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Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute & Society

Summary of Evaluation of Literature on Gay & Lesbian Parenting and its Effects on Child Development

Ivan Sherick, Ph.D.

In our psychoanalytic literature there are no papers focusing on the topic.  It is near impossible in clinical papers to disentangle the effects of having a homosexual parent from those due to marital strife and separation, parental disclosure, divorce, custody disputes, etc.

The empirical literature emphasizes that lesbian and gay parents are more alike than different from their heterosexual counterparts, and the same is said about their respective children.  Actually, the children of homosexual parents score higher on some outcome measures than their counterparts.  Given homophobic teasing, this is impressive.  The following are some selective results suggestive of differences:

Children of lesbian parents are less restricted by gender expectations than their counterparts.  Lesbian mothers are less concerned than heterosexual ones that their children engage in gender conventional play and activity.  They prefer child play to be gender-neutral.  Sons seem to respond in more complex ways to their lesbian mothers, e.g., they are less aggressive and play preferences are less conventionally masculine, but on other measures, e.g., occupational goals, they are more conventional than their sisters but not their male counterparts having heterosexual mothers.  Children in lesbian-headed families were more likely than their counterparts to have a homoerotic relationship in young adulthood.  These same young adult children of lesbian mothers were more likely to think they might experience such a relationship than their counterparts, but a sizable proportion of each group was not or was open, respectively, to such an experience, pointing to the complexity of the interaction of parental influence on children's sexual desire.  Daughters having lesbian mothers as compared to their counterparts have more sexual partners whereas sons demonstrate the opposite pattern.  Emotional closeness is more mutually felt between children and lesbian co-mothers or stepmothers than is so with fathers or stepfathers and their children.  Some studies suggest a greater synergy between two co-parenting women allows for more egalitarian parenting and quality time spent with children.

My impression is that because of the heterosexual normative presumption, researchers are concerned that focusing on differences between the children of lesbigay parents and those of heterosexual parents will be looked at as deficiencies or deficits and dictate discriminatory social policy.  Hence, similarities are focused on and nuanced research that would look into differences that do exist is not happening yet, e.g., the interaction of sexual orientation of the parent and gender of their child.

The methodology of much of the empirical research can be faulted.  Small numbers of subjects, not randomly selected, likely not representative are used, with limited generalizability.  The children of gay fathers are rarely studied because such men rarely receive custody of their children in a divorce.  A control group may not be used.  Sometimes no distinction is made between planned donor inseminated lesbian families from those following divorce from heterosexual marriages.  Measurement instruments most often are questionnaires, with a near absence of blind evaluations.  Most serious, is how often adolescents are not studied, insofar as this group evidences concern about sexual role, identity and orientation, and is most susceptible to social stigmatization.  Outcome measures often are superficial and longitudinal studies are lacking, with one notable exception.  Studies use a dichotomous definition of sexual orientation, thereby missing nuances.  Most rigorous designs are those eliminating issues of divorce, re-partnering, "coming out," etc., by comparing so-called "planned" donor inseminated (DI) lesbian mothers with DI heterosexual ones, or those more attentive to matched samples, or introducing a longitudinal design.

Despite the above limitations there is an accumulating body of complementary empirical findings indicating few differences between the experimental groups, with children of lesbigay parents outperforming their counterparts on some outcome measures.  There are no studies that I am aware of that indicate harmful effects due to lesbigay parenting.  The conclusion follows that the empirical research cannot be used to support discriminatory social policy against lesbian and gay parents in decisions affecting children.  Instead, it supports policies that do not take into account sexual orientation of the parents.  The "best interests" for each individual child needs to be  considered.  More nuanced research with more significant outcome variables that would satisfy psychoanalysts is needed, e.g., sublimation potential, anxiety tolerance, frustration tolerance, regressive vs. progressive tendencies, etc.