Systemic Heterosexism and Adjustment among Adolescents Raised by Lesbian Mothers

By Vyncke, Johanna D.; Julien, Danielle et al. | Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, July 2014 | Go to article overview

Systemic Heterosexism and Adjustment among Adolescents Raised by Lesbian Mothers


Vyncke, Johanna D., Julien, Danielle, Jouvin, Emilie, Jodoin, Emilie, Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science


This study examined the direct and indirect associations between heterosexism and adolescents' adjustment using a sample of 50 dyads composed of lesbian mothers and their adolescents. Mothers and adolescent children completed questionnaires on experienced and perceived heterosexism, social support, coming out, and adjustment. Mothers' experienced heterosexism and adolescents' perceived heterosexism were negatively associated with adolescents' adjustment. Mothers' support moderated the negative associations between adolescents' perceived heterosexism and adolescents' internalizing problems. Friends' support moderated the negative associations between adolescents' coming out as children of lesbian mothers and adolescents' externalizing problems. School support was negatively associated with adolescents' problems, and it moderated the negative associations between a) adolescents' experienced heterosexism and internalizing problems, b) adolescents' coming out as children of lesbian mothers and internalizing problems, c) adolescents' coming out as children of lesbian mothers and externalizing problems. Consistent with previous research on younger children of lesbian mothers, the findings underlined the role of school, family, and social networks in protecting the wellbeing of adolescents raised by lesbian mothers.

Keywords: adolescents, family, heterosexism, lesbian mothers, school

The main objective of this study was to examine the impact of heterosexism on the wellbeing of adolescents raised by lesbian mothers. A substantial body of research has shown that children raised by same-sex parents do not differ from children of heterosexual parents with regard to gender, social, emotional, and cognitive development (for reviews, see: Goldberg, 2010; Tasker, 2005). In the last decade, there has been increased attention to adolescents raised by lesbian mothers, notably through the U.S. National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study (NLLFS) (e.g., Gartrell, Bos, & Goldberg, 2011), the U.S. 1994 National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (e.g., Wainright, Russell, & Patterson, 2004), and the longitudinal study of lesbian families in the U.K. (e.g., Golombok & Balger, 2010) (for a review, see Gartrell, Bos, Peyser, Deck, & Rodas, 2012). Overall, examining adolescents' psychosocial adjustment, academic success, substance use, victimization, romantic relationship, and sexual behaviours showed that adolescents raised by lesbian mothers fare as well as adolescents raised by heterosexual parents.

These findings have been largely disseminated, notably in the context of unprecedented advances of civil rights among sexual minority individuals. Yet, gay and lesbian individuals and their children still live in heterosexist environments. Herek (1995) defines heterosexism as "the ideological system that denies, denigrates and stigmatizes any nonheterosexual form of behaviour, identity, relationship, or community. . . . Heterosexism is manifested at both the cultural and the individual levels" (p. 321). We conceptualized direct experience of heterosexism as distinct from perception of heterosexism, as suggested by Meyer (2003) and Almack (2007), because the actual experience and the threat of victimization are stressors and risk factors that have specific negative impacts on the wellbeing of sexual minority individuals.

As children can be stigmatized for racial, political, or religious characteristics of their families (e.g., Quintana & McKown, 2008), children of gay and lesbian parents can be stigmatized because of their association with homosexuality (e.g., King, 2001). For instance, 41% of 78 American adolescents in the NLLFS study reported having been "treated unfairly because of having a lesbian mother," mostly within the school context (Bos & Gartrell, 2010; Van Gelderen, Gartrell, Bos, & Hermanns, 2012). Similarly, in a Canadian study, 69% of the 65 adolescents raised by lesbian mothers reported some level of negative beliefs about lesbianheaded families among their peers at school (Vyncke, Julien, Jodoin, & Jouvin, 2011). …

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