Gay marriage, and especially gay parenting, has been in the cross hairs in recent days.
On Jan. 6, Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum told a New Hampshire audience that children are better off with a father in prison than being raised in a home with lesbian parents and no father at all. And last Monday (Jan. 9), Pope Benedict called gay marriage a threat "to the future of humanity itself," citing the need for children to have heterosexual homes.
But research on families headed by gays and lesbians doesn't back up these dire assertions. In fact, in some ways, gay parents may bring talents to the table that straight parents don't.
Gay parents "tend to be more motivated, more committed than heterosexual parents on average, because they chose to be parents," said Abbie Goldberg, a psychologist at Clark University in Massachusetts who researches gay and lesbian parenting. Gays and lesbians rarely become parents by accident, compared with an almost 50 percent accidental pregnancy rate among heterosexuals, Goldberg said. "That translates to greater commitment on average and more involvement."
And while research indicates that kids of gay parents show few differences in achievement, mental health, social functioning and other measures, these kids may have the advantage of open-mindedness, tolerance and role models for equitable relationships, according to some research. Not only that, but gays and lesbians are likely to provide homes for difficult-to-place children in the foster system, studies show. (Of course, this isn't to say that heterosexual parents can't bring these same qualities to the parenting table.) [5 Myths About Gay People Debunked]
Adopting the neediest
Gay adoption recently caused controversy in Illinois, where Catholic Charities adoption services decided in November to cease offering services because the state refused funding unless the groups agreed not to discriminate against gays and lesbians. Rather than comply, Catholic Charities closed up shop.
Catholic opposition aside, research suggests that gay and lesbian parents are actually a powerful resource for kids in need of adoption. According to a 2007 report by the Williams Institute and the Urban Institute, 65,000 kids were living with adoptive gay parents between 2000 and 2002, with another 14,000 in foster homes headed by gays and lesbians. (There are currently more than 100,000 kids in foster care in the U.S.)
An October 2011 report by Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute found that, of gay and lesbian adoptions at more than 300 agencies, 10 percent of the kids placed were older than 6 — typically a very difficult age to adopt out. About 25 percent were older than 3. Sixty percent of gay and lesbian couples adopted across races, which is important given that minority children in the foster system tend to linger. More than half of the kids adopted by gays and lesbians had special needs.
The report didn't compare the adoption preferences of gay couples directly with those of heterosexual couples, said author David Brodzinsky, research director at the Institute and co-editor of "Adoption By Lesbians and Gay Men: A New Dimension of Family Diversity" (Oxford University Press, 2011). But research suggests that gays and lesbians are more likely than heterosexuals to adopt older, special-needs and minority children, he said. Part of that could be their own preferences, and part could be because of discrimination by adoption agencies that puts more difficult children with what caseworkers see as "less desirable" parents.
No matter how you slice it, Brodzinsky told LiveScience, gays and lesbians are highly interested in adoption as a group. The 2007 report by the Urban Institute also found that more than half of gay men and 41 percent of lesbians in the U.S. would like to adopt. That adds up to an estimated 2 million gay people who are interested in adoption. It's a huge reservoir of potential parents who could get kids out of the instability of the foster system, Brodzinsky said.
"When you think about the 114,000 children who are freed for adoption who continue to live in foster care and who are not being readily adopted, the goal is to increase the pool of available, interested and well-trained individuals to parent these children," Brodzinsky said.
In addition, Brodzinsky said, there's evidence to suggest that gays and lesbians are especially accepting of open adoptions, where the child retains some contact with his or her birth parents. And the statistics bear out that birth parents often have no problem with their kids being raised by same-sex couples, he added.
"Interestingly, we find that a small percentage, but enough to be noteworthy, [of birth mothers] make a conscious decision to place with gay men, so they can be the only mother in their child's life," Brodzinsky said.
Research has shown that the kids of same-sex couples — both adopted and biological kids — fare no worse than the kids of straight couples on mental health, social functioning, school performance and a variety of other life-success measures.
