Love and science: How science has helped LGBTQ families 

Love and science: How science has helped LGBTQ families 

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Last week, the March for Science in Washington, D.C., and hundreds of other global locations encouraged science that “upholds the common good” and allows evidence-based policymaking in the public interest (marchforscience.com). I thus thought this was a good time to look at how science has specifically helped LGBTQ parents and our children. 

First, and perhaps most obviously, science has helped create many LGBTQ families (my own included) through assisted-reproduction techniques such as in-vitro fertilization (IVF) and gestational surrogacy.

Second, science has given us studies of LGBTQ families that can help us be better parents and give medical, educational and other professionals a better idea of how to support us; for example, research that shows how we find resilience, how we deal with stigma and how we relate to donors, birth parents, surrogates and donor siblings.

Third, scientific analyses have helped drive policy and law around LGBTQ families. In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) list of mental disorders. They were swayed by “the weight of empirical data,” in addition to “changing social norms” and the development of a politically active gay community, says Gregory Herek, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California-Davis and a widely recognized authority on anti-LGBTQ bias, at his website (psychology.ucdavis.edu/rainbow/).

That move had a lasting effect. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy mentioned it in his 2015 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, the case that established marriage equality throughout the country, and noted that now, “psychiatrists and others [have] recognized that sexual orientation is both a normal expression of human sexuality and immutable.”

Beyond the DSM, the research of psychologists, sociologists, medical and mental-health professionals, economists, demographers and others has been used extensively in friend-of-the-court (amicus) briefs in key LGBTQ cases, including ones on marriage equality, sodomy laws, military inclusion and antigay discrimination by the Boy Scouts.

In Obergefell, for example, the brief from the American Psychological Association (APA) offered a plethora of “scientific evidence” as to the normalcy and stability of same-sex relationships, including numerous studies that showed “same-sex couples are no less fit than heterosexual parents to raise children, and their children are no less psychologically healthy and well-adjusted.”

Demographic studies swayed the court too. In Obergefell, Kennedy cited demographer Gary Gates of UCLA’s Williams Institute in noting, “Hundreds of thousands of children are presently being raised by [same-sex] couples” — children who suffer stigma and financial strain if their parents cannot marry.

In family law, the decoupling of homosexuality and mental illness has also helped in matters of child custody. Prior to 1973, almost no lesbian mother could gain custody when divorcing a husband, because the DSM said she had a mental illness, explains Nancy Polikoff, LGBTQ family-law expert and professor of law at American University, on her blog. The DSM change “transformed that mother into a parent with a legitimate claim that her lesbianism should not be automatic grounds for denying her custody. Forward-thinking judges began awarding custody to openly lesbian mothers.” In 1976, Polikoff adds, the APA “passed a resolution opposing use of sexual orientation as a primary component in custody, adoption, or foster-parenting determinations” (beyondstraightandgaymarriage.blogspot.com).

That shift in thinking still resonates. Earlier this month, the Washington Supreme Court overturned a trial-court decision that had improperly denied a mom custody because she is a lesbian. The ruling stressed that a parent’s sexual orientation may not be considered in custody decisions “absent an express showing of harm to the children.” 

Transgender parents, too, have benefitted from scientific backing. The DSM in 2013 stopped saying that trans people have “Gender Identity Disorder” — “disorder” implying a mental illness — and instead said they experience “Gender Dysphoria,” a discomfort or conflict between their assigned gender and the one with which they identify. This change has helped doctors in child-custody cases give expert testimony that trans parents do not have a serious mental illness (and are thus unfit to parent) simply by being trans.

The ACLU and the National Center for Transgender Equality have also produced a guide for parents and lawyers “to give parents and their attorneys an idea of the kind of scientific evidence that is available if needed” when providing expert testimony in custody cases.

School policy, as well as law, has been informed by scientific thinking. Herek, for example, provided testimony for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights’ 2011 hearings on ways to protect students from bullying and harassment. GLSEN’s biennial National School Climate Survey on LGBTQ students is replete with statistical analysis — and was cited by the Obama administration’s Education Department in a 2011 memo reminding schools receiving federal funds that they must provide all student groups, including LGBT ones, with equal support. 

And leading medical and mental-health organizations, as well as 60 other scholars, including demographers, economists and psychologists, recently contributed amicus briefs in support of Gavin Grimm, a transgender student fighting in federal court for the right to use the school bathroom that matches his gender identity.

This is but a brief sketch of how science has assisted LGBTQ families (and hasn’t touched on how it has benefitted LGBTQ people in other ways, notably in enabling appropriate medical and mental-health care for LGBTQ individuals), but I hope it helps show that, while love may make a family, science may play a supporting role. Championing the goals of the March for Science may be as important as any advocacy we do for our families in the current era.

Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian (mombian.com), a GLAAD Media Award-winning blog and resource directory for LGBTQ parents.


Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian (www.mombian.com), an award-winning blog and resource directory for LGBT parents.


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