The Remaking Of The American Family

As part of Tell Me More's special focus on modern family life today, host Michel Martin explores the shifting definition of family. Studies show that Americans are becoming more inclusive of who — and what — they consider to be family. Martin speaks with Indiana University professor Brian Powell, author of the book, ""Counted Out: Same Sex Relations and Americans' Definitions of Family."

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

We've been talking about families and family secrets. And earlier, you heard us talk about the way Oprah Winfrey discovered and announced that she has a half sister that she hadn't known anything about. Oprah had this to say about why her mother kept the secret for so long.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Oprah Winfrey Show")

Ms. OPRAH WINFREY (Host): She is still stuck in 1963. She is still of the same mindset of 1963, and is still carrying the shame that would've been put upon her in 1963. And therefore, she hasn't been able to release herself to fully embrace you and embrace this miracle that has really happened in our family. So, I would like to say to our mother: You can let that go. You can let the shame go.

MARTIN: That got us to thinking: What else might we be letting go? What is a family? Who do Americans include when it comes to their definitions of a family unit? Here to tell us more about how this idea is changing is Brian Powell. He is the author of the book "Counted Out: Same-Sex Relations and Americans' Definitions of Family." He's with us from WFIU on the campus of Indiana University, where he's also a professor of sociology.

Professor Powell, thank you so much for joining us once again.

Professor BRIAN POWELL (Sociology, Indiana University): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So, could you tell us about this whole idea of family and the secrets we carry with us in just a minute, but first, you completed a series of extensive surveys from 2003 to 2010 on what Americans, or who, I should say, Americans consider family. Tell us some of your findings.

Prof. POWELL: Sure. Well, in 2003, we started off with a very simple question. We interviewed Americans around this country - we gave them different types of living arrangements. And we asked, do these living arrangements count as family and why or why not? So we asked questions, like, do a married heterosexual couple, a husband, wife and children counts as family? And in that case, virtually everyone says yes.

We then asked about other living arrangements and the ones of particular interest, I guess for today, are same sex couples with children and same sex couples without children. And what we found was a dramatic increase in people's willingness to include same sex couples, especially those with children, as families.

In terms of numbers, for example, we found that in 2003, about 55 percent of Americans said that a lesbian couple with children or gay male couple with children counted as families. By 2010, that went up to two-thirds, to over 67 percent. This is a really huge change in a very short period of time.

MARTIN: One thing I wanted to ask you about, in 2006, you asked if gay couples count as family and if pets count as family. Thirty percent of those you surveyed said that pets count as family, but gay couples don't?

Prof. POWELL: Yeah. This was - this question was the result of some responses we got in our 2003 interviews. There were several people who were just absolutely vehement. The same sex couples should not count as families in 2003. And they went on and on about how the same sex couples were immoral, should not count as families. And then they said, oh, and by the way, I do think that a single person and a pet counts as family.

And there were so many references to pets, and this interesting juxtaposition of saying, pets, yes, gay couples, no, we decided we just had to ask that question in 2006. We asked that question again in 2010, got the same finding.

MARTIN: Got the same finding. You also found there was an interesting cultural contrast, which I'm trying to figure out how to describe neatly. That, with African Americans, for example, there's this reputation that African Americans are particularly anti or particularly homophobic or more so than other members of the population. You said an answer to survey questions one might think so. But in their interpersonal relations, different. Can you amplify that a little bit?

Prof. POWELL: Yeah. To me, one of the most interesting groups and set of responses were the responses by the African American community. And, also, to some degree, by Southerners. And it was this - at face value it seems like this real disconnect. African Americans were not inclusive in their definitions of family. If you just said, does a gay couple count as family? They would say no. But if you asked a question, what do you define as family? In thinking about your definitions, what do you define as families? African Americans were more likely to give a broader definition of family.

They focused more on what families actually do. And they focused on the idea that families are not just your spouse or your children, families basically are people who are around you who take care of you, who care for you, who do things with you, who you love. And these definitions go beyond any type of legal definitions of families.

So, to me, what's really fascinating is that in terms of the African American community, although they say explicitly same sex couples don't count, if you think about their reasonings in their definitions of families, there's a real opening for a change in African Americans' views about what will count as families.

MARTIN: And do other ethnic groups show a similar pattern or is this kind of distinctive to this particular community?

Prof. POWELL: We found this most notably, in terms of ethnic groups, this is -we found this among African Americans. But we also found this among Southerners as well.

MARTIN: Interesting. I also wanted to talk about the subject we were discussing earlier, which is this whole question of secrecy and secrets within families. And I don't know whether it's hard - you can figure out what's the chicken and what's the egg here - and you wonder whether the growing acceptance has to do with the fact that individuals are not willing to be secret anymore or live secretively anymore about their living arrangements. Or is it the other way? Are more people coming out because the taboo is lessening? Do you have any sense of that?

Prof. POWELL: Well, my take about this is that although - my take about it is that people are becoming more - I think the idea of which is chicken, which are egg is one that you really can't figure it out. But one thing I can tell you is that between 2003 and 2006, there was a notable increase in the percentage of people we interviewed who said that they had a gay friend or gay relative.

Now, the idea that all of a sudden you have new gay relatives, you know, that's not what happened. Obviously what happened is people were more willing to, basically, let their family know that they were gay or people were more willing to hear that their relatives were gay. And this happened between 2003 and 2006, which was the period of time in which the rhetoric against same sex couples was at its height.

So I think that it's not a question about a taboo, I think it was an acknowledgement. I think it was just - actually, what I think what happened was, the sheer fact that people were talking about gay issues led to people feeling more comfortable to talk and to basically be more open. So, ironically in this case, even the anti-gay initiatives and all the discussion was going on around this country against same sex marriage ultimately made people more comfortable even talking about these issues.

MARTIN: Well, Professor Powell, we have about a minute left. So, you've been thinking about this and writing about this for a long time. So, I'm curious to know what questions you have that you'll be exploring in the future. What kinds of conversations do you think we'll be having if you and I get together, say, five years from now about the American family?

Prof. POWELL: It's - first thing, I think one of the big questions that's going to - the big question for me right now is what's going to be the implications of same sex marriage that occurs in some states and not other states? One of the interesting findings we have in 2010 survey, was we asked people, even those people who said the same sex couples do not count as families, we asked, what if the same sex couple is legally married?

And one of the big surprises was, people who were opposed to same sex marriage and said that same sex couples do not count as families, they were more likely, however, to say the same sex couples who are legally married counts as families. I'm predicting that with the changes that are occurring in several states right now, in terms of same sex marriage, in terms of civil unions, I think there's going to be a real change in people's definitions of families.

And I think that is going to be - this is going to be one of the areas that I'm really - I'm looking forward to seeing how Americans are going to be - how Americans are going to be defining these families.

MARTIN: All right, to be continued. Come back and see us.

Brian Powell is the author of the recent book "Count It Out: Same Sex Relations and Americans' Definitions of Family." He's a professor of sociology at Indiana University. Professor Powell, thank you so much for joining us.

Prof. POWELL: Thank you.

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