Growing up under the Rainbow: A Study of Child Development in Lesbigay Households

Dale Jennings '04

"They fuck you up your mom and dad, they may not mean to, but they do. They give you all the faults they had, and add some new ones just for you."  - Philip Larkin, This Be The Verse


In the 1970's, studies of the development of children with lesbian parents began to surface as women fought for the custody of their children after they divorced. During this time, lesbian mothers lost custody of their children because of the court's belief that the sexual orientation of the parent could inhibit the children's social and emotional development as fostered between the contexts of parent-child relationships (Golombok et al, 2003). Agreeing with the philosophy that parents exercise a considerable influence upon the basic values, morals, and achievement aspirations of their children, judges transferred child custody to heterosexual parents for fear of exposing children to homosexual lifestyles (Hill, 1987).

Issues of gay parent custody and gay adoption have continued to spark debates over whether the sexual orientation of parents affects the ethical, mental, emotional, and cognitive development of children and adolescents. Currently, opponents of gay parents cite recent research that suggests that gay parents

subject children to disproportionate risks; that children of gay parents are more apt to suffer confusion over their gender and sexual identity and are more likely to become homosexuals themselves; that homosexual parents are more sexually promiscuous than are heterosexual parents and are more likely to molest their children; that children are at a greater risks of losing a parent to AIDS, substance abuse, or suicide, and to depression and other emotional difficulties; that homosexual parent couples are more unstable and likely to separate; and that the social stigma and embarrassment attached to having a homosexual parent unfairly ostracizes children and hinders their relationships with peers (Stacy & Biblarz, 2001, p. 161).

While the majority of legal decisions regarding gay parent custody have sided with and embraced the aforementioned beliefs, the bulk of psychological research completed almost uniformly reports finding no notable differences between children reared in same sex family households and heterosexual family households, and states that homosexual parents are just as competent and effective as heterosexual parents (Stacy & Biblarz, 2001). However, acknowledging the high political stakes in the presentation of such research, some argue that studies in favor of gay parenthood are ideologically biased, overly defensive, and in favor of gay rights.

In the last decade, psychologists have attempted to rethink the idea of "no difference," searching for potential beneficial effects children may derive from growing up in same-sex households. These psychologists are trying to acknowledge the social obstacles faced by gay and lesbian parents and are considering how such households provide for the exploration of the interactions between gender, sexual orientation, and biosocial family structures in parenting and child development (Stacy & Biblarz, 2001).

Relying on research completed and published in recent psychological and sociological journals, I plan to review current debates regarding the effects of lesbian and gay parenthood on child development. Initially, this will involve providing an overview of the two sides of the debate which involve themes in the literature that either suggest significant or insignificant differences between children of homosexual and heterosexual parents and that homosexual parenting is either detrimental or harmless to child development. This field of research has moved from suggesting there is a negative impact, to no difference, and recently to beliefs of an influential, but not necessarily negative impact. By comparing and contrasting these views, I will establish not only the fundamental differences between the perspectives, but also expand on the issues these authors are failing to consider when developing their arguments. The concluding section of this paper will consider how a less polarized approach to the data found by researchers on both sides of the debate could lend insight into how parental and societal relationships are influential in child and adolescent development.

Literature Review

The most recent study published in favor of gay parenthood was released in 2003 and attempted to combat many of the previous criticisms of research on lesbian households, which relied heavily on an abundance of voluntary and/or convenience samples that were utilized because of the limited number of cases.

In order to avoid the potential flaws of a convenience or voluntary sample, Golombok et. al. (2003) relied on the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, a geographic population study of almost 14,000 mothers and their children beginning during pregnancy. This study attempted to find whether previous conclusions regarding "no difference" in child development were replicated within the larger population, and to compare these new findings with those of heterosexual parents.

The results of this research concurred with previous findings that suggest that no significant difference in child development and parenting styles exists between lesbian and heterosexual families. Although lesbian mothers reported engaging less in physical discipline and more in "imaginative and domestic play" than heterosexual parents, the children reared in lesbian households demonstrated no significant difference in psychiatric disorder from those in heterosexual households. Lesbian mothers did report that their children had greater peer problems; however, these claims proved to me a nonsignificant trend. Moreover, children raised in lesbian families did not report more peer problems than children with heterosexual parents. No differences were found in reference to gender development and gender typed behavior. Golombok et. al. conclude that the presence of two parents in the involvement of raising children is more influential for child development and that the sexual orientation of the parents is virtually inconsequential.

Although contemporary scholarship on the negative effects of parental sexual orientation on child development is rare, psychologists Paul and Kirk Cameron have been instrumental in publishing works that suggest homosexuals are unfit parents who hamper children's psychological and emotional growth. In a 1998 article, the authors challenge the bulk of scholarship completed on case studies and argue that these works conclude unreliable information from small, unrepresentative samples. By contrast, Cameron and Cameron's study is the largest comparison of heterosexual and homosexual parents. The authors searched through the Decennial Digest indexes from 1956 ­ 1991 and found 40 custody cases that involