Hey Conservatives -- Gays Are Better Parents Than You
When I ask 29-year-old Kellen Kaiser if I can get her take on a few new studies demonstrating the benefits to gay parenting, she jokingly warns me that she’s biased.
That isn’t really surprising given the family that the L.A.-based actress and writer grew up in. Born after three lesbian friends decided to co-parent (and one ultimately became pregnant), Kaiser was also raised by her biological mother’s long-term partner, alongside a brother who was the product of a known gay sperm donor.
Though this model of parenting may be unfamiliar to the average American, (and the specifics of this particular family are, of course, not characteristic of the entire LGBT community), to Kaiser, the strengths are obvious. As she says, “I certainly feel like I gained from being exposed to so many different and wonderful adults in my life. I think gay parents are more intentional on the whole than the average straight parent. Parenting is less done on automatic. Gay families tend to reexamine and reform traditions to the particular needs of their families and children.”
She’s not alone in this assessment, and research is beginning to back her up.
Robert-Jay Green, the executive director of the Rockway Institute for LGBT Psychology & Public Policy has looked at the experiences of gay men who became fathers using gestational or “surrogate” mothers. In April, in a paper published in the Journal of GLBT Family Studies, he and his colleagues reported that gay dads were more likely than straight to put their children before their careers, make significant changes in their lives to accommodate a child, and to strengthen bonds with extended families after becoming parents. He tells me, “The conservative argument is that children raised by gay parents will suffer by virtue of the fact of the parent’s sexual orientation. But there is lots of anecdotal evidence that children raised by gay parents are doing just fine and the central orientation of the parents, in and of itself, has no negative impact on the children.” His upcoming work will focus on translating such anecdotes into research as he studies the psychological outcomes of children raised by heterosexual parents compared to children conceived through surrogacy and raised by gay male parents.
Though Green will be the first to look at this particular population, in June, the results of an almost two decade-long study of the children of lesbian moms came out in the journal Pediatrics (pdf). This reported that not only do such children do as well as the children of straight married parents, but in some key ways, they do even better. Indeed, after following the children of lesbian moms for their first 17 years, researchers Nanette Gartrell and Henny Bos determined that compared to other teens, these kids were more likely to succeed academically, and were less likely to have social problems, break rules or exhibit aggressive behavior.
And in a recent review article published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, sociologists Judith Stacey and Timothy Biblarz looked at the results of 81 studies of gay, lesbian and heterosexual-headed families. They found that benefits usually associated with families made up of a mother and a father are just as apparent in families with two women parents. And while the pair acknowledged that there simply wasn’t enough research on gay male parents to definitively make the same claim, they emphasized that all evidence indicated that the results would be similar.
Such reports, not to mention positive reflections by the children of gay parents, are probably pretty mind-boggling to the type of person who is convinced that gay men are pedophiles, lesbians bitter man-haters, and that both will raise children who are not only scarred by endless school yard taunts, but who are also likely to grow up to be homosexuals themselves. (Note to those folks: both Kaiser and her brother identify as straight).
Yet arguments against gay parenting persist. For example, the extremist organization Family Research Council (which was founded by the now shamed George Rekers’) claims on their website that, “The raising of children is inimical to the typical homosexual lifestyle, which as we have seen typically involves a revolving bedroom door. With the added problem of high rates of intimate partner violence, such households constitute a dangerous and unstable environment for children. Homosexuals and lesbians are unsuitable role models for children because of their lifestyle.”
Such unfounded assertions have been repeated enough that even without any real proof, they are regularly used to justify things like rejecting adoption petitions by gay men and lesbians (there is an outright ban in Florida), or denying a non-biological gay parent rights during a custody dispute.
Still, the argument that is most commonly used to denounce gay parenting is not the threat of promiscuity or pedophilia. It is simply the old fallback: the importance of two opposite sex parents. This was invoked in June during the hearings over California’s Prop 8, (which stripped gays and lesbians of their brief ability to legally marry in that state), when Charles Cooper, the lawyer representing the sponsors of the 2008 ballot measure, justified his positionby citing the “common sense belief that children do best when they are raised by their own mother and father.”
But do they really? Nope. Even this “common sense belief” is really just that. A belief. Not a fact.
Stacey and Biblarz explain in their review article that research to date has not demonstrated that a married mother and father automatically create the best environment for children. As theywrite, “In fact, based strictly on the published science, one could argue that two women parent better on average than a woman and a man, or at least than a woman and man with a traditional division of family labor. Lesbian coparents seem to outperform comparable married heterosexual, biological parents on several measures, even while being denied the substantial privileges of marriage.”
There are plenty of reasons behind this, of course. As many have observed, gay men and lesbians typically do not become parents accidentally. Most have made conscious and complicated decisions in order to parent. And while having children intentionally doesn’t automatically mean one will do a better job at it (Jon and Kate Gosselin come to mind), it sure gives these parents a leg up.
Additionally, multiple studies have demonstrated that the children of gay parents tend to be raised in financially stable households with fewer rigid gender divisions, by parents who are typically more involved with their children. These parents, studies have found, are also more likely to discuss issues like sexuality and discrimination, have support systems in place, and enjoy a more egalitarian relationship with each other. All of these issues appear to create healthier long-term outcomes for kids.
This seems reflected in the parenting goals of Shanie Israel and Mary Valentine, a Brooklyn, N.Y., lesbian couple and parents to 20-month-old, Avner, who list giving their daughter a sense of community, social justice and pride in being a woman, as priorities. They also feel that being a part of the queer community will give their daughter a lifetime support network, something that many people worry we are losing in a world where more people than ever report feeling socially isolated. As Israel says, “I think Avner will grow up in a much more open household than I did. Less secrets, more honest and open questions and answers. That can't hurt a kid.” Ultimately, regardless of their views on gay parenting, that’s a view many people probably share.
Obviously, every family will be different and it is impossible make direct comparisons between all gay and all straight parents. But in some keys ways there are important advantages to gay parenting that may come from holding certain values, living outside the majority, and having to make very deliberate parenting choices. Gay families are both more visible and more accepted than ever before—certainly a positive trend—but also one that might affect parenting style. Kellen Kaiser speculates that with growing acceptance might come a different kind of leveling of the playing field. “Maybe radicals make better parents is the truth. Gay parents are becoming more mainstream and maybe in the long run they won't be that much better, and it will all average out.” Like so many other things in life, this too, remains to be seen.