What do lesbian and
gay parents teach us?
by Abbie E. Goldberg
"Federal bill would deny funding to states banning gay adoption" (Memphis Flyer, October 19, 2009).
"Book banned by Scholastic because of gay parents" (The Examiner, October 26, 2009).
"Cases against gay marriage don't hold up" (Washington Post, October 28, 2009).
Issues such as gay adoption, gay parenting, and same-sex marriage are currently making news headlines like never before. No longer considered "fringe" issues that affect a small minority of the population, these topics now figure prominently in routine news coverage, and are, by extension, being hotly contested and debated in today's society. As lesbians and gay men push for equal rights with respect to marriage and adoption, judges and legislators increasingly ask: What does the research say?
In September, the American Psychological Association released my book, Lesbian and Gay Parents and their Children: Research on the Family Life Cycle. This book provides an integrative review and analysis of research relevant to these central questions under debate. For example, it examines how same-sex relationships are affected when couples are allowed to marry or obtain civil unions, as well as how children are affected by being raised in lesbian- and gay-parent households.
The results will come as no shock to some people, but may surprise others. For example, the research is consistent in suggesting that the relationships of committed same-sex couples are no less healthy and satisfying than those of committed heterosexual couples. There is even some research that suggests that lesbian couples show higher relationship satisfaction compared to other types of couples. Likewise, lesbian and gay parents themselves are just as warm and nurturing as heterosexual parents. They also show similar levels of skill with respect to parenting and child care tasks. Finally, the children of lesbian and gay parents are as well-adjusted and socially competent as children of heterosexual parents.
However, lesbian and gay parents and their children may differ in some important ways from their heterosexual counterparts. For example, same-sex couples divide up child care and housework more equally than heterosexual couples, possibly modeling greater equality in their relationships. Also, some research suggests that lesbian mothers have less traditional (conservative) gender attitudes than heterosexual parents (e.g., they are more likely than heterosexual parents to feel that active play is just as acceptable for girls as for boys). In turn, the children of lesbian mothers show less traditional gender attitudes than children of heterosexual parents (e.g., they consider a boy wearing nail-polish to be a less serious gender transgression than children of heterosexual parents). There is also evidence that children of lesbian and gay parents are less stigmatizing of homosexuality – although there is no solid evidence to suggest that they are more likely to identify as homosexual themselves.
So what is the bottom line? There are important similarities and differences between same-sex parent households and heterosexual parent households. However, contrary to what people might assume, these differences do not arguably favor heterosexual parents and their children. Instead, lesbian and gay parents may be raising their children to be more tolerant and more egalitarian – presumably positive and adaptive characteristics. So maybe we should be changing the questions that we ask. Perhaps, instead of asking, "Are gay parents just as good? Do children of gay parents suffer?" we should be asking, "What can we learn from gay parents?"
Abbie E. Goldberg, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts and author of Lesbian and Gay Parents and Their Children: Research on the Family Life Cycle (American Psychological Association). Visit www.clarku.edu/faculty/goldberg/.