When Claudia and Rosie Camargo took their feverish infant son to see a doctor in their small Indiana town in 2014, staff at the urgent care facility asked about more than just the baby’s health—they also pointedly questioned Claudia’s presence at the registration desk. In the waiting room, staff asked who their son’s biological “real mother” was and pointed out that Claudia’s name wasn’t listed on her son’s birth certificate. That hadn’t been legally allowed when he was born, though Rosie and Claudia later married after Indiana began recognizing same-sex marriages in 2014. After carefully checking Claudia’s photo ID, staff said they would “allow” her to attend the appointment with Rosie and their son. Still, in the exam room, staff continued asking Rosie if she was comfortable with Claudia being present, and whether the staff should “share” personal information and the baby’s medical history with Claudia.
When doctors finally diagnosed their infant son with pneumonia, the staff’s focus shifted to providing care for his illness. But the experience stayed with the family. “I don’t remember anyone being outwardly rude or disrespectful to us,” said Claudia, “but it will just be something I will always remember.” The questioning and sense of invisibility the Camargos faced as a same-sex couple is an experience shared by LGBTQ+ parents and caregivers across the country, and may be at risk of intensifying in an increasingly hostile political landscape.
The burden of invisibility
As of June 2020, roughly 2-4 million children have an LGBTQ+ parent in the U.S., and 29% of LGBTQ+ adults have kids under 18 years old, according to New York-based nonprofit Family Equality. In families like theirs, a report by the Gay, Lesbian, Straight, Education Network, GLSEN, found that LGBTQ+ caregivers’ right to be informed and make decisions for their child in school settings is often challenged. Discrimination extends to medical and other settings, and those kinds of challenges may become more common as some states’ try to invisibilize LGBTQ+ families by making them taboo—like Florida has with its “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which has spawned more than a dozen copies in other states. Families are also contending with laws that punish transness by outlawing gender-affirming care. As the legal landscape shifts, hate crimes targeting LGBTQ+ people have become more frequent. For families headed by LGBTQ+ parents, the hostility often shows up in the form of bullying against their children.
For Michael and Chad Rendon-Thofson, a gay couple in Colorado who are parents to two multi-racial children, parenthood has been a blessing, but also emotionally challenging. Recently, students in their children’s school have bullied and tried to “other” and their daughter.
Their children attend a predominantly white school but are multiracial—their son is Latino and white, while their daughter is Latina and African-American. So far, their daughter has borne the brunt of discrimination, they said. “My children walk through life with two extremely different sets of experiences,” impacted by both their races and their family structure, said Michael. “My son has made quite a few friends and hasn’t been in any altercations at all this year. In comparison, my daughter has been the victim of emotional and physical abuse at the school on multiple occasions by multiple children who have [put] her down for her skin color, her adoption status, and for her having two dads,” he said.
“Kids who have queer parents do not always have the structure to protect them from anti-queer language, from bullying from school or within the community, especially when these places do not [necessarily] believe these families are ‘real’ families,” explained Dr. Darnell Motley, research assistant professor at the University of Chicago Department of Medicine’s Section of Infectious Diseases and Global Health and the director of structural interventions at the Chicago Center for HIV Elimination.
However, the discrimination doesn’t always come from external sources—it some cases, LGBTQ+ parents face pushback from within their own families: Chad became estranged from his family after coming out as gay, though both sets of grandparents are part of the Rendon-Thofson childrens’ lives now.
In addition, Rosie’s and Claudia’s parents opposed their relationship early on, which added an extra layer of stress as they navigated legal obstacles to formalizing their relationship, including dealing with immigration red tape after Rosie moved to the U.S. from Mexico.
Looking back at her lengthy journey to marriage and parenthood, Claudia has no regrets. When it comes to the long road that included family disapproval, geographic separation, immigration red tape, family health challenges, financial difficulties, and surviving a bad bout of COVID-19 in early 2020, she said, “Life has not been easy. But I would go through it all over again, as long as Rosie is the person holding my hand through it all.”
These days, Claudia says it’s important for her to be active in the community to help fight invisibility and discrimination, and in 2019 she founded a local LGBTQ+ pride group in her community. “I’m just someone who wants to be a parent, and later a grandparent, and live as simply as everyone else,” she said.
Critically, however, the kinds of discrimination the Camargo and Rendon-Thofson families have faced can have impacts that reverberate beyond just school or the medical setting—the effects can be economic. According to the Family Equality Fact Sheet, LGBTQ+ caregivers of color are also more likely to be at a socio-economic disadvantage as they start their families.
That disadvantage may worsen as the legal landscape continues to tilt against them and the pandemic heightens pre-existing economic issues.
According to the UCLA’s Williams Institute’s report, “Food Insufficiency Among LGBT Adults During The COVID-19 Pandemic,” food insecurity rates have been consistently higher among LGBTQ+ people, and LGBTQ+ people of color, in particular, were nearly twice as likely to experience food insecurity as compared with non-LGBTQ+ people of color. LGBTQ+ adults are also twice as likely to experience homelessness, according to a separate report by the Williams Institute. Black LGBTQ+ people are more likely to experience homelessness as compared with white LGBTQ+ individuals.
Before adopting children together, Chad and Michael lived through economic insecurity. Chad is currently a university administrator based in Denver. While Chad, who is Caucasian, grew up well off, after he became estranged from his family due to his sexual orientation, he spent a number of years bouncing from job to job, including minimum-wage retail jobs. Later, he moved to Denver for an airline position, where he met his now-husband, Michael, a Mexican-American man who was born and raised in Denver. Once the two connected, it took more time than they anticipated to start their family.
In 2008, during the economic downturn, both Chad and Michael lost their jobs and the couple experienced a three-month stint of houselessness. They couch-surfed and stayed with friends since they could not afford to pay rent. Both decided to return to school to complete their undergraduate and graduate degrees, which meant taking out significant student loans.
By 2014, they were financially secure and were among the first to legally marry in Boulder, Colorado, with their adopted daughter, then age 2, by their side.
But not all LGBTQ+ families have been able to find their financial footing. While data on the overall impact of the pandemic on LGBTQ+ families of color is still emerging from various research institutions, many experts strongly believe that the pandemic, joblessness, and other factors continue to affect many low-income and middle-income families.
According to Motley, workplace and employment retention is a huge issue.
“In some states, you can be fired for being queer, and that gets in the way for getting and keeping long-term employment,” said Motley. He noted impacted low-income LGBTQ+ individuals and families have had to deal with this issue way before the pandemic.
“These queer families of color and caregivers are often at a disadvantage. Folks are just struggling to survive. Thriving isn’t even on the table; we have to give folks the time to build,” said Motley.
Motley, a clinical psychologist, also sees patients at his private practice in Chicago, and said that there is a great deal more work to be done when it comes to compiling accurate data on LGBTQ+ families of color to provide evidenced-based solutions.
“As we move toward a better understanding to know what LGBTQ+ parents need, then we can also ensure that LGBTQ+ youth will also get what they need,” he said. But access to financial resources is among the most crucial pieces of the puzzle.
“The thing that people are missing is money. We can teach people empowerment, skills, and more,” he said. “But when the bills are due, people simply need money. All in all, what is critical is that barriers to financial stability for LGTBQ+ people of color are eradicated.”