Psychology, Law, and Same-Sex Parenting

What impact does being raised in a same-sex household have on children?

Posted Dec 30, 2013

There seem to be few debates more hotly argued these days than whether same-sex couples should be allowed to raise children.   Whether involving foster care or formal adoption,  people opposing lesbians, gays, and transsexuals raising children often invoke religious or legal arguments highlighting many of the misconceptions that still surround the issue of same-sex parenting.

A recent article published in Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity provides an overview of the current status of same-sex parenting across the United States.  Written by Charlotte J. Patterson of the University of Virginia,  the article is based on a presentation she made at the 2009 annual meeting of the American Psychological Association when she received the Award for Distinguished Contributions to Research in Public Policy. 

In her article, Dr. Patterson drew a distinction between families in which children were either born or adopted into a heterosexual marriage that later dissolved when one or both children came out as gay or lesbian and families in which the children were born or adopted by parents who openly acknowledged their sexual orientation.   For both types of families, children’s needs can be very different depending on how they became part of the same-sex family. 

Many recent child-custody cases have involved disagreements over shared custody or visitation arrangements.  In different jurisdictions, the sexual orientation of one of the parents has been used as evidence against their basic fitness to be a parent.   Also, since many states regard only the biological parent as being the “real” parent and often only allow GLBT  people to adopt children as individuals rather than couples, getting a same-sex partner recognized as a parent is often impossible.

While the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the right to marry and adopt children in civil rights decisions, extending those same rights to sexual minorities has been long and frustrating.  To date, only seventeen states and the District of Columbia have allowed same-sex marriages (and that right is being appealed in many of those states).    In other states however, same-sex couples are routinely denied legal recognition relating to child custody, medical decisions, and basic visitation rights.     In fact, one of the prime arguments against allowing same-sex marriage in many jurisdictions is that it might somehow lead to children being harmed.    In the  Varnum v. Brien case that eventually allowed same-sex marriage in  Iowa, state attorneys declared that opposite-sex couples provided the best home environment for children and attempted to have the court reject same-sex marriages on that basis.

Both the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association have pointed out that children raised by same-sex couples could only benefit by allowing legal marriage.    By recognizing both partners as legal parents, children are protected in the event of the death of one of the parents or if the parents separate.    Parental breakup can be traumatic enough for children without legal battles over whether they can have access to one of their parents, especially in jurisdictions where sexual orientation can be used as grounds for being declared unfit to raise children.  Even in states that do not “officially” discriminate against gay parents,  judges  have denied custody to parents in committed same-sex relationships due to  fears about the effect such a relationship might have on the children.   Considering the uncertainty surrounding the legal status of same-sex unions and how they might be dealt with in a courtroom, same-sex couples and their children are forced to live in an environment of fear and doubt over how secure their families may be.

That same insecurity also applies to legal adoptions, whether in the form of stranger adoptions (when biological parents are unwilling or unable to care for a child), or second-parent adoptions (when a second parent formally adopt a partner’s child to be recognized by the courts as a parent).     The laws relating to GLBT adoptions vary widely across different states and many couples can see their rights endangered simply by crossing a state line.    States such as Florida officially bar adoption of minor children by gay and lesbian parents although they are obliged to recognize legal adoptions in other states.  Other states practice a “double-bind” by banning adoption by unmarried couples while not recognizing same-sex marriage.   While adoptions by same-sex couples are legally recognized in states such as California, Massachusetts,  and  California, they are usually second-parent adoptions.

Though the legal hurdles many same-sex couples routinely endure are supposedly intended to protect children, how valid are the concerns raised by opponents of GLBT rights?     In answering this question, Dr. Patterson reviewed many of the actual studies looking at children of lesbian and gay parents to see if there was any substance to the concerns about their gender development, personal development, or social relationships.    

As far as gender relationships go, the usual objection was that children of GLBT parents would somehow pick up “wrong ideas” about appropriate gender roles.  Then again, this is based on defining atypical gender development and non-heterosexuality as abnormal and that children might somehow be “harmed” if they fail to develop as heterosexuals.    It also seems to focus on the need to punish children if they behave in ways that seem unsuitable to their biological gender.   As for actual research studying the relationship between parental sexual orientation and the development of gender identity,  no evidence of an actual link has ever been found.   Studies comparing children of heterosexual and non-heterosexual parents have found no significant differences in sexual orientation or gender identity.   In both groups, incidence of child homosexuality appears to be equivalent to what could be reasonably expected in the general population.

Other concerns about children raised by GLBT parents include their developing emotional and behavioural problems such as substance abuse, psychiatric symptoms, poor self-image, and vulnerability to bullying.   Nationwide studies have shown no significant difference between children raised by same-sex and opposite-sex couples on various measures of anxiety, depression, self-esteem, delinquency, or substance abuse.    Whether in younger children or adolescents, parental sexual orientation does not appear to be a factor in overall adjustment or development of psychiatric problems.

As for social relationships,  most studies show no significant difference in peer relationships between children of heterosexual and non-heterosexual parents.   Although many children of same-sex parents are exposed to teasing or negative verbal comments about their family, the impact of such teasing on overall emotional adjustment appears relatively small. 

Overall, more than twenty-five years of research into the effects of growing up in a same-sex household,  the children of same-sex couples appear to be at least as well-adjusted as children growing up in opposite-sex households.   Whether the research looked at children or adolescents and however emotional adjustment was defined and measured, the results have been remarkably consistent despite the legal battles that have been fought over gay parenting.   While legislators continue to pass laws curbing same-sex parenting in the belief that children are being protected, research has shown that children raised by same-sex couples can and do turn out just fine.   

Though there is no question that children growing up in same-sex households can face pressures, those pressures are largely due to the legal uncertainty many same-sex families face in different jurisdictions.   Children growing up in places with more liberal laws and greater acceptance typically show the fewest problems.    Allowing same-sex couples and their families the same rights and freedoms that heterosexual families take for granted can only improve living conditions for everyone, regardless of sexual orientation.


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