A Closer Look

When Vermont became the first state to allow civil unions, the research possibilities for University of Vermont psychologist Esther Rothblum, PhD, blossomed. Because civil unions are public record, Rothblum--working with co-investigators Sondra Soloman, PhD, and Kimberly Balsam, PhD--was able to study how the legal relationship might affect lesbian and gay couples for the first time by comparing couples who sought them and those who didn't. She found, in a study published in the Journal of Family Psychology (Vol. 18, No. 2, pages 275-286), that lesbians in civil unions were more open about their sexual orientation than those without that legal binding and that gay men in civil unions were more likely to have children and were closer to their families of origin--a source of support--than those who weren't.

APA's Div. 44 (Society for the Psychological Study of Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Issues) has recently turned its focus to supporting and encouraging investigators like Rothblum whose research can inform public thinking and policy on same-sex marriage. What's more, it's research that can aid and inform the health and mental health professionals who serve lesbian, gay and bisexual (LBG) couples and families. The division is, for example, launching a new mentoring program to aid the next generation of researchers and will focus its convention programming on delivering research findings to the public and policy-makers, says Div. 44 President Michael Stevenson, PhD, who chairs the department of psychological science at Ball State University. A recent success, he says, includes the key role division members' LGB research played in the 2004 APA Council of Representatives resolutions supporting same-sex marriage and families.

"It's a really crucial time," says Stevenson. "Given the volume of good research currently being produced, we need to facilitate that work and help to disseminate it to the best of our abilities."

It's also a unique time to study sexual orientation issues, says division President-elect Charlotte Patterson, PhD. "We are coming up against this moment of unprecedented diversity in the experience of same-sex couples in the United States," she says. "As researchers, we are in a very interesting position to look at the interface of law and policy and how changes in them might affect human behavior."

Promising research

One example of such noteworthy research is a study of the impact of homophobia on children of same-sex parents by Div. 44 member Nanette Gartrell, MD, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. In 1986, Gartrell launched a study of 84 lesbian families in which the children were conceived by donor insemination. Through interviews with the mothers prior to birth and when the children were ages 2, 5 and 10, Gartrell found that nearly half of the children had experienced homophobia by age 10--and showed more psychological wear and tear than those who hadn't. At the same time, "These kids showed an immense understanding of diversity and tolerance," she says, and "had very thoughtful responses to their peers when they made negative comments about their moms' lesbianism." The study is in press at the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry.

In addition, Gartrell has found that the mothers of these children smoked less than American mothers overall and found that physical and sexual abuse was virtually nonexistent in these homes as compared with American norms.

"I am expecting to show these families are just like other American families in the sense that they shouldn't be discriminated against," says Gartrell, who will interview the children again at ages 17 and 25. "But we are already finding that there are uniquely positive characteristics in these families that others can learn from."

Other notable research includes the work of President-elect Patterson, a University of Virginia psychologist who recently published a study in Child Development (Vol. 75, No. 6, pages 1886-1898) on the adjustment of teenagers living with two same-sex parents. She and her co-authors matched 44 teenagers participating in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health data set--a study of adolescent health behaviors funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development--with an adolescent from the sample with similar demographics but different-sex parents. They found that teenagers living with same-sex parents were on par with their match on all measures, including personal and school adjustment and academic achievement. She also found that a great predictor of adjustment was their relationship with their parents.

"The stronger and closer the relationship was at home, the more likely they were doing well," she says.

Tools of the trade

Patterson's research falls in line with another division priority: reaching the widest possible audience by getting more LGB research into the "mainstream organs of the profession," says Stevenson. "It's the main reason we never created a journal of our own."

Including the work of up-and-coming psychologists such as University of Washington postdoctoral fellow Kimberly Balsam, PhD, who is working toward developing better measurement tools for the next generation of LGB researchers. Balsam is conducting a qualitative study of minority stress and coping in the lives of ethnically diverse lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered adults in urban and rural areas. She'll use her findings to develop a culturally sensitive questionnaire that she'll pilot and use to test a model of stress, coping and mental health in a national survey of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered adults.

To encourage and facilitate the work of future promising psychologists like Balsam, this year the division will roll out a mentoring program that aims to connect students of the division with seasoned researchers and LGB psychologists for guidance on topics from navigating academe to research grants. The division also offers three research scholarships for graduate students, including a new $2,000 scholarship for research on bisexuality in conjunction with the Bisexual Foundation.

Div. 44 at a glance

APA's Div. 44 (Society for the Psychological Study of Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Issues) was founded in 1985 to support and promote research and education on sexual orientation. The division has committees on accreditation, bisexuality, professional standards, ethnic and racial issues, public policy and science. The division publishes a newsletter three times a year, as well as a book series with APA, "Contemporary Perspectives on Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Psychology." Div. 44 also has a networking listserv and offers eight awards for research and distinguished contributions to lesbian, gay and bisexual psychology, including a new student award on the psychology of bisexuality.

To join, contact membership chairs Christopher Martell or Jackie Weinstock.