News flash: Growing up with gay parents has an impact on children throughout their lives. If you have ever read one of my columns before, I hope you can say you already knew that.
In a recent issue of the American Sociological Review ( April 2001 ) , two professors from the University of Southern California released a new analysis based on 21 previous studies of children of lesbian and gay parents from the past two decades. ( The majority of the studies involve subjects with lesbian mothers rather than gay dads. ) The article highlights some of the findings which the authors say were downplayed in previous research conclusions.
Sociology professors Judith Stacey and Timothy J. Biblarz say that contrary to previous conclusions, children of lesbian and gay parents do indeed have distinguishable differences from their counterparts who have straight parents. Their interpretation of the data concludes that children of lesbian and gay parents are less likely to conform to traditional ideas of gender roles, gender-based career choices, and compulsory heterosexuality.
Why were these findings previously downplayed? To fully understand the answer, it is important to look at why such research was done in the first place. Most research on children of gay and lesbian parents was conducted in order to build supporting evidence in defense of gay parents who risked losing custody of their children when getting a divorce from a straight spouse.
To ensure that gay parents would not be denied custody, the research needed to prove that having a gay parent would not influence the children in any way. In other words, most of the research was conducted to satisfy homophobic court systems. The research needed to disprove homophobic assumptions, namely that the children would be no more likely to be gay themselves. ( Homophobic court systems were not going to accept the retort, "Why should that matter?" ) And since so much of homophobia is based on notions of gender nonconformity, suspicion of not being straight could arise if daughters were reported to be less traditionally feminine ( assumed future lesbians ) or if the sons were reported to be more sensitive ( assumed future gay boys ) .
I was fortunate to have been raised without institutionalized gender limitations. Having an upbringing that "queered" me meant that I was liberated from a sense of obligation to satisfy gender expectations. Now when I am called "aggressive" or "bitchy" by people who are taken aback by my unfeminine style, I find myself relaying the compliments to my folks. ( Let's give credit where credit is due. )
Under homophobic pressure to prove that gay families are "just like" straight families, previous research findings have diminished the gifts of liberation that children gain as a result of being raised in their "nontraditional" families.
The reality is, gay families are not "just like" straight families. Let's hope these new interpretations will encourage families to acknowledge and explore those differences without apology.
Abigail Garner, 29, is the creator of the website www.familieslikemine.com, dedicated to GLBT family liberation. © 2000 Abigail Garner.