The Complete Lesbian and Gay Parenting Guide

reviewed by Jennifer Schumaker

Complete Lesbian Parenting

written by Arlene Istar Lev, CSW
Penguin Group, New York, 2004.

The great-review cliché. I have tried to avoid it when composing my comments on The Complete Lesbian and Gay Parenting Guide by Arlene Istar Lev. “A must read.” (Well, there, at least I delayed until the third sentence.) This guide to parenting, which I would characterize more as a guide into what diverse families look like and how they come to be, begs for that cliché, even from the most thesaurus-y of reviewers.

The thing that grabbed me when this book hit my hands is the vignettes – real stories from real lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender headed families; tangible views into the particulars of how the individuals and/or couples created or gathered in their children to create and grow their rainbow families.

The portraits are set in separate windows from the text, smattered throughout the book. There are many, each a stand alone view into a particular family’s story. Because there are so many, the reader is able to consume a satisfying balance–rather a feast–of genuine, nurturing stories about authentic families. Not only does this make for gratifying reading, the reader also learns as much, if not more, from the vignettes as from the well put-forward guidance to contemplating and creating an LGBT-headed family.

That is the first and last time I will type “LGBT” in this review. This leads me to share Lev’s own, excellence exposition into her usage of the word “queer.” I was so happy to read of another (presumably over 30) lesbian embracing that word. She gives a sensitive accounting into why this word describes herself and her target audience, acknowledging the linguistic history behind descriptors used in the queer community, bringing the reader into a comfort with this great five letter word that “…all the kids are using.”

My only real criticism of Lev’s book is the name of the first chapter. After a fantastic introduction into the social and psychological progress that has caused more and more queer folk to see themselves as potential parents, as well as begun to put those of us who are queer heads of families into the cultural forefront, she disappointingly titles the first chapter “Alternative Families.”

While I understand that she is remarking on what is in fact growth and change in the picture of the American family structure, I believe we are already beyond the need to set any family apart as “alternative.” As soon as we use that term, there is the connotation that there is something somehow baseline about one family structure that does not exist in queer family structures.

Yes, there are new and changing things that cause us to note queer families in a particular light, but just as quickly, the so-called “traditional” family that formerly seemed to define the standard is evolving and changing. Our definition of “family” itself is in such fast flux, that we are all of us or none of us “alternative.”

You may find it strange to read a review of a guide to considering and creating queer families that dwells on things like a definition of “queer” or “alternative.” But this leads to the next reason queer parents and potential parents must read this book. Lev leads the readers to consider their own levels of internal acceptance and their outlook on the ways of being well and whole as queer people and families in a society that not only challenges us but can still outright attack us.

Reading through Lev’s insights as well as her illuminating choices of real-life stories brings the reader into these questions. She wisely stops short of suggesting that the external realities should represent reasons to possibly not choose to parent. Rather, the author invites the reader to explore where they are in their ability to cope, embrace, and find grace as a parent in this ever-changing world, beautifully diverse, and often difficult world.

Lev’s main purpose in this guide to parenting is of course, to help readers through the maze of possibilities when creating a family. Her exposition, so wonderfully supported by the vignettes, take us into the realms of surrogacy, adoption, insemination, co-parenting, single-parenting, poly-parenting and many other places associated with the complicated and ways queer folks may take to bring the oldest, simplest joy into their lives.

The author acknowledges that the brass tacks information on medical, social, and legal issues associated with the creation of queer families may be out of date. The book was published in 2003, so many states have new laws pertaining to legal recognition of parentage, whether related to biological, adoptive, or legal status. Sadly, these changes are not always in the direction of increased inclusiveness. The author is wise to advise the readers to consult the laws in the state of residence.

But Lev also encourages queer people wanting to become parents, believing they are ready to enter whichever process makes sense for their desires and situation, not to give up on their dreams of parenting because they may live in a state with an unsupportive or even hostile legal structure. In these cases, though, Lev puts it strongly that the person(s) considering parenting will want and need to find every available support structure and know how to activate that structure in order to create a family in the best possible environment, for the baby(ies)/children and the parents.

Arlene Istar Lev’s guide to queer parenting is a lovely, pioneering work. The author’s own honest description of her process of self-acceptance and becoming a parent brings the reader into a place of trust whereby the information and insights in the book can really hit home. Since it is Lev’s goal to promote the pioneer experience often represented in queer parenting, it is fitting that she offers excellent tools for the way. No one can provide a road map to parenting of any kind, but Lev leads us blazing along the trail with steadfast landmarks to guide readers along the journey.

A family can be created through many means, but Lev helps us see how to create “home” within ourselves and for ourselves and our children, however similar of different it may be from the families from which we emerged. Please pick up The Complete Lesbian and Gay Parenting Guide. Pick it up at the book store, and then take it home, rather that battle your conscience as you stand trying not to bend the spine while reading it for 45 minutes in the aisle. Buy it. Use it as your guide, and leave it out on your coffee table for others to peruse. After all, I broke my rule against cliché’s to tell you about this absolute “must read.” It is a must read for anyone contemplating, heading, living in, or associated with a queer family. Oh, yes: that IS everyone.

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