Gay Parents

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Gay Parents

Research has consistently demonstrated that heterosexual adults retain consistently and overwhelmingly negative attitudes toward lesbians and gay males. Heterosexual adults commonly view this negativity as acceptable despite political rhetoric lauding the contributions and multiple perspectives of an increasingly diverse citizenry (Kite and Whitley 1996). The stigma, prejudice, and discrimination directed at people who identify themselves as homosexual are not confined to individual acts, but have been institutionalized and systematically perpetuated throughout the various levels of the culture. For example, the U. S. legal system does not recognize unions between same-sex partners, nor does it protect relationships between lesbian and gay male parents and their children (Patterson, Fulcher, and Wainright 2000). Despite such obstacles, lesbian and gay male individuals successfully create meaningful family relationships that not only prosper, but thrive (Patterson 2000).

Gay Relationships and Legal Matters

Legal recognition of unions (i.e., marriage) between heterosexual males and females has a longstanding history in the United States, Europe, and other parts of the world influenced by Western cultures. Such recognition has set the standards for acceptable relationships and the benefits that they are believed to bring. One common benefit of marriage relates to the establishment of families and the rearing of children. Most countries in the world deny legal marriage to gay males, including the United States, Canada, and the preponderance of Europe nation-states. The Netherlands stands alone in its legal recognition of same-sex marriage, while Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, and Norway grant domestic partnerships for lesbians and gay males. The state of Vermont in the United States has granted partnership rights and recognition to persons who identify themselves as lesbian or gay.

Because legal marriage is denied to most gay males in the world, however, such individuals who choose to become parents face multiple challenges. These include seeking to adopt children, achieving custody of children from former heterosexual relationships, and gaining access to insurance and other employment benefits routinely offered to heterosexual parents. Notwithstanding these and other issues, many gay men choose to become parents and do so with much success.

Gay Fathers as a Distinct Group

Virtually no data exist on the prevalence of gay parenting among non-Caucasians and non-Western Europeans. Even in the United States, it is difficult to estimate the number of gay male parents due to ongoing prejudice and discrimination that may compel some to mask their sexual identity in certain contexts. In the United States, however, between one and two million gay men are parents, and these men are parenting approximately two to four million children (Patterson and Chan 1996). Gay males who act as parents include a diverse group in terms of age, ethnicity, level of education, socioeconomic status, physical ability, and religious or spiritual background. Their differences notwithstanding, the group contends with issues unique to their sexual orientation. Some of the factors that distinguish gay male parents from heterosexual fathers include the routes through which they become parents, how they negotiate their roles as parents, and the social support that they receive.

Becoming Parents and Negotiating Parenthood

Gay males become parents for a variety of reasons and through a number of means (Patterson and Chan 1996). The largest percentage of gay male parents in the United States constitutes divorced men who entered into a heterosexual marriage and had children prior to publicly declaring themselves as gay. Such men report entering into marriage because they loved their spouses, wanted to have children, and desired to live a married life, and because of social and familial expectations or pressures. Some hoped marriage to a woman would diminish or dispel emerging or present homosexual identities and desires. Others became aware of their homosexual identity only after having married. The majority of marriages between gay males and heterosexual females eventually end in divorce, and courts have, in such cases, historically granted child custody to the mother. Cultural beliefs that female and heterosexual parents are more fit parents have dominated custody decisions. Still, gay fathers are sometimes awarded custody of their children and serve as the primary caretakers. Others may live with a variety of visitation arrangements. In instances where gay fathers lose custody of their children, establishing a gay male identity may take place in conjunction with a painful grieving process.

Besides heterosexual marriage or sexual encounters, gay men may become parents through adoption, surrogacy, and joint parenthood with a woman or women (Patterson and Chan 1996). Adoption of children by individuals of a sexual minority status falls into two categories: stranger adoption and second-parent adoption. Stranger adoptions occur when unrelated adoptive parents take children in as their own because the biological parents are unable or unwilling to care for offspring. Second-parent adoptions take place when only one member of the couple is the legal or biological parent of a child or children, and the second couple member wishes to pursue adoption of the child(ren) as a means of legally recognizing the relationship between that parent and the child(ren) (Patterson, Fulcher, and Wainright 2000). Internationally, the majority of countries deny legal adoption rights to people who identify themselves as lesbian or gay, and if one member of the couple adopts or has birth children, his partner is not given parental rights (Savin-Williams and Esterberg 2000).

