Despite the sizable community of lesbian families in America, lesbian mothers and their children continue to face hostility and discrimination. This book explores the role that rhetoric plays in the formation of those negative attitudes and practices. Julie M. Thompson traces thirty years of public debate to examine how and to what extent the phrase "lesbian mother" has been viewed as an oxymoron.
Mommy Queerest focuses on the historical and contemporary meanings of lesbian motherhood in three cultural domains: the mass media, the U.S. legal system, and recent scholarship in feminist psychology. Thompson argues that a rhetoric of ambivalence has pervaded the discourse on this subject. Looking closely at the period from 1970 to 2000, she examines articles published in mainstream newspapers such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, and the Los Angeles Times and in periodicals such as Time, Newsweek, and Parents. She also scrutinizes such alternate publications as Gay Community News, Lesbian Connection, and Lavender Woman. Whereas the mainstream press has tended to characterize lesbian mothers either as "unreal" or as an imminent threat to the family, the lesbian press has portrayed them alternately as the vanguard of radical feminism or as the ultimate betrayal of the lesbian nation.
Turning to the legal system, Thompson draws on more than seventy cases (mostly adjudications of child custody disputes between heterosexual fathers and lesbian mothers) to analyze how the courts have interpreted the "best interest of the child" standard and, by extension, the legitimacy of lesbian motherhood. Once again, a rhetoric of ambivalence is plainly evident in the courts' decisions.
To explore the academic response to lesbian motherhood, Thompson looks at different theoretical models of motherhood and at psychological studies of lesbian-headed families. While she applauds the desire of some researchers to help lesbian mothers retain custodial and visitation rights, she points out that such intentions are often undermined by a reliance on anti-lesbian understandings of gender.
Thompson concludes by reviewing the major findings of her research and their implications for rhetorical and critical legal theory. She also offers concrete suggestions for social change aimed at achieving a new legitimacy for lesbian motherhood.