Mothers' acceptance of daughters' lesbianism: A parallel process to identity formation

Sarah Faith Pearlman (1991)

This study explored through a narrative interview technique, the process through which ten mothers came to accept their daughters' lesbianism. Although there was a wide variability in level of acceptance, all of the mothers interviewed had engaged in some social or political activity supportive of parental acceptance and/or the gay civil rights movement. Thus, these mothers were a unique group of women who had consciously worked to overcome societal prejudice, to cope with their own feelings and adjust to a daughter's lesbianism, and to remain committed to their relationship with their daughters. Findings from the study showed that acceptance of a daughter's lesbianism is a complex phenomenon. Overall, most of the mothers demonstrated a nonlinear progression or sequence of reactions which included denial, feelings of devastation, loss and self blame, struggle to tolerate, increasing acceptance, and engagement in political or social activities despite residual ambivalence. Thus, these mothers' process of acceptance was found in many ways to parallel Cass's stage-based model which described lesbian and homosexual identity formation. In addition, similar to their lesbian daughters, mother learned similar coping skills, reported significant marker events as part of their acceptance process, and demonstrated that the most stable bases for self-acceptance as the parent of a lesbian were social support, affiliation, self-disclosure, positive philosophy on homosexuality, reward, and activism. Therefore, these mothers shared similar experiences, tasks, and behaviors as their lesbian daughters, thus demonstrating that like their daughters, they had assimilated the behaviors of a stigmatized group. Other findings from the study suggest that while a mother may be able to accept the fact of a daughter's lesbianism, it is another step or level to accept a partnered daughter, a daughter who is assertive regarding her lesbianism, a daughter whose appearance and behaviors do not conform to the traditional female gender role, or a daughter who is openly affectionate with her partner and who is clearly in a sexual relationship with another woman. The study concludes with a discussion on the factors which appear to influence acceptance. Implications for psychotherapy with both mothers of lesbians and lesbian clients are also discussed.