Thursday, July 1, 1999

Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology - "Using Qualitative Research to Study the Social Reconstruction of Gender Roles: The Case of Gay Fathers"

Carl Auerbach, Ph. D.
Louise B. Silverstein, Ph. D

Yeshiva University

Paper presented at the Association for Qualitative Research, July 8, 1999 Melbourne, Australia

Correspondence should be addressed to Carl Auerbach, Ph. D. Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology, Bronx, NY 10461, USA. Electronic mail may be sent to

I want to do two things in this talk. First, I want to describe and theorize about how gay men are becoming fathers in same-sex partnerships. Second, I want to describe the grounded theory methodology by which we did this work.

The context of our research is the historical process in which we are all involved, namely the social reconstruction of family and gender roles, and the development of alternative family structures. Of these structures, gay and lesbian parenting is one of the most controversial. Of course, gay men and lesbian women have been raising children for centuries. However, they did so invisibly until the gay rights movement began to demand social recognition and legal protection for homosexuals.

From this point, the development of gay and lesbian parenting can be divided into three phases, each of which is a progressive departure from the norms of the traditional heterosexual family. The first phase is one in which gays and lesbians become parents in the context of a heterosexual marriage. The second phase was the "lesbian baby boom" of the seventies and eighties, in which lesbian women had children in the context of a committed relationship with a partner. The third phase is the "gayby boom" of the eighties and nineties, inspired by and modeling itself on the earlier lesbian baby boom. This refers to the growing numbers of gay men in committed relationships who wanted to have and raise children, and brought children into their families by surrogacy or adoption.

Our study deals with this latter group.


The research that I’m going to describe to you is part of a large scale study of the social evolution of American fatherhood that my colleague Louise Silverstein and I have been conducting over the past five years. We have been assisted by a large group of graduate students who do the research as part of their degree requirement. To date, we have completed data collection on over 200 fathers including Haitian-Christian fathers, Latino fathers, Promise Keeper fathers, Orthodox Jewish fathers, Greek Orthodox fathers, and gay fathers, one of which is the present research sample.

We collect data in focus groups. Each focus group is structured around a series of open-ended questions that take the research participants through a narrative account of their fathering experience. In the current study these questions were: (1) When did you first think about becoming a father? (2) Did you have any role models for parenting and how did they affect your parenting? (3) How did you arrive at the decision and go through the process of bringing a child into your life? (4) What is being a father like? (5) How did it change your life, your relationships, and your sense of yourself? (6) What do you tell your children about their family, and what are some of your concerns raising a child in a gay household? The group interviews were videotaped and transcribed. The transcripts are the material for the qualitative data analysis I will report.

Five groups were conducted, with four or five men in each group. The group moderator, Barbara Corteroni, was a white, female, graduate student who was motivated to learn more about the gay population because of her professional work as a school psychologist. The analysis I’ll give you later is Louise’s and my reanalysis of the material Barbara reported in her dissertation.

Let me now give you some of the basic demographics. There were 23 men in the study, all of whom were Caucasian, and middle to upper class. Their average age was 39. Their average income was $102,000. Eight men identified themselves as Protestant, five as Jewish, three as Catholic, and seven did not identify with any religion. There were 27 children in the families, 19 boys and 8 girls, and the average age of the children was 4. The ethnic origins of the children were 14 Caucasians, 8 Hispanics, 4 African-Americans, and one mixed. The most common method of bringing children into the family was adoption - 18 cases, followed by surrogacy - 7 cases.

