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Lesbian And Gay Parenting

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Research on Lesbian and Gay Parenting

Like families headed by heterosexual parents, lesbian and gay parents and their children are a diverse group. However, unlike heterosexual parents and their children, lesbian and gay parents and their children are often subjected to prejudice because of sexual orientation that turns judges, legislators, professionals, and the public against them, frequently resulting in negative outcomes including loss of physical custody, restrictions on visitation, and prohibitions against adoption (Editors of the Harvard Law Review, 1990). As with all socially stigmatized groups, the beliefs held in society about lesbians and gay men are often not based in personal experience, but are instead culturally transmitted (Herek, 1991). The purpose of this research on lesbian and gay parenting is to evaluate widespread beliefs in light of empirical data and eradicate the negative effects of unwarranted prejudice.

Because many beliefs about lesbian and gay parents are open to empirical testing, psychological research can evaluate their accuracy. Research comparing lesbian and gay adults to heterosexual adults only began in the late 1950's. Research comparing children of gay and lesbian parents with those of heterosexual parents is much more recent. Research on lesbian and gay adults began to expand with Evelyn Hooker's landmark study which culminated with the declassification of homosexuality as a mental disorder in 1973 (Gonsiorek, 1991). However, research on the children of lesbian and gay parents began to appear in professional journals in the late 1970's and the bulk of available research has been published more recently.

Hopefully, this research will show the results of comparing gay and lesbian parents to heterosexual parents and children of gay or lesbian parents to children of heterosexual parents to be quite uniform: common stereotypes are not supported by this data. This research consists of four summarized sections. In the first, results of research on lesbian and gay adults (and parents) are summarized. In the second section, is a summary of results from research comparing children of lesbian and gay parents with those of heterosexual parents. In the third section I capsulated research on heterogeneity (or bi-sexuality) among lesbian and gay families with children. The fourth section provides a conclusion.

One belief that often underlies both judicial decision-making in custody litigation and public policies regarding foster care and adoption has been the belief that lesbians and gay men are not fit to be parents. In particular, courts have sometimes assumed that gay men and lesbians are mentally unstable, that lesbians are less maternal than heterosexual women, and that lesbians' and gay men's relationships with sexual partners leave little time for ongoing parent-child interactions (Editors of the Harvard Law Review,1990). Results of research to date have failed to confirm any of these beliefs (Falk, 1994; Patterson, 1996).

The psychiatric, psychological, and social-work professions do not consider homosexuality to be a mental disorder. More than 30 years ago, the American Psychiatric Association removed "homosexuality" from its list of mental illnesses, stating that "homosexuality per se implies no impairment in judgment, stability, reliability, or general social or vocational capabilities" (American Psychiatric Association, 1980). In 1975, the American Psychological Association took the same position and urged all mental health professionals to help dispel the stigma of mental illness that had long been associated with homosexual orientation (American Psychological Association, 1975). The National Association of Social Workers has a similar policy that was implemented more recently (National Association of Social Workers, 1994). I am certain that the social, spiritual, and other circumstances in which lesbians and gay men live, including exposure to widespread prejudice and discrimination, often causes acute distress and/or anxiety; but there is no reliable evidence that homosexuality impairs psychological functioning.

Beliefs that gay and lesbian adults are not fit parents have no empirical foundation. Lesbians and heterosexual women have not been found to differ markedly either in their overall mental health or in their approach to child rearing, nor have lesbians' romantic and sexual relationships with other women been found to detract from their ability to care for their children. Recent evidence suggests that lesbian couples who are parenting together tend to divide household and family labor relatively evenly and report satisfaction with their couple relationships (Patterson, 1995). Research on gay fathers has similarly found no reason to believe them unfit as parents (Barret & Robinson, 1990).

Court systems have voiced three major kinds of fears about effects of lesbian or gay parents on their children. The first concern is that development of sexual identity will be impaired for instance, children brought up by gay fathers or lesbian mothers will show disturbances in gender identity and/or in gender role behavior. It has also been suggested that children brought up by lesbian mothers or gay fathers will themselves become lesbian or gay (Editors of the Harvard Law Review, 1990). A second category of concerns involves aspects of children's personal development other than sexual identity. Courts have expressed fears that children in the custody of gay or lesbian parents will be more vulnerable to mental breakdown, will exhibit more adjustment difficulties and behavior problems, and will be less psychologically healthy than children growing up in homes with heterosexual parents (Editors of the Harvard Law Review, 1990). A third category of specific fears expressed by the courts is that children of lesbian and gay parents may experience difficulties in social relationships. For example, judges have repeatedly expressed concern that children living with lesbian mothers may be stigmatized, teased, or otherwise traumatized by peers. Another common fear is that children living with lesbian or gay parents may be more likely to be sexually abused by the parent or by the parent's friends or acquaintances (Editors of the Harvard Law Review, 1990).

Three aspects of sexual identity are considered in this research: gender identity concerns a person's self-identification as male or female; gender-role behavior concerns the extent to which a person's activities, occupation, etc. are regarded by their culture as masculine, feminine, or both; sexual orientation refers to a person's choice of sexual partners. To examine the possibility that children in the custody of lesbian mothers or gay fathers experience disruptions of sexual



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