Reactions to Child Custody Decisions Involving Homosexual and Heterosexual Parents

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This study examined the effects of homophobia, subject gender, and gender and sexual orientation of petitioning parent on attitudes about judgements in child custody cases. A total of 274 introductory psychology students participated in both phases of the research. In Phase One, subjects completed the Heterosexual Attitudes Toward Homosexuals Scale and the Kinsey Heterosexual - Homosexual Rating Scale that were embedded in a general questionnaire on social attitudes. In Phase Two, these same subjects were asked to give their opinions about the outcome of contrived child custody cases where the parent winning custody was homosexual or heterosexual. As expected, there was less support for a homosexual than a heterosexual parent. This was particularly noticeable for male subjects. Unexpectedly, mothers were not favoured over fathers, but instead subjects favoured parents of the same gender. Further, subjects low in homophobia reacted more favourably to a homosexual parent than a heterosexual parent, while the reverse was true for those high in homophobia. Implications of the results for public and judicial attitudes about custody decisions were considered.

There is considerable evidence that heterosexuals have negative attitudes toward homosexuals (Herek, 1988; Nungesser, 1983; Testa, Kinder, & Ironson, 1987). Jenks (1987) reported that U.S. polls conducted between 1973 and 1982 showed that from 67 to 70% of the population indicated that "homosexuality is always wrong" (p. 784). While attitudes toward gays and lesbians are consistently negative, attitudes toward gay men are more negative than attitudes toward lesbians. Generally, lesbians are less likely to be defined as a social problem, less likely to be negatively stereotyped, and less likely to be rejected than are gay men (Steffensmeier & Steffensmeier, 1974).

Where children are concerned, homophobia, the fear or intolerance of homosexuals and associated reactions, are particularly salient. In 1977, a Gallup Poll indicated that 65% of Americans polled would object to homosexual teachers, while only 14% of Americans surveyed thought homosexuals should be able to adopt children (Gallup Poll, 1977). In North America, homosexual persons have sought to adopt children and have been denied that right, solely on the basis of their sexual orientation (Rivera, 1982). Morinand Garfinkle (1978) stated that "Many people with anti - homosexual attitudes believe that homosexuals, especially males, will attempt to seduce young children" (p. 34). These beliefs are contradicted by findings that child molestation is not associated with any particular sexual orientation (Human Rights for Gay New Brunswickers, 1991; Pennington, 1987; Rivera, 1987).

While the notion of a homosexual parent may seem to be a contradiction in terms, many lesbians and gay men marry heterosexual partners and produce children (Rivera, 1982; Susoeff, 1985; Wyers, 1987). Negative attitudes toward homosexual parenting abilities are reflected in state court cases in which gay and lesbian parents almost always lose custody of their children (Brownstone, 1980). Brownstone (1980) points out that "The open homosexual raises at least two fears in the court: fear that exposure to homosexuals will pose a threat to the sexual and moral development of the children and fear that the children will suffer embarrassment and indignation at the hands ... of the community" (p. 217). Gay fathers may be even less likely than lesbian mothers to be awarded custody. Statistics show that women are generally favoured in custody decisions (Statistics Canada, 1983). Wittlin (1983) argues that because of this tendency, gay fathers seeking custody may suffer prejudice because of both gender and sexual orientation.

Recent studies have indicated that parental homosexuality does not give rise to gender identity confusion, inappropriate role behaviour, psychopathology, or homosexual orientation in children (Bell, Weinberg, & Hammersmith, 1981; Green, Mandel, Hotvedt, Gray, & Smith 1986; Kirkpatrick, Smith, & Roy, 1981). …