Does It Really Make No Difference If Your Parents Are Straight or Gay?

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
June 11 2012 6:02 AM

Queers as Folk

Does it really make no difference if your parents are straight or gay?

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So why did this study come up with such different results than previous work in the field? And why should one study alter so much previous sentiment? Basically, better methods. When it comes to assessing how children of gay parents are faring, the careful methods and random sampling approach found in demography has not often been employed by scholars studying this issue, due in part—to be sure—to the challenges in locating and surveying small minorities randomly. In its place, the scholarly community has often been treated to small, nonrandom “convenience” studies of mostly white, well-educated lesbian parents, including plenty of data-collection efforts in which participants knew that they were contributing to important studies with potentially substantial political consequences, elevating the probability of something akin to the “Hawthorne Effect.” This is hardly an optimal environment for collecting unbiased data (and to their credit, many of the researchers admitted these challenges). I’m not claiming that all the previous research on this subject is bunk. But small or nonrandom studies shouldn’t be the gold standard for research, all the more so when we’re dealing with a topic so weighted with public interest and significance.

To improve upon the science and to test the theory of “no differences,” the NFSS collected data from a large, random cross-section of American young adults—apart from the census, the largest population-based dataset prepared to answer research questions about households in which mothers or fathers have had same-sex relationships—and asked them questions about their life both now and while they were growing up. When simply and briefly asked if their mother and/or father had been in a same-sex romantic relationship, 175 said it was true of their mothers and 73 said the same about their fathers—numbers far larger than has typified studies in this area. We interviewed all of these respondents (and a random sample of others) about their own lives and relationships, as well as asked them to reflect upon their family life while growing up. The differences, it turns out, were numerous. For instance, 28 percent of the adult children of women who’ve had same-sex relationships are currently unemployed, compared to 8 percent of those from married mom-and-dad families. Forty percent of the former admit to having had an affair while married or cohabiting, compared to 13 percent of the latter. Nineteen percent of the former said they were currently or recently in psychotherapy for problems connected with anxiety, depression, or relationships, compared with 8 percent of the latter. And those are just three of the 25 differences I noted.

While we know that good things tend to happen—both in the short-term and over the long run—when people provide households that last, parents in the NFSS who had same-sex relationships were the least likely to exhibit such stability. The young-adult children of women in lesbian relationships reported the highest incidence of time spent in foster care (at 14 percent of total, compared to 2 percent among the rest of the sample). Forty percent spent time living with their grandparents (compared to 10 percent of the rest); 19 percent spent time living on their own before age 18 (compared to 4 percent among everyone else). In fact, less than 2 percent of all respondents who said their mother had a same-sex relationship reported living with their mother and her partner for all 18 years of their childhood.

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Kudos to those gay parents, like those of Zach Wahls, who have done a remarkable job in raising their now young-adult children. I’m sure the challenges were significant and the social support often modest. There are cases in the data of people like Zach, but not very many. Stability is pivotal, but uncommon.

There are limitations to this study, of course. We didn’t have as many intact lesbian and gay families as we hoped to evaluate, even though they are the face of much public deliberation about marriage equality. But it wasn’t for lack of effort.

Let me be clear: I’m not claiming that sexual orientation is at fault here, or that I know about kids who are presently being raised by gay or lesbian parents. Their parents may be forging more stable relationships in an era that is more accepting and supportive of gay and lesbian couples. But that is not the case among the previous generation, and thus social scientists, parents, and advocates would do well from here forward to avoid simply assuming the kids are all right.

This study arrives in the middle of a season that’s already exhibited plenty of high drama over same-sex marriage, whether it’s DOMA, the president’s evolving perspective, Prop 8 pinball, or finished and future state ballot initiatives. The political take-home message of the NFSS study is unclear, however. On the one hand, the instability detected in the NFSS could translate into a call for extending the relative security afforded by marriage to gay and lesbian couples. On the other hand, it may suggest that the household instability that the NFSS reveals is just too common among same-sex couples to take the social gamble of spending significant political and economic capital to esteem and support this new (but tiny) family form while Americans continue to flee the stable, two-parent biological married model, the far more common and accomplished workhorse of the American household, and still—according to the data, at least—the safest place for a kid.

Mark Regnerus is associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, research associate at the university's Population Research Center, and the co-author of Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think about Marrying.