|Meezan, William, and Jonathan Rauch. (2005). “Gay marriage, same-sex parenting, and America’s children.” The Future of Children, Fall 2005, 15(2), 97-115.
Although Americans are deeply divided over same-sex marriage, on one point most would agree: the issue has moved from the obscure fringes to the roiling center of the family-policy debate in a startlingly brief time.
Under order of its state supreme court, Massachusetts began offering marriage licenses to same-sex couples in 2004. Over forty states have enacted laws or constitutional amendments declaring they would not recognize same-sex marriage.
The issue pits left against right and old against young: Americans over age forty-four oppose same-sex marriage by a decisive majority, but a plurality of Americans under age thirty support it. Today, across generations and geography, the country is divided over the meaning of marriage as it has not been since the days when states were at odds over interracial marriages and no-fault divorces — if then.
For many of its advocates, same-sex marriage is a civil rights issue, plain and simple. For many of its opponents, it is just as simply a moral issue. In reality, it is both, but it is also a family-policy issue — one of the most important, yet least studied, family-policy issues on the American scene today.
The most controversial of its family-policy aspects is the question: how might same-sex marriage affect the well-being of American children?
Counting the Children
To begin thinking about gay marriage and children, it is useful to consider three groups of children. First, there are those who are now being raised, or who would in the future be raised, by same-sex couples even if same-sex marriage were unavailable. No one knows just how many American children are being raised by same-sex couples today. The 2000 census counted about 594,000 households headed by same-sex couples. It found children living in 27% of such households. The census did not count the number of children in each home. We can conservatively say that at least 166,000 children are being raised by gay and lesbian couples.
Children being raised by opposite-sex couples, married or unmarried, or by single parents is the 2nd group of children. Effects of same-sex marriage on these children are entirely unclear. Some argue that same-sex marriage will signal governmental indifference to whether families contain both a mother and a father. Such legal and cultural indifference, they fear, would further erode the norm of childrearing by both biological parents; more children would end up in fatherless homes.
Some advocates argue that same-sex marriage will signal the government’s (and society’s) preference for marriage over other family arrangements, reinforcing marriage’s status at a time when that status is under strain. Same-sex marriage, in this view, would encourage marriage over nonmarriage and thus would benefit adults and children alike.
Others believe that same-sex marriage will have little or no effect of any sort on heterosexual families, if only because the number of gay and lesbian couples is small. There is no evidence at all that bears directly on this question, at least in the American context, because until last year  same-sex marriage had never been tried in the United States.
A 3rd class of children might be affected by same-sex marriage: additional children who might grow up with same-sex couples as a direct or indirect result of the legalization of same-sex marriage. Although even many opponents of same-sex marriage believe that gay and lesbian people should be allowed to foster and adopt children under certain circumstances, they worry that legalizing same-sex marriage would send an irrevocable cultural signal that same-sex parenting and opposite-sex parenting are interchangeable, when in fact they may not be equally good for children.
The advent of same-sex marriage would probably make same-sex parenting easier legally and more widely accepted socially, particularly for couples adopting children from the child welfare system. It is thus not surprising that questions about same-sex parenting come up time and again in discussions of same-sex marriage.
What Are Same-Sex Families?
To speak of same-sex parenting is to bundle together an assortment of family arrangements. Most children of opposite-sex parents come by being the biological children of both parents. Since same-sex couples can’t conceive together, their children arrive by a multiplicity of routes. In many cases (no one knows just how many), children living with gay and lesbian couples are the biological offspring of one member of the couple, whether by an earlier marriage or relationship, by arrangement with a known or anonymous sperm donor (in the case of lesbian couples), or by arrangement with a surrogate birth mother (in the case of male couples). Male couples seem more likely than female couples to adopt children who are not biologically related to either custodial parent. These different paths to parenthood lead to disparate destinations. The family dynamics of a female couple raising one partner’s biological son from a previous marriage may be quite different from the dynamics of a male couple raising a biologically unrelated son adopted from foster care.
Legal arrangements vary too. Nonbiological parents in same-sex couples who seek to be legally recognized as parents must adopt, and the rules that govern adoption are as diverse as the state legislatures that pass adoption laws, the state agencies that promulgate adoption regulations, and the state courts that interpret them. All the states allow married couples to apply jointly — as couples — for adoption (but marriage is no guarantee that the adoption will be approved); and all the states allow unmarried individuals to apply for adoption. Only one state, Utah, denies adoption to unmarried couples (heterosexual and homosexual). And so marriage and adoption, though intertwined, are treated as distinct matters by the law and the courts.
