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by Carlos A. Ball
New York University Press, 2012
Review by Hennie Weiss on May 28th 2013

The Right to Be Parents

As the overall focus in the LGBT campaign has often been that of same-sex marriage, especially in terms of media focus, Carlos A. Ball uses the notions of gender, sex, sexual orientation and transsexuality to discuss legal procedures, discrimination and reform when it comes to parenting in The Right to be Parents: LGBT Families and the Transformation of Parenthood. As he traces the history of legal reform, Ball notes that LGBT parents have been systematically discriminated against, but states that advances has been made (in some states more than others) to ensure that LGBT parents they have the right to be parents and maintain parental rights even in the (highly debated) absence of biological ties.

Ball has divided the book into 3 parts that focus on various aspects of parenting, while simultaneously raising questions about preconceived notions of parents and parenting in the legal system.

The first part discusses the notion of what "being a good parent" entails. Ball therefore focuses first on lesbian mothers and then gay fathers. Ball notes that "coming out of the closet" has been an important reason for denying both lesbians and gays parental rights. During the previous decades, many women and men married an opposite sex partner, having children with them. When later deciding to "come out of the closet" their parental rights were often being questioned. The overall notion for women was whether a woman could be a good parent and a lesbian at the same time. These mothers were often considered selfish as they were said not to focus on their child's needs but rather their own (selfish) desires. Therefore, women living in open relationships, or living together were particularly discriminated against, implying that an open same-sex relationship was less than desirable in the court of law as well as in the public eye. Ball then turns his attention to gay fathers. Again, most of these men had children by living with and marrying women before coming out of the closet. Because women have been (and often still are) considered more natural and caring parents, the issues for gay men focused more extensively around visitation rights rather than custody battles (even though there are exceptions), as Ball notes in chapter 1. Again, the focus was on the ability of a gay father to be a good father no matter his relationship with his child or children before the custody battles began. Ball states the courts have tended to focus on the nature of the same-sex relationship and if such a relationship affects a parent's ability to be "a good parent".

Part two takes a closer look on the notion of being a parent by discussing alternative insemination, the donation of sperm, adoption and being a foster parent. Ball notes that courts have focused heavily on the notion of biology in determining the rights of parents. As such many parents have historically not been recognized as a child's parent, often resulting in the termination of relationships between children and parents due to the lack of biological ties. Ball contends that such statements and beliefs raise many questions about the role of biology, "alternative" family structures and whether it is possible for a child to have more than two parents? Chapter five; When the State Discriminates, therefore provides some of the most powerful discussions of discrimination and prejudice against LGBT individuals or couples seeking to become parents.

Even though it has become more common for gay and lesbian individuals and couples to adopt and foster children, the state has taken a stark stance against same-sex relationships. Many gay and lesbian couples have been excluded from fostering children simply due to their sexual orientation. Adopting a child has historically been even more difficult, especially in cases of second-parent adoptions. The state has continually decided to discriminate against LGBT couples as they have prohibited adoptions based on the contention that raising children in heterosexual relationships (where they are said to more fully learn "proper" gender roles and behaviors) is more favorable, even though research has proved that there is little or difference between children raised in heterosexual or same-sex homes.

Such discussions concerning the "proper" gendering of children continue into part three; Can Transsexuals be Parents? where Ball states that transsexual parents have faced even more discrimination than gay and lesbian individuals as parental rights have systematically been terminated based on the notions of sex, gender, and also sexual orientation. Ball concludes that progress has been made for LGBT individuals and couples seeking parental rights and a chance to become parents. Still, the state and standing laws continue to methodically discriminate against those in the LGBT community seeking to become or continue being parents.

Even though legal terms and jargons can be difficult and complicated to understand, Ball has included powerful stories about LGBT individuals and couples that discusses and provided examples of legal implications, legal discrimination as well as past and present cases and changes in regulations. The examples and stories provided by Ball not only point to a narrow understanding and legal definition of gender, sexuality and biology but they are extremely powerful pieces of information on their own. The stories and examples help tie the book together, as they provide readers with tangible examples of cases in the United States. As such the book is surprisingly easy to read, and it is a very interesting read. The book can definitely be used in the classroom in gender studies, women's studies, men and masculinity studies, and in the study of law and sociology. The target audience is simultaneously LGBT individuals, the LGBT community, and those interested in the connection between sexual orientation, sex, sexuality, discrimination and law. 


© 2013 Hennie Weiss


Hennie Weiss has a Master's degree in Sociology from California State University, Sacramento. Her academic interests include women's studies, gender, sexuality and feminism.


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