It is an exciting time to be queer. And it's an especially exciting time to be a queer parent or a queer person thinking of becoming a parent--or, I guess, for that matter, a parent who's thinking of becoming queer. Women have led the way in this, and we have the lesbian mommies to thank for showing the world that our kinds of families can be healthy, loving, and contributing families.
But the men are catching on now. A study published last year found that 51% of a group of gay males living in New York City expressed a desire to become parents (Beers, 1996).
What does the scientific literature say about the psychological development of children of queer parents? Before I outline the findings, I want to issue some serious warnings about their conclusiveness. What little scholarly information we have derives primarily from studies that compare children living with divorced lesbian moms with children of divorced heterosexual mothers (Patterson, 1992). Thus, the body of science tells us little specifically about children of queer men, and little about children of queer people who choose to become parents after they self-identify as queer. Finally, the usefulness of the information is limited by a variety of scientific methodological issues which I won't go into here. Nevertheless, we do have information, and that information serves us well in answering charges that queer people cannot raise healthy children.
I'll state seven of the major questions that researchers have concerned themselves with, and report what they have found. I'll run through them summarily because, though I just said there's little research, I still read about 40 research journal articles in preparation for these remarks, and we need to get through this quickly so we have time to interact as a group and learn from each other.
Q. 1: How many gay and lesbian parents are there in the U.S.?
Estimates range from 2-8 million, with lesbians outnumbering gay men approximately 2 to 1 (Patterson, 1992). These estimates date from the mid-eighties to 1990, and so are probably low.
Q 2.: Are children of queer parents any more likely than children of heterosexual parents to be confused or unhappy about their gender?
Four published studies have found no differences in this area (Golombok et al., 1983; Green, 1978; Green, Mandel, Hotvedt, Gray, & Smith, 1986; Kirkpatrick, Smith, & Roy, 1981).
Q 3: Do children of queer parents differ from children of heterosexual parents in their gender role behaviors or preferences?
Seven studies have found no differences in the following areas: toy or game preferences, vocational choices, activities, or favorite TV programs or characters (Golombok et al., 1983; Gottman, 1990; Green, 1978; Green et al., 1986; Hoeffer, 1981; Kirkpatrick, Smith, & Roy, 1981; Rees, 1979). Two possible differences between children of divorced lesbian mothers and children of divorced heterosexual mothers did emerge: One study found that lesbian moms reported that their daughters engaged in more stereotypically masculine play behavior (Green, 1986). At the same time, another study found that daughters of lesbian mothers scored higher on a scale that measured stereotypical psychological femininity (Rees, 1979).
Q 4: Are children of queer parents more likely to be homosexual?
Eight studies have found no higher incidence of homosexual identity or fantasies in children of gay men and lesbians than would be expected in the population at large. (Bozett, 1989; Golombok et al, 1983; Gottman, 1990; Green, 1978; Huggins, 1989; Miller, 1979a; Paul, 1986; Rees, 1979).
Q 5: Are there other psychological differences?
Studies have looked at personality characteristics, psychiatric problems, self-concept, and moral and intellectual development (Patterson, 1992). Only the following emerged as potential differences: One study found that children of heterosexuals saw themselves as somewhat more aggressive than children of lesbians (Steckel, 1987). Children of heterosexual couples were described by parents and teachers as more bossy, domineering, and negativistic. Children of lesbians, on the other hand, described themselves as more lovable and were seen by both parents and teachers as more affectionate, more responsive, and more protective toward younger children (Steckel, 1987). Which raises the question, Should heterosexuals be allowed to have children? The one other difference that showed up in all these studies was that children of lesbians scored higher on a scale of the California Personality Inventory called "Well-Being" (Gottman, 1990).
Q. 6: Do children of lesbian and gay parents experience disturbances in their social relationships with other children or adults?
Studies have found no differences with respect to the gender of children's friends, or the quality of their peer relations, popularity or social skills (Golombok et al., 1983). Lesbian mothers, and especially those living with partners, are more concerned than are divorced heterosexual mothers that their children have opportunities to form positive relationships with men. Lesbian mothers involve more male friends and relatives in family activities (Kirkpatrick et al., 1981). And children of divorced lesbian mothers have more contact with their fathers than children of divorced heterosexual mothers (Kirkpatrick, 1987). Gay fathers are more nurturing than heterosexual fathers in their parental role (Bigner & Jacobsen, 1989), and publicly out gay men are less authoritarian and use corporal punishment less than more closeted gay men (Miller, 1979b).
Q. 7: Are children of queer parents more vulnerable to sexual abuse?
The research shows that sexual abuse by women and gay men is extremely rare, and in fact, suggests that sexual abuse against children is typically perpetrated by a heterosexual male against a female child (Finkelhor & Russell, 1984; Jones & MacFarlane, 1980; Sarafino, 1979). Where boys are at risk, it is almost always from males who either are heterosexual, or who have never developed a sexual orientation toward adult others at all (Groth & Birnbaum, 1978).