Beyond that point, the rules diverge. Florida, uniquely bans homosexual individuals from adopting. Mississippi explicitly bans adoption by same-sex couples. As of mid-2004 nine states and the District of Columbia permitted same-sex couples to apply jointly for adoption, meaning that both members of the couple could be simultaneously granted parental status. In almost two dozen other states, courts in either the whole state or in some jurisdictions allow “second-parent” adoptions, under which one gay or lesbian partner can petition to become the second parent of the first partner’s biological or previously adopted child.
In the remaining states, same-sex couples are not eligible for either joint or second-parent adoption, which means that any children they might be raising are legally related to only one custodial parent.
For this article, most of the literature on same-sex parenting and its effects on children was reviewed: more than fifty studies, many literature reviews, and accounts of a number of dissertations and conference papers dating back to the 1970s.
Why Same-Sex Parenting Is Hard to Study
This significant and growing body of research grew partly out of court cases in which lesbian and gay parents (or co-parents) sought to defend or obtain custody of children. Many researchers approached the subject with a sympathetic or protective attitude toward the children and families they studied. Critics have accused researchers of downplaying differences between children of gay and straight parents, especially if those differences could be interpreted unfavorably — a charge that has been debated in the field. More significant, we believe, are the daunting methodological challenges that the researchers faced, especially at first.
Difficulty Finding Representative Samples
Perhaps the most important such challenge is that researchers have no complete listing of gay and lesbian parents from which to draw representative samples (probability samples, as researchers call them). To find study participants, they have often had to rely on word-of-mouth referrals, advertisements, and other recruiting tools that may produce samples not at all like the full population of gay and lesbian parents. All but one of the studies we examined employed samples composed of either totally or predominantly white participants. Almost all the participants were middle- to upper-middle-class, urban, well educated, and “out.” Most were lesbians, not gay men. Participants were often clustered in a single place. Absent probability samples, generalizing findings is impossible.
Small Sample Sizes
Gay- and lesbian-headed families can be difficult to locate, and funding for this research has been sparse. Researchers have been forced to deal with the challenge of small samples. Most studies describing the development of children raised in gay or lesbian homes report findings on fewer than 25 children, and most comparative studies compare fewer than 30 children in each of the groups studied. Other things being equal, the smaller the number of subjects in the groups studied, the harder it is to detect differences between groups.
The question is often not just how well same-sex parents and their children fare, but compared with whom? Should a single lesbian mother be compared with a single heterosexual mother? If so, divorced or never married? Should a two-mother family be compared with a two-biological-parent family, a mother-father family headed by one biological parent and one stepparent, or a single-parent family? It all depends on what the researcher wants to know. Identifying appropriate comparison groups has proved vexing, and no consistent or wholly convincing approach has emerged. Many studies mix family forms, blurring the meaning of the comparison being made. Some studies do not use comparison groups at all and simply describe children or adults in same-sex households. Some argue that comparing gay and straight families, no matter how closely matched the groups, is inappropriate inasmuch as it assumes a “heterosexual norm” against which same-sex parents and their children are judged.
Families headed by same-sex parents are structurally very different from one another. Studies are most accurate when each group being examined or compared is made up of similar individuals or families. When the pool of potential subjects is small, assuring within-group homogeneity is often difficult.
For example, partnered lesbians are often included with single lesbians, with all called “single” by the author; children who live both in and outside the home are discussed as a single group; children born into homes that originated both as heterosexual marriages and as lesbian households are included in the same sample; and separated and divorced women are mixed with never-married women and called “single.” In at least one of the studies reviewed, children of transsexuals and lesbians, children who are both biological and adopted, and parents who are both biological and adopters are treated as a single group. When studies use such “mixed” groups, results are difficult to interpret.
Another challenge is to gauge how well children are faring. Few studies collect data from the children directly, and even fewer observe the children’s behavior — the gold standard for research of this kind, but more expensive and time-consuming than asking parents and children to evaluate themselves. Some studies use nonstandardized measures, while others use either measures with poor reliability and validity or measures whose reliability and validity were either not known or not reported.
To some extent, researchers can compensate for heterogeneous samples and nonequivalent comparison groups by using statistical methods that control for differences, particularly in studies with larger samples. Not all studies have done so. Others did not report the direction of the significant relationships that they found, leaving unclear which group of children fared better. Most failed to control for potentially confounding factors, such as divorce stress or the status of a current relationship with a former partner.
Putting the Research Challenges in Perspective
The challenges described are by no means unique to the research on same-sex parenting, and neither are the flaws that result. Studying small, hard-to-locate populations is inherently difficult, especially if the subject pool is reticent.
What the Evidence Shows — and Means
Summarizing the research, the American Psychological Association concluded in its July 2004 “Resolution on Sexual Orientation, Parents, and Children,”
There is no scientific basis for concluding that lesbian mothers or gay fathers are unfit parents on the basis of their sexual orientation.…On the contrary, results of research suggest that lesbian and gay parents are as likely as heterosexual parents to provide supportive and healthy environments for their children….Overall, results of research suggest that the development, adjustment, and well-being of children with lesbian and gay parents do not differ markedly from that of children with heterosexual parents.
