Q&A: Michael Shelton’s ‘Family Pride,’ a New Book on LGBT Families
With today’s re-inauguration of the first president ever to endorse gay marriage, the cultural winds seem unmistakeable: America will continue along the path toward full equal rights for LGBT citizens. With that in mind, Michael Shelton, director of sexual minority treatment services at Equilibria Psychological Consultants in Philadelphia, wrote the new book Family Pride: What LGBT Families Should Know about Navigating Home, School, and Safety in their Neighborhoods. Shelton argues that along with all the political progress the LGBT community has made over the last four years — most recently during the 2012 elections, when gay marriage was passed by a statewide referendum for the first time —comes an inevitable backlash, and LGBT individuals must remain extremely conscious of their surroundings as they make life choices for their families.
We caught up with Shelton to talk about his book, which was released by Beacon Press on Jan. 15.
What led you to begin your research for Family Pride?
I was in the midst of writing the book Gay Men and Substance Abuse when I was approached by the executive director of Mountain Meadow to manage its residential camp program, the first summer camp in the United States for children of LGBT parents. I was on a sabbatical from my formal job, so I agreed. The stories I heard from staff, parents, and campers were fascinating; they ranged from “warm and fuzzy” narratives to histories of trauma. I stored them away in my mind for a possible article in the future, but didn’t conceive of writing a book at that point. When 2010 census data about these families were released (in tandem with demographic studies by the William Institute), it was then that I realized there might be a book in these findings.
Why do you feel the spread of LGBT rights has led to a backlash in the United States? And has the media has done its due diligence in covering that backlash?
The most pressing media complaint I heard from families was not anti-LGBT backlash… it was visibility. For example: The 2010 film The Kids Are All Right was an unexpected source of controversy for the LGBT families I met as I traveled across the country twice during the writing of the book. It was nice, they said, to have a mainstream and very popular movie to call one’s own, but it also fostered the misconception that LGBT parents are typically white and wealthy. They aren’t. The groundbreaking 2011 LGBT family-policy document “All Children Matter” acknowledged that the media focus on this one subset of LGBT families is ultimately detrimental to the progress of [all] LGBT families, which are far more diverse than current media depictions.
Community safety was also a top concern. Many families reported that as LGBT progress has accrued, there has been a resounding backlash in their local communities. Sadly, some felt that in the present climate — in which so much LGBT progress is evident — the need to hunker down and maintain a low profile has never been so necessary. I’m not talking just about locations such as Kentucky and Tennessee but even here in Philadelphia, in spite of its recent recognition as the best city for LGBT equality by the Human Rights Campaign.
Regarding Justin and Scottie, the gay couple you write about living in the deep South with a 4-year-old daughter — was it hard to get them to tell their story?
When I originally sent out feelers regarding interviewing families for the book, I was inundated with responses. I quickly realized, though, that almost all were from affluent parents in the suburbs. I wanted more diversity in my interviews. I truly thank COLAGE and Mountain Meadow for their assistance in setting up initial interviews… this led to a snowball effect in which other families were recruited into the process. Still, this was not a complete success, and there were LGBT voices that I was unable to enlist for interviews, particularly transgender parents.
What do you want other LGBT couples to learn from the stories recounted in Family Pride?
In addition to being isolated in their communities, the other most recurrent complaint I heard from LGBT families is that they have been marginalized from the LGBT community in general. I’m hoping that the book will be a reminder — and for some a wake-up call — that these families exist in our communities and that they are far more diverse than we tend to believe. We can’t assume that the families we see marching in pride parades — those with children wearing shirts proclaiming, “I love my gay moms” — are the norm. Many are hidden and believe coming out publicly is far too risky.