In a 2010 review of virtually every study on gay parenting, New York University sociologist Judith Stacey and University of Southern California sociologist Tim Biblarz found no differences between children raised in homes with two heterosexual parents and children raised with lesbian parents.
"There's no doubt whatsoever from the research that children with two lesbian parents are growing up to be just as well-adjusted and successful" as children with a male and a female parent," Stacey told LiveScience.
There is very little research on the children of gay men, so Stacey and Biblarz couldn't draw conclusions on those families. But Stacey suspects that gay men "will be the best parents on average," she said.
That's a speculation, she said, but if lesbian parents have to really plan to have a child, it's even harder for gay men. Those who decide to do it are thus likely to be extremely committed, Stacey said. Gay men may also experience fewer parenting conflicts, she added. Most lesbians use donor sperm to have a child, so one mother is biological and the other is not, which could create conflict because one mother may feel closer to the kid.
"With gay men, you don't have that factor," she said. "Neither of them gets pregnant, neither of them breast-feeds, so you don't have that asymmetry built into the relationship."
The bottom line, Stacey said, is that people who say children need both a father and a mother in the home are misrepresenting the research, most of which compares children of single parents to children of married couples. Two good parents are better than one good parent, Stacey said, but one good parent is better than two bad parents. And gender seems to make no difference. While you do find broad differences between how men and women parent on average, she said, there is much more diversity within the genders than between them.
"Two heterosexual parents of the same educational background, class, race and religion are more like each other in the way they parent than one is like all other women and one is like all other men," she said. [6 Gender Myths Busted]
In fact, the only consistent places you find differences between how kids of gay parents and kids of straight parents turn out are in issues of tolerance and open-mindedness, according to Goldberg. In a paper published in 2007 in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, Goldberg conducted in-depth interviews with 46 adults with at least one gay parent. Twenty-eight of them spontaneously offered that they felt more open-minded and empathetic than people not raised in their situation.
"These individuals feel like their perspectives on family, on gender, on sexuality have largely been enhanced by growing up with gay parents," Goldberg said.
One 33-year-old man with a lesbian mother told Goldberg, "I feel I'm a more open, well-rounded person for having been raised in a nontraditional family, and I think those that know me would agree. My mom opened me up to the positive impact of differences in people."
Children of gay parents also reported feeling less stymied by gender stereotypes than they would have been if raised in straight households. That's likely because gays and lesbians tend to have more egalitarian relationships than straight couples, Goldberg said. They're also less wedded to rigid gender stereotypes themselves.
"Men and women felt like they were free to pursue a wide range of interests," Goldberg said. "Nobody was telling them, 'Oh, you can't do that, that's a boy thing,' or 'That's a girl thing.'"
If same-sex marriage does disadvantage kids in any way, it has nothing to do with their parent's gender and everything to do with society's reaction toward the families, said Indiana University sociologist Brian Powell, the author of "Counted Out: Same-Sex Relations and Americans' Definitions of Family" (Russell Sage Foundation, 2010).
"Imagine being a child living in a state with two parents in which, legally, only one parent is allowed to be their parent," Powell told LiveScience. "In that situation, the family is not seen as authentic or real by others. That would be the disadvantage."
In her research, Goldberg has found that many children of gay and lesbian parents say that more acceptance of gay and lesbian families, not less, would help solve this problem.
In a study published online Jan. 11, 2012, in the Journal of Marriage and Family, Goldberg interviewed another group of 49 teenagers and young adults with gay parents and found that not one of them rejected the right of gays and lesbians to marry. Most cited legal benefits as well as social acceptance.
"I was just thinking about this with a couple of friends and just was in tears thinking about how different my childhood might have been had same-sex marriage been legalized 25 years ago," a 23-year-old man raised by a lesbian couple told Goldberg. "The cultural, legal status of same-sex couples impacts the family narratives of same-sex families — how we see ourselves in relation to the larger culture, whether we see ourselves as accepted or outsiders."
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Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.