricant gel. Condoms were not part of the picture. They didn’t know about AIDS then. Years later, in fact, when I shared my upbringing with my family physician, he sent me for the same blood tests one would take if involved in gay relationships.
Different men would come to live with us for a time in our rec room. When my father was about 30, an 18-year-old artist came to live with us. They had a sexual relationship, and they’d go out cruising together or on their own. They might bring men home for group sex. My young eyes saw a lot. It was not a happy, rosy picture.
My twin brother witnessed the group sex once. He couldn’t understand why dad could kiss other men, but couldn’t show affection to him.
Were you sexually abused?
Stefanowicz: I have images in my mind of being sexually abused; I had nightmares about it. My mother did confirm that I was sexually abused as an infant by my father; however, she could not confirm the images in my mind involving my father and other men with me. Other adult children that came from same-sex environments shared with me that they had been [abused]. There is higher risk of sexual abuse in such an environment.
Were your dad’s partners nice to you?
Stefanowicz: They might occasionally cook for me, help me with my homework, or take me to some activities. But they were not there for me or my brothers; they were there for my father. My brothers and I did not feel like we were important. Also, although different men would come to live with us for a time, they were never like a parent or member of the family.
I should also add that as a woman, I did not feel valued, appreciated, or loved. It was a demeaning environment for me. I saw a lot of confusion about gender; my father, for example, sometimes dressed in women’s clothes. Or, you might see one of my dad’s male partners taking on a “pseudo-female” role.
You also saw a lot of death.
Stefanowicz: Yes. Some of my father’s friends committed suicide. Others died of AIDS. I watched my own father die of AIDS.
Where was your mother during all of this?
Stefanowicz: My mother was seriously ill with chronic diabetes from the age of 18. She was also a weak person. She was hurt and lonely, but did not overtly object to what was happening. She’d see things and walk away. Because of her illness and passivity, I had a lot of responsibility by age eight. I’d do most of the cooking and cleaning.
When they married, my father never intended to be faithful to her; he married her merely because he wanted children. After my twin brother and I were conceived, their sexual relationship ended.
She joined my father in visiting the subcultures. She became involved with a woman during my teen years. I remember seeing my father’s partners doing her hair, combing it, and putting rollers into it.
Do you hate your father?
Stefanowicz: No, I always loved my dad, even though what he did caused me so much stress, loneliness, and nightmares. I was angry with my father, because he put his needs over mine. I felt at risk of being discarded, just as he had discarded so many of his partners. I was looking for his love, but he couldn’t express affection towards me.
When he was dying, I especially prayed for him. I wanted to forgive him and be at peace. I did forgive him.
What were his final years like?
Stefanowicz: He had difficulty walking, so it was hard for him to go to the cruising areas. The AIDS caused purple splotches on his face and body, which he tried to cover up with cosmetics and long sleeves and pants. He began losing weight and lost his energy. He knew he was facing a grave situation.
He was lonely, and I kept reaching out to him to tell him I loved him. Sometimes, he didn’t want to have anything to do with me. But I wore him down. He shared his inner turmoil with me. He was sexually abused as a child; his father was a violent alcoholic. He left home by age 15. It helped me to understand and forgive him. I knew I couldn’t be free until I forgave him.
I still had hard feelings towards my dad’s partners, however, especially the last one. He and dad had an “open” 14-year relationship. My mom was not there; he was dad’s caregiver. Dad had been quite wealthy, and he knew he could gain dad’s assets when he died. None of dad’s partners were like adoptive parents to me; in fact, I resented that dad spent so much time with his lovers and not me. This last partner died of AIDS in 1996.
I saw dad the day before he died. He was heavily drugged, and in great pain. He had difficulty in recognizing me. I held his hand. Dad said to his partner, “Tell her I love her.”
I also noticed that dad had kept a picture of a sailboat on a tranquil sea that I had bought him many years before. I was pleased that he held on to it. It showed that he valued it. I prayed that dad would have that kind of peace depicted in that picture.
And how, as an adult, did you recover from the negative experiences of your upbringing?
Stefanowicz: At about age 30, I underwent 13 months of therapy. For decades I experienced insecurity, depression, sleeplessness, and sexual confusion. My healing included facing reality and offering forgiveness.
How has your book been received?
Stefanowicz: Many support it. Over 50 adult children raised in same-sex households contacted me, identifying with my experiences. Men in the gay lifestyle wrote to me looking for answers. “How can I leave the gay community,” they ask, “without the family and broader community support I need?” They are looking for love, compassion, and help. I tell them they don’t have to walk down the same road my father did.
These men also say that they never thought about anyone else when they were sexually involved with other men. They didn’t see their choices as hurting others. They were just enjoying the pleasure, and ignoring the consequences.
Women dealing with lesbian issues often ask about my mother.
And what do you say to your critics?
Stefanowicz: Many have been deluded by the cultural acceptance of homosexuality. They haven’t thought about its long-term impact on children.
If critics are nasty, I don’t respond. If they’re respectful, I do. I tell them how my father never found happiness. I let them know I care, I understand their circumstances, and I have compassion for them. I say they must find a community of support where they can be honest, seek forgiveness, and find salvation through Christ. As we witness Christ to others, they’ll be drawn to him.
Some critics argue that not all homosexuals are as promiscuous as your father.
Stefanowicz: True. But if you associate with the gay community, there’s a higher risk you’ll be involved with multiple sexual partners. Research does indicate a high level of promiscuity among men who have sex with men, and incidents of sexually-transmitted diseases continue to be much higher among men who have sex with men. Dad wasn’t unique in his cruising; there are many gay men with boundless energy who value momentary flings.
You’ve also been in contact with the Catholic ministry to people with same-sex attraction, Courage.
Stefanowicz: Yes. Its co-founder, Father John Harvey, was incredibly supportive of me. He called me a courageous woman for sharing my story.
And what are your thoughts on the push to recognize same-sex marriage?
Stefanowicz: I’ve testified before elected officials in Canada, the United States, and elsewhere. I briefly touch on my own history, and then go on to tell them that traditional marriage is significant historically and religiously. It is the cement that holds our culture and society together, establishing a framework in which children are best reared in a safe environment.
There’s the issue of monogamy, which I’ve discussed, and also the importance of children having both a father and a mother, as well as relatives, to whom they are biologically related. Our identity, security, and sense of personal ancestry come from knowing our mother and father; this is lost in homosexual unions.
Every kid wants to be raised by biological parents who are faithful to one another. They do not want the huge stress of growing up with parents who put their sexual preferences first. For three decades of my life I saw my father pursue one relationship after another. That was his priority. A child cannot have his relational and spiritual needs met in such an environment.
As I said, I was torn as a child. Do I do the immoral things my dad asks me to? How do I honor my father in such an environment? And, what about my needs? Do my feelings not matter, but my father’s and his partners’ do?
Children don’t care about the world being “gay” and friendly, they want to spend time with their fathers. They need a stable, opposite-sex, married home and a community and school which share common values. They also need the grounding of religious faith. I do get attacked by activists for promoting this view, but I do not hate them in return. My concern is for children.
I was born under the GLBT umbrella. I didn’t choose that. Coming out from under has been lonely. But doing so has given me a freedom and a happiness that I want to share with others.
How different are the adult children of parents who have same-sex relationships? Findings from the New Family Structures Study by Mark Regnerus