Studies estimate that between 1 and 9 million children in the United States have at least one parent who is lesbian or gay. There are approximately 594,000 same-sex partner households, according to the 2000 Census, and there are children living in approximately 27 percent of those households.
It is difficult to obtain an accurate count of same-sex parent families because many lesbians and gay men are not open about their sexual orientation due to fears of discrimination, such as loss of employment, loss of child custody, and antigay violence. There is not a “usual” gay family. Some same-sex couples may decide to have a child within their relationship, while others may bring children from previous heterosexual or same-sex unions. The rise in same-sex parenting is partially due to the increase in options available for same-sex couples to become parents. Although most children of same-sex couples are biological children of one of the parents, a growing number are the result of donor insemination, surrogacy, foster care and adoption.
Most research studies show that children with two moms or two dads fare just as well as children with heterosexual parents. In fact, one comprehensive study of children raised by lesbian mothers or gay fathers concluded that children raised by same-sex parents did not differ from other children in terms of emotional functioning, sexual orientation, stigmatization, gender role behavior, behavioral adjustment, gender identity, learning and grade point averages. Where research differences have been found, they have sometimes favored same-sex parents.
For example, adolescents with same-sex parents reported feeling more connected at school. Another study reported that children in gay and lesbian households are more likely to talk about emotionally difficult topics, and they are often more resilient, compassionate and tolerant. The same concerns that face many heterosexual parents when they are deciding to have children also face same-sex parents including time, money, and responsibilities of parenthood. Likewise, many of the parenting tasks faced by same-sex parents are similar to those faced by heterosexual parents, such as providing appropriate structure for children, while also being warm and accepting, setting limits, teaching open and honest communication, healthy conflict resolution, and monitoring of child’s peer network and extracurricular activities. Some differences may include adapting to different types of family forms, the impact of social stigma on the family, and dealing with extended family members who may not be supportive of same-sex parenting. One of the biggest challenges facing same-sex parented families is that they must live in a culture that supports heterosexist and homophobic attitudes and beliefs, which can affect these families in a variety of ways. A second complication is that these families are usually part of a blended family and include children from previous heterosexual marriages. Some of these families may deal with disagreement from other family members about the authenticity and validity of their family patterns. Lack of support from a previous heterosexual partner or the other biological parent can cause major conflict and distress within the family system.
Today, there are many therapists available who specialize in gay and lesbian issues and provide a safe, nonjudgmental and understanding environment for the family. Frequently, gay and lesbian parented families will seek therapeutic help for guidance, support, and recognition that they may not be receiving from the broader social arena. Major issues affecting same-sex parented families that are often addressed in therapy:
- Lesbian and gay parented families may have concerns about discrimination in parenting and custody arrangements. A parent’s minority sexual orientation and/or gender identity status may be brought up in custody disputes as a reason to restrict or deny custody by the children’s other parent and/or by the courts.
- The many co-parenting and blended family complexities present for heterosexual parents can also be present for same-sex parents with the additional complexities of discrimination, stereotypes, and assumptions.
- Relationships and problems with non-biological parent figures are common among lesbian and gay parented families simply due to the biological complexities involved with conceiving children when parents are the same sex.
- In same-sex relationships, it is common for extended family to acknowledge intimate relationships differently from heterosexual relationships; this discriminatory treatment can be confounded by parenting relationships as well. Extended family may see parenting as a necessary step in validating a relationship for same-sex couples or they may view parenting with similar biased and discriminatory views, even denying one parent’s relationship to the children.
- Explaining relationship status and family make-up to school professionals, medical professionals, children’s friends/parents, as well as explaining relationship status and family make-up to children, can be uniquely complex for same-sex parents. Though many family relationships may be complex, explaining family relationships is uniquely complex for lesbian and gay parented families because of the lack of societal norms and relevant examples in media, stereotyped notions about such relationships that are common, and the fear of discrimination faced by these families.
- Competent parenting may be influenced by gay and lesbian parents’ ability to accept and acknowledge their identity and how they are able to negotiate living in a heterosexist, homophobic, or otherwise discriminatory society, while rearing their children in a family unit that is not socially sanctioned. Therapists acknowledge the prevalence both of homophobia that is experienced by the family as a result of the actions of others, as well as the existence of internalized homophobia and how this may impact families. Internalized homophobia is defined as a set of negative attitudes and affects toward homosexuality in other persons and toward homosexual features in oneself. Therapists will help illustrate to the family how homophobia could be impacting them. Both internalized homophobia and experiences of outside discrimination may mean that families need more time in therapy to build rapport with the therapist and to feel comfortable disclosing personal and family-related concerns.
This text was written by Deanna Linville, PhD, and Maya O’Neil, MS.
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