Legalizing gay marriage has opened the floodgates of impassioned debate about its most contentious sequel: gay parenting. The classic questions – How does their parents’ gayness affect children? Do gay parents “create” homosexuality in their children? – reflect baseless homophobic fears. The children of gay parents are no likelier to be gay than the children of heterosexuals.
Other, more child-centered questions include: Is it better to have two parents rather than one, even if both are fathers or mothers? Are gay parents likelier than heterosexuals to abuse their children? Will their children suffer more bullying or ostracism? What happens in case of divorce—which mother or father gets custody, and under what sort of arrangement? Because the nature of gay marriage means that only one—and often neither—spouse is the child’s biological parent, custody disputes are inherently more challenging.
More complicating still can be impregnation by sperm donors whose role the law, if not all the individuals involved, may interpret as fatherhood. The children may handily navigate their relationships, but defining them within the context of social and legal norms, and without apparent precedent, is not easy.
There’s one thing it’s difficult to dispute: the children of gay parents are not victims. Almost all studies, even those whose authors do not couch their premises in gay-friendly terms, conclude that gay parenting is pretty well comparable to its heterosexual equivalent. A quartet of Brigham Young University scholars, for example, conclude that “adolescents raised by gay and lesbian parents typically behave more like youth in two parent biological families, providing little support for gendered-deficit theories.”[i] Charlotte Patterson’s comprehensive 2005 study for the American Psychological Association interpreted three decades of research comparing lesbian and gay parents to heterosexual parents and concluded:
“The results … are quite clear … Not a single study has found children of lesbian or gay parents to be disadvantaged in any significant respect relative to children of heterosexual parents. … Lesbian mothers’ and gay fathers’ parenting skills may be superior to those of matched heterosexual couples … This was attributed to greater parenting awareness among lesbian nonbiological mothers than among heterosexual fathers. … In contrast to … the majority of American parents, very few lesbian and gay parents reported any use of physical punishment (such as spanking) as a disciplinary technique.[ii]
Good, stable lesbian mothers provide good, stable parenting, and lesbians are happier raising children than gay men or straight couples. Their children seem to establish closer relationships with their non-biological or second mother than stepchildren do with stepmothers in straight marriages. Few are deeply wounded if other children query them about their sexual orientation or tease them for having gay parents. A ten-year study concluded that they ranked “significantly higher in school, social/academic, and social competence… than their age-matched counterparts….” And very few are molested. [iii]
Molestation is a recurrent theme in critiques of gay parenting, and it does happen. But the research shows that most pedophiles—adults who sexually abuse children—are male, and that such behaviour in women is extremely rare. Furthermore, girls are overwhelmingly the victims of male sexual abuse, and gay men are no more likely than heterosexual men to commit it. (There is no association between homosexuality and pedophilia.) One study concluded that “a child’s risk of being molested by his or her relative’s heterosexual partner is over 100 times greater than by someone who might be identifiable as being homosexual, lesbian, or bisexual.”[iv]
As the new culture of gay parenting proliferates, so do physical and online resource centres: a few are Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere, Family Equality Council and Gay Dads. Magazines such as Gay Parent and online support communities such as the LGBTQ Parenting Connection continue to mushroom. The focus on gay parenting, rooted in a growing interest in and commitment to children’s welfare and rights, is also an acknowledgment of gay marriage and an attempt to cast it in ways acceptable to North America’s evolving society.
[i] Dufur, McKune, Hoffmann, and Bahr, “Adolescent Outcomes in Single Parent, Heterosexual Couple, and Homosexual Couple Families.”
[ii] Patterson, “Lesbian and Gay Parents and Their Children.”
[iii] Nanette Gartrell, Henny Bos, “US National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study: Psychological Adjustment of 17-Year-old Adolescents.” American Academy of Pediatrics, 2010. Online at http://pediatricts.aappublications.org/content/126/1/28/full.pdf+html
[iv] Carole Jenny et al., “Are Children at Risk for Sexual Abuse by Homosexuals?” quoted in American Civil Liberties Union, “Overview of Lesbian and Gay Parenting, Adoption and Foster Care.”