By Aaron Cooper, PhD
It's time to blow the lid off an unacknowledged truth: our kids aren't just like all the others. In some important ways, the children of lesbian and gay parents are different —- and the differences are worth celebrating!
For nearly three decades, our advocates have invoked the mantra "there's no difference" when critics challenge the viability of LGBT people rearing children. The mantra references the substantial body of research — nearly one hundred studies — that has found our sons and daughters to be as emotionally healthy and well-adjusted as children of heterosexual parents.
"The evidence makes clear that having a gay or lesbian parent does not make children more likely to be maladjusted," said
child development expert Michael Lamb, PhD, psychology professor at Cambridge University in England. His remarks were
offered recently at the San Francisco trial of a lawsuit seeking to overturn California's anti-same-sex marriage provision.i
The research has been a boon, of course. It's helped in legal cases where a divorcing heterosexual parent has tried (and too often succeeded) to deny custody or visitation to the other biological parent, on the basis of that parent being gay. The research has supported adoption and foster care agencies in their decision to place youngsters with gay and lesbian parents. It's allowed physicians and clinics to participate without hesitation in donor insemination programs so that gay men and lesbians can create families of their own. And it's provided a foundation from which think tanks and policy makers could promote LGBT-friendly family approaches.
But the mantra of "there's no difference" has obscured another important dimension: our children are not just like the offspring of the average heterosexual parent. It's time to pull back the curtain on this reality.
Consider the work of Judith Stacey, PhD, a professor of sociology at New York University's Center of the Study of Gender and Sexuality.
For over 20 years, she has studied families with gay and lesbian parents and is regarded as one of the nation's leading authorities on diversity and family life.
"We found that despite the ‘no differences' mantra, many studies do report evidence of some intriguing differences, and even
of some potential advantages of lesbian parenthood," said Professor Stacey. "A difference is not necessarily a deficit."ii
Her work reveals, for example, that the children of lesbian and gay parents are less tied to gender—stereotyped thinking. The daughters of lesbians have been found to be less devoted to rigid forms of dress and play and behavior, the traditional and repressive notions of what's acceptable for a girl. Similarly, the sons of lesbians are less devoted to the traditional definition of what it means to be masculine; they seem, as a group, more affectionate and nurturing, and less aggressive than their counterparts raised by heterosexual parents.iii These are findings worth celebrating: girls who aspire to be bus drivers or carpenters, and boys who turn away from the worship of aggression that permeates our football and video game culture. (Fewer studies have been done about the offspring of gay dads, but it doesn't seem too far a leap to conjecture that some of these same effects might be found.)
Greater sensitivity to issues of diversity has also been observed in the children of gay and lesbian parents.
"The kids I've interviewed are enormously thoughtful," said psychiatrist Nanette Gartrell, MD, of the University of California-
San Francisco, the principal investigator of the National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study. "They are not only sensitive
to discrimination to their groups, but other groups as well. This is something LGBT families have to offer the world."iv
To many LGBT parents, none of this comes as a surprise. We feel compelled — rightfully so — to talk to our children about differences. We do so to help them understand and accept their own family configuration, to see it simply as a variation and not a deficit. To arm them for the challenges of navigating a world of ubiquitous heterosexismv, we teach them that "different" is neither better nor worse, that there are many varieties of family life.
As we usher these less-trumpeted research findings out of the closet, it's gratifying to know that the hard work we do with our kids is paying off in ways that can truly benefit society.
Through the Kaleidoscope blog, we hope to offer you, as LGBT parents, information and suggestions that can support you in raising resilient, accepting, and self-affirming sons and daughters. Let's keep the researchers impressed with the terrific offspring we're sending out into the world!
iii Stacey, J. & Biblarz, T. (2001) (How) does the sexual orientation of parents matter. American Sociological Review, 66 (2), 159-183.
v The assumption that heterosexuality is the only acceptable form of expression, whether it be individual sexual orientation or the orientation of parents in a family.