Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Families and Parenting
Abstract and Keywords
According to U.S. census data, an estimated 270,313 American children were living in households headed by same-sex couples in 2005, and nearly twice that number had a single lesbian or gay parent. Since the 1990s, a quiet revolution has been blooming in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community. More and more lesbians and gay men from all walks of life are becoming parents. LGBT people become parents for some of the same reasons that heterosexual people do. Some pursue parenting as single people and others seek to create a family as a couple; still other LGBT people became parents in a heterosexual relationship. Although there are many common themes between LGBT parenting and heterosexual parenting, there are also some unique features. Unlike their heterosexual counterparts, who couple, get pregnant, and give birth, most LGBT individuals and couples who wish to parent must consider many other variables in deciding whether to become parents because the birth option is not the only option.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals and couples who wish to parent must give more careful consideration to how they will become parents and, at the outset, must be open to different ways of becoming a family and parenting children. Although many LGBT individuals and couples become parents through the birth of a child, they have also become parents through a number of additional avenues:
• Foster care
• Kinship care
• Donor insemination
• Birth from a heterosexual union
• Shared parenting from a custody agreement between lesbians and gay men
• Shared parenting with gay men and a heterosexual mother
Some LGBT people choose to parent as a couple and some parent as single persons. The stresses faced by single parents will have more to do with single parenting than with their sexuality. Those individuals who parent as a couple will also face challenges to their status as a couple or a family. LGBT people who choose to create families have the advantage of redefining and reinventing their own meaning of family and parenting, precisely because they exist outside of the traditionally defined “family.” They have the unique opportunity to break out of preconceived gender roles and be a new kind of parent to a child. Most LGBT people who parent are not invested in raising LGBT children, as suggested by some, but in raising children who will be authentic, happy, and self-confident and have the ability to support themselves regardless of their expression of gender or sexual orientation.
It is important to recognize that although many similarities exist, LGBT parented families also differ from heterosexually parented families. The conventional notion of a family presumes there will be two parents, one of each gender, that they will share a loving relationship and live under one roof, that they will both be biologically related to the children they raise, and that they will be recognized legally as a family. This mom-and-dad nuclear family is the baseline model in Western culture against which all other models of family are measured, and it is assumed by most to be the optimal family environment for child development; in comparison, all other types of families are viewed as deficient in some way (Mallon, 2004).
This model, however, does not apply to most families with LGBT parents. In families involving an LGBT couple, typically at least one parent has no biological relation to the child. In such cases the parent–child relationship nearly always goes unrecognized or unprotected by the law (Mallon, 2006).
It is inaccurate to talk about the LGBT community as if it is uniform or easily identifiable. As with all communities, the LGBT community is diverse in terms of how individuals wish to define themselves and live their lives. LGBT individuals are as diverse as any other subgroup of the general population, and they are part of every race, culture, ethnic group, religious group, socioeconomic affiliation, and family in the United States in the early 21st century (Mallon, 2006).
Although in recent years they have received greater visibility, LGBT people are frequently socialized to hide their sexual orientation, and therefore, many still form part of an invisible population. According to an Urban Institute Report (Smith & Gates, 2001), the 2000 U.S. Census Bureau figures for same-sex unmarried partner households provide researchers and policy makers with a wealth of information about LGBT-headed families. Revised estimates from the 2010 Census (U.S. Census Bureau, 2011) indicate that there were 131,729 same-sex married-couple households and 514,735 same-sex unmarried partner households in the United States. The results of the 2010 Census revised estimates are closer to the results of the 2010 American Community Survey (ACS) for same-sex married and unmarried partners. The 2010 ACS estimated same-sex married couples at 152,335 and same-sex unmarried partners at 440,989 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010).
According to analysis by Gates (2011b), demographic data indicate substantial diversity among same-sex couples with children. These families live throughout the country: of same-sex couples by region, 26% in the South, 24% in New England, and 21% in the Pacific states are raising children. Childrearing is substantially higher among racial/ethnic minorities; African Americans in particular are 2.4 times more likely than their White counterparts to be raising children. Further, among individuals in same-sex couples who did not finish high school, 43% are raising children and 20% of children raised by same-sex couples live in poverty. These data provide policy makers at every level of government with compelling arguments for why they must fulfill the policy needs of LGBT families, who live in nearly every corner of every county in America. The geographical diversity of LGBT families is striking. From big cities to small farming towns, from the Deep South to the Pacific Northwest, LGBT families are part of every American landscape. These facts will help us dispel stereotypes and present a fuller, more accurate picture of the LGBT family in America.
