Are children of gay parents worse off?

Posted: May 21, 2004 12:00 AM

 Are children raised by gay parents worse off than other children? As same sex couples line up for marriage licenses in Massachusetts, the question achieves greater urgency.

 Two researchers answered when they reviewed the available scholarly literature in the American Sociological Review three years ago. What makes their essay intriguing is that both professors Judith Stacey and Timothy J. Biblarz are emphatically in favor of gay marriage and child-rearing. Being honest scholars, though, they could not accept the tendentious spin that others in their field have put on the available research. They deny that the studies show "no difference" between children raised in gay and lesbian homes and those raised in heterosexual homes.

 Biblarz and Stacey begin with the common sense observation that good data on children raised by gay and lesbian parents are difficult to come by. Many of the children studied were conceived in traditional families and lived through a divorce before being raised by one biological parent and his or her gay partner. When comparing these children to those from intact families, the trauma of the divorce would have to be considered.

 Then there is the problem of selection. "Most research to date has been conducted on white lesbian mothers who are comparatively educated, mature and reside in relatively progressive urban centers, most often in California or the Northeastern states."

 The authors also doubt the conventional wisdom that broader acceptance of homosexuality will increase the number of children being raised in same-sex households. They believe the opposite is more likely. Their reasoning goes as follows: Most children being raised by gays and lesbians were originally born into heterosexual families. The authors believe a significant number of these parents (who would later come out of the closet) would never have entered heterosexual marriages if same sex unions carried less of a stigma.

 "As homosexuality becomes more legitimate," they write, "far fewer people with homoerotic desires should feel compelled to enter heterosexual marriages, and thus fewer should become parents in this way."

 A countervailing trend is also at work. Lesbian and gay couples are taking advantage of the less censorious social climate to form whole gay families. But Biblarz and Stacey doubt that this will overcome the first trend. For gay men, reproduction is a complicated and expensive affair. They must either adopt or pay a surrogate to carry a baby for them. Besides, as the authors note, men of both sexual orientations are less likely to desire children than are women. For lesbian women, obviously, the process is far simpler. A trip to the local sperm bank is all that is required. But since there are many more homosexual men than women, the authors doubt that the increased number of lesbian couples will add to the total of gay-raised children much if at all in light of the first effect.

 Biblarz and Stacey examined 21 studies of "lesbigay" couples' children compared with heterosexual parents' children. While all of the researchers had claimed to find "no difference" in outcomes between the two groups, Biblarz and Stacey disagree. There are statistically significant differences in gender identity, sexual experimentation and promiscuity. The authors are quick to add that these observed differences do not alarm them. They are happy to embrace a variety of family forms. And if gay parenting means more gay offspring, the authors are not alarmed by this.

 First, not surprisingly, both boys and girls raised by homosexuals are far more likely to tell researchers that they have experimented with or considered homosexuality themselves. This is no shock. The research further shows that daughters raised by lesbians tend to have a larger number of sexual partners from puberty to adulthood than children in ordinary homes. It also, quite interestingly, shows that boys raised by lesbians have fewer sexual encounters than boys raised by heterosexual parents.

 As Biblarz and Stacey observe, the majority of children raised in gay families turn out to be heterosexual in adulthood (bearing in mind the limitations of the research).

 Biblarz and Stacey deserve credit for their honesty. But their breezy embrace of gay parenting is highly reminiscent of the cheerful accounts offered in the 1970s for divorce and single parent households. In those days, we were told that whatever made for a happier parent also made for a happier child. We are sadder and wiser now. The children are much sadder.