Marriages by gays and lesbians have produced wide range of family structures challenging legal and social science experts who have yet to come to terms with them.
Studies estimate that between one and nine million children in the United States have at least one parent who is a lesbian or gay. There are approximately 594,000 same-sex partner households, according to the 2000 Census, and there are children living in approximately 27 percent of those households.
An accurate count of same-sex parent families is difficult to obtain because many lesbians and gay men obscure their sexual orientation due to fears of discrimination, such as loss of employment, loss of child custody, and antigay violence.
Lesbians and gays create and configure their families in many ways, and the rise in same-sex parenting comes in part from an increase in ways same-sex couples can become parents. Some same-sex couples have a child within their relationship; others bring children from previous heterosexual or same-sex unions. Most children of same-sex couples are biological children of one of the parents, but a growing number are the result of donor insemination, surrogacy, foster care and adoption.
Most research shows that children of same-sex parents fare just as well as children with heterosexual parents. In fact, one comprehensive study of children raised by lesbian mothers or gay fathers stated that children raised by same-sex parents did not differ from other children in terms of emotional functioning, sexual orientation, stigmatization, gender role behavior, behavioral adjustment, gender identity, learning and grade point averages. Where research differences have been found, they have sometimes favored same-sex parents.
While some same-sex parents still face disapproval from some, the vast majority of research suggests that children raised by same-sex couples fare just as well as others. In the last few months, new studies have emerged to shine an even brighter light on same-sex parenting, lending further support to the consensus that the kids are indeed all right.
For example, a study out of the University of Texas at Austin suggests that same-sex parents give their kids 40 percent more “focused” time (e.g., reading to them, playing with them, and other activities shown to be developmentally beneficial) than different-sex parents. The study, published in the journal Demography, was based on 2003-13 data from a time-diary survey conducted by the US Census Bureau.
In addition, adolescents with same-sex parents reported feeling more connected at school. Another study reported that children in gay and lesbian households are more likely to talk about emotionally difficult topics, and they are often more resilient, compassionate and tolerant.
Same-sex parents share the same concerns that face heterosexual parents when they are deciding to have children, including time, money, and parental responsibilities. Likewise, same-sex and different-sex parents face the same parenting tasks, such as providing appropriate structure for children, providing warmth and acceptance, setting limits, teaching open and honest communication, encouraging healthy conflict resolution, and monitoring of child’s peer network and extracurricular activities.
However, lesbian and gay parents fact problems that heterosexual parents do not, such as the impact of social stigma on the family, and extended family members who may not be supportive of same-sex parenting.
Lesbian and gay parents must live in a culture that supports heterosexist and homophobic attitudes and beliefs, which can affect these families in a variety of ways. Moreover, these families are usually part of a blended family and include children from previous heterosexual marriages. Some of these families must deal with disagreement from other family members about the authenticity and validity of their family patterns.
Resentment from a previous heterosexual partner or the other biological parent can cause major conflict and distress within the family system. Today, there are many therapists available who specialize in gay and lesbian issues. Frequently, gay and lesbian parented families seek therapeutic help for guidance, support, and recognition that they do not receive from the broader social arena. Major issues affecting same-sex parented families that are often addressed in therapy include:
> Concerns about discrimination in parenting and custody arrangements. A parent’s minority sexual orientation and/or gender identity status may be brought up in custody disputes as a reason to restrict or deny custody by the children’s other parent and/or by the courts.
> Co-parenting and blended family problems can also be present for same-sex parents in addition to the complexities of discrimination, stereotypes, and assumptions.
> Problems with non-biological parent figures are common among lesbian and gay parented families simply due to the biological complexities involved with conceiving children when parents are the same sex.
> In same-sex relationships, it is common for extended family to acknowledge intimate relationships differently from heterosexual relationships; parenting relationships as well can confound this discriminatory treatment. Extended family may see parenting as a necessary step in validating a relationship for same-sex couples or they may view parenting with similar biased and discriminatory views, even denying one parent’s relationship to the children.
> Establishing the relationship status and family make-up to school professionals, medical professionals, children’s friends/parents, as well as explaining relationship status and family make-up to children can be uniquely complex for same-sex parents.
Though many family relationships may be complex, explaining family relationships is uniquely complex for lesbian and gay parented families because of the lack of societal norms and relevant examples in media. Stereotyped notions about such relationships that are common, and so is the fear of discrimination faced by these families.
Competent parenting may be influenced by gay and lesbian parents’ ability to accept and acknowledge their identity and how they are able to negotiate living in a heterosexist, homophobic, or otherwise discriminatory society, while rearing their children in a family unit that is not socially sanctioned.