Dana Rudolph, the founder of LGBT parenting site Mombian, doesn't mind when people look twice at her spouse and their son. "Adorable babies are probably the greatest bridge builder for LGBT families," she says brightly. A former vice-president at Merrill Lynch, Rudolph left her job to be a full-time parent shortly after her partner Helen had a child with one of Rudolph's eggs; she started Mombian two years later, in 2005. "I noticed there weren’t many sites with practical information forums for LGBT parents," she recalls. "I thought there was a need for something that sat at the intersection of gay sites and parenting sites, and was both practical and fun." Her son is now 9 years old and Mombian has evolved into a major resource for LGBT families and those who hope to start one.
Rudolph is right that happy LGBT families may be the strongest weapon in the fight for marriage equality, particularly in light of Justice Antonin Scalia's recent comments about whether gay parents might be "harmful" to children (research shows that they are not). She hopes her site will help other gay parents lead by example, too: It features reviews of LGBT-friendly TV shows and children's books, information about adoption services that are welcoming to the LGBT community, and highlights of LGBT-related legal battles occurring around the country. Last week, the site was cited in the Times' profile of Mary Bonauto, a lawyer who spearheaded the fight for marriage equality in Massachusetts.
Of course, Rudolph's ultimate dream is that there wouldn't be a need for her website to exist, but she's optimistic about the direction things are moving. Every June, she hosts Blogging for LGBT Families Day, a sort of "blogging carnival" for gay and straight supporters of LGBT parenting; participation has gone up steadily every year. We talked to her last week about the challenges she faces both as a lesbian mom and the face of the LGBT parenting movement.
What made you decide to start your website?
Most LGBT sites were mostly focused on younger, single people at the time, so I thought there was a need for something that sat at the intersection of gay sites and parenting sites, and was both practical and fun.
You don’t write much about your personal parenting experiences. Why is that?
I didn’t feel that a diary blog would be that interesting. My family has a pretty normal existence, and not everyone needs to know what my child had for breakfast. It made more sense to do something that involved my perspective and experience as a lesbian mom, but wasn’t just all about me.
What was the process that you went through for having your son?
We had our son biologically. We used my egg but my spouse carried. I say “spouse,” but we weren’t actually legally married until a few years later. It was just the way we wanted to do it — we both wanted to participate in a physical way and to have a connection. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend what we did for all couples. It is a more complicated process and involved a lot of needles and injections for both moms, but it was the way we wanted to do it, and we were lucky enough to have medical insurance coverage for us.
At the time, you were quite high up at Merrill Lynch. Did you have a lot of support in your workplace?
Very much. My office was very accepting. I actually started the first LGBT employee network there. I found that there was some education to be done at first, but as a company, Merrill Lynch has been a leader in LGBT outreach; they sponsor one if not more national LGBT organizations. I can’t say the same for every branch office Merrill had — there are hundreds of branches around the country, and some of the ones in more conservative states wouldn’t have been so supportive. But my co-workers threw us a baby shower, and did that sort of thing. There was another straight woman in the office who was adopting a baby at the same time, so they had showers for the two of us, and neither of us was actually pregnant.
Did you eventually leave because you wanted to sort of become a full-time advocate?
No. There were some reorganization going on and I chose to leave. My spouse had been pregnant and then stayed home with our son at the time right after he was born. But we then decided to both throw our resumes into the ring, and whoever got the best offer would have to go to work while the other one would get to stay home with the child. That's one of the nice things about being in a relationships where there are no preconceptions about defined roles and who stays home and who doesn’t. Then my spouse got the better offer, and so she went back to work and I stayed home and was pretty much a full-time mom for a few years. Last year, after eight years of working on the blog and doing some freelancing, I went back to outside work.
So since you started your website, I'm sure the issues have evolved. What’s been the biggest change that you’ve noticed?