Surrogacy is another avenue to parenthood for some gay males. This method involves fathering a child with a surrogate mother, often through sperm donation by a member of a couple. Frequently, the couple makes a contract with the birth mother to relinquish her parental rights and responsibilities, making the father the legal parent (Patterson and Chan 1996). In gay male couples who become parents through these means, the nonbiological parent may eventually seek adoption of the child via the process described above.

Joint conception and rearing of a child or children with a woman or women is another way for gay males to become parents. Such individuals may enter an agreement in which one member of a gay male couple donates sperm, which is used to inseminate a lesbian or heterosexual woman who is either single or in a committed relationship. In quadra-parenting, children brought into the world in this manner may split their time between the two homes (Patterson and Chan 1996). All of the parents together negotiate the specific arrangements.

Gay Males in the Parenting Role

As noted previously, the preponderance of research investigating gay male parents and parenthood has been conducted in the United States using European-American, well-educated, affluent, and urban samples (Patterson 1996). Such research has demonstrated that gay male fathers and heterosexual fathers do not differ in their motives for becoming parents (Bigner and Jacobsen 1989). However, gay male parents reported being more responsive and more likely to exhibit authoritative (e.g., limit setting, open to negotiation), as opposed to authoritarian (e.g., dictatorial), patterns of parenting behaviors than their heterosexual counterparts. Gay fathers also emphasized nurturing in their approach to childrearing and fostered a climate of acceptance and respect for diversity that heterosexual fathers did not as frequently endorse. Future research on parenting quality needs to be conducted with larger and more representative samples of gay and heterosexual fathers before definitive conclusions can be drawn in this regard.

Although a gay man choosing to become a parent within an established, committed relationship with another man faces many of the same adjustment issues that arise for a heterosexual man, issues specific to his stigmatized social status make it imperative that he seek information and support. Specifically, gay male parents need timely information about developmental factors unique to children of gay parents, health concerns, legal matters, and financial planning (Patterson and Chan 1996).

Children of Gay Male Parents

Negative myths, images, and stereotypes about individuals who identify themselves as lesbian or gay and their ability to parent children are created, perpetuated, and maintained at multiple levels of society. One area that has received considerable attention is the impact lesbian and gay parents have on various aspects of development in their children. The results of recent investigations dispel many of these myths.

The home environment. Historically, concerns about the stability of committed gay relationships, the quality of gay parenting, and the nature of the parent-child relationships in households headed by gay males have been raised. However, research has not supported these concerns. On the contrary, the relationship dynamics of gay parents and their children parallel those of heterosexual father-child relationships. For example, gay male and heterosexual couples report similar types and levels of relationship satisfaction, supportive interactions, and conflict (Patterson and Chan 1996). Given comparable environments, the evidence suggests no significant differences in the psychosocial, emotional, and sexual development of children raised by gay and heterosexual couples (Patterson 2000). Sexual orientation and risk for sexual abuse. Considerable investigative efforts have focused on determining the likelihood that gay parents will have children who are gay due to their exposure to a homosexual home environment. Findings indicate, however, that the majority of children raised by gay men grow up to identify themselves as heterosexual (Patterson and Chan 1996). Furthermore, Bailey, Bobrow, Wolfe, and Mikach (1995) report that the frequency of contact or the length of time children live with their gay fathers does not seem to affect the child's ultimate sexual identity; that is, those who live with gay fathers for long periods of time are no more likely to be lesbian or gay than those who do not.

Another persistent myth about gay male parents is that they are more likely to sexually abuse their children than are their heterosexual counterparts. However, research indicates that children, particularly girls, are at a far greater risk to be sexually abused by adult heterosexual males (Jones and McFarlane 1980). Although some gay males do perpetrate sexual abuse toward children, they are no more likely to do so than are heterosexual males (Jenny, Roesler, and Poyer 1994). The image of gay men as child molesters is a destructive myth that continues to pervade society despite evidence to the contrary.


In many ways, gay fathers are similar to heterosexual fathers. Unique challenges for gay male parents arise from negative societal attitudes toward their intimate relationships, the methods they use to become parents, and the nature of their relationships with their children. Future research efforts should document multicultural and international perspectives, address institutionalized homonegativity that serves to perpetuate discrimination against gay male parents and their children, and provide public policy analyses that will end the discrimination against homosexual parents that effectively reduces the quality of social support they receive.

See also:Adoption; Childcare; Child Custody; Family Roles; Fatherhood; Fictive Kinship; Foster Parents; Gender; Gender Identity; Lesbian Parents; Parenting Styles; Sexual Orientation; Surrogacy


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todd a. savage marc e. frisiello sharon scales rostosky