An increasing number of lesbians are choosing to become parents. Estimates of the number of gay and lesbian parents in the United States alone range from two to eight million, with the number of children of these parents estimated at four to fourteen million (Patterson 1995). Although more research exists on lesbian families than on gay male families, the lack of cross-cultural research is notable. Most research has been conducted in the United States using white lesbian samples. In many nations, the preponderance of negative attitudes toward homosexuality, the religious condemnation of homosexuality, or the complete invisibility of homosexuals accounts for the lack of cross-cultural research findings. Thus, the majority of the research findings presented below are from Euro-American perspectives.
Several terms are important to understanding the cultural environment of lesbian parents (Gruskin 1999). Homophobia is often used to describe antigay feelings related to some type of action. Some argue that this term assumes that fear is the primary cause of antigay feelings, when many factors other than fear may be involved. As a result, some prefer the term homonegative to describe negative or hostile attitudes towards lesbians and gays. Another term relevant to establishing the climate in which lesbians live is heterosexism. Heterosexism essentially denies the existence of homosexuals under the assumption that all individuals are heterosexual. Whether the widespread lack of acceptance and support of lesbian families (Bigner 2000) is attributed to homophobia, homonegativity, or heterosexism, the effect on these families deserves attention.
Parenting Types and Legal Concerns
The quality of research involving lesbian relationships has evolved, yet participation rates are often constrained because lesbians fear reprisals if their sexual orientation becomes known. Cheryl A. Parks concluded in her review of seventeen studies on lesbian parents that respondents typically are "young, white, middle to upper class, highly educated, living in urban areas, and open about their sexual identity" (1998, p. 377). As a result, generalizing findings across diverse multicultural and socioeconomic backgrounds is not possible.
Lesbian parenting is hindered by several cultural barriers, and thus those who choose to undertake it must go through a careful decisionmaking process. In the United States and most European countries, lesbians are denied legal marriage. The Defense of Marriage Act in the United States formally prohibits government recognition of same-sex marriages (Allen 1997). As a result, lesbian couples lose tax, insurance, and medical benefits, as well as property rights (Friedman 1997; Griffin 1998). Hungary, on the other hand, allows same-sex marriage, and domestic partnerships are granted in Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, and Norway (Griffin 1998). Domestic partnerships provide more of the rights automatically granted to married heterosexual couples (Erickson and Simon 1996). Despite the legal limitations on marriage, lesbians who want to become parents can do so through various methods, including former heterosexual relationships, adoption, donor insemination, foster care, and step-parenting.
Former heterosexual relationships. Although former heterosexual relationships are the most frequently used method for lesbians to become parents, Parks (1998) indicates that the introduction of the mother's new sexual identity presents both benefits and challenges for the mother and the children that often must be negotiated simultaneously with an upheaval in living arrangements. In these situations, lesbian parents frequently face the possibility of having their children taken away in custody battles. Child custody laws are not uniform in the United States. Thus, some states consider the sexual orientation of the mother unimportant, whereas, for other states, sexual orientation is the focus of the legal custody case (Patterson and Redding 1996). Lesbian parents in Europe often share similar fears of losing custody of their children if their sexual orientation is revealed (Griffin 1998).
Adoption. Some states prohibit lesbians and gay couples from seeking adoption. As a result, lesbians are forced to keep their sexual orientation a secret, either permanently or at least until completion of the adoption process. Policies on adoption vary by state in the United States (Human Rights Campaign Foundation 2001) and by country in Europe. Some states (Florida and New Hampshire) have legislation that disqualifies gays or lesbians from becoming foster or adoptive parents (Leiter 1997). In contrast, Israeli courts have approved legal parenting rights for lesbian mothers. (National Center for Lesbian Rights [NCLR] 2001). In cases of single-parent adoption, the partner or second parent petitions the court in hope of gaining recognition as a legal parent without terminating the first parent's rights (NCLR 2001). Second-parent or co-parent adoption typically occurs in cases of donor insemination. Second-parent adoptions are allowed in approximately seventeen states (NCLR 2001). Although a small number of jurisdictions permit third-parent adoptions, the option is not common (NCLR 2001).