Interestingly, Gates (2011b) points out in his analysis that the proportion of same-sex couples raising children has begun to decline. In the 2000 Census, more than 17% of same-sex couples were raising children. That proportion peaked at 19% in 2006 and had declined to 16% in 2009. Despite the decline, the number of same-sex couples raising children is still much higher in the second decade of the 21st century than 10 years ago because many more couples are reporting themselves in Census Bureau data. In 2000, the Census reported about 63,000 LGBT couples raising children. In 2012, the figure was greater than 110,000.
According to a Williams Institute survey conducted in April 2011, approximately 3.5% of American adults identify themselves as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, whereas 0.3% are transgender—approximately 11.7 million Americans (Gates, 2011a). However, a substantially higher percentage acknowledges having same-sex attraction without identifying as LGBT. This finding makes it difficult to accurately record the demographics of LGBT people in the United States.
Just as no one knows how many people self-identify as LGBT, no one knows exactly how many LGBT parents are raising children in the United States. One study by Gates, Badgett, Macomber, and Chambers (2007) reported the following findings, which shed some light on the statistics associated with lesbians and gay men who parent or wish to parent:
• More than one in three lesbians has given birth and one in six gay men has fathered or adopted a child.
• More than half of gay men and 41% of lesbians want to have a child.
• An estimated 2 million LGBT people are interested in adoption.
• An estimated 65,500 adopted children are living with a lesbian or gay parent.
• More than 16,000 adopted children are living with LGBT parents in California, the highest number among the states.
• LGBT parents are raising 4% of all adopted children in the United States.
• Same-sex couples raising adopted children are older and more educated and have more economic resources than other adoptive parents.
• Adopted children with same-sex parents are younger and more likely to be foreign born.
Currently, 397,122 children and youth live in foster care in the United States and more than 101,666 foster children await adoption (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2012). States must recruit parents who are interested and able to foster and adopt children. Although the majority of states no longer officially deem lesbians and gay men unfit to rear a child (only two states Mississippi and Nebraska currently restrict LGBT individuals or couples from adopting), each state decides independently who can adopt, and legislators, more for political reasons than for reasons having to do with child well-being, continue to introduce bills barring adoptions and foster parenting by LGBT people to state legislatures every year (Tavernise, 2011).
Theory, Research, and Best Practices
Historically, in the area of practice with LGBT parents, the social-work knowledge base has relied on theoretical applications from child development, child welfare, and psychology. LGBT history indeed is rooted in decades of hiding and secrecy, when the mere whisper that one was not a stalwart heterosexual could destroy a career or a life. The keepers of public morals sought to keep those who strayed from this position firmly in line. But we must also take note of consequential shifts over time in cultural openness to LGBT people. A trio of events including the groundbreaking work of the late Dr. Evelyn Hooker in the 1950s and 1960s, which presented rigorous scientific research to provide indisputable evidence that homosexuality is not a mental illness; the advent of the Stonewall Rebellion of 1969 in New York City, generally regarded as the birth of the LGBT liberation movement; and the elimination of homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1973 caused society to begin slowly to change its perceptions of homosexuality. Concurrently, throughout the late 1970s, as social activism in LGBT communities was nurturing the growth of a new sense of dignity among lesbians and gay men, adult lesbians and gays became increasingly willing to identify themselves openly. The 1980s focused mainly on a community struggling with the realities of HIV and AIDS. The 1990s focused on issues of LGBT parenting, whereas the early 21st century spotlighted lesbian and gay marriage rights. In light of this ostensible openness, many social-work practitioners have become increasingly aware of the existence of LGBT parents.
Since the mid-1970s, the theoretical underpinnings of practice with LGBT people have shifted from the professional view that an LGBT identity was equal to a diagnosis of mental illness to the more LGBT-affirming approaches of contemporary 21st-century social-work practice. Although there has been ongoing progressive change, the social-work profession undeniably continues to grapple with the reality of LGBT parenting.
