The Kids Are Alright
Orson Morrison is a 32-year-old clinical psychologist from Toronto. Jesse Carr is a 23-year-old non-profit staff member from a rural Pennsylvania town. Jessie Voors is a 16-year-old high school sophomore from Fort Wayne, IN. Erinne Kovi is a 29-year-old businesswoman and mother of one from Ohio.
What do these four people have in common? They all have gay or lesbian parents. Each of them recognizes that in many ways they are unique. But a new study, published in the journal Child Development, confirms what they have always known: They're just as well-adjusted as people with heterosexual parents.
A New Generation of Research
Researchers have been studying the children of gay and lesbian parents for almost 50 years, trying to find out if they have more problems than other kids. Do they have more behavior problems, a harder time making friends, or difficulties with sexual identity? The answer, time and again, has been a resounding "No."
Before now, as critics are quick to point out, research in this area has had various limitations - in particular, small sample groups and a lack of educational or socioeconomic diversity. But this most recent study is helping to usher in what lead researcher Charlotte Patterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, calls a "new generation of research."
Patterson and her colleagues used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a survey of more than 12,000 high school students from across the country. "Using a national sample makes us more confident that the findings are stable and applicable to the broad range of adolescents in the U.S.," says co-author Stephen Russell, associate professor of family studies and human development at the University of Arizona.
The sample size is larger, and the results are still the same. "What this study shows, and what countless other studies have shown, is that sexual orientation is irrelevant in terms of promoting and rearing a healthy child," says Suzanne Johnson, associate professor of psychology at Dowling College and co-author of The Gay Baby Boom. "What matters is who the person is, not who they love."
Relationships Are Key
Teens with same-sex parents were identical to those with opposite-sex parents in almost every area analyzed, from anxiety levels to autonomy, and even grade-point average. It was kids' relationships with their parents, not the gender of their parents' partners, that clearly influenced their development. Those with warm, caring family bonds were doing better at home, in school, and in their social lives than those without them. Other studies have also found parental warmth - being a caring, understanding, and accepting parent - to be one of the most powerful forces behind the healthy development of children and adolescents, regardless of race, socioeconomic status, family structure, and sexual orientation. Gay and lesbian parents are just as likely as heterosexual parents to meet - or to fail to meet - their children's needs for healthy development.
This comes as no surprise to those with experience in child development, including Aimee Gelnaw, executive director of the Family Pride Coalition (http://www.familypride.org), a lesbian and gay organization, and a mother herself. "There's so much that we know about the ingredients to well-being," she says, emphasizing the importance of loving, stable households. "When you bake a cake, it doesn't matter who dumps in the flour. It's just got to be there."
Finding Strength in Difference
It may not matter who dumps in the flour, but, as children of gays and lesbians often point out, their family structure does affect their lives. "A lot of the emphasis has been on proving to the world that we're normal, we're not different, we're no different than you," says Orson Morrison, who, in his work as a clinical psychologist, has studied other adult sons of gay men. "I think that once it's accepted that we're normal, then we can start talking about how we are different."
Those differences may make life more challenging sometimes, but they may also be advantageous for some children with gay and lesbian parents. According to Morrison, the men he studied felt they were more multifaceted and freer from rigid gender roles than children of opposite-sex parents because their gay fathers provided an alternate model of masculinity. Erinne Kovi says that, for her, having a lesbian mother helped to make her open-minded and accepting of many different kinds of people and lifestyles. "It's something that I'm praying I teach my own child," she says.
And while being open-minded and rejecting of gender roles are qualities that any parents - gay, lesbian, bisexual, or heterosexual - can instill in their children, some children of gays and lesbians may have particular insights from witnessing the struggles and experiences of their parents, including struggles with homophobia and discrimination. Jesse Carr learned to deal with obstacles in his life from his mother and her lesbian partner. "They definitely gave me a lot of strength and encouragement and humor skills for coping with people who are going to mess around with you [because you have gay parents]," says Carr, 22, who's a staff member at COLAGE (Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere) (http://www.colage.org), a nonprofit organization that offers advocacy, education, and support. "[My parents] would basically say, there's always going to be a bully on the playground, until you die. You just have to find lots of different ways to win anyway."
The Push to Belong
As long as homophobia exists, there will likely be a need for research that proves gays and lesbians are fit parents. This fact hits close to home for researcher Suzanne Johnson, who has two daughters with her lesbian partner. It was especially difficult when their 10-year-old's homework involved watching the news. "So before the election, there's the president saying that there shouldn't be marriage between two women or two men," Johnson says. "And there are our kids, looking at us and saying, 'Why is he mean?'"
Researchers, activists, people who grew up in gay and lesbian families, and others hold out hope that the cold hard facts will triumph over political agendas. In the meantime, groups like COLAGE and the Family Pride Coalition focus on both research and education, pushing for schools and other institutions to fully recognize and involve children of gays and lesbians. Activists like Gelnaw at the Family Pride Coalition believe that nothing - not even the proverbial bully on the playground - will keep the children of gay and lesbian parents from fighting for what every human being wants and needs: a sense of belonging.