Having two parents matters. Their gender doesn’t, according to a new study.
A pair of American sociologists spent five years sifting through all the available literature contrasting the outcomes for children raised in traditional families with those raised by a same-sex couple. Their conclusion: no substantive difference at all.
“The upshot of the study is something that should be common sense, but instead there is this enormous belief in the significance of gender. Bottom line: What matters is good parenting,” said NYU’s Judith Stacey. She and colleague Timothy Biblarz published the results of their investigation in the Journal of Marriage and Family on Friday.
Stacey and Biblarz have been involved in the culture wars surrounding gay marriage and gay parenthood since the release of their 2001 study, How Does The Sexual Orientation of Parents Matter?
Those who disagreed with their answer to that question – “not that much” – began casting around for their own scientific data. That prompted this follow-up.
“In the U.S. especially, policy makers … always start their (anti-gay marriage) argument with, ‘Research proves…,’” Stacey said. “But that research is almost exclusively research that compares children with two married parents to children whose parents divorced or never married. It’s completely skewed.
“They were extrapolating from those studies, which can say, on average – and that’s an important qualification – two parents usually are better than one. Not always. That’s another, more complicated story. But it certainly has nothing to do with whether (the parents are) male or female.”
The only discernible and consistent advantage they could come up with for traditional couples: lactation.
Their new review of 81 studies focused almost exclusively on lesbian couples raising children. Stacey notes that gay male parenthood is too recent a phenomenon and the sample size too small to provide evidence of child outcomes.
Without exception, the studies showed that, on average, children of lesbian couples fared no worse than their counterparts. They played more with their children, spent more time with them, and were less likely to use physical discipline. Their children, in turn, were more accepting of difference in others.
Since the issue of “fatherless boys” is front-and-centre in those debates, Stacey particularly wanted to debunk the myth that boys suffered.
“The unstated – or maybe stated – fear is that they’ll be ‘sissies’ or ‘wimps.’ There’s no evidence for that. There’s a teeny bit of evidence that boys with two mothers were just as masculine on the scales that we use to measure such things, but they did turn out a little bit higher on their feminine scale,” Stacey said.
In other words, boys tended to be better rooted in both gender camps. Girls raised by a pair of mothers were indistinguishable in their development from those raised by a man and woman.
As for the argument that children of gay couples were bound to be the object of teasing and abuse from other children, Stacey was dismissive.
“There’s very little evidence of that. Plus, that’s one of those self-fulfilling prophecies, isn’t it?” Stacey said. “That’d be like saying you shouldn’t let Jewish people have children in an anti-Semitic society because they’ll be stigmatized by their peers. It’s ridiculous.”
If anything, children raised by lesbians might be slightly better off.
“It’s a little hard to say, because if you have two women parenting together, you’re selecting for people who very actively wanted to become parents,” Stacey said. “But the second female parent (the mother who did not give birth) tended to be more actively involved than the biological heterosexual father, in terms of contact time with their children. Plus, lesbian couples, on average, tend to share domestic and economic responsibilities a little bit more equally than heterosexual couples did.”
However, Stacey veered away from any talk of better or worse. She emphasized nurture over nature.
“Women have a slight advantage for all sorts of reasons – cultural, and possibly biological reasons – but on average there are more women who are really eager to be parents and be really invested in it,” Stacey said. “But men who want to do it are just as good at it as women.”
Rachel Epstein, coordinator of the LGBTQ (Lesbian Gay Bi-sexual Trans Queer) Parenting Network at Sherbourne Health Centre, welcomed the results, but with a caveat.
“This finding about gender is interesting. It kind of lays to rest the anxieties that people have about kids growing up in lesbian families,” Epstein said. “People are afraid they’ll be all confused about gender, they won’t understand. The study’s saying, ‘No need to worry. The kids come out the same as any other kid.’”
“On the other hand, if you want to make a more complicated argument, you could ask, ‘Do we really want to support very traditional gender norms? Is that what we’re striving for?’” Epstein said. “There’s always been this pressure on LTGB families and the kids in LGBT families to be poster children. We always have to say, ‘Everything’s fantastic.’ It would be really great if we could have a more real conversation about what’s happening in our families, good and bad. But that conversation becomes limited because of the political context in which we live. It’s still very attacking of our families.”
Many of those issues are addressed in Who’s Your Daddy?, an anthology about queer parenting edited by Epstein.
Though she hasn’t ventured as far as those intimately involved in the debate, Stacey was nonetheless preparing for a backlash.
“I suspect there will be (hostility). It just too directly conflicts with what is just a foundational belief of people who are opposed to all sort of family changes,” Stacey said. “But I think they’re going to have a hard time finding any research that supports them. We really looked carefully.”