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Straight-Out Truth on Gay Parents

Commentary

Children are not harmed when raised by same-sex couples, studies confirm.

April 04, 2004|Brad Sears and Alan Hirsch

Last summer, the Supreme Court struck down laws criminalizing sodomy, stating that a majority's moral views cannot justify an infringement on individual rights. In dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia bemoaned the fact that the court's decision "leaves on pretty shaky grounds state laws limiting marriage." If morality cannot justify a ban on gay sexual intimacy, Scalia asked, "what justification could there possibly be for denying ... marriage to homosexual couples?"

Good question.

Most objections to same-sex marriage seem to be rooted in religious faith or prejudice and defy proof or disproof. However, opponents of same-sex marriage do invoke one line of reasoning that can be confirmed or refuted by evidence.

That argument concerns children, and rests on two related contentions: First, unlike heterosexual couples, gay couples generally do not raise children and therefore do not need the benefits of marriage. Second, to the extent that gays do raise children, they do the children harm.

As it happens, the best available evidence shows that both arguments rest on fantasies and false stereotypes.

The proclivity to raise children is neither automatic among mixed-gender couples nor off-limits to same-sex couples. The 2000 U.S. Census showed that in California, half of married couples and one-third of gay couples are raising children. (The latter figure is 28% if limited to one's "own" children -- a census term that includes biological, step and adopted children -- but climbs to 32% when unrelated children, such as foster kids, are included.) More than 70,000 children in California are being raised by gay couples.

What about the notion that children raised by gay parents suffer as a result? This too turns out to be unsubstantiated.

The American Academy of Pediatrics' Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health issued a report in 2002, the most recent comprehensive review of gay-parenting studies. It found no meaningful differences between children raised by gay parents and those raised by heterosexual parents.

The committee reviewed scientific literature encompassing three broad sets of studies. The first set assessed the attitudes, behavior and adjustments of lesbian and gay parents and found, according to the AAP report, "more similarities than differences in the parenting styles and attitudes of gay and nongay fathers." Likewise, the research showed that lesbian mothers scored the same as heterosexual mothers in "self-esteem, psychologic adjustment and attitudes toward child rearing."

The second set of studies looked at the gender identity and sexual orientation of children raised by gay parents. The committee report found that none of the several hundred children studied evinced gender identity confusion, wished to be of the other sex or consistently engaged in cross-gender behavior. No differences were found in the toy, game, activity, dress or friendship preferences of boys or girls with gay parents compared with those with heterosexual parents, nor any differences in sexual attraction or self-identification as gay.

The third research area discussed in the report covers children's emotional and social development. These studies have primarily compared children raised by lesbians who are divorced with children of divorced heterosexual mothers. No differences have been found in personality measures, peer group relationships, self-esteem, behavioral difficulties, academic success and quality of family relationships. The studies suggest only one meaningful difference: Children of lesbian parents are "more tolerant of diversity and more nurturing toward younger children than children whose parents are heterosexual."

The American Academy of Pediatrics report is the most prestigious of its kind, but it is not the only one. Most reviews of the social science research reach the same conclusion: The proposition that children suffer when raised by gay parents is without basis. Indeed, some evidence suggests that the only significant difference between children raised by same-sex couples and children raised by heterosexual couples is that the former feel freer to explore occupations and behaviors unhampered by traditional gender roles -- a good thing, perhaps.

To be sure, gay-parenting studies to date are limited, and some scholars criticize them because their samples are too small or because they aren't representative of all gay parents. Also, a few studies purport to establish negative characteristics of children raised by gay parents, but they tend to be discounted because they are associated with anti-gay researchers and organizations.

While gay parenting needs further study, this much is clear: Most objective observers find no reason to accept the notion that children need protection from gay parents.

And that means it's time to drop the canard that gay couples do not raise children or do not raise them well.

Brad Sears is executive director of the UCLA School of Law's Williams Project on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy. Alan Hirsch is a senior consultant for the project.

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