In general, there's a lot more visibility for LGBT families both within the gay media and also in the mainstream media. Even mainstream parenting sites usually have at least one LGBT blogger who writes for them now, which is great to see. And of course the marriage equality conversation has evolved as well, although there is a different between marriage rights and parental rights, and they're not always simultaneous. Not every parent wants to or can get married. In Iowa, same-sex couples can marry, but there's at least one lesbian couple that's still fighting to get both moms' names on the birth certificate. So there are still hurdles, but there's definitely been progress, and if you look on the national polls, support for same-sex couples has changed greatly during the past decade.
Are there different challenges that you face as a lesbian mom that you don't see for male gay parents?
I think for gay men it's definitely harder breaking into the moms' groups that exist for parents of young children, gay or straight. It does tend to be a female-dominated world. In some ways I do think we had it easier [than gay male parents], especially because we chose the biological route to getting pregnant, even though it was still complicated. The Williams Institute at UCLA, which is basically the biggest think tank on LGBT demographics, just did a study on the number of male gay parents versus female gay parents. They looked at people under age 50, both single and coupled, and found that nearly half of LGBT women, nearly 48 percent, and 20 percent of LGBT men are raising a children under age 18. So there are more lesbian parents than male gay parents, for whatever reason.
What are some difficulties you personally face as a lesbian mom?
We live in the greater Boston area, so on a local level people are pretty accepting, although there are always a few things. Sometimes we’ll get a school form that says “father and mother” and not “parent and parent” instead. And it’s not just important for families like ours — some children may live with a single divorced or widowed parent, for example, or with grandparents. So we haven’t encountered any overt bias, but there are places where I think more of an effort could be made to be more inclusive.
What about on a national level?
The lack of legal and federal rights impact us a lot financially. For example, when I was staying home and taking care of our child, I couldn’t contribute to an IRA without an income, whereas a married person could have her working partner contribute to a spousal IRA. So that's a maximum of $5,000 a year that we could have been putting away in a retirement account, but we weren’t able to because we weren’t considered legally married by the federal government. That's one of the reasons I started the blog. I wanted to figure out a way to earn at least $5,000 a year that I could put away towards retirement while staying home. Also, my spouse has to pay a federal income tax on my medical benefits, and if we were married that wouldn’t be taxable. All of those economic hits add up to money that we can't put towards our child's education, college, baby needs, family vacations, things like that.
How optimistic are you about the current Supreme Court cases?
I would like to be optimistic! I'm not as convinced that they'll overturn Prop 8 or make a broad ruling, but at the same time there are so many technical legal issues that are beyond my levels of legal expertise so I don’t want to make predictions. But the fact that Scalia still thinks sociologists are trying to decide whether same-sex parents are good for kids is worrisome. If he actually looked at the evidence from the American Psychological Association, he'd see that there really is very little debate about whether or not we are good for kids. So the fact that he's still saying this disturbs me, definitely. But other justices seem to get it. Also, even if the DOMA case is decided favorably, there will still be issues regarding parenting, particularly adoption.
How do you manage not to get terribly angry when people make comments like Scalia's, especially when it relates to your parenting capabilities?
I have my moments, but I also realize that on a daily basis we have it pretty good. We are both legal parents to our son, so we are lucky in that way. Not every same-sex couple has that privilege. I keep myself sane by focusing on the daily needs of my family more than the higher issues. I know attitudes are moving in the right direction.
Do you ever feel like there’s additional pressure on you as a parent to “represent” your community? Like, do you get stared at in the supermarket, or things like that?
Sometimes people look at us, but I don’t mind it. I personally try to use it as an education opportunity. But sometimes I feel pressure to be perfect because we feel like we're representing all of LGBT parenthood. Like, “Oh my gosh, if I lose my temper with our child people are going to say LGBT people shouldn’t be parents!” We're not perfect, but we're no more or less perfect than straight parents. It's more important not to pressure our children to be perfect representatives of LGBT families. Our kids are going to have ups and downs of growing up and puberty and hormones, just like everyone else's kids. We just try to show our son he has parents who love him, and that's the most important thing. We also have to remember not to take ourselves too seriously.