Our own review of the evidence is consistent with that characterization. Specifically, the research supports four conclusions. First, lesbian mothers, and gay fathers (about whom less is known), are much like other parents. Where differences are found, they sometimes favor same-sex parents. For instance, although one study finds that heterosexual fathers had greater emotional involvement with their children than did lesbian co-mothers, others find either no difference or that lesbian co-mothers seem to be more involved in the lives of their children than are heterosexual fathers.
Second, there is no evidence that children of lesbian and gay parents are confused about their gender identity, either in childhood or adulthood, or that they are more likely to be homosexual. Evidence on gender behavior (as opposed to identification) is mixed; some studies find no differences, whereas others find that girls raised by lesbians may be more “masculine” in play and aspirations and that boys of lesbian parents are less aggressive.
Finally, some interesting differences have been noted in sexual behavior and attitudes (as opposed to orientation). Some studies report that children, particularly daughters, of lesbian parents adopt more accepting and open attitudes toward various sexual identities and are more willing to question their own sexuality. Others report that young women raised in lesbian-headed families are more likely to have homosexual friends and to disclose that they have had or would consider having same-sex sexual relationships.
Third, in general, children raised in same-sex environments show no differences in cognitive abilities, behavior, general emotional development, or such specific areas of emotional development as self-esteem, depression, or anxiety. In the few cases where differences in emotional development are found, they tend to favor children raised in lesbian families. For example, one study reports that preschool children of lesbian mothers tend to be less aggressive, bossy, and domineering than children of heterosexual mothers. Another finds more psychiatric difficulties and a greater number of psychiatric referrals among children of heterosexual parents. The only negative suggestion to have been uncovered about the emotional development of children of same-sex parents is a fear on the part of the children — which seems to dissipate during adolescence when sexual orientation is first expressed — that they might be homosexual.
Finally, many gay and lesbian parents worry about their children being teased, and children often expend emotional energy hiding or otherwise controlling information about their parents, mainly to avoid ridicule. The evidence is mixed, however; on whether the children have heightened difficulty with peers, with more studies finding no particular problems.
The significance of this body of evidence is a matter of contention, to say the least. Steven Nock, a prominent scholar reviewing the literature in 2001 as an expert witness in a Canadian court case, found it so flawed methodologically that the “only acceptable conclusion at this point is that the literature on this topic does not constitute a solid body of scientific evidence,” and that “all of the articles I reviewed contained at least one fatal flaw of design or execution.…Not a single one was conducted according to generally accepted standards of scientific research.” Two equally prominent scholars, Judith Stacey and Timothy Biblarz, vigorously disputed the point: “He is simply wrong to say that all of the studies published to date are virtually worthless and unscientific....If the Court were to accept Professor Nock’s primary criticisms of these studies, it would have to dismiss virtually the entire discipline of psycholology.”
We believe that both sides of that argument are right, at least partially. The evidence provides lots of information about the particular families and children studied, and the children now number more than 1000. They are doing about as well as children normally do. What the evidence does not provide, because of the methodological difficulties outlined, is much knowledge about whether those studied are typical or atypical of the general population of children raised by gay and lesbian couples. We do not know how the normative child in a same-sex family compares with other children. Those who say the evidence shows that many same-sex parents do an excellent job of parenting are right. Those who say the evidence falls short of showing that same-sex parenting is equivalent to opposite-sex parenting (or better, or worse) are also right.
The research situation is improving. Since the late 1980s researchers have worked to improve their methods, and the population of gay and lesbian parents has become easier to study. Studies using larger samples are being reported, the first longitudinal study has been published, and studies using representative, population-based samples have appeared. More studies now use standardized instruments with acceptable reliability and validity. Recent studies are much more likely to match comparison groups closely and are also more likely to use statistical methods to control for differences both within and between the study groups.
It bears emphasizing that the issue of same-sex parenting is directly relevant to same-sex marriage only to the extent that the latter extends the scope of the former. Gay and lesbian couples make up only a small share of the population, not all of those couples have or want children, and many who do have or want children are likely to raise them whether or not same-sex marriage is legal. The number of additional children who might be raised by same-sex couples as a result of same-sex marriage is probably small. We doubt that same-sex marriage would shift any significant number of children out of the homes of loving heterosexual parents and into same-sex households; and, to the extent that same-sex marriage helps move children out of foster care and into caring adoptive homes, the prospect should be welcomed. If the past several decades’ research establishes anything, it is that the less time children spend in the public child welfare system, the better. Research shows that the state makes a poor parent for many of the children in its custody, particularly compared with stable, loving, developmentally appropriate environments.
