When Chrisler began her advocacy work at the Family Equality Council, marriage for same-sex couples was legal in only one state. Now, LGBT parents are changing notions about parenthood—and what it means to focus on the quality rather than the structure of a family. This is apparent in her own family, where she coaches her son’s football team and regularly hosts gatherings with their working-class peers.
As Executive Director of the Family Equality Council for eight years, Jennifer Chrisler advocated on behalf of LGBT families in the US and their six million children. Her work at the FEC has influenced public policy decisions involving foster care and adoption, safe schools and parenting protections, among others.
I was the Executive Director of the Family Equality Council for the past eight years, and our job was really to advance a dialogue across the country about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people raising children. There are six million kids being raised in this country by LGBT couples, and we’ve fought to make sure that we were included in our communities, that we were protected under our laws, that our children were safe at school.
Some of the most significant changes I saw over my eight years at Family Equality Council were around marriage equality. But I think more importantly what I saw was a pretty wholesale switch in the way in which we talked about LGBT people. Instead of focusing on the individual rights of an LGBT person, we started talking about us as families, and about the love, and the commitment that we shared with each other as couples, and about the tremendous commitment that we had to raising our children, and what engaged citizens we were in our community. And there are many, many states where simply because you’re gay or lesbian, you can’t foster, you can’t adopt. There are a whole handful of other states where the laws are completely unclear about what’s available to you. Medical technology is only available to a small portion of our community. So I still think there’s a lot of work to do around creating the opportunity for us to build families.
I certainly think we’re changing notions of parenthood, in that when we choose to create our families and we are intentional about that process, we highlight what is most important about family, which is not the blood relationship, or the biological connection, but it’s the quality of the parenting, and the connections that we bring to our children. And I think that can be a very informative and important illustration of what makes strong families. I’ve often said that, you know, so much of American government focuses on structure. What is the structure of the family? Are the parents married? Are these kids the biological children? Are they legally recognized that way? And in fact, what we ought to really be focusing on is what’s the quality of the family and parenting that happens inside it.
I have a wife. We’ve been married since 2004, which was the year that you could get legally married in Massachusetts. We’ve been together for 18, so together a lot longer than we’ve been married. And we have three sons—Tom, Tim, who are 11 years old, and Matthew, who’s 15 months old.
I knew from a very early age that I wanted to have children, and in fact, you know, when I was coming out as a lesbian, one of the things that I was really worried about and very sad about was—did this mean I couldn’t have children? What did it really mean for me, and my potential future for having and raising children? I can remember when I came out to my mother, the very first thing she said to me is, “I love you, but I’m so sad I won’t have grandchildren.” So it is a happy sort of end story that I’ve been able to do that, that we have, you know, these incredible children, that they are such a rich and important part of our lives, and bring just incredible joy to us, and fulfilled the life-long dream for me.
You know, we’ve had those moments. One of our children, for example, plays football. And the football-parenting scene is really different than you find in a lot of suburban sports arenas. So it tends to be folks who are more working class, construction, firefighters, police officers, and they’ve been incredible, and wonderful, and very open to us. But our son, as is typical of eight-year-old boys, was afraid to tell all his teammates that he had two moms. But of course, he asked us to host the end of season party.
I do feel like this is why same sex couples raising kids has been a fundamental part of the success of the LGBT movement, because the fact that I would have cops, and firefighters, construction workers, and others who may have never known a same sex couple, may have never had a glimpse into what our lives are like, sitting in my room, watching the Patriots, watching their sons have a good time with my sons—is a fundamental piece to lowering the barrier to people’s political resistance to equality. And I feel like every day, everywhere, same sex parents raising kids are doing that same thing all across this country, in living rooms, and in church basements. And that is why we have gotten the momentum that we have.