In Europe, most countries deny legal adoption rights to the nonbiological parent (Griffin 1998). At this time, Iceland is the only country that allows lesbian couples to hold joint custody of their children. However, Iceland's regulations do not allow artificial insemination or adoption for lesbian couples (Griffin 1998). In England, some lesbian couples successfully obtained parental rights of their nonbiological children (Griffin 1998). In general, the majority of nonbirth or nonadopting parents have no legal relationship to their children (Savin-Williams and Esterberg 2000).
Donor insemination. Donor insemination appears to have become a popular option for a number of heterosexual, as well as lesbian, women who want to have children. As a precautionary measure, lesbians often request an anonymous sperm donor as a strategy for avoiding later claims of paternal rights.
Foster care. Acceptance of lesbian and gay couples is evolving. However, as a result of pejorative attitudes, lesbian women rarely serve as foster parents. On the basis of an increasing pressure to find suitable and loving homes for America's children, Crawford and Solliday (1996) point to the lack of evidence for current policies that exclude lesbian couples from providing foster care.
Step-parents. Information on lesbian step-parenting remains limited and is often the least discussed role in the literature. Lesbians in step-parenting roles may experience less validation from both partners and social networks (Parks 1998).
In summary, lesbian couples have several options for becoming parents. If they choose to exercise these options, they often confront legal complications that heterosexual parents do not face. No available research suggests, however, that lesbian couples should not have the same opportunities that heterosexual couples enjoy.
Research on Children's Adjustment
Research concerning the lasting effects on children raised by lesbian parents centers on three primary concerns: sexual identity, psychological adjustment, and social development. Each of these concerns are presented below.
Sexual identity. One assumption behind the bias against lesbian parenthood is that children raised by lesbian parents will experience excessive difficulty in determining their own sexual orientation and gender identity. However, no evidence suggests that lesbian parents are more likely to raise lesbian or gay children than are heterosexual parents (Patterson and Redding 1996). Other research using projective testing, which involves responding to ambiguous pictorial stimuli, and interview procedures has documented normal gender identity development among children raised by lesbian parents (Patterson and Redding1996).
Psychological aspects. Another assumption is that children raised by homosexual parents are at increased risk for depression, adjustment difficulties, or behavioral problems. Again, research indicates that children of lesbian or gay parents are at no more risk for experiencing psychological difficulties than are the children of heterosexual parents. Although children of lesbian parents report higher levels of stress, their overall sense of well-being is not significantly different from that reported by children of heterosexual parents (Patterson 1994).
Social development. Still another assumption is that children raised by lesbian parents may experience more social isolation and peer rejection, which would have adverse effects on their development. Again, the evidence indicates that children of lesbian and gay parents report peer relationships that are similar in quality to those reported by the children of heterosexual parents (Parks 1998). Certainly, children of lesbian and gay parents report instances of harassment, but this harassment is not significantly different in content from that experienced by children of heterosexual parents.
Finally, a pervasive cultural myth is that homosexual parents are more likely than heterosexual parents to sexually abuse their children. No empirical evidence supports such a belief. In fact, males typically exhibit more pedophilic behavior, so the potential for lesbian parents to commit sexually abusive acts toward children is miniscule (Patterson and Redding 1996).
Benefits. Contradicting the negative assumptions regarding lesbian parenting, a number of benefits have been documented. Four benefits accrue for children of lesbian parents (Allen 1997). First, children of homosexual parents learn respect, empathy, and acceptance of diversity. Second, some authors have argued that children of lesbian parents are also more assertive in confronting traditional sex roles and in establishing egalitarian intimate relationships. Third, children raised by homosexual parents may also learn to negotiate and maintain a healthy family in the face of legal restrictions (Savin-Williams and Esterberg 2000), understanding that families are not necessarily confined to biological events, but can be created by choice. Fourth, children in lesbian families may gain appreciation for the strengths and social support available in the gay and lesbian community (Allen 1997).
In sum, children of lesbian parents do not experience any apparent developmental disadvantage when compared to children of heterosexual parents. Overall, the quality of the child-parent relationship, not the mother's sexual orientation, is important to healthy child development. Lesbian parents experience a multitude of obstacles to becoming parents; however, many are fighting for their rights and paving new legal pathways to benefit those who will follow them. Research should continue to focus on the strengths and resiliency of these families.
See also:Adoption; Childcare; Child Custody; Family Roles; Fictive Kinship; Foster Parents; Gay Parents; Gender; Gender Identity; Motherhood; Parenting Styles; Sexual Orientation; Surrogacy; Women's Movements
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SHARON SCALES ROSTOSKY