LOS ANGELES — Salt Lake City: the gay parenting capital of the United States?
Unexpected as it may sound, a new study finds that the Utah capital and its outskirts have the nation's highest percentage of gay or lesbian couples raising children.
Among couples of the same sex in the Salt Lake City area, more than 1 in 4 are rearing children, the analysis of census data reveals.
That fact may seem at odds with perceptions that San Francisco and New York are the centers of gay and lesbian life. Pop culture depicts gays and lesbians turning to adoption, sperm banks or surrogacy to form families in decidedly liberal cities such as Los Angeles.
But the reality for gay parents can be very different, said Gary J. Gates, the researcher behind the new estimates from the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law.
For instance, "a big chunk of them are people who had children young, with opposite-sex partners, before they came out," Gates said. After coming out, they raised those children with a partner of the same sex, he explained.
That may be one reason that in some more conservative places not known for celebrating gays and lesbians, a striking percentage of same-sex couples are rearing children, Gates said. Among states, Mississippi has the highest percentage of gay or lesbian couples raising children — 26 percent — his analysis of census data found.
Though Salt Lake City has a high percentage of gay couples raising children, the actual number is still much smaller than in coastal hubs such as New York or Los Angeles, the data show. Besides the Utah capital, other large urban areas where gay couples are more likely to have children include Virginia Beach, Va., Detroit and Memphis, Tenn. — all places where more than a fifth of couples of the same sex are bringing up kids.
The percentages are even higher in some cities with populations less than 1 million. Gates found that in the Visalia and Porterville areas in California, the last census counted roughly 500 gay or lesbian couples, nearly half of whom were raising children.
Among them were Kristin Beasley and Candi Hood, 45 and 44, who joke that their family of eight is "the lesbian Brady Brunch."
The two women, friends long before they became a couple, married men and had children before realizing they were lesbian. After they came out and fell in love, both say they lost jobs and suffered bias while living in Visalia, which they chronicled in a recent book. They now live with the two youngest of their six children in nearby Reedley, where they grow plums and tangerines.
People have asked her, "Why don't you just move to San Francisco?" said Beasley, co-author of "From Privilege to Pride: Love Is the Road." "Our families are here. Our children have grown up here. And the cost of living — it's difficult to raise a family of six in San Francisco."
Even if they weren't married before, gay and lesbian people often choose to have children in seemingly surprising places because they have strong ties to their families, researchers say.
"When you ask, 'Why are you living here?' they almost always say family," said Abbie Goldberg, an associate professor of psychology at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., who has studied gay and lesbian parents in rural areas. "It shouldn't really be surprising. They value family — and now they're creating families of their own."
Activists who support marriage rights for gays and lesbians said the study underscores that many couples are raising children in states where they lack the protections of wedlock.
The inability to marry grates on Matt and Ray Lees, 41 and 44, who live with eight adopted children in the suburbs outside Columbus, Ohio. Some of their children were legally adopted by Matt; others were legally adopted by Ray.
Though both Matt and Ray Lees became custodians of their children, "outside of Ohio that has no weight," Ray Lees said. "If we go on vacation, one of us could be denied the right to make a medical decision for the other's children."
They tote a stack of legal paperwork with them everywhere, just in case they need it.
Reacting to the new study, the National Organization for Marriage said states already provide substantial legal protections to gay couples and their children. The group, which opposes same-sex marriage, said the roughly 111,000 gay and lesbian couples raising children nationwide remain a tiny minority of U.S. households.
"The United States should not redefine marriage to accommodate the demands of this minuscule group of people," Frank Schubert, the group's political director, wrote in an email to The Los Angeles Times.
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