Like families headed by heterosexual parents, lesbian and gay parents and their children are a diverse group (Martin, 1993). Unlike heterosexual parents and their children, however, lesbian and gay parents and their children are often subject to prejudice because of sexual orientation that turns judges, legislators, professionals, and the public against them, frequently resulting in negative outcomes such as loss of physical custody, restrictions on visitation, and prohibitions against adoption (Falk, 1989; Editors of the Harvard Law Review, 1990).
As with all socially stigmatized groups, the beliefs held generally in ociety about lesbians and gay men are often not based in personal experience, but are instead culturally transmitted (Herek, 1991). The purpose of this summary of research findings on lesbian and gay parents and their children is to assist psychologists and other professionals to evaluate widespread beliefs in the light of empirical data and in this way ameliorate the negative effects of unwarranted prejudice.
Because many beliefs about lesbian and gay parents and their children are open to empirical test, psychological research can evaluate their accuracy. Systematic research comparing lesbian and gay adults to heterosexual adults only began in the late 1950s, and research comparing children of gay and lesbian parents with those of heterosexual parents is of a more recent vintage. Research on lesbian and gay adults began with Evelyn Hooker’s landmark study (1957) and culminated with the declassification of homosexuality as a mental disorder in 1973 (Gonsiorek, 1991).
Case reports on children of gay and lesbian parents began to appear in the psychiatric literature in the early 1970s (e. g. , Osman, 1972; Weeks, Derdeyn, & Langman, 1975) and have continued to appear (e. g. Agbayewa, 1984). Beginning with the pioneering work of Martin and Lyon (1972), first person and fictionalized descriptions of life in lesbian mother families have also become available (e. g. , Alpert, 1988; Clausen, 1985; Jullion, 1985; Mager, 1975; Perreault, 1975; Pollock & Vaughn, 1987; Rafkin, 1990).
Systematic research on the children of lesbian and gay parents did not, however, begin to appear in major professional journals until 1978, and most of the available research has been published more recently. As this summary will show, the results of existing research comparing gay and lesbian parents to heterosexual parents and hildren of gay or lesbian parents to children of heterosexual parents are quite uniform: common sterotypes are not supported by the data.
Without denying the clarity of results to date, it is important also for psychologists and other professionals to be aware that research in this area has presented a variety of methodological challenges, not all of which have been surmounted in every study. As is true in any area of research, questions have been raised with regard to sampling issues, statistical power, and other technical matters (e. g. Belcastro, Gramlich, Nicholson, Price, & Wilson, 1993); no individual study is entirely invincible to such criticism.
One criticism of this body of research (Belcastro et al. , 1993) has been that the research lacks external validity because it may not be representative of the larger population of lesbian and gay parents. This criticism is not justified, because nobody knows the actual composition of the entire population of lesbian mothers, gay fathers, or their children (many of whom choose to remain hidden) and hence researchers cannot possible evaluate the degree to which particular samples do or do not represent he population.
In the long run, it is not the results obtained from any one specific sample, but the accumulation of findings from many different samples that will be most meaningful. Research in this area has also been criticized for using poorly matched or no control groups in designs that call for such controls. Particularly notable in this category has been the tendency in some studies to compare development among children of a group of divorced lesbian mothers, many of whom are living with lesbian partners, to that among children of a group of ivorced heterosexual mothers who are not currently living with heterosexual partners.
It will be important for future research to disentangle maternal sexual orientation from maternal status as partnered or unpartnered. Other criticisms have been that most studies have involved relatively small samples, that there have been inadequacies in assessment procedures employed in some studies, and that the classification of parents as lesbian, gay, or heterosexual has sometimes been problematic (e. g. , some women classified by researchers as lesbian might be regarded as bisexual by other observers).
It is significant, however, that even with all the questions and/or limitations that may characterize research in the area, none of the published research suggests conclusions different from those that will be summarized below. This summary consists of four sections. In the first, results of research on lesbian and gay adults (and parents) are summarized. In the second section, a summary of results from research comparing children of lesbian and gay parents with those of heterosexual parents or with established norms is presented. The third section summarizes research on heterogeneity among esbian and gay families with children.
The fourth section provides a brief conclusion. One belief that often underlies both judicial decision-making in custody litigation and public policies governing foster care and adoption has been the belief that lesbians and gay men are not fit to be parents. In particular, courts have sometimes assumed that gay men and lesbians are mentally ill, that lesbians are less maternal than heterosexual women, and that lesbians’ and gay men’s relationships with sexual partners leave little time for ongoing parent-child interactions (Editors of the Harvard Law Review, 1990).
Results of research to date have failed to confirm any of these beliefs (Falk, 1989, 1994; Patterson, 1994b, 1995b, 1996). Mental Health of Lesbians and Gay Men The psychiatric, psychological, and social-work professions do not consider homosexual orientation to be a mental disorder. More than 20 years ago, the American Psychiatric Association removed “homosexuality” from its list of mental disorders, stating that “homosexuality per se implies no impairment in judgment, stability, reliability, or general social or vocational capabilities” (American Psychiatric Association, 1980).
In 1975, the American Psychological Association took the same position and urged all mental health professionals to help dispel the stigma of mental illness that had long been associated with homosexual orientation (American Psychological Association, 1975). The National Association of Social Workers has a similar policy (National Association of Social Workers, 1994). The decision to remove homosexual orientation from the list of mental disorders reflects the results of extensive research, conducted over three decades, showing that homosexual orientation is not a psychological maladjustment (Gonsiorek, 1991;
Reiss, 1980; Hart, Roback, Tittler, Weitz, Walston, & McKee, 1978). The social and other circumstances in which lesbians and gay men live, including exposure to widespread prejudice and discrimination, often cause acute distress; but there is no reliable evidence that homosexual orientation per se impairs psychological functioning (Freedman, 1971; Gonsiorek, 1991; Hart et al. , 1978; Hooker, 1957; Reiss, 1980). Fitness of Lesbians and Gay Men as Parents Beliefs that gay and lesbian adults are not fit parents likewise have no empirical foundation (Cramer, 1986; Falk, 1989; Gibbs, 988; Patterson, 1996).
Lesbian and heterosexual women have not been found to differ markedly either in their overall mental health or in their approaches to child rearing (Kweskin & Cook, 1982; Lyons, 1983; Miller, Jacobsen, & Bigner, 1981; Mucklow & Phelan, 1979; Pagelow, 1980; Rand, Graham, & Rawlings, 1982; Thompson, McCandless, & Strickland, 1971), nor have lesbians’ romantic and sexual relationships with other women been found to detract from their ability to care for their children (Pagelow, 1980).
Recent evidence suggests that lesbian couples who are parenting together tend to divide household nd family labor relatively evenly (Hand, 1991; Patterson, 1995a) and to report satisfaction with their couple relationships (Koepke, Hare, & Moran, 1992; Patterson, 1995a). Research on gay fathers has similarly found no reason to believe them unfit as parents (Barret & Robinson, 1990; Bigner and Bozett, 1990; Bozett, 1980, 1989). In addition to judicial concerns about gay and lesbian parents themselves, courts have voiced three major kinds of fears about effects of lesbian or gay parents on children.
The first general concern is that development of sexual identity will be impaired among children of lesbian or gay parents-for nstance, that children brought up by gay fathers or lesbian mothers will show disturbances in gender identity and/or in gender role behavior (Falk, 1989; Hitchens & Kirkpatrick, 1985; Kleber, Howell, & Tibbits-Kleber, 1986). It has also been suggested that children brought up by lesbian mothers or gay fathers will themselves become gay or lesbian (Falk, 1989; Kleber et al. 1986). A second category of concerns involves aspects of children’s personal development other than sexual identity (Falk, 1989; Editors of the Harvard Law Review, 1990; Kleber et al. 1986). For example, courts have expressed fears that children in the custody of gay or lesbian parents will be more vulnerable to mental breakdown, will exhibit more adjustment difficulties and behavior problems, and will be less psychologically healthy than children growing up in homes with heterosexual parents.
A third category of specific fears expressed by the courts is that children of lesbian and gay parents may experience difficulties in social relationships (Editors of the Harvard Law Review, 1990; Falk, 1989; Hitchens & Kirkpatrick, 1985). For example, udges have repeatedly expressed concern that children living with lesbian mothers may be stigmatized, teased, or otherwise traumatized by peers. Another common fear is that children living with gay or lesbian parents may be more likely to be sexually abused by the parent or by the parent’s friends or acquaintances.
Sexual Identity Three aspects of sexual identity are considered in the research: gender identity concerns a person’s self-identification as male or female; gender-role behavior concerns the extent to which a person’s activities, occupations, and the like are regarded by the ulture as masculine, feminine, or both; sexual orientation refers to a person’s choice of sexual partners–i. e. , heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual (Money & Earhardt, 1972; Stein, 1993).
To examine the possibility that children in the custody of lesbian mothers or gay fathers experience disruptions of sexual identity, research relevant to each of these three major areas of concern is summarized below. Gender identity. In studies of children ranging in age from 5 to 14, results of projective testing and related interview rocedures have revealed normal development of gender identity among children of lesbian mothers (Green, 1978; Green, Mandel, Hotvedt, Gray, & Smith, 1986; Kirkpatrick, Smith, & Roy, 1981).
More direct assessment techniques to assess gender identity have been used by Golombok, Spencer, and Rutter (1983) with the same result; all children in this study reported that they were happy with their gender, and that they had no wish to be a member of the opposite sex. There was no evidence in any of the studies of gender identity difficulties among children of lesbian mothers. No data have been reported in his area for children of gay fathers. Gender-Role Behavior. A number of studies have examined gender-role behavior among the offspring of lesbian mothers (Golombok et al. 1983; Gottman, 1990; Green, 1978; Hoeffer, 1981; Kirkpatrick et al. , 1981; Patterson, 1994a). These studies reported that such behavior among children of lesbian mothers fell within typical limits for conventional sex roles. For instance, Kirkpatrick and her colleagues (1981) found no differences between children of lesbian versus heterosexual mothers in toy preferences, activities, interests, or occupational choices. Rees (1979) administered the Bem Sex Role Inventory (BSRI) to 24 adolescents, half of whom had divorced lesbian and half of whom had divorced heterosexual mothers.
The BSRI yields scores on masculinity and femininity as independent factors and an androgyny score from the ratio of masculinity to femininity. Children of lesbian and heterosexual mothers did not differ on masculinity or on androgyny, but children of lesbian mothers reported greater psychological femininity than did those of heterosexual mothers. This result would seem to run counter to expectations based on stereotypes of lesbians as lacking in emininity, both in their own demeanor and in their likely influences on children.
Sex role behavior of children was also assessed by Green and his colleagues (1986). In interviews with the children, no differences between 56 children of lesbian and 48 children of heterosexual mothers were found with respect to favorite television programs, favorite television characters, or favorite games or toys. There was some indication in interviews with children themselves that the offspring of lesbian mothers had less sex-typed preferences for activities at school and in their eighborhoods than did children of heterosexual mothers.
Consistent with this result, lesbian mothers were also more likely than heterosexual mothers to report that their daughters often participated in rough-and-tumble play or occasionally played with “masculine” toys such as trucks or guns; however, they reported no differences in these areas for sons. Lesbian mothers were no more or less likely than heterosexual mothers to report that their children often played with “feminine” toys such as dolls. In both family types, however, children’s sex-role behavior was seen as falling within normal limits.