The rapid pace at which the overall academic discourse surrounding gay and lesbian parents’ comparative competence has swung—from the wide acknowledgement of challenges to “no differences” to more capable than mom and pop families—is notable, and frankly a bit suspect. Scientific truths are seldom reversed in a decade. By comparison, studies of adoption—a common method by which many same-sex couples (but even more heterosexual ones) become parents—have repeatedly and consistently revealed important and wide-ranging differences, on average, between adopted children and biological ones. The differences have been so pervasive and consistent that adoption experts now emphasize that “acknowledgement of difference” is critical for both parents and clinicians when working with adopted children and teens. This ought to give social scientists studying gay-parenting outcomes pause—rather than lockstep unanimity. After all, many children of gay and lesbian couples are adopted.
The basic results call into question simplistic notions of “no differences,” at least with the generation that is out of the house. On 25 of 40 different outcomes evaluated, the children of women who’ve had same-sex relationships fare quite differently than those in stable, biologically-intact mom-and-pop families, displaying numbers more comparable to those from heterosexual stepfamilies and single parents. Even after including controls for age, race, gender, and things like being bullied as a youth, or the gay-friendliness of the state in which they live, such respondents were more apt to report being unemployed, less healthy, more depressed, more likely to have cheated on a spouse or partner, smoke more pot, had trouble with the law, report more male and female sex partners, more sexual victimization, and were more likely to reflect negatively on their childhood family life, among other things. Why such dramatic differences? I can only speculate, since the data are not poised to pinpoint causes. One notable theme among the adult children of same-sex parents, however, is household instability, and plenty of it. The children of fathers who have had same-sex relationships fare a bit better, but they seldom reported living with their father for very long, and never with his partner for more than three years.
So why did this study come up with such different results than previous work in the field? And why should one study alter so much previous sentiment? Basically, better methods. When it comes to assessing how children of gay parents are faring, the careful methods and random sampling approach found in demography has not often been employed by scholars studying this issue, due in part—to be sure—to the challenges in locating and surveying small minorities randomly. In its place, the scholarly community has often been treated to small, nonrandom “convenience” studies of mostly white, well-educated lesbian parents, including plenty of data-collection efforts in which participants knew that they were contributing to important studies with potentially substantial political consequences, elevating the probability of something akin to the “Hawthorne Effect.” This is hardly an optimal environment for collecting unbiased data (and to their credit, many of the researchers admitted these challenges). I’m not claiming that all the previous research on this subject is bunk. But small or nonrandom studies shouldn’t be the gold standard for research, all the more so when we’re dealing with a topic so weighted with public interest and significance.
Social Science Research Volume 41, Issue 4, July 2012, Pages 752–770
How different are the adult children of parents who have same-sex relationships? Findings from the New Family Structures Study
The New Family Structures Study (NFSS) is a social-science data-collection project that fielded a survey to a large, random sample of American young adults (ages 18–39) who were raised in different types of family arrangements. In this debut article of the NFSS, I compare how the young-adult children of a parent who has had a same-sex romantic relationship fare on 40 different social, emotional, and relational outcome variables when compared with six other family-of-origin types. The results reveal numerous, consistent differences, especially between the children of women who have had a lesbian relationship and those with still-married (heterosexual) biological parents. The results are typically robust in multivariate contexts as well, suggesting far greater diversity in lesbian-parent household experiences than convenience-sample studies of lesbian families have revealed. The NFSS proves to be an illuminating, versatile dataset that can assist family scholars in understanding the long reach of family structure and transitions.