Data Analysis

Let me now describe our data analysis procedure. Please take a look at Figure 1. As you see, it is "a progressive layering of meaning onto text in order to produce a theoretical narrative that answers and/or refines a research question." The figure illustrates the procedure and the layers of meaning involved. The procedure begins with raw text and a research question - the boxes at the top and bottom of the overhead. In our research the raw text is the transcribed interviews, and the research question is "How did the gay fathers go about restructuring the traditional fathering role?" The goal of the analysis is a "Theoretical Narrative," shown in the box just below the research question. This is an account of the data that you construct in order to answer the research question, and which I will give to you later as representing the results of our research. The remaining four boxes describe the process of structured reading of the text in order to extract the four layers of meaning that result in a theoretical narrative. Each step in the structured reading is a progressive abstraction from the raw text. The first step, relevant text, involves reading the raw text and discriminating between segments of text that are relevant to the research question and those that are not. The second step, repeating ideas, derives from the fact as you are reading the text you notice that different research participants are saying the same thing in different words. We call the ideas they are expressing in different ways repeating ideas. For example, one man said "I always thought I’d be a father," and another man said "I always wanted to have children." Both are expressing the repeating idea of early expectations of having children. The next step, cultural themes, derives from the fact that repeating ideas fall into naturally related thematic groupings. We call these groupings cultural themes. For example, the repeating idea of early expectations for children falls into the larger theme of "a long standing dream of having children." This larger theme incorporates not only expectations, but also hopes, desires, plans, etc. The final step involves developing more abstract theoretical constructs, which translate the subjective experience of the research participants into the theoretical language of the social sciences. For example, the cultural theme of "a long standing dream of having children" is incorporated into the theoretical construct of role strain. Role strain is an incompatibility between this long standing dream and the constraints of the traditional role. These constraints are, of course, the incompatibility between being gay and being a father. The theoretical narrative is stated in terms of the theoretical constructs.

For purposes of exposition I have described the steps of data analysis sequentially, as a linear movement from raw text to theoretical narrative. However, the process is nonlinear and the results of the later steps often lead one to revise the earlier ones. For example, the reader’s sense of an emerging theme may lead to a rereading the text in search of repeating ideas that support this theme. In other words, the reading process is simultaneously bottom-up and top-down; it proceeds upward from text to theoretical narrative, and downward from theoretical narrative to text.


Let me now talk about the results. Based on our analysis of this data and also data from other studies we conducted, we have developed a model for the social transformation of fathering roles. The model is shown in Figure 2. It deals with the change from a traditional fathering role - the box on the left - to a restructured fathering role - the box on the right. It makes use of four theoretical constructs: gender role strain, facilitating ideology, social supports, and personal gratification. Each of these is labeled in the diagram as culturally specific, to indicate that the specific form these constructs take depends upon the subculture being studied.

In what follows I’m going to define the constructs and also present the textual data from which they were derived. When we publish our results we typically report the theoretical constructs, the cultural themes on which they are based, and the repeating ideas that fall under each cultural theme. But in this more abbreviated presentation I’m going to give the theoretical constructs, define them in terms of the cultural themes, and present repeating ideas in the form of quotes to illustrate the themes.

The first of our constructs we name gender role strain, a term derived from the work of Joe Pleck. This construct labels the motivation for changing a traditional role. In general it describes conflicts inherent in a gender role itself, either between contradictory demands of the role, or between demands of the role and people’s basic human needs. For this group of men role strain took the form of heterosexist role strain, a conflict between their lifelong dream of being a father and the traditional assumption that being gay is incompatible with having children. The following quote is illustrative.

Gay men didn’t have children unless there was a previous marriage. I knew I was not going to go the marriage route, so I just assumed I would never have children.

The second of our constructs we name facilitating ideology. It is necessary because role strain provides a motive for changing the traditional role, but it does not provide a way of envisioning a restructured role. This function is fulfilled by a facilitating ideology, a system of beliefs about how the social world can and should be reorganized. These men developed a facilitating ideology of degendered personally negotiated parenting roles. There were two aspects to the facilitating ideology. The first was substituting the generic role of parent for the stereotypic roles of traditional mother and traditional father. The following quotes are illustrative.

People ask us "Who’s the mom, who’s the dad ...How do you divide labor in the house?" ....We do what we want, what we like to do. If neither of us like to do it and we can afford to, we just hire someone.

I don’t view myself as a father, I view myself as a parent ...To me fatherhood has connotations which are not really to do anything - the caregiving, the teaching, or those kind of things - and I’m much more involved in that.