Theory and Research
The nature and scope of research studies on LGBT-headed families continue to grow. The earliest documentation on lesbian mothers and gay fathers mostly explored the context of children born in heterosexual marriages that ended in divorce. Such early studies have been replaced by those focusing on children in planned LGBT-headed families without the confounding variable of divorce and the coming-out process of the parents. As with all research, there are limitations to research in the area of LGBT parenting. Because not all LGBT persons are “out,” random representative sampling of LGBT parents is a challenge to methodology. This is particularly true because no reliable data exist on the number and whereabouts of LGBT parents in the general population, in the United States or elsewhere. The existing, limited research also includes biases toward White, urban, well-educated, and mature lesbian mothers and gay fathers. The relatively small samples that do exist in the research are recruited through community networks.
One of the most consistent findings since the mid-1990s is that same-gendered couples with and without children tend to establish a more even distribution of household tasks in comparison to heterosexual couples. Without socially prescribed guidance on gendered roles, LGBT parents tend to value equality in partnership and structure an equitable division of labor in housework, in childrearing, and in work outside the home. Although this repeated finding seems to be well known in the mental-health community, it has not been discussed in the mainstream dialog about the pros and cons of lesbian and gay parenting.
Stacey and Biblarz (2001) identify parental gender as predictive of parenting skill. According to their research, all mothers (heterosexual and lesbian) are more likely than fathers to be more invested and skilled at caring for children. Therefore, when two women co-parent, gender and sexual orientation interact, with two mothers both committed to and working together toward creating an equitable and mutually caring environment that provides a loving and supportive foundation for their child’s developing self-esteem.
In their follow-up study, Biblarz and Stacey found that “the argument that children need both a mother and father presumes that mothering and fathering involve mutually exclusive capacities. That is not the case. Research shows that men can perform traditional ‘women’s work’ and women can perform ‘men’s work’ perfectly well. As many as one in five fathers of young children are now providing their primary care. The bottom line is that committed, responsible parenting involves spending time with children, caring about what they’re involved in, and providing structure, limits, guidance and affection. Good parenting is good parenting, whatever package it comes in. The gender of parents only matters in ways that shouldn’t matter at all to policymakers, judges, and anyone else who cares about the welfare of children.” (2010, p. 22).
The research on biological gay fathers and their children is extremely limited. Two studies (McPherson, 1993; Sbordone, 1993) show similar parenting styles and skills between gay and heterosexual fathers. Mallon’s study (2004) of the parenting process in a group of 20 self-identified gay fathers found these men were more likely to endorse a nurturing role for fathers, less likely to emphasize the importance of economic support, and less likely to show affection to their partner in front of the children (Barret & Robinson, 2000). Further results indicate that gay fathers are as effective as heterosexual fathers in caring for their children. They have been shown to be more consistent in setting limits with their children than are heterosexual fathers. They have also been found to be more emotionally expressive and nurturing with their children, less likely to prioritize their “breadwinner” functions over their parenting roles, and less interested in conventional gender-role behaviors than heterosexual fathers (McCarty, 2004).
The most recent large-scale research on lesbian parents (Gartrell & Bos, 2010) expands our understanding of psychological well-being in adolescent biological offspring of lesbian mothers and therefore has implications for the pediatric care of these adolescents and for public policies concerning same-sex parenting. The study’s results showed that 17 year olds of lesbian mothers were rated significantly higher in social, school/academic, and total competence and significantly lower in social problems, rule-breaking, aggressive, and externalizing problem behavior than their age-matched counterparts. This publication prompted international media attention.
Fears about LGBT Parents
Although there has been a growing body of literature about LGBT parenting since the mid-1980s, the idea of an LGBT person as a primary nurturing figure rearing children is still remarkable to many. Many social-work professionals still hold firm to a belief system grounded in the ubiquitous, negative myths and stereotypes regarding LGBT persons. Those who oppose the idea of LGBT persons as parents base their thinking on a number of fears, including the following:
• The child will be bullied or ostracized because of having LGBT parents.
• The child may become LGBT because of having an LGBT parental role model.
• Living with or having contact with an LGBT parent may harm the child’s moral well-being (these beliefs may have their foundation in religious texts that condemn relationships that are other than heterosexual).
• The child will be abused (based on the myth that all LGBT persons are sexual predators).
None of these rationales is borne out or supported by evidence (Patterson, 1996; Stacey & Biblarz, 2001). Numerous studies (Golombok & Tasker, 1996; Mallon, 2004; Wainright, Russell, & Patterson, 2004) indicate that the qualities that make good fathers or good mothers are universal and are not related to sexual orientation or gender. The need for fathers to be involved in the lives of their children has been clearly established. The ability to love and care for a child is not determined by one’s sexual orientation. Furthermore, the desire to parent is not exclusive to heterosexuals, but is shared by many LGBT persons.
According to the meta-analysis of the relevant research (spanning two decades) conducted by Stacey and Biblarz (2001), none of the significant differences in parenting as reported in the research applies to children’s self-esteem, psychological well-being, or social adjustment, nor were there differences in parents’ self-esteem, mental health, or commitment to their children. In other words, although differences exist, they were not identified as deficits.
A few studies reported some differences that could represent advantages to lesbian parenting. For example, several studies (Patterson, 1996; Vanfraussen, Ponjaert-Kristofferson, & Brewaeys, 2002, 2003) found that lesbian co-mothers share family responsibilities more equally than heterosexual married parents, and some research hints that children benefit from egalitarian co-parenting. A few studies found that lesbians worry less than heterosexual parents about the gender conformity of their children. Perhaps this finding helps to account for the few studies reporting that sons of lesbians play less aggressively and that children of lesbians communicate their feelings more freely, aspire to a wider range of occupations, and score higher on self-esteem. Most professionals view these differences as positive elements, but some critics of these studies have misrepresented the differences as evidence that the children suffer from gender confusion.
Finally, some studies reported that lesbian mothers feel more comfortable discussing sexuality with their children and accepting their children’s sexuality—whatever it may be. More to the point are data reported in a 25-year British study (Golombok & Tasker, 1996). Few of the young adults in this study identified themselves as gay or lesbian, but a larger minority of those with lesbian mothers did report that they were more open to exploring their sexuality and had at one time or another considered or actually had a same-sex relationship.
Although most research to date on LGBT parenting is based on individuals who are biological parents, researchers looking at LGBT parenting have reached the same, unequivocal conclusions. That is, the children of LGBT parents grow up as successfully as the children of heterosexuals. Since 1980, more than 20 studies conducted and published in the United States, Australia, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom have addressed the way in which parental sexual orientation impacts the children of LGBT parents (Golombok, Perry, Burston, Murray, Mooney-Somers, & Stevens, 2003; Golombok, Spencer, & Rutter, 1983; Vanfraussen et al., 2002, 2003; Wainright & Patterson, 2006; Wainright et al., 2004). Not one study has found that the children of LGBT parents face greater social stigma. There is no evidence to support the belief that the children of LGBT parents are more likely to be abused or to suggest that the children of these parents are more likely to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender themselves. Children will, in fact, be who they are. It is important to bear in mind that the majority of lesbian and gay persons have been raised by heterosexual parents (Mallon, 2004).
Social workers have a key role to play in the lives of LGBT parents. From direct practice with family systems to policy and legislative advocacy, the array of opportunities for social workers in practice with lesbian and gay parents continues to broaden. Because LGBT parents are increasingly more out and open in many geographic locations of the country, LGBT parents can no longer be viewed as an invisible population. Although heterosexual privilege continues to dominate mainstream consciousness, assuming that all children live within the context of heterosexually headed families, most social workers will encounter lesbian- or gay-headed families at some point in their practice.
Best practices suggest that social workers must accept the premise that it is quality of care, not family constellation, that determines what is optimal for children’s healthy development. The ability of LGBT parents to provide for the social and emotional health of their children is equal to that of heterosexual parents. Social workers must also examine their own notions of family and further learn to identify what constitutes family based on the loving bonds of responsibility that have been both intended and fulfilled, not solely on biological, legal, or conventional definitions.
Best practices for professional social workers who work with LGBT parents involve an LGBT-affirming approach. These strategies may include working with lesbian or gay individuals to assess their desire to become parents, working to support lesbian or gay persons who are in various stages of pursuing parenting, helping those who have already become parents to deal with the everyday reality of parenting, and assisting couples and families in more traditional couple or family therapy situations.
Policy practice is the responsibility of all social workers. Within the specialization of practice with LGBT parents, professional social workers partner with or represent the interests of persons and families who request assistance in advocating for policy or legislative changes. Such activities may include advocating on the local, state, or federal levels for changes in fiscal allocations and services, speaking with legislators or bureaucrats, gathering data for policy analyses and performing such analyses, or helping a person navigate the complex delivery system. The most effective policy practice activities involve consumer advocates who are most knowledgeable regarding gaps in services, unmet needs, or solutions from their experience. Within the area of practice with LGBT persons, the lesbian or gay person or family is usually the “expert” when it comes to best practices. It is the responsibility of social workers to identify needs, assist in procuring services, navigate the maze of services, and promote policies and services to better serve this population.
