Gay parents: are they really no different? Also read William Saletan’s take on the new gay-parents study here. Does It Really Make No Difference If Your Parents Are Straight or Gay? growing up in a single parent household essay 11 5 14 8.
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Does it really make no difference if your parents are straight or gay? Same sex couple with child. Not far beneath all the debate about marriage equality remains a longstanding concern about children. Different in significant ways, not just odd or unique ones.
If we were asked to design a system for making sure that children’s basic needs were met, we would probably come up with something quite similar to the two-parent ideal. Other family structures were all widely perceived to fall short—even if not far short—in a variety of developmental domains such as educational achievement, behavior problems, and emotional well-being. Stepparents and single moms got used to the chorus of voices telling them their job was a tall one. Ditto for gay and lesbian parents. Lesbian coparents seem to outperform comparable married heterosexual, biological parents on several measures, even while being denied the substantial privileges of marriage.
The matter was considered settled. Not a single study has found children of lesbian or gay parents to be disadvantaged in any significant respect relative to children of heterosexual parents. Scientific truths are seldom reversed in a decade. 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. Far more of them, however, are the children of single parents, and were born the old-fashioned way. Instead of relying on small samples, or the challenges of discerning sexual orientation of household residents using census data, my colleagues and I randomly screened over 15,000 Americans aged 18-39 and asked them if their biological mother or father ever had a romantic relationship with a member of the same sex.
I realize that one same-sex relationship does not a lesbian make, necessarily. But our research team was less concerned with the complicated politics of sexual identity than with same-sex behavior. 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. 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? 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. 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.
NFSS collected data from a large, random cross-section of American young adults—apart from the census, the largest population-based dataset prepared to answer research questions about households in which mothers or fathers have had same-sex relationships—and asked them questions about their life both now and while they were growing up. 175 said it was true of their mothers and 73 said the same about their fathers—numbers far larger than has typified studies in this area. The differences, it turns out, were numerous. For instance, 28 percent of the adult children of women who’ve had same-sex relationships are currently unemployed, compared to 8 percent of those from married mom-and-dad families. Forty percent of the former admit to having had an affair while married or cohabiting, compared to 13 percent of the latter. Nineteen percent of the former said they were currently or recently in psychotherapy for problems connected with anxiety, depression, or relationships, compared with 8 percent of the latter. And those are just three of the 25 differences I noted.