The second aspect of facilitating ideology involved a change in the division of labor within the family. It changed from the gendered division of labor associated with the traditional role to a division of labor that was negotiated according to individual styles and preferences. The next quote illustrates this.

One thing I’ve always enjoyed about being gay is there’s no script. You’re inventing everything yourself. To me that’s the whole issue ... You’re inventing things that work ...because the old structures are breaking down.

The third of our constructs we named social supports. It is necessary because change is difficult and anxiety producing, and new roles are difficult to master. Not just ideas but also support is required for change. Our theoretical construct of social supports refers to social groupings ranging from small groups to institutional structures. These help people deal with the anxiety associated with change, and give them opportunity to practice and work through the new roles. Among these men, social support took the form of what we called proactive construction of support and protection. This had two aspects. The first was that the men, in the absence of traditional social supports, created their own social support networks. The following quote illustrates the absence of social support networks.

(We) thought that we were the only two gay men in whole world who ever asked to have a baby because we didn’t know any gay fathers ...We told absolutely no one that we were doing this because we were so scared that somebody would try to stop it.

The second aspect of social supports was that the men took steps to create an environment where their children would feel safe. The next quote illustrates this.

We are continually coming out ...because it’s so important for us to convey to our kids a sense that we are very comfortable and proud of who we are because they’re going to be dealing with a lot of crap about having a different family.

The fourth of our constructs we named personal gratifications. It is necessary because changes must be rewarding to be permanent. The new role constructed must both resolve the tensions created by the old role, and also provide rewards missing from the old role. We use the construct personal gratifications to describe these rewards for change. For these men, it took the form of a transformed sense of self and relations. The next two quotes show this.

I see myself as better than I ever thought I would be.

(Referring to his child) I’m in love. I feel love, the kind of love I’ve never felt before.

Discussion and Concluding Remarks

Let me now make some concluding remarks about our methodology and the implications of our results. First methodology. In developing our methodology we have had to consider the reliability, validity, and generalizability of our results. Because we couldn’t deal with these statistically, we developed qualitative equivalents, which I want to describe to you. The qualitative equivalent of reliability we call convergence. It applies at the level of relevant text and repeating ideas, and refers to the use of multiple readers to jointly determine the relevant text and repeating ideas. The qualitative equivalent of validity we call endorsement. It applies at the level of cultural themes, and refers to presenting our cultural themes to the research participants to see whether they correspond or fail to correspond to their experience. The qualitative equivalent of generalizability we call analytic utility. It applies at the level of theoretical constructs and refers to refining the model for the social construction of fathering roles using a process of theoretical sampling. In general, we have found convergence among readers, endorsement among research participants, and that our model is analytically useful in describing a large variety of American subcultures.

Our research program also bears on broader social issues. At present, the United States is in the throes of a heated cultural debate about traditional family and gender roles. One side of the debate, derived from evolutionary psychology, believes that the traditional gender roles are rooted in the human evolutionary past, and therefore are a necessary condition for a workable society. The other side, the social constructivists, argue that the traditional gender roles are determined by patriarchal social arrangements, and therefore can be modified in the interests of social justice and equality. Our results illustrate the possibility of radically reconstructing gendered parenting roles and therefore support the social constructivist position.


Auerbach, C., Silverstein, L., & Zizi, M. (1997). The evolving structure of fatherhood: A qualitative study of Haitian-American fathers. Journal of African American men, 2, 59-85.

Silverstein, L. B., Auerbach, C., Grieco, L., & Dunkel, F. (in press). Do Promise Keepers dream of feminist sheep? Sex Roles.

Silverstein, L. B. & Auerbach, C. F. (1999). Deconstructing the essential father. American Psychologist, 6, 397-407.

Figure 1. Grounded theory methodology: a progressive layering of meaning onto text in order to produce a theoretical narrative that answers and/or refines a research question.

Figure 2. Model for the social transformation of fathering roles.

[Link: Original Article]

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