Taken together, the research shows no evidence that children of queer parents are at any special risk, and indeed, suggests that such children may enjoy special benefits.
In closing, I'd like to take a step back from these studies and put them in a sort of frame. Why has the research asked these particular questions? They have been formed in response to prejudiced and fearful social assumptions. And while the research has been useful in answering such concerns, I am glad to see we have begun to adopt a less defensive posture--both in our personal lives in queer communities and in the psychological research. Instead of asking, Is queer parenting harmful to children? We have begun to ask questions like: How can we best enjoy the advantages and handle the potential difficulties particular to our families? What kinds of processes in our various kinds of families seem to be associated with optimal family functioning and psychological health? In short: instead of Can we be good parents, we are asking, How we can be our best as parents?
I hope before too long, I can stand up at a program like this one and be summarizing the academic psychological literature addressing these questions. In the meantime, I'll just say that good queer parenting is primarily just good parenting: keeping ourselves healthy; building support into our lives; keeping our lives at least somewhat in balance; setting rules for children, respecting those rules ourselves, and enforcing them fairly, firmly and consistently; and giving praise, encouragement, help, understanding, love, patience and kindness.
Beers, J. R. (1996). The desire to parent in gay men. Dissertations Abstracts International, 57, 05B. (University Microfilms No. 9631663)
Bigner, J. J., & Jacobsen, R. B. (1989). Parenting behaviors of homosexual and heterosexual fathers. Journal of Homosexuality, 18(1/2), 173-186.
Bozett, F. W. (1989). Gay fathers: A review of the literature. In F. W. Bozett (Ed.), Homosexuality and the family (pp. 137-162). New York: Harrington Park.
Finkelhor, D., & Russell, D. (1984). Women as perpetrators: Review of the evidence. In D. Finkelhor (Ed.), Child sexual abuse: New theory and research (pp. 171-187). New York: Free Press.
Golombok, S., Spencer, A., & Rutter, M. (1983). Children in lesbian and single-parent households: Psychosexual and psychiatric appraisal. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 24, 551-572.
Gottman, J. S. (1990). Children of gay and lesbian parents. In F. W. Bozett & M. B. Sussman (Eds.), Homosexuality and family relations (pp. 177-196). New York: Harrington Press.
Green, R. (1978). Sexual identity of 37 children raised by homosexual or transsexual parents. American Journal of Psychiatry, 135, 692-697.
Green, R., Mandel, J. B., Hotvedt, M. E., Gray, J., & Smith, L. (1986). Lesbian mothers and their children: A comparison with solo parent heterosexual mothers and their children. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 15, 167-184.
Groth, A. N., & Birnbaum, H. J. (1978). Adult sexual orientation and attraction to underage persons. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 7, 175-181.
Hoeffer, B. (1981). Children's acquisition of sex-role behavior in lesbian-mother families. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 5, 536-544.
Huggins, S. L. (1989). A comparative study of self-esteem of adolescent children of divorced lesbian mothers and divorced heterosexual mothers. In F. W. Bozett (Ed.), Homosexuality and the family (pp. 123-135). New York: Harrington Park.
Jones, B. M., & MacFarlane, K. (Eds.). (1980). Sexual abuse of children: Selected readings. Washington, DC: National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect.
Kirkpatrick, M. (1987). Clinical implications of lesbian mother studies. Journal of Homosexuality, 13, 201-211.
Kirkpatrick, M., Smith, C., & Roy, R. (1981). Lesbian mothers and their children: A comparative survey. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 51, 545-551.
Miller, B. (1979a). Gay fathers and their children. Family Coordinator, 28, 544-552.
Miller, B. (1979b). Unpromised paternity: The lifestyles of gay fathers. In M. Levine (Ed.), Gay men (pp. 239-252). New York: Harper & Row.
Patterson, C. J. (1992). Children of lesbian and gay parents. Child Development, 63, 1025-1042.
Paul, J. P. (1986). Growing up with a gay, lesbian or bisexual parent: An exploratory study of experiences and perceptions. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of California at Berkeley, Berkeley, CA.
Rees, R. L. (1979). A compasison of children of lesbian and single heterosexual mothers on three measures of socialization. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, California School of Professional Psychology, Berkeley, CA.
Sarafino, E. P. (1979). An estimate of nationwide incidence of sexual offenses against children. Child Welfare, 58, 127-134.
Steckel, A. (1985). Separation-individuation in children of lesbian and heterosexual couples. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, the Wright Institute Graduate School, Berkeley, CA.
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