Section 1: Introduction
The purpose of this series is to provide an overview of the body of research related to gay and lesbian parents and their children. This overview includes the definition of terms relevant to the topic, an introduction to demographic considerations and study of same-sex parenting, the controversy surrounding same sex parenting and child development including a review of the literature on the similarities to and differences of the experiences of gay and lesbian parents and their children when compared to heterosexual parents and their children, and an introduction to the politics of “difference” vs. “no difference.” Finally, Erin discusses her conclusions based upon this review and provides suggestions for future research.
Section 2: Definition of Terms
Sexual Orientation: Fletcher and Russel (2001), define sexual orientation as:
A person’s self concept as based on sexual and emotional attractions to other persons who are of the same sex (a homosexual orientation), the other sex (a heterosexual orientation), or both same and other sex (a bisexual orientation (p. 36).
Sexual Identity: “Personally and outwardly identifying oneself as heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual…. A consistent, enduring sense of the meanings that the sexual orientation and sexual behavior have for a person” (Fletcher & Russell, 2001, p. 36).
Heterosexism: Fletcher and Russell (2001), describe heterosexism as, “The presumption that every one is (or should be) heterosexual, resulting in the ignorance of or devaluing of LGBT [lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender] behavior, orientations, identities, or relationships, and the labeling of these as deviant” (p. 36). Herek (as cited in Malley and Tasker, 1999) defines heterosexism as “a worldview, a value system that prizes heterosexuality, assumes it is the only manifestation of love and sexuality and devalues homosexuality and all that is not heterosexual” (p. 4).
Section 3:Demographics of Children of Gay and Lesbian Parents
Gay and lesbian parents construct family in diverse ways. This diversity cannot only be viewed as structural (i.e., a family having two mothers or two fathers). In conceptualizing gay and lesbian families with children, many intersections such as those of culture, religion, age, availability of support networks, and socioeconomic status must be considered as constitutional variables (Tasker & Patterson, 2007). It has been estimated that somewhere between 6 and 14 million children with gay or lesbian parents live in the United States (Litovich & Langhout, 2004; Stacey & Biblarz, 2001). However, it is difficult if not impossible to generate accurate figures on how many gay and lesbian families with children currently reside in the United States (Stacy & Biblarz, 2001; Tasker & Patterson, 2007). This is largely related to stigma associated with gay or lesbian identity. Further, most categories of inquiry collected by the census and other national surveys are based upon heteronormative family constellations and fail to generate reliable demographic data on gay and lesbian individuals, couples, and families.
Section 4: The Study of Same-Sex Parenting
The study of same sex parenting grew largely out of moral and legal concerns about the potential for negative effects that growing up in a gay or lesbian headed family would have on the development of children. On the whole, the existing body of empirical evidence supports the notion that children of gay and lesbian parents are just as well adjusted as children of heterosexual parents (American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 1999; Anderssen, Amlie, & Ytterøy, 2002; McCann & Delamonte, 2005; Meezan & Rauch, 2005; Patterson, 2006). The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry’s (1999) Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Parents Policy Statement states:
There is no evidence to suggest or support that parents with a gay, lesbian, or bisexual orientation are per se different from or deficient in parenting skills, child-centered concerns, and parent-child attachments, when compared to parents with a heterosexual orientation.
In their analysis of the question, “How might same-sex marriage affect the wellbeing of America’s children?” (p. 98), Meezan and Rauch (2005) point out that research on same-sex parenting is a relatively new, rapidly expanding, and methodologically challenging area of study. When evaluating the body of research on same-sex parenting, Meezan and Rauch (2005) noted several challenges to the research process and noted that these challenges can be fairly common in psychological research, particularly in research with underrepresented and/ or stigmatized populations. Points of consideration for consumers of this research include: motivation and/or bias of the researcher(s); difficulty finding representative samples; relatively small sample sizes; existence and/ or legitimacy of comparison groups in the study (i.e., is it appropriate to utilize a heteronormative sample as a comparison group?); subject group heterogeneity; and measurement and statistical issues.
An important, and potentially confounding variable in the study of same-sex parenting, is that gay and lesbian parents and their children come together as family in a variety of different constellations. These children may be the biological offspring of one of the parents, conceived via insemination with an anonymous or known sperm donor or surrogate birth mother. They may also be biologically related to one parent, the product of a previous heterosexual marital or sexual relationship. The child may be biologically unrelated to both parents, joining the family through formal adoption or the foster care system. Additional variables such as a parent’s previous separation or divorce from the child’s biological parent and legal statutes around second parent adoption which vary from state to state makes the study of same-sex parenting a challenge for researchers (Meezan and Rauch, 2005).
Despite the methodological shortcomings found in many of the studies they reviewed dating back to the 1970’s, Meezan and Rauch (2005) found that data produced with these studies was consistent with the studies which they considered to be strong methodologically. In summarizing these findings, they quote the American Psychological Association’s 2004 “Resolution on Sexual Orientation, Parents, and Children,” which states:
There is no scientific basis for concluding that lesbian mothers or gay fathers are unfit parents on the basis of their sexual orientation…. .On the contrary, results of research suggest that lesbian and gay parents are as likely as heterosexual parents to provide supportive and healthy environments for their children…. Overall, results of research suggest that the development, adjustment and wellbeing of children with lesbian and gay parents do not differ markedly from that of children with heterosexual parents.
Further, Anderssen, Amlie, and Ytterøy (2002) reviewed 23 outcome studies published in the peer reviewed literature between 1978 and 2000 on children with gay and lesbian parents. They found that in the 12 studies specifically evaluating the emotional functioning of children raised by lesbian mothers, there were no significant differences in emotional functioning between these children and children raised within heterosexual family constellations. The six remaining outcomes that were evaluated within the 23 studies indicated that there were no systematic differences between children raised with gay or lesbian parents and other children. The six areas of exploration included: sexual preference, stigmatization, gender role behavior, behavioral adjustment, gender identity, and cognitive functioning. Upon review of several studies conducted by herself and other researchers which found no significant differences in the development of children and adolescents raised by heterosexual parents and homosexual parents, Patterson (2006) proposes that the quality and strength of the relationship between the parent and the child is more significant to the child’s development than the sexual orientation of the parent.
McCann and Delamonte (2005) explicitly take the stance that beyond the idea of being competent parents, gay and lesbian parents have much to offer children. As mentioned frequently in this review, gay and lesbian individuals and couples embark upon many routes to parenthood. Their motivations for becoming parents, in many respects, are no different than those of heterosexual parents such as the desire to raise and nurture them. A common notion utilized in undermining the competency of gay and lesbian parents is the belief that same-sex partners will not provide their children with adequate opposite gender role models. McCann and Delamonte (2005) propose that this is yet another manifestation of prevalent hetero-normative discourse and that this critique seems less common among single heterosexual parents.
Section 5:Common Challenges for Gay and Lesbian Parents and their Children
All parents face life stressors and relational struggles which pose challenges to parenting their children. As members of an underrepresented and stigmatized community that exists within a society steeped in heterosexist bias and homophobic prejudices, gay and lesbian persons face additional challenges when it comes not only to parenting their children, but to the act of becoming parents. The extent to which a gay or lesbian person has internalized dominant heterosexist and homophobic societal discourses can profoundly impact his or her self and/or relational concept, ideas about what he or she believes to be possible as far as becoming a parent, and/or the relational experience of parenthood (McCann & Delamonte, 2005). For example, because of a widespread homophobic notion that homosexuals (generally, but not exclusively meaning gay men) are pedophiles, they can often internalize fears about being seen as perpetrators of sexual crimes against children.
McCann and Delamonte (2005) also propose that as an effect of the differing constellations of how same-sex couples become families with children, additional challenges may be presented between the parents as well as with biological and non-biological parents and family members outside of the partner relationship. These challenges may include: negotiating transitions between multiple households; religious and cultural considerations (particularly when multiple beliefs or practices exist within the parenting or extended family system); the historical, familial, and narrative significance of naming the child (particularly the decision of the child’s surname); and how parents will be addressed by the child and by members of their family and community. Further, same-sex parents will likely need to evaluate and consider the amount of contact and degree of involvement of co-parents and other family members. Additional challenges may include: managing attempts to prove that they are good enough parents (particularly in the absence of legal sanctions recognizing and protecting a parent’s connection to the child); encountering prejudice as a family; managing disclosure as the family interfaces with the larger community; and stressors related to the health of the child or parents within the family constellation.
Intentionally constructing a family through circumstances such as adoption and foster care can carry stressors for any couple. Gay and lesbian couples experience these stressors which are often compounded by societal and political trends which make bringing a child into their home through adoption or fostering difficult. Such trends include differing adoption regulations among the states, adoption and foster agency practices which may differ from stated institutional policy, and the attitudes and beliefs of social service personnel (Lobaugh, Clements, Averill, & Olguin, 2006).
Section 6: Disclosure and the Challenges of Coming Out for Gay and Lesbian Families
The “Coming Out” process for gay and lesbian individuals is complex and, in contrast to many other marginalized groups, can vary from context to context on a day to day basis. In coupling, gay and lesbian partners may experience discrepancies in the degree to which each individual discloses his or her sexual orientation to persons outside of his or her home such as family, friends, and coworkers. Though many contexts have become more accepting to gays and lesbians, members of same-sex families with children may have differing viewpoints about which contexts they choose to disclose their own sexual orientation or the sexual orientation of the parent(s) (Tasker & Patterson, 2007).
Tasker and Patterson (2007) state:
One of the main questions that any lesbian or gay parent faces is when to disclose one’s sexual identity to others. Judging whether, when, and how to disclose is a complex task. When disclosure is not just an individual matter but involves family relationships, the complexities multiply (p. 16).
Issues of disclosure often exist in educational and healthcare settings, and may be more challenging for parents and children born within heterosexual relationships who now identify as gay or lesbian than for planned gay or lesbian-led families. Although children may be subjected to the effects of homophobia and have concerns and fears that their parent(s) sexual orientation may expose them to ostracization at school and other social settings, there is no evidence to support that they experience physical victimization or are teased or bullied more than their peers (Tasker & Patterson, 2007). This may, in part be due to strategies that children employ in managing the extent of disclosure provided in social and educational settings.
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