Cover Story

Most of the parenting challenges Steven James, PhD, faces are pretty ordinary. For one, James's usually studious son Greg, 9, has recently been refusing to do his geography homework. "He's just not that interested in memorizing states and capitals," says James, who chairs the psychology and counseling program at Vermont's Goddard College.

However, as gay parents, James and his partner, Todd Herrmann, PhD, have some fears that don't keep most other parents up at night. The biggest one, says James, is that their sons, Greg and Max, 4, might be taken away from them if they travel to a hostile place. James and Herrmann's adoption of the two boys is not legally recognized in 11 states and many countries, and as a result they can't safely visit one set of grandparents.

"My dad and his wife were here to visit a few months ago and they asked: 'Why not bring the boys to Oklahoma?' I had to explain: 'Your laws don't respect our adoption. Your state could put the boys into foster homes without any say from me or you,'" says James.

Families such as the James-Hermanns and the challenges they face are becoming increasingly common in the United States. The 2000 U.S. census estimated that 163,879 households with children were headed by same-sex couples. That number is likely to be much larger today, says Charlotte Patterson, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia.

"More people are choosing to start families in the context of a gay or lesbian identity," she says.

Additionally, the census fails to count the perhaps millions of families where a single gay parent heads the household, says Judith E. Snow, a Michigan-based therapist and author of the book "How It Feels to Have a Gay or Lesbian Parent" (Harrington Park Press, 2004).

But while gay- and lesbian-headed families face a slate of challenges that more traditional families avoid — from legal hassles and homophobia to everyday tasks, such as figuring out how to fill out school forms — research shows that the children with gay or lesbian parents do as well as children with heterosexual parents. Having a gay or lesbian parent doesn't affect a child's social adjustment, school success or sexual orientation, say researchers.

"Sexual orientation has nothing to do with good parenting," notes Armand Cerbone, PhD, who reviewed research on gay and lesbian parenting as chair of APA's Working Group on Same-Sex Families and Relationships.

Challenging assumptions

Unfortunately, many people are not aware of the three decades of research showing that children of gay or lesbian parents are just as mentally healthy as children with heterosexual parents, notes Cerbone. One such study, published in Child Development (Vol. 75, No. 6, pages 1,886-1,898) in 2004, compares a group of 44 teenagers with same-sex couples as parents with an equal number of teenagers with opposite-sex couples as parents. All participants were part of a national, randomly selected sample of teenagers from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health.

"There were very few group differences between the kids who had been brought up by same- or opposite-sex parents," says Patterson, who conducted the research with students Jennifer Wainright and Stephen Russell, PhD, now an associate professor of sociology at the University of Arizona. One group difference that Patterson was surprised to find: Children of gay and lesbian parents reported closer ties with their schools and classmates. However, says Patterson, the difference was small and needs to be studied further.

Patterson's study debunks the myth that children of gay or lesbian parents have trouble developing romantic relationships due to a missing father- or mother-figure — a concern that judges making custody rulings have cited. Equal numbers of teenagers from each group reported that they had been in a romantic relationship in the previous 18 months. Participants from the two groups did not differ in grade point average, symptoms of depression or self-esteem.

While the sexual orientation of the parents in Patterson's study did not predict the adolescents' social adjustment, the quality of the parent-child relationship did. Children who reported warm relationships with their parents tended to be the most mentally healthy and have the fewest problems in school.

Patterson's and others' findings that good parenting, not a parent's sexual orientation, leads to mentally healthy children may not surprise many psychologists. What may be more surprising is the finding that children of same-sex couples seem to be thriving, though they live in a world that is often unaccepting of their parents.

In fact, an as-yet-unpublished study by Nanette Gartrell, MD, found that by age 10, about half of children with lesbian mothers have been targeted for homophobic teasing by their peers. Those children tended to report more psychological distress than those untouched by homophobia.

But as a group, the children of lesbian moms are just as well-adjusted as children from more traditional families, according to the data from Gartrell's National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study. The resilience of the children may, in part, come from their parents' efforts to protect them and prepare them for facing homophobia, says Gartrell, a University of California, San Francisco, psychiatry professor.

"In order to create a homophobia-free space for these children, the moms have had to educate their pediatricians, their child-care workers," says Gartrell. "They are active in the school system and make sure there are training modules in the schools that support diversity including LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered] families. All this is on top of the usual 24-7 commitment to parenting."

Sources of support

Many gay and lesbian parents pull off this feat by plugging into informal support networks, notes Jane Ariel, PhD, a clinician with many gay and lesbian clients, and also a psychology professor at the Wright Institute in Berkeley. Lesbian and gay parents may also look to therapists for help navigating the typical demands of parenthood and the special demands of being a gay parent, she notes.

Psychologists can be particularly helpful if they tune into what some of that extra work entails, says Ariel (see sidebar). Researchers, too, can ameliorate the challenges such families face by continuing to dispel myths about lesbian and gay parents and by educating the public about their findings, notes Cerbone.

Support can also come in the form of gay parents' groups that meet regularly to socialize, trade parenting tips and share information about gay-friendly schools and doctors, says Ariel.

"There is often a very strong, intimate connection with an extended of group of people who become like family and serve some of the same purposes," says Ariel.

The James-Hermanns plugged into such a group through their local Unitarian Universalist church.

"Surrounding ourselves with other gay-dad families has been enormously helpful," says James.

National groups, such as Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere (COLAGE) and Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) can also help children with gay or lesbian parents learn how to handle homophobia from their peers, notes Judith Snow. In fact, in her work as a therapist, Snow encourages gay and lesbian parents and their children to tap into COLAGE or similar support networks.

"What these groups do is normalize the whole thing by showing kids they aren't alone and helping them learn the skills to cope with having gay or lesbian parents in a homophobic world," says Snow.

From nagging his kids about homework to teaching them how to confront homophobia, being a gay dad is a lot of work, says James. However, it's also a lot of fun, he says.

"Watching the boys grow and develop into these amazing little people — it has been an incredible experience," he says.

Children of gay and lesbian parents may enrich more than just their parents' lives, says Gartrell.

"The kids I've interviewed are enormously thoughtful — they are not only sensitive to discrimination to their groups but other groups as well," she says. "This is something LGBT families have to offer the world."

Further Reading

For a summary of research on lesbian and gay parenting, visit http://www.apa.org/pi/parent.html.

  • American Psychological Association. (1995). Lesbian and gay parenting: A resource for psychologists. Washington, DC: Author.

  • Ariel, J., & McPherson, D. (2000). Therapy with lesbian and gay families and their children. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 26, 421–432.

  • Chan, R.W., Brooks, R.C., Raboy, B., & Patterson, C.J. (1998). Division of labor among lesbian and heterosexual parents: Associations with children's adjustment. Journal of Family Psychology, 12, 402–419.

  • Fulcher, M., Sutfin, E.L., Chan, R.W., Scheib, J.E., & Patterson, C.J. (in press). Lesbian mothers and their children: Findings from the Contemporary Families Study. In A. Omoto & H. Kurtzman (Eds.), Recent Research on Sexual Orientation, Mental Health, and Substance Abuse. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

  • Gartrell, N.G., Deck, A., Rodas, C., Peyser, H., & Banks, A. (in press). The national lesbian family study: Interviews with the 10-year-old children. Feminism & Psychology.

  • Snow, J.E. (2004). How it feels to have a gay or lesbian parent. New York: Harrington Park Press.

  • Wainright, J.L., Russell, S.T., & Patterson, C.J. (2004). Psychosocial adjustment, school outcomes, and romantic relationships of adolescents with same-sex parents. Child Development, 75, 1886–1898. staff