Who Counts As Family? Some Americans Rank Same-Sex Partners Lower Than the Dog

Filed under: Adoption, Gay Parenting, In The News, Divorce & Custody, Relatives, Twins, Triplets, Multiples, Empty Nest, Expert Advice: Home Base, Home Base

same sex couple picture

Erick Sosa, left, and Mark Kibby enjoy a day of fun with their sons, Cole and Parker Sosa-Kibby. Credit: Dave Ouano Photography

Despite a growing acceptance of gay and lesbian couples, 30 percent of Americans still think pets rank higher than a gay partner as a family member.

Unmarried same-sex couples with children, as well as married gay and lesbian couples with kids, are quickly gaining acceptance as families by Americans, according to a recent study. But, when children are not involved, same-sex married partners rank lower than the family dog in the 'who is family, who is not' category.

"There's been an increasing receptiveness to include same-sex couples in people's definitions of family," study co-author Brian Powell tells ParentDish. A sociology professor at Indiana University in Bloomington, his findings are reported in his new book, "Counted Out: Same-Sex Relations and Americans' Definitions of Family," published this month by the Russell Sage Foundation.

"But, it comes down to the fact that people believe that only if there is a child, there is a family," he says. "A child connotes permanence, and we discovered that even if a family breaks up, we still consider them a family when there is a child."

Between 2003 and 2010, three surveys conducted by Powell's team showed a significant shift toward counting same-sex couples with children as family -- from 54 percent of respondents in 2003 to 68 percent in 2010. In all, more than 2,300 people were surveyed. Powell links the changing attitudes to a 10 percent rise between 2003 and 2010 in the share of survey respondents who reported having a gay friend or relative.

In their most recent 2010 telephone survey of 830 people, Americans were almost equally divided on same-sex marriage.

"I don't think people are ready to embrace it, but people are ready to accept it," Powell says.

In 2006, when asked if gay couples and pets count as family, 30 percent said pets count but not gay couples. In the 2010 survey, 83 percent of the respondents said they perceived unmarried heterosexual couples with children as a family; 40 percent extended that recognition to unmarried straight couples without children.

But Powell is quick to point out the disparity in what is defined as "family," which evolves around the legality of a marriage license, religious views and/or taking care of a child.

"I like to use the pun, 'this should give us paws,' but fact that gay couples are given less status than pets should be something we should think strongly about," he says.

Powell compares the positive shift in the view of same-sex families to the gradual acceptance of interracial marriage in the 1960s.

"People are definitely expanding their definition of what is family," he says.

Erik Sosa, a Kenosha, Wisc. stay-at-home dad who parents two young boys with his partner Mark Kibby, says he's seen a positive change in the way people perceive the couple in the last three years since they adopted the boys, both now 4.

"When we first moved in, it took the neighbors a little while to accept us as family," says Sosa, who is called "Papa" by the boys and is not married to Kibby, who is called "Daddy."

The couple moved to the suburban town when they adopted Cole and Parker Sosa-Kibby from Guatamala when the boys were 5 months old.

"What is really interesting to me is how much people see the commonalities in what I do and the other housewives on the block are doing every day," Sosa says. "Basically, we all have the same struggles as parents and all of us believe that the children come first and we come second. Families aren't about sex, they're about parenting and the definition is revolving to mean people who love each other and want to create a life together. "

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