At age 8, Tara Rose had become a self-appointed interpreter for her younger sister, Beth, who had a heavy lisp. But one night, some 20 years ago, no one had any trouble understanding the little girl.
As they filed out of an upstate New York concert hall with their mother and aunt after an evening of women's music, Beth sang out the words to one song clear as day: " Any woman can be a lesbian . . . . "
"I remember my mother looking at my aunt and my aunt looking at my mother," Rose recalls. Using the first word that popped to mind, her mother said, "No, Beth, any woman can be an acrobat." Without missing a beat, Beth continued singing, " Any woman can be an acrobat . . . . "
But Tara was not so easily distracted. "What's a lesbian?" she demanded to know. That night her mother explained about "Aunt" Roz. Once the secret was out, the two women made sure that the girls knew other kids like themselves.
But when Rose moved to Los Angeles four years ago to enter graduate school at USC, she was away from this support network and suddenly felt isolated. Then she discovered Just for Us, a group for children of gays and lesbians run out of the Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center in Hollywood. Two months later, Rose had become the group's facilitator.
For the past seven years, the meetings have become something of a sanctuary and an equalizer for an otherwise unlikely potpourri of children and young adults. Jocks, honor students, barrio kids, high schoolers who would scarcely acknowledge each other's existence in the school cafeteria here intermingle, united by a common culture.
"The first thing they say when they come to the group is, 'I thought I was the only one who had a gay parent,' " says 24-year-old Ali Dubin, the group's co-founder, whose dad "came out" on Father's Day when she was 13.
Research on these kids is slim, but what is known should come as a relief not only to their two moms and two dads but also to those who conceal their disdain behind the more socially acceptable veil of the children's welfare.
"There is no need to hedge here at all. The research that's been completed up until now simply shows no disadvantages that are of any significance to children of lesbian and gay parents," says Charlotte J. Patterson, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, whose study was reported in the January issue of the journal Developmental Psychology.
If there is a rough time for kids developmentally, it is likely to be adolescence, when sexuality first rears its untamed head. Being different is dreaded and, gay or straight, all parents are hopelessly uncool.
"I would like to have a dad," says 14-year-old Tim Mathews of North Hollywood, making clear, however, that he has no problem with his mother being a lesbian. "It would be more of a normal life. It's weird living with two women, it's different. Sometimes I go stay with my aunt and uncle and it's just more of a 'Brady (Bunch)' atmosphere, you know."
Jennifer and Jacob Rios, who live in Sun Valley with their father, John, and his partner, Don Harrelson, cringe as they talk about Don's exuberance at Jacob's baseball games.
"Do you get embarrassed, Jen?" Jacob, 11, asks knowingly.
"Yeah," giggles his 14-year-old sister, "but it's not because he's gay. It's because he yells, cheers on the team, and everyone looks at him like he's a weirdo."
Although research does not bear it out, one of the standard misconceptions is that children of gays and lesbians are more likely to become homosexual. Even the kids often wonder if that is the case, says Dubin, who is a lesbian, as is Rose. However, both women are quick to note that not only do they have straight siblings, but just as in the population at large, most Just for Us members are heterosexual.
Yet, fear of being so labeled, along with fear of losing friends and being teased, are difficult barriers to overcome. No matter how comfortable children claim to be with their parent's homosexuality, most are still circumspect about disclosing it.
Afterward, many find the fear of telling was usually much worse than the reality.
"I was about to tell my friend that my dad was gay; I was agonizing over it because he was very close and I hadn't told him," recounts Jennifer Rios, "and the next thing you know, my brother says, 'Oh, I already told him.' "
"It was because you waited too long," Jacob interjects with a laugh.
"And now we're best friends," she adds happily.
Perhaps more damaging than any taunting at school, however, is the homophobia that children of lesbians and gays must contend with. Even though subtle at times, the myths persist; lesbians hate men, gays are pedophiles, their lifestyles are unnatural or worse. Those are hard messages to repel for the average 10-year-old, the age Philip Mathews was when his mother came out.
"All I had heard up to that time was just negative jokes that put a wrong idea in my mind. I had no idea what it was, it was just a negative stigma," says Mathews, now 18, a freshman at UC Irvine and older brother of Tim Mathews.
Psychologists recommend that parents let their children know they may encounter discrimination and discuss ways to respond. They add that the extra baggage is not insurmountable and in fact may even be a bonus. Researchers are finding that as a result of their open communication at home and early introduction to diversity, many of these children are happier than their peers, have closer relationships with their parents and describe themselves as being more tolerant and open to new ideas.
"In terms of the long-term welfare of the child, far more important than whether one is teased by one's peers is whether one has the support of loving parents in dealing with it," says Patterson, of the University of Virginia.
When Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg first ran for public office, she says her son asked her not to make an issue out of her lesbianism.
"He was afraid I was going to go out on television and say, 'Hi, I'm your local elected official, and I'm a lesbian,' " Goldberg says. "He wanted to have some control over who got to know and who didn't. . . . He wanted to have some control over the situation and, frankly, we didn't disagree with that."
Such compromises are fine, agrees therapist Teresa DeCrescenzo, who runs Gay and Lesbian Adolescent Social Services, a nonprofit group in Los Angeles. But she cautions against deception and secrets, particularly advising parents not to hide their sexual identity from their children in a misguided attempt to protect them.
"As they say in AA circles, it's like having (an) elephant in the middle of the living room. Everyone pretends it isn't there, but the kids know that there's a family secret," warns DeCrescenzo, who recommends disclosure as soon as the child is old enough to understand.
While there are no precise figures on the number of children in the United States living with gay or lesbian parents, researchers agree it is in the millions. Buoyed in recent years by the so-called lesbian "gaybie boom," these children are changing the focus of gay activism.
"I think we are the best testament to the acceptance of gays, lesbians and bisexuals. Society's deepest fears of gays, lesbians and bisexuals revolve around children. And just by our existence, we refute all of those stereotypes and fears," Rose says. Then, with a wink toward the doomsayers, she adds, "The other day I was thinking of making a T-shirt for our group in the Lichtenstein pop-art style. It would be this kid saying, 'Oh my God, how am I am going to ever have an Oedipal Complex with two mothers!' "