Will Kids Benefit When Same-Sex Parents Marry?
We turn now to the group of children who are being raised, or who would be raised, by same-sex couples even without same-sex marriage. For them, the advent of legal same-sex marriage would mean that their parents could get married.
Whether or not same-sex marriage would expand the scope of same-sex parenting, it clearly would expand the scope of same-sex married parenting. Marriage would also affect family dynamics. Some gay and lesbian cohabitants with children would become spouses; others might find that the prospect of marriage deepened their bond; still others might break up in disagreement over whether to tie the knot.
We know of no reputable scholar who believes that their parents’ getting married would harm these children on average (though particular marriages may be had for children). The pertinent question is: to what extent, and in what ways, might children benefit from the marriage of their lesbian and gay parents? This question turns out to be somewhat more difficult to answer than it may appear.
There is a vast literature on how marriage benefits children, however, the literature pertains to heterosexual couples, not homosexual ones. Moreover, most such studies look at what happens when children’s two biological parents marry. In same-sex families, of course, at least one parent is not the child’s biological parent. Research on whether children of heterosexual couples do better in married than in cohabiting step-families (where only one parent is the child’s biological parent) is sparse and inconclusive.
Whether that research is pertinent to same-sex couples — who may be more likely than cohabiting straight couples to bring children into the home as a carefully considered joint decision — is at best unclear. Virtually no empirical evidence exists on how same-sex parents’ marriage might affect their children. Nonetheless, we can do some theoretical probing, if only to understand how the introduction of marriage might affect the dynamics of same-sex families.
One benefit of traditional marriage — some would argue the central benefit — is that it helps tie fathers and mothers to their biological children. Obviously, that would not be the case with same-sex marriage, where one or both parents are, by definition, nonbiological. There are three other broad areas, however, where benefits to children of opposite-sex marriage might carry over to same-sex families. The first is material well-being. In general, heterosexual marriage increases the economic capital available to children.
The second area is in the durability and stability of the parental relationship. In the heterosexual world, a substantial body of research shows that, other things held equal, marriages are more durable and stable than cohabitation; and stability is of vital importance to children.
Finally, same-sex marriage might benefit children through social investment. Heterosexual marriage benefits children by bringing with it a host of social resources, some as tangible as legal and regulatory protections, others as intangible as social prestige and unquestioned parental authority. Marriage also brings closer and more formal relationships with in-laws and grandparents, who are more likely to relate to a nonbiological child as a full-fledged grandchild or niece or nephew if the parents’ union is formalized (and children who have more contact with grandparents tend to be better adjusted). Though less stigma attaches to cohabitation today than in the past, married families still benefit from stronger community support and kinship networks, easing the burden on parents and children alike.
Some of these benefits would no doubt carry over to same-sex married couples. Marriage might also induce more jurisdictions to permit second-parent adoptions by gay and lesbian families. Such adoptions can be very meaningful, bringing the nonbiological parent closer to the child.
In communities that embrace the notion of same-sex marriage, marriage might bring added support and investment from neighbors, teachers, employers, peers, and others on whom children and parents rely.
Indeed, the very existence of same-sex marriage may reduce the stigmatization or perceived peculiarity of same-sex families, which would presumably reduce the social pressure on the children. On the other hand, social acceptance of same-sex marriages as “real” marriages — marriages viewed as authentic by family, friends, and such institutions as churches and neighborhood groups — cannot be forced. For children, same-sex marriage might in some places bring closer and warmer relationships with extended families and communities, but in other places it might relieve one form of stigma or hostility only to replace it with another.
Our own belief, on balance, is that society’s time-honored preference for marriage over nonmarriage as a context for raising children would prove as justified for same-sex couples as for opposite-sex couples, for many of the same reasons. One piece of evidence is that many same-sex couples who are raising children say they need marriage. If it is true that parents are generally competent judges of what is good for their children, then their opinion deserves some weight.
An Opportunity to Learn
It is important to recognize that social science cannot settle the debate over same-sex marriage. Some people believe the United States should have same-sex marriage as a matter of basic right even if the change proves deleterious for children; others believe the country should reject same-sex marriage as a matter of morality or faith even if the change would benefit kids. Consequential factors are but one piece of a larger puzzle. Two points seem to us to be both incontrovertible and important.
First, whether same-sex marriage would prove socially beneficial, socially harmful, or trivial is an empirical question that cannot be settled by any amount of armchair theorizing. There are plausible arguments on all sides of the issue, and as yet there is no evidence sufficient to settle them.
Second, the costs and benefits of same-sex marriage cannot be weighed if it cannot be tried — and, preferably compared with other alternatives (such as civil unions).