A recent report from UCLA’s Williams Institute on the state of research about LGB families not only reiterates that our children are doing as well as anyone else’s, but also offers some lesser-known insights about the composition and strengths of our families—and gives thoughtful suggestions for the direction of future research.
The authors are among the leading names in LGB parenting studies and demographics. Gary Gates is a Williams Distinguished Scholar and a widely cited expert on LGBT demographics. He’s joined by Williams Visiting Scholars Abbie Goldberg, associate professor of psychology at Clark University, and Nanette Gartrell, founder of the long-running U.S. National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study (NLLFS). Together, they look at LGB family building, the transition to parenthood and the experiences of LGB parents and children. (Transgender families, they say, raises different issues, and they refer readers elsewhere for more on that topic.)
The report recaps scientific, peer-reviewed research showing that despite encountering heterosexism in the healthcare, legal and educational systems, children born into LGB-parent families do as well as those born to different-sex parents in psychological adjustment, academic achievement and social functioning and are not significantly more likely to self-identify as exclusively lesbian or gay. Some studies have shown, however, that they may play and develop interests and abilities in less gender-stereotyped ways (but that seems to me a good thing).
All that should come as no surprise to most readers—but the report also surfaces some lesser-known findings.
Did you know, for instance, that despite the popular image of same-sex couples starting families together, “the majority of LGB parents likely have their children within different-sex relationships?” While some may have had kids before coming out as lesbian or gay, studies suggest that in fact, nearly two-thirds of LGB parents may be bisexual. Little research has been done, however, specifically on topics related to bisexual parents or around what happens when a parent (bisexual or not) ends a different-sex relationship and begins a same-sex one. Where do they turn for support? How do LGB stepparents navigate their new family roles?
Although same-sex couples who planned to have children together may be in the minority, most research to date has centered on these so-called “intentional” families. Much of this research, however, has had the “relatively narrow focus” of whether lesbian and gay parents “measured up” to the “heterosexual gold standard” of parental suitability. While these findings have been vital in in custody and marriage equality cases, this focus has also had a degrading effect on the field.
In contrast, recent work has started to look at the demographics, dynamics, strengths and vulnerabilities within LGB families, independent of the need to “prove” our worth, but more remains to be discovered.
For example, since same-sex couples with children are about 4.5 times as likely as a different-sex married couple to have an adopted child, where do adoptive LGB parents or prospective parents find support? How do they decide whether to pursue public-domestic, private-domestic, or international adoption? How do they deal with discrimination in the process? How do they maintain the cultural heritage of their children if it differs from their own?
Class issues are also still largely unexplored, but critical in light of demographics showing that many same-sex parents live in less urban and less wealthy areas. How does class impact the method chosen to create a family? How do gay men pursuing surrogacy (likely affluent) negotiate the class, gender and possible race dynamics with a surrogate (who often has limited financial resources)? Furthermore, how do overlapping factors of class, race, gender and sexual orientation shape the experiences of those LGB families that don't fit the prevalent image of White, middle-class, same-sex parents?
Another mostly uncharted area is how the transition to parenthood affects a couple’s relationship to each other and to extended family. Research has shown that same-sex parents often share paid and unpaid labor more equally than different-sex ones. For example, researchers have also “tended to downplay any inequities.” This could spread the myth that all same-sex couples share labor equally—and alienate those who don’t.
When it comes to parent-child relationships in LGB families, several studies have shown that they are similar to those in other families in terms of parental warmth, emotional involvement and quality of relationships. This may be threatened, though, if the parents separate, particularly if one parent does not have a legal relationship with the child—but there has been little research on the details of children’s post-separation relationships with non-legal parents.
Additionally, while many worry about the need for same-sex couples to provide role models of the opposite gender, "it may be inappropriate and short-sighted” to emphasize this, since children are usually “exposed to a wide range of adults—male and female—in their daily lives." Future work should instead look in "more nuanced ways" at male and female involvement in these families.
Other areas for further investigation, the authors say, include children’s relationships with their known donors, how lesbian and bisexual moms respond to infertility, military families, sibling relationships, intimate partner violence, families with a parent who has a chronic illness, how children of LGB parents feel about marriage equality in today’s climate and GBT parents (lesbian moms have dominated research to date).
Such studies—detached from the now-settled question of whether LGBT people can make suitable parents—can help policy makers, healthcare providers, social workers, educators and us parents better understand our families and how to best support them.
Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian (mombian.com), a GLAAD Media Award-winning blog and resource directory for LGBT parents.