What Has the Lesbian Family Study Taught Us about Child Rearing by Gay Adults?

Clinical Psychiatry News, March 2011 | Go to article overview

What Has the Lesbian Family Study Taught Us about Child Rearing by Gay Adults?


Data are limited but valuable.

The U.S. National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study has provided a treasure trove's worth of much-needed data about the children being raised by lesbian mothers. Initiated in 1986, the current wave of the study reports on a mere 78 adolescents at age 17 years.

This study lands in the middle of an intense political debate around issues of marriage equality and adoption by gay and lesbian parents. Though the American Psychiatric Association supports the right of gay and lesbian adults to adopt, the law on this issue in many states is unclear, and, in a few states, expressly prohibited.

Though the sample size is small, several of the findings in this study deserve comment. First, none of the teenagers reported any sexual or physical abuse by their parents (Arch. Sex. Behav. 2010 [doi:10.1007/sl0508-010-9692-2]). This finding is a direct rebuttal to the claim that gay and lesbian parents are more likely to abuse sexually their children.

As the authors point out, most perpetrators of childhood sexual abuse in the home are heterosexual males. About four-fifths of the kids in the NLLFS study had no adult males in the household. The stereotype about gay adults sexually abusing children is quite gender-specific (toward males), and this study cannot directly address this misperception.

The study also begins to address questions around sexual identity and sexual behavior. In terms of behavior, the children of lesbian moms were significantly older than their peers at the age of first heterosexual contact. None of the girls raised by lesbian moms had ever been pregnant. While the girls were more likely than were their peers to report history of sexual contact with other girls, the boys were not more likely than their peers to report history of sexual contact with other boys.

The lack of matching by race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status does hamper this comparison, as norms about sexual behavior in teens vary by socioeconomic/cultural subgroups.

As for sexual identity, the vast majority of the adolescents in the NLLFS rated themselves a Kinsey 0-1 (exclusively or predominantly heterosexual) (81% of the girls and 91.9% of the boys). About one-fifth of the girls rated themselves in the Kinsey 2-4 spectrum (not exclusively heterosexual or homosexual). None of the girls and 5.4% of the boys rated themselves a Kinsey 5-6 (predominantly homosexual). For this part of the results, there is no comparison group.

Research about sexuality in men and women has been confirming long-held general impressions that sexual identity is more fluid in women than in men. A prior study of children of lesbian mothers, compared with children raised by heterosexual mothers, noted that more of the young adults raised by lesbian parents reported a sexual experience with someone of the same gender.

However, by age 23.5 years (on average), there was no difference in self-identification as lesbian or gay between the two groups. One thing to keep in mind: The subjects in this study represent a particular cohort of families: that of lesbians who planned to conceive in the 1980s, when planned lesbian families were much less common than they are today.

The wave of children being raised by gay men started even later. Although the prospective design of the study helps to eliminate recall bias, the subjects are not a randomized sample. Both moms and kids in this study are surely well-aware that they are representing lesbian families to an unfriendly nation.

Although unlikely in the current climate, it would be ideal if further studies could be funded to do similar work with children being born today, to both lesbian parents and gay male parents.

DR. VOLPP is a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at New York University. She is the unit chief of the residency training unit at Bellevue Hospital, also in New York, and serves on the board of the Association of Gay and Lesbian Psychiatrists. …

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