Discussion and debate about parenting by LGBT persons occurs frequently among child welfare policy makers, social-service agencies, and social workers. All need better information about LGBT parents and their children as they make individual and policy-level decisions about the lives of children with LGBT parents.
Recent government surveys demonstrate that many lesbians and gay men are already raising children, and many more LGBT people would like to have children at some point. A report from the Urban Institute (Gates et al., 2007) estimates that 2 million LGBT people have considered adoption as a route to parenthood. Because prior research indicates that fewer than one fifth of adoption agencies attempt to recruit adoptive parents from the LGBT community, findings of the Urban Institute Report (Gates et al.) and others (Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, 2003; Mallon, 2006) suggest that LGBT people comprise an underutilized pool of potential adoptive parents.
Future trends in practice with LGBT parents will be most affected not only by the increasing numbers of LGBT couples who chose parenting, but also by the heightened self-awareness and development of LGBT-affirming practice approaches of social workers who work with these parents. In addition, legislative and legal initiatives in some states seek to limit parenting opportunities for lesbians and gay men. Social workers must balance their own personal attitudes toward lesbians and gay men as parents with the reality that research suggests LGBT people do make good parents.
The considerable controversy surrounding the issue of parenting by gays and lesbians seems certain to escalate in the years to come. This controversy is a critical component of the debate over whether lesbians and gay men should be permitted to marry, and it continues to divide policy makers in the United States—as well as in Canada and other countries—as they formulate laws and practices relating to workplace benefits, foster care, adoption, and an array of other important social and personal questions surrounding parenting.
Even as these discussions proliferate on the legislative and rhetorical levels, however, reality on the ground is outstripping the pace of the debate. That is, a growing number of LGBT people are becoming parents and are living as families every day, irrespective of what policy makers or practitioners do or say. Lesbians and gay men are becoming mothers and fathers in many ways, but primarily through alternative insemination, surrogacy, and adoption. The latter alternative, which is becoming increasingly popular, provides critical insights into the cultural changes taking place in two major ways: demonstrating that parenting of children by lesbians and gay men is an ongoing, unabated practice and showing that Americans’ attitudes are evolving.
Solid research to help inform and shape the dialog is increasing. Some studies, for example, have reported that LGBT couples’ parenting capacity and their children’s outcomes are comparable to those of heterosexuals. Further research will likely assist in dispelling myths about lesbians and gay men as parents. Numerous professional societies have provided positive statements from their membership supporting LGBT parents, including the Child Welfare League of America, the National Association of Social Workers, the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry; the American Medical Association, the American Bar Association, and the North American Council on Adoptable Children.
For society, the bottom line is clear: lesbians and gay men are becoming parents in growing numbers. Many avenues exist for lesbians and gay men wishing to become parents. Although stereotypes and misconceptions still perpetuate policy, legislation, and practice, from a child-centered perspective the willingness of social-services agencies to accept LGBT adults as parents means that more children will have loving and permanent families.
Social-Work Practice Implications
There may continue to be a steep learning curve for some professional social workers engaged in practice with LGBT parents. Moving toward the development of an affirming practice with LGBT parents will require intensive continuing education. As social-work practitioners working with LGBT parents, it is essential for professionals to read the research and to analyze, interpret, and discuss the findings and practice implications for effective practice with this population. It is incumbent upon the professional community to be clear about the facts and able to rebut the misinformation presented by those who may not see LGBT persons as “appropriate” resources for children in need of homes as well as nurture the narratives of truth that we have witnessed through our practice (see National Resource Center for Permanency and Family Connections, 2012a, 2012b, 2012c, 2012d). Research findings and their interpretation have enormous impact in many influential arenas, including court cases for custody and visiting rights, judges, child advocates, professionals in the health and mental-health communities, and those charged with developing and enacting legislation that guides our laws. In the midst of a politically charged environment in which negative stereotypes and ideological assertions can easily gain status as “truth,” it is essential for social-work practitioners to become familiar with what is known and not known from the research studies and practice implications so that LGBT parents work with and are supported by informed and competent social-work practitioners.
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