Data Type: Journal Article

Normal queers: Straight parents respond to their children’s “coming out”

Fields, J. (2001). Normal queers: Straight parents respond to their children’s “coming out.”Symbolic Interaction, 24 (2), 165-187.

This article examines a support group for the parents of lesbian and gay individuals. It seeks to see how traditional notions of social concepts like sexuality and family held by the (predominantly white, heterosexual) parents participating in these support groups support heteronormative notions. By examining the group interactions and interviewing members of the support group, Fields notes the ways in which parents ascribe normative gender identities to their lesbian and gay children in order to deal with the fact that their children are socially “non-normative” in another sense: their sexuality. However, Fields notes that this type of coping mechanism may reinforce heterosexism in a way that perpetuates stigmatization of sexual minorities.

The author collects her data using interviews from and sixteen months of participant observation with “Metro Parents and Allies for Gay Empowerment (Metro PAGE) . . . a local chapter of the national federation PAGE,” which included mostly parents in its support groups (168). Fields’ participant observation fieldwork was done using a symbolic interactionist approach, and employed field “‘notes-on-notes,’ in which [she] analyzed [her] observations and [her] own experiences of the field setting” (169). Fields then examined patterns in all of the data she collected. She found that parents tended to cope with their children’s “abnormal” sexualities by emphasizing the ways in which they and their children were otherwise socially normative. This created limitations on the acceptance of their children’s non-normative identities and limitations to their challenge of heterosexism. In this sense, parents still served as heterosexual “policers” of normative identities, limiting the way in which individuals who are not just sexually “non-normative” can be accepted.

This article contributes to the knowledge about sexuality in the sense that its findings suggest that parents (especially when those parents are part of majority groups [e.g. members are white and heterosexual]) can reinforce heteronormative stereotypes and force ideals of “social normalcy” upon individuals. For example, rather than working to change accepted definitions of social normalcy, the parents of LGBT individuals coped with their children’s’ identities by reinforcing traditional definitions of social normalcy. They did so by insisting their children were normative in various ways, such as by their monogamy in relationships. Thus, the parents supported heterosexism and the policing of “proper” social identities, thereby limiting the types of people who could be deemed “socially acceptable.” This suggests that such coping mechanisms for the (heterosexual) parents of children with sexual minority identities will not help non-normative identities be socially accepted, but will rather perpetuate various forms of stigma. Fields argues that a different approach is needed for stigma not to be perpetuated: “In a queer movement against sexual persecution and for sexual pluralism, straight women and men, mothers and fathers may not wield the same special influence they enjoy now. Instead, they may have to risk their moral authority as they argue against sexual disenfranchisement broadly and dismantle existing possibilities for sexual and gender oppression” (184).

Categories: Qualitative Methods, Queer Theory/Sexuality Studies, Symbolic Interaction
Publication Date: 2001