Study on lesbian moms earns national award

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Study on lesbian moms earns national award

Jody Koenig Kellas

Looking at her baby through the glass of the neo-natal intensive care unit, a new mom was longing to hold her tiny child, but the nurse on duty wouldn’t allow it.

It wasn’t a question of the baby’s health, but rather because the new mom was gay and her partner had been the one to give birth. In the eyes of the law, the new mom wasn’t a mom at all.

Challenges like these and the communicative responses they evoke are the focus of an award-winning study by a University of Nebraska-Lincoln researcher.

Jody Koenig Kellas, associate professor of communication studies, and her co-author, Elizabeth Suter of the University of Denver, have earned the inaugural Monograph of the Year Award from the National Communication Association’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered and Queer Division for their published research on lesbian mothers and the societal challenges they face.

The study, “Accounting for Lesbian-Headed Families: Lesbian Mothers’ Responses to Discursive Challenges,” was published in 2012 in the journal Communication Monographs. Koenig Kellas and Suter will receive the award at the National Communication Association’s national convention this month in Washington, D.C.

The research examines how lesbian mothers justify their family’s legitimacy in a society in which both law and culture often marginalize gay parents. Koenig Kellas partnered with Suter, a former senior lecturer at UNL, to complete the study. The study was funded by a Wayne F. Placek grant from the American Psychological Foundation.

“We know that lesbian and gay families face challenges,” she said. “They’re challenged on their legitimacy, they’re challenged legally and they’re challenged interpersonally, but there’s really not that much research on how those interpersonal challenges happen and how families respond to or justify their family to a stranger, a family member, a doctor, etc. who challenges their legitimacy.”

For the study, researchers held ten focus groups with 44 female co-parents, where participants interacted and discussed external family challenges and how they responded.

One of the benefits of focus groups is they allow for building off one another’s meanings and contributions, Koenig Kellas said.

Through the discussion, the researchers saw commonalities in the challenges faced by lesbian mothers and in their responses.

When it came to challenges, one of the most common was direct question or rebuke, Koenig Kellas said.

“Some of the richest examples came from instances when people directly questioned mothers in a way that was aggressive or attacking,” she said.

The most notable response to challenges researchers heard during the discussions was leading by example. Participants talked about educating others on lesbian families, demonstrating their benefits and abundant love.

“Many said, ‘Be the person you want them to see. You might be the only lesbian family that these people ever encounter, so be a good role model,’” she said. “Others, however, argued for the need to confront others with real emotional reactions to show the problematic nature of such challenges.”

The study sheds further light on the interactive difficulties faced by these families and how people can handle similar situations. As part of the study, the researchers compiled advice from the focus groups to be used in educational materials.

“The research allowed us to better understand the direct experiences of a marginalized family group,” she said. “Because you hear those real experiences, it also gives a sense of what worked and what didn’t.”

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