A new study on children with two moms is the first to use an apples-to-apples comparison and a nationally representative sample to conclude that same-sex parents are as good as different-sex ones. That’s all well and good, but with national marriage equality and no more states banning same-sex couples from adopting, is this type of research still important? And is it conclusive enough that we no longer need research on same-sex parents and our children?
The study, published in the April issue of the peer-reviewed Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics by researchers affiliated with UCLA’s Williams Institute, found that children with female same-sex parents and those with different-sex parents demonstrated no differences in general health, emotional difficulties, coping behavior or learning behavior.
That’s probably not surprising to most readers. The vast majority of previous research on same-sex-parented families has concluded the same — and many of us have personal experience to match. This study breaks new ground, however, as the first to use nationally representative data to compare only children whose parents have never been divorced or separated.
That’s important because the few previous studies that concluded children of same-sex parents face worse outcomes looked primarily at children who began with different-sex parents, one or more of whom came out as gay or lesbian or had a same-sex relationship, often leading to separation or divorce — which in and of itself can have a negative impact on children. The best-known example of this flawed methodology is a 2012 study by sociologist Mark Regnerus of the University of Texas. Regnerus’ study was widely discredited, but nevertheless cited in amicus briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court by marriage-equality opponents.
On the flip side, previous studies that found the children of same-sex parents were doing just as well as any others used convenience samples of volunteer participants, rather than fully representative samples across the population. Their methods were sound, but one might question how broadly their conclusions applied.
In order to put doubts to rest, the new study’s authors used data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH) from 2011-12, a nationally representative population-based survey. They compared 95 households with continuously coupled same-sex (female) parents to 95 that had continuously coupled different-sex parents. (Unfortunately, they were not able to identify enough two-dad households with kids under 18 to be able to include them.)
Not only did children with two moms have similar health and emotional outcomes to those of different-sex parents, but they did so “despite higher levels of parenting stress for same-sex parents.”
That’s pretty remarkable. The authors offer a few suggestions as to how these children cope so well despite the household stress. The U.S. National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study, begun by Dr. Nanette Gartrell (one of the new study’s authors) in 1986, found that, although 41 percent of the adolescent children of lesbian mothers experienced stigmatization because of their mothers’ sexual orientation, those who “had close, positive relationships with their mothers demonstrated more resilience.” Other studies have shown that lesbian mothers often “feel more pressure to justify the quality of their parenting” than straight mothers, and therefore turn to support systems such as parenting groups and counseling services, which may help them nurture their children’s healthy development.
On one level, the latest study might seem unnecessary. The evidence in favor of similar outcomes for children of same- and different-sex parents was overwhelming even without it — as evidenced by its use in marriage-equality cases right up to the U.S. Supreme Court. The last state to ban same-sex couples from adopting (Mississippi) recently rescinded the ban. And Nathaniel Frank, who has compiled decades of research on gay and lesbian parents for Columbia University’s What We Know Project, wrote in Slate in 2014, “What’s equally maddening about the focus on how gay parents do is that none of it should matter.” Many things disadvantage kids, he says, including divorce and poverty, but no wants to ban parenthood by divorcés or poor people.
Make no mistake, though. Our families are still being threatened. The so-called “religious-freedom” bills being passed or considered in several states would allow adoption and foster-care agencies, even those receiving public funds, to discriminate against LGBTQ people.
The people who would discriminate because of these bills are not acting on rational facts, but on deeply held beliefs. I’m not sure throwing more research at them would change their minds. At the same time, academic studies that show we’re good parents may still help sway on-the-fence politicians or judges in custody cases, say, so they remain unfortunately necessary.
This latest study is thus an important capstone to the research done to date, ending any lingering doubts about the parenting capabilities of same-sex couples. (Even though it only looked at two-mom couples, I can’t imagine anyone getting far with the argument that two-dad couples are substantially different.)
We still need more research on LGBTQ parents, however, especially the less-studied GBTQ parts of the spectrum. At this point, though, I hope we can turn away from a defensive stance — research to prove our worth vis à vis non-LGBTQ parents. We should now expand the research that helps us and those who support us (health-care providers, teachers, etc.) understand more about our particular strengths and challenges and the ways we form and nurture our families. That kind of research remains vital and will help our children continue to flourish and grow.