Sexual and Gender Minority Families (page 3)
The Families We Choose
In most cultures, families are portrayed as hierarchically structured groups of persons who are tied to one another by blood. Families who don’t seem to fit this definition are considered to be “unnatural” and, as a result, are viewed with suspicion. It is not uncommon for people to assume that harm will befall children who are reared by sexual minority parents. Gay male parents are suspect in some instances because of the deep-seated belief that the majority of sexual predators are gay men (Patterson, 2003). It is assumed that children reared by lesbian mothers will experience disturbances in their sexual functioning and/or sexual and gender identities because of the lack of male/ father figures (Bos, van Balen, & van den Boom, 2004; Patterson, 2003). Even those who are supportive of gay civil rights often experience discomfort with the issue of gay parenting because of fears that children will suffer from emotional and physical abuse by their peers.
It is necessary to explore ways in which sexual minorities create family connections, especially in instances where relationships between blood kin have become strained or severed because of sexual orientation. The term families of choice (Weston, 1991) was coined in order to describe families that are created outside of legal marriage. Families of choice comprise “a partner, adopted or biological children, and an extended network of friends, usually not exclusively lesbian and gay, who perform functions similar to those of close, extended biological families” (Laird, 1998, p. 198). According to Ryan, Pearlmutter, and Groza (2004), there are two categories of families of choice. The first, labeled “secondary” families, comprises those in which one or both adult partners have children from previous heterosexual relationships. The second category is called “planned” because it refers to families that consist of adult partners who decide to conceive children through natural or artificial means or to adopt. The next section explores the empirical research that has addressed various aspects of secondary families.
Secondary Sexual Minority Families
Research began in the late 1970s, largely in response to the controversies created when women who were in heterosexual marriages came out as lesbians and were involved in divorce proceedings. At that time, lesbian mothers frequently lost custody of their children because it was assumed that their sexual orientation would negatively impact their children (Bos et al., 2004; MacCallum & Golombok, 2004; Tasker, 2005). As a result of several controversial custody cases, social scientists felt compelled to evaluate judicial decisions regarding child custody. The focus of these investigations was the potential impact of mothers’ same-sex sexual orientation on the social and psychological adjustment, sexual orientation, and gender roles of their children. Typically, researchers sampled comparative groups of children who grew up in households with single divorced lesbian mothers, two lesbian mothers, single heterosexual mothers, and two heterosexual parents. These samples were predominantly white and well educated. Participants were often recruited from support groups such as Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) and were usually aware of the nature of the researchers’ objectives and hypotheses (Tasker, 2005). Gay or bisexual male parents were often missing from the research. Investigators relied heavily on self-report questionnaires, and little, if any, research explored the long-term implications of sustained interactions in families when loved ones were out (Laird, 1998; Peplau & Beals, 2004).
Single Lesbian Mothers Vs. Single Heterosexual Mothers
One of the earliest studies of children of lesbian mothers was published in Great Britain in 1983 by Golombok and her colleagues. Thirty-seven children of divorced lesbian mothers were compared with a group of children in divorced heterosexual female-headed households on a variety of standardized measures. The children who participated in this study were all of school age and had lived with their fathers during their early childhood years. Based on their analysis, Golombok and her colleagues found that the children in both groups were comparable in terms of their psychological adjustment; however, children of lesbian mothers were more likely to be living with their mother’s subsequent romantic partner and to have more contact with their biological fathers than were children of heterosexual mothers (Golombok, Spencer, & Rutter, 1983). Additional research throughout the 1980s (e.g., Green, Mandel, Hotvedt, Gray, & Smith, 1986) explored the psychological adjustment of children of single heterosexual and lesbian mothers and reported no differences between these groups.
One of the first studies to incorporate children raised in lesbian-headed households in which their biological fathers were never present was conducted by Golombok, Tasker, and Murray in 1997. The researchers recruited 30 families headed by single lesbian mothers and 42 families headed by single heterosexual mothers and compared them with 41 two-parent heterosexual families. The children in these families were approximately six years of age. Although there were no differences in the incidence of emotional and behavioral problems among children in single heterosexual mother, single lesbian mother, and two-parent families, children in father-absent homes perceived themselves as less cognitively and physically competent than did those in families with a father present.
Approximately seven years later, MacCallum and Golombok (2004) recontacted the same families who participated in their earlier study. Participants from the original study were now adolescents. In interviews with families headed by single lesbian mothers, single heterosexual mothers, and two-parent heterosexuals, a number of instruments were administered, including measures of school and peer adjustment and emotional and behavioral functioning. There were no differences among single lesbian mother, single heterosexual mother, and two-parent families in terms of the children’s social and emotional development. MacCallum and Golombok also found no evidence to support the concern that children of lesbian mothers would experience more teasing and bullying in their relationships with their peers. The earlier finding that at age six children in both forms of father-absent households perceived themselves as less cognitively and physically competent than did those in father-present households appeared to have washed out by adolescence.
Same-Sex Partnered Households Vs. Two-Parent Heterosexual Households
Numerous studies (Bailey, Bobrew, Wolfe, & Mikach, 1995; Bigner & Jacobsen, 1989; Brewaeys, Ponjaert, Van Hall, & Golombok, 1997; Chan, Raboy, & Patterson, 1998; Perry et al., 2004) have compared levels of psychological functioning of children in secondary two-parent same-sex families and two-parent heterosexual families. In 1997, Tasker and Golombok compared children who resided in two-partner lesbian households and those in married heterosexual families. Children in lesbian households described more positive relationships with their mothers’ new partners than did those in heterosexual families. The female partners exercised greater flexibility in terms of roles than did the male partners in heterosexual relationships. The lesbian partners were more likely to enter the family without clearly defined roles and to permit these roles to slowly evolve based on the individual needs and circumstances of the family. Chan et al. (1998) reported that lesbian mothers shared parenting more equally with their partners than did heterosexual mothers and fathers.
In one of the few studies to explore adolescent-age children in secondary families, Wainright, Russell, and Patterson (2004) reviewed data gleaned from a recent comprehensive national study of 12- to 18-year-old adolescents parented by same-sex and heterosexual couples. Both groups were carefully matched on demographic characteristics. No differences emerged on a variety of measures assessing school and personal adjustment. Regardless of which family type adolescents came from, those who were reared in warm, caring relationships with parents were more positively adjusted.
“No Differences”: An Artifact of Research Bias?
In the studies described above, researchers reported no differences between children reared in two-parent sexual minority households and those reared in two-parent heterosexual households. Like many highly visible endeavors, the research process is influenced by politics. As mentioned earlier, this research was initially undertaken in response to controversial child custody decisions wherein judges frequently deemed lesbian mothers unfit to raise their children. Accordingly, social scientists were motivated to refute or support the notion that children reared by homosexuals were harmed by this experience.
In their article published in American Sociological Review in 2001, Stacey and Biblarz posited that the politically sensitive nature of the gay parenthood issue has led some researchers to be hesitant in acknowledging instances where they did indeed find differences between sexual minority and nonminority families. Stacey and Biblarz reviewed 21 data-based studies that compared children reared in lesbian families with those reared in heterosexual families during the period 1981 through 1998. In contrast to the assertion of “no differences” by previous researchers, Stacey and Biblarz concluded that there are instances in which the “sexual orientations of these parents matter somewhat more for their children than the researchers claimed” (p. 167). They argued that daughters of lesbian mothers were less conforming to sex-typed cultural norms in terms of both recreational interests and occupational preferences. Young female adults raised by lesbian mothers were significantly more likely to report being open to a broader range of sexual possibilities and being more sexually adventurous. Sons were somewhat less sexually adventurous. The researchers concluded that such discrepancies seem easily understandable, given that two female parents would exhibit less stereotypic gender-role behaviors and be more open to questions about sexuality.
Stacey and Biblarz noted that research findings continue to have enormous implications in terms of the legal rights of sexual minorities and their ability to adopt and foster children and to have access to fertility services. But they also argued that “the case for granting equal rights to nonheterosexual parents should not require finding their children to be identical to those reared by heterosexuals” (p. 178).
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