With an estimated two to three million children being raised by gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender parents in the United States alone, the issue of adoption by same-sex couples or single LGBT individuals continues to be a hot-button issue around the world. Though numerous studies show that children with sexual minority parents tend to be as well-adjusted as the children of opposite-sex couples, gay marriage opponents continue to cite moral and religious objections concerning the fitness of LGBT parents as well as the prejudice that their adopted children can be expected to face.
Along with the bullying faced by many sexual minority children in schools, children raised by LGBT parents often experience harassment as well. A 2008 study looking at K-12 students in the United States found that 40 percent of children raised by sexual minority parents reported some form of harassment while 23 percent reported feeling unsafe at school due to their family structure. Even for students who deny overt bullying, more subtle examples of "microaggression" exist, including verbal insults or social snubbing, which can also be emotionally damaging.
There is also the question of how supportive schools are in general to these students and their sexual minority parents. LGBT parents can also face stress over how they interact with teachers and school boards who may contribute to the negative environment their children encounter.
But what are the long-term outcomes of this kind of harassment? And how common is it in many schools? A new research study published in the journal Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity examines school experiences and behavioural adjustment of children with lesbian or gay parents. Conducted by Rachel H. Farr of the University of Kentucky and her fellow researchers, the study used participants from a larger research project already in progress and collected data from children, their parents, and many of their teachers as well.
In all, fifty children with an average age of eight years were used in the study. They were recruited, along with their parents, using five private domestic adoption agencies. All participating children had been adopted into a two-parent lesbian or gay family within the first few weeks of life. Families lived in different parts of the United States, primarily along the east and west coasts and the southern states.
Of the fifty participating teachers in the study, most were female and had known the child for an average of eighteen months. For each child, the parents and a participating teacher completed a checklist assessing potential behaviour problems. These include emotional outbursts or antisocial behaviour along with attention and sleep problems. Parents and children were also separately interviewed to learn about bullying as well as experience with microaggressions linked to anti-gay attitudes.
Results showed that 98 percent of all parents reported their children had adjusted well to school, a judgment shared by their teachers. Only a small percentage of the children in the study showed behaviour problems. In discussing their own experiences with teachers and administrators, most parents felt generally well-supported. There were some notable exceptions however with eight percent of parents reporting that their children had to deal with bullying or teasing because of their families.
These children also reported encountering microaggressions from other students and even from their teachers. When interviewed, some children reported keeping their parents' same-sex status hidden to avoid problems. One said that " a lot of times I don’t like always tell them but it comes out because we do a lot of parent things like we have parties and they come in for parent-teacher conferences."
Another child said “. . . a lot of people just try to make fun of you because your family is different . . . I just don’t think they should bully us because we’re different.” Children who reported being bullied because of their parents were also described as having significant behaviour problems, both at home and at school. This included both externalizing and internalizing problems which, while similar to what many children who are bullying victims report, also suggest that the children of lesbian and gay parents may face unique challenges as they proceed through school.
Along with the generally positive experiences most children of lesbian and gay parents have in school, their parents reported generally positive interactions with teachers and school boards as well. The lesbian and gay parents in this study also report being actively involved in their children's school activities, including frequent meetings with teachers and spending time volunteering for school events. Through regular interaction with their children's teachers, they can ensure greater acceptance and a more positive school experience for all students.
While this is a limited study with a relatively small sample, it does highlight the impact of bullying and microaggressions on children of same-sex couples in many parts of the country. This study also highlights the importance of parents and teachers working together to promote greater acceptance of sexual minority families. Since teachers are in a critical position to stop bullying and microaggression as it occurs, it is essential that they have the needed training to promote greater diversity among their students, something that may be difficult to provide given the political climate in many U.S. states.
Although more research is needed, the number of children of same-sex parents in schools across the United States will certainly rise in years to come. As Rachel Farr and her co-authors point out in their conclusion, when schools serve the needs of all children and parents, prospects are bolstered for children’s educational success and healthy development. Thus, it is paramount that teachers, administrators, and parents work together to ensure that school environments are safe and welcoming of all children and families.
Farr, R. H., Oakley, M. K., & Ollen, E. W. (2016). School experiences of young children and their lesbian and gay adoptive parents. Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity, 3(4), 442-447