Here you are, a gay or lesbian person in love with a parent. What is your relationship to your partner's child? Are you a friend, an “aunt” or “uncle,” or a stepparent? Because legal marriage is not yet an option, it's a little trickier to answer that question than it might be in a heterosexual partnership.
We're talking emotional and financial commitment here. Because there's no judge or clergy to pronounce you married, family becomes a state of mind. Only the two of you can answer the question of when you are a family.
Let's assume that this isn't just a dating situation, but that you're deeply in love and building a life together. Who are you to the kids, and what's your role? That's gonna depend. Gay and lesbian relationships have the same long-term success rates as heterosexual relationships, so that's not an issue. There's that legal stuff looming, especially if the other bioparent does not approve (as is often the case). We'll look at that in a moment.
Then there's the “in the closet or out” question. What's it like to be out of the closet and see your stepkids suffering from bigotry and ignorance? How can you be a stepparent to somebody who doesn't know you're gay?
In some ways, a gay stepfamily is less cross-cultural than most stepfamilies; there are, after all, no cross-cultural gender issues to deal with.
There's Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You, edited by Loralee MacPike, is an interesting and moving collection of true stories by parents who've come out as gay and lesbian to their children. Check it out!
In or Out?
Making the decision to go “public” with your life and sexuality is a huge personal decision. There's no one right answer.
In some gay and lesbian families, everybody is already out of the closet. In some ways, this makes life easier (no lies, no subterfuge) but, then again, life can be harder if you experience outside prejudice. Much of your experience in this regard will be geographically based. Life in San Francisco's Castro District or in Manhattan will be a lot less stressful for you and the kids than it would be in the Bible Belt (well, unless you're talking about rent and parking).
In some families, coming out of the closet is not an option because of career, environment, family, or legal considerations. In that case, you need to figure out whether the kids should know. Some of that depends on their age, and whether or not you and your partner are living together (yup, some people are totally committed but unable to live together because of legal custody issues).
Young children who haven't been exposed to bigoted ideas accept gay and lesbian relationships with no problem. That's the good news. The bummer is that young children may not be able to keep their mouths shut when they need to. Older children may already have biases that need correcting, and they may suffer more from peer problems. They may also have trouble keeping it a secret, and they may suffer from having to keep something so vital to their lives (such as who their parents are) quiet.
Coming Out Is a Process
For most people, coming out is a process, not an incident. Many people are “out” with their friends and the gay or lesbian community long before they decide to tell their children. They may be “out” with their kids long before they tell their ex. (Sometimes they never tell their ex, for fear of custody or visitation consequences.) Little kids don't understand sexuality and just take it in stride. So Mommy loves Alice, so what?
Many people are delightfully surprised at the love and acceptance their kids of any age express to them when the truth is explained. Often, though, older kids are initially distressed. It can be brutal for parents to face the wrath of their nonaccepting children.