Grow­ing up con­fused: Au­thor ‘out from un­der’ gay fa­ther

The Washington Times Weekly - - Front Page - By Shelley Wid­halm

Left out of the de­bate over gay mar­riage and gay par­ent­ing is the po­ten­tial dev­as­ta­tion wrought on the child, said Dawn Ste­fanow­icz, who tells her story of grow­ing up with a gay fa­ther and a chron­i­cally ill and pas­sive mother in her mem­oir, “Out From Un­der: The Im­pact of Ho­mo­sex­ual Par­ent­ing.”

“I wanted those in author­ity to re­al­ize how their de­ci­sions im­pact fam­i­lies and chil­dren,” said Mrs. Ste­fanow­icz, speaker, me­dia spokes­woman and home ed­u­ca­tor liv­ing in Lon­don, On­tario.

Mrs. Ste­fanow­icz ad­vo­cates for fam­i­lies and chil­dren on the is­sues of mar­riage, par­ent­ing, sex­u­al­ity and ed­u­ca­tion, and is a re­source for fam­ily pol­icy, leg­isla­tive, med­i­cal, re­search and scholas­tic or­ga­ni­za­tions. Her Web site, www.dawn­ste­fanow­, serves peo­ple who have grown up with a ho­mo­sex­ual, bi­sex­ual or trans­sex­ual par­ent or par­ents and pro­vides a net­work for shar­ing their sto­ries.

“It’s a very mov­ing, bru­tally hon­est, first-per­son ac­count of what it is like to grow up with a ho­mo­sex­ual par­ent,” said Peter Sprigg, vice pres­i­dent for pol­icy for the Fam­ily Re­search Coun­cil. “It took tremen­dous courage for her to write this book and go pub­lic with her story.”

Un­til she started hear­ing from oth­ers who grew up with gay par­ents, Mrs. Ste­fanow­icz thought her ex­pe­ri­ence was un­usual.

“We of­ten deal with sex­u­al­ity con­fu­sion,” Mrs. Ste­fanow­icz said. “Some of us will be chal­lenged in our gen­der iden­tity. We may have is­sues of bound­aries in the area of our own sex­u­al­ity and re­la­tion­ships.”

Mrs. Ste­fanow­icz said she wrote the book, pub­lished in 2007, to give other adult chil­dren the op­por­tu­nity to ex­press their sto­ries while en­cour­ag­ing her own heal­ing. It was not un­til the death of her par­ents, Ju­dith and Frank (she does not give their last names in the book to pro­tect their iden­ti­ties), that she felt free to share her story of un­met needs and ne­glect and to de­scribe the other side of the sex­ual revo­lu­tion — that of the un­spo­ken, neg­a­tive af­fects on the chil­dren of gay par­ents.

“The child is not the cen­tral fo­cus in th­ese re­la­tion­ships,” she said. “I felt like a com­mod­ity, or a pawn moved around.”

How­ever, she em­pha­sized that she loved her fa­ther, had com­pas­sion for him and ad­mired him for his strong work ethic.

“I’m hop­ing in the book peo­ple un­der­stand that I loved my dad through­out,” she said.

Mrs. Ste­fanow­icz de­scribes grow­ing up dur­ing the 1960s and 1970s in an emo­tion­ally ex­haust­ing en­vi­ron­ment full of chaos. She said her fa­ther, who was sex­u­ally and phys­i­cally abused as a child, was more in­ter­ested in meet­ing his own emo­tional needs through his gay lifestyle than meet­ing the needs of his chil­dren — Dawn; her twin brother, Thomas; and their younger brother, Scott.

Mrs. Ste­fanow­icz felt un­wanted by her fa­ther, whom she said was fre­quently ab­sent, self-in­dul­gent and self-serv­ing. (Later, he sought to re­store re­la­tion­ships with his chil­dren af­ter he was di­ag­nosed with AIDS, dy­ing of it when she was in her late 20s.)

“All I ever wanted was pure fatherly af­fec­tion,” Mrs. Ste­fanow­icz said in her book. “In­stead all af­fec­tion — if af­fec­tion is what mo­ti­vated such as­saults — was sex­u­al­ized, leav­ing me feel­ing hu­mil­i­ated, dirty and some­how ashamed.”

While her fa­ther was con­trol­ling and de­manded that his fam­ily fol­low his agenda with­out ne­go­ti­a­tion, her mother, who was starved for Frank’s af­fec­tion and at­ten­tion, was dis­tant, dis­tracted and de­pressed, Mrs. Ste­fanow­icz said. She de­scribed her mother as weak, sub­servient, re­ac­tive, and, at the same time, put her own needs and wants ahead of those of her chil­dren.

“It’s im­por­tant for both gen­ders to be equally val­ued, loved and seen as uniquely im­por­tant for a child’s de­vel­op­ment and fu­ture,” said Mrs. Ste­fanow­icz, who thinks that monogamy is not typ­i­cal in gay re­la­tion­ships. “We re­ally need a mom and dad who are mar­ried, who love each other, who are com­mit­ted for life. [. . . ] It helps the kids have a strong sense of who they are.”

Re­search shows that same-sex cou­ples are just as suc­cess­ful in par­ent­ing as het­ero­sex­ual cou­ples, said Steve Ralls, spokesman for Par­ents, Fam­i­lies & Friends of Les­bians & Gays (PFLAG) in Wash­ing­ton.

“Their chil­dren are healthy. Their chil­dren are happy,” Mr. Ralls said. “There is no ev­i­dence in the re­search to sup­port a gen­eral claim that same­sex cou­ples can­not raise chil­dren. In fact, ex­actly the op­po­site is true. There are many chil­dren who grow up in het­ero­sex­ual house­holds who are abused and un­happy. We won’t use those cases to say that het­ero­sex­ual par­ents wouldn’t make good par­ents. We shouldn’t ap­ply that here.”

Mrs. Ste­fanow­icz’s fa­ther, pres­i­dent and owner of his own ex­ec­u­tive re­cruit­ing ser­vice, wanted the nor- mal­ity he thought mar­riage could bring, us­ing it as a cover for his ho­mo­sex­ual lifestyle, she said. He brought her along to gay meet­ing spots and porn shops, though she was still a child, and in­tro­duced her to ex­plicit sex­ual prac­tices and ex­posed her to the health risks of the gay lifestyle, she said.

“What makes it so hard for a girl to grow up with a gay fa­ther is that she never gets to see him lov­ing, honor­ing or pro­tect­ing the women in his life,” Mrs. Ste­fanow­icz said in her book.

Mrs. Ste­fanow­icz ex­pe­ri­enced in­se­cu­rity, de­pres­sion, anx­ious­ness, sleep­less­ness and sex­u­al­ity con­fu­sion, and her psy­cho­log­i­cal well­be­ing and peer re­la­tion­ships were af­fected, she said.

Mrs. Ste­fanow­icz’s book is ed­u­ca­tional and im­por­tant, show­ing the ef­fects of gay par­ent­ing, said Arthur Gold­berg, sec­re­tary for the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion for Re­search and Ther­apy of Ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity (NARTH) in Los An­ge­les and co-di­rec­tor of Jews Of­fer­ing New Al­ter­na­tives to Ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity (JONAH) in Jer­sey City, N.J. His book, “Light in the Closet: To­rah, Ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity, and the Power to Change,” sched­uled for pub­li­ca­tion in two months, has a chap­ter on gay par­ent­ing and ref­er­ences Mrs. Ste­fanow­icz’s story.

“The ba­sic the­sis of the book is that gay par­ent­ing doesn’t work,” Mr. Gold­berg said of “Out From Un­der.” “She cer­tainly was trauma- tized by the pro­mis­cu­ous sex­u­al­ity of her fa­ther, which was not hid­den. [. . . ] The ques­tion we should ask [is], is this healthy for the kids?”

Mrs. Ste­fanow­icz needed to get out from un­der, which she did through the help of ther­apy, turn­ing to her faith and find­ing a lov­ing hus­band in Vince, whom she met through a church func­tion, she said. They have been mar­ried for 23 years and have two chil­dren.

“Be­cause we have to get out from un­der, we have to find our own iden­tity,” she said. “Our par­ents came out, some­times be­fore we were born. We need to come out in our own way to share our own sto­ries.”

Dawn Ste­fanow­icz

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