How Gay Parenting Works

The Emmy-winning "Modern Family" cast portrays gay parents and other contemporary household structures.
The Emmy-winning "Modern Family" cast portrays gay parents and other contemporary household structures.
Dan MacMedan/Getty Images

At one point during the 63rd Primetime Emmy Awards in 2011, host Jane Lynch welcomed the audience back from commercial break to the "'Modern Family' awards" [source: Stelter]. The actress hadn't flubbed her teleprompter line. The wildly popular sitcom had merely swept the ceremony so far, eventually garnering, for the second year in a row, an award that dubbed it the best comedy on television.

Documenting the fictional foibles of the Dunphys, Pritchetts and Tucker-Pritchetts and representing a trio of household structures -- traditional nuclear, remarried and same-sex -- "Modern Family" and its immediate success signaled a widening cultural definition of what constitutes a family. That same year, offering further evidence of the gay-friendly social trend, the film "The Kids Are All Right" built a notable buzz at the box office. Centering on a household headed by a lesbian couple, the star-studded film brought home a Golden Globe Award for "Best Motion Picture -- Comedy or Musical" in 2011 and snagged an Oscar nomination.


On-screen, gay parenting is becoming more of a routine sight, but outside Hollywood and its tendency to swing to the social left, same-sex couples raising children still rankle some people's moral sensitivities. A May 2011 survey from the non-partisan Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that 35 percent of Americans believed gay parenting has a negative ripple effect on kids, whereas 62 percent thought it was either a good thing or inconsequential [source: Pew Research Center]. And even though the percentage of critics was significant, that proportion had shrunk 15 percent since 2007.

People may object to same-sex couples parenting children for many reasons, a number of which can't be resolved in any laboratory. Specifically, subjective moral and religious beliefs that condemn homosexuality rest beyond the reach of empirical data and social scientific analysis. Instead, researchers have concentrated on the most important variable in the gay parenting equation: children. Do kids brought up by two gay men or women fare worse than those with heterosexual parents?

Teens raised by lesbian moms may actually fare better than their peers.
Teens raised by lesbian moms may actually fare better than their peers.
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Gauging the number of gay parents in the United States can be tricky because different population tallies yield varying headcounts. That said, the 2010 American Community Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau identified 594,000 same-sex couples in the United States, or roughly 1 percent of household couples nationwide [source: American Community Survey Briefs]. More than 19 percent of those couples reported having kids, whether biological, stepchildren or adoptive children. The American Community Survey didn't track the number of kids in each gay household, but independent surveys and social scientists have posited that between 1 million and 9 million American boys and girls under 18 years old are living with gay parents [source: Drexler].

As the first generation of children to grow up in openly gay households ages into adulthood, social and psychological research on their outcomes has been increasingly positive. A major contention against gay parenting has historically drawn dubious parallels between same-sex couples rearing children and issues related to fatherlessness and single parenting. Commonly cited studies have correlated lack of a father figure in single parent homes to higher rates of drug abuse, poorer academic performance and lower socioeconomic statuses [source: National Center for Fathering].

Yet, apples-to-apples comparisons of households headed by heterosexual husbands and wives and those overseen by same-sex couples provide more accurate and realistic assessments of gay parenting outcomes. A 2010 meta analysis of 33 parenting studies led by New York University sociologist Judith Stacey amended those methodological oversights and landed on a striking conclusion: Parental gender makes little to no difference in terms of child outcomes [source: Biblarz and Stacey]. Based on that cross-study examination spanning two decades of investigation, kids' successes hinge more on the number of parents in a household -- two, in a harmonious relationship, rather than one -- than parents' gender, sexual orientation and marital status. Homosexuality did, however, impact domestic division of labor, with both lesbian and gay male couples divvying up childcare and housework more evenly -- regardless of partner income discrepancies -- than heterosexual parents [source: Solomon, Rothblum and Balsam].

Additional studies have suggested that kids with gay moms and dads are not only all right, but may even excel beyond their peers from more traditional parental arrangements. Culling data from the National Longitudinal Family Study started in 1986, a 2010 study published in the journal Pediatrics revealed that 17-year-olds raised by lesbians actually exhibited better self-esteem, confidence and academic performance, compared to teens of heterosexual parents [source: Gartrell and Bos]. Moreover, those higher marks persisted even in lesbian households where the couples split up [source: Park].

Similar studies on gay male parenting aren't as readily available, since expanding their families is often more of a legal, than a reproductive, challenge. Lesbians have historically encountered legal issues with child custody rights and adoption as well, but there are more childbearing options open to them by virtue of being women. Either way, that necessary commitment to parenting may underlie the empirically supported success of same-sex couples as parents. Whereas 50 percent of heterosexual couples' pregnancies are unplanned, for instance, same-sex couples without previous biological sons or daughters must carefully plan and decide far in advance about entering into parenthood [source: Pappas]. Adoption, surrogacy and donor insemination are a few options available to same-sex couples wishing to expand their families. But the legal hurdles they encounter along the way can be far more formidable than any labor pains.

Same-sex couples wishing to share child custody will likely encounter legal hurdles.
Same-sex couples wishing to share child custody will likely encounter legal hurdles.
David McNew/Getty Images

In some situations, children may enter into the picture before same-sex partners get together. In fact, according to the 2010 American Community Survey, 72.8 percent of gay couples in the United States were raising biological children of one or both partners who may have been the products of previous heterosexual relationships or artificial or donor insemination [source: American Community Survey Briefs]. If a same-sex couple wishes to share custody of biological or adoptive children, getting married often won't do the trick, since -- as of March 2012 -- only six U.S. states and Washington, D.C., permit same-sex marriage [source: American Civil Liberties Union]. In those cases, the next feasible option would likely be second-parent adoption, which was established in the 1980s.

Second-parent adoption allows two unmarried people to equally share child custody rights; but as with marriage, same-sex couples may quickly encounter roadblocks depending on their geography. Those adoptive statutes are outlined by individual states, some of which are more punitive toward gay parents than others. Until 2010 in Florida, for example, a state statute strictly banned homosexuals from adopting children under any circumstances [source: Cooper]. And when a gay parent is barred from adopting his or her child, as per the former blanket rule in Florida, vital benefits are immediately endangered by virtue of them being legally unrelated, including the following [source: Rogers]:

  • Health insurance coverage
  • Medical decision-making in case of emergency
  • Estate inheritance rights
  • Custody rights

Since heterosexual married couples are afforded those federal and state rights when they say "I do," in many ways, gay marriage is tantamount to the right to same-sex parenting. For that reason, some gay rights activists are motivated to legalize same-sex marriage not so much for the protection of their partnerships, but for their present or hoped-for sons and daughters [source: Rogers]. Joint child custody also mitigates the risk of a legal battle should a couple split up. In a lesbian couple that has a baby via donor insemination, for instance, the birth mother automatically is granted custody -- but not her partner. If they part ways, it might be up to a judge to decide whether the non-birth mom gets to see her son or daughter.

Meanwhile, child welfare groups also have increasingly supported gay adoption rights (for non-biological children) as a much-needed avenue to service the vast numbers of American kids in foster care and adoption agencies. Despite strong opposition from some Catholic adoption services, about 2 percent of gay couples had adopted children as of 2007, and that number may have swelled to as high as 21 percent by 2010 [sources: Padgett, American Community Survey Briefs]. Nevertheless, when same-sex couples wish to adopt a non-biological child, full custody will typically be granted to only one partner, unless they can legally marry or the state permits joint custody to same-sex couples, which exists in only seven states as of 2011 [source: American Civil Liberties Union].

Because of these legal hoops many homosexual couples must jump through in order to become parents, psychologists classify their children as "highly desired," which is directly correlated to their positive mental and social adjustment in the long term. But that doesn't mean that kids of same-sex couples don't encounter bullying and negative stereotypes along the way, either.

The key to good parenting is love and resource investment.
The key to good parenting is love and resource investment.
David Ellis/Getty Images

Academic entities aren't the only assessors that have, a majority of the time, found no harm to children posed by gay parenting. Notable organizations have also concurred with the positive gay parenting findings, among them the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). In a February 2002 article in the journal Pediatrics, the AAP stated concisely that "a growing body of scientific literature demonstrates that children who grow up with one or two gay and/or lesbian parents fare as well in emotional, cognitive, social and sexual functioning as do children whose parents are heterosexual" [source: Perrin]. Likewise, the Child Welfare League of America, American Psychological Association and American Psychiatric Association have publicized similar stances [source: Hulbert].

But what about the common assumption that same-sex parenting inherently predisposes children to becoming homosexual themselves? In short, research doesn't support that notion. According to the American Psychological Association, most children raised by lesbian moms and gay dads ultimately identify as heterosexual [source: American Psychological Association]. And by virtue of having homosexual parents, those children tend to hold broader views of gender roles and expectations, which could serve them well when they start families of their own [source: Belkin].

In fact, taking the breadth of child development research into consideration, the primary downside boys and girls brought up in same-sex households might face isn't lackluster parenting, abnormal psychologies or maladjusted social skills. Rather, due to the lingering sour stigma and limited acceptance of gay parenting, the primary foe kids of gay parents may face is bullying. By one estimate, 41 percent of 10-year-old children with gay parents encountered bullying or isolation related to their domestic dynamics [source: Park]. But follow-ups with the same kids at age 17 revealed no long-term negative psychological impact, and they had, on average, just as many friends as their peers.

The gold standard of parenting is two people with a healthy relationship who want to raise successful kids, and when that can't be achieved, a single committed parent can fulfill that mission as well. Myriad variables can determine children's futures, down to when they're born, and research has thus far silenced parental sexual orientation as a make-or-break dice roll. From all of the statistics and regression analyses, a simple message emerges: Good parenting revolves around resource investment -- a lifetime of love.

Anytime I'm assigned to write about a hot-button issue like same-sex parenting, it's a welcome fact-finding mission. Although my podcast, Stuff Mom Never Told You, and its accompanying blog leaves more room for editorializing, remaining neutral is a cornerstone ethic of, and this article on How Gay Parenting Works was no exception for me.

Back in 2010, I interviewed social scientist Judith Stacey who had just published a landmark study comparing same-sex parenting and heterosexual parenting and concluded that gender and sexual orientation didn't make a difference in children's successful developments. Digging deeper into Stacey's research for this article, I found an earlier article she published mildly chastising researchers like herself for not being rigorous enough with examining gay parenting data, because of an underlying desire to dispel homophobia with empirical data. Likewise, as I mention in the introduction to this article, subjective views on homosexuality and gay parenting likely can't be arm wrestled into submission with scholarly publications. My aim, in that case, was to allow the percentages and facts to speak clearly and loudly for themselves.

Related Articles


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