Negotiating a contested identity : lesbian and gay parents' definitions of family



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This dissertation examines changes in the meaning of family and what this reveals about the complex, socially grounded mechanics of meaning-making more generally. Examining the discourse from interviews with 23 gay and lesbian parents, I show that they have very concrete and definable ideologies of family that reflect an American/ Western concept of kinship in which family is made up of those who are related by blood, marriage or adoption; as well as an understanding that family can also be chosen and therefore outside of traditional biogenetic structures. For these men and women, family of choice and the dominant American kinship structure are not mutually exclusive. Through an analysis of the participants' definitions of family, this dissertation finds that the parents gave both a narrow definition (that which includes only blood and legal relationships) and a broad definition (that which includes those not related by blood, marriage or adoption). Based on these definitions, both from the participants themselves and from those who have spoken out nationally against same-sex marriage and parenting, I apply Lakoff's Prototype Theory to offer a way to understand the disconnection between those who believe being gay and being a parent are incompatible, and those who see it as one of many types of family that do not conform to a dominant ideology. I identify a prototype of FAMILY made up of two radial categories to account for two central, yet opposed, ideologies, separated solely by whether parents could be the same sex. I also discuss the parents' positioning of their narratives toward local and nonlocal interactants and their use of generic and personal features in their discourse. The parents both draw upon external influences and become meaning-makers themselves through negotiations of their family identities in the context of dominant ideologies of family that often regard them as illegitimate. The outcomes of the negotiations that the parents undertake do not reflect a new, radical kind of family on the whole, but often a traditional sense of family that sometimes gets more broadly defined to include a supportive network of family and friends. The discursive micro-shifts in definition that these parents perform inform our understanding of the bridge between local negotiations and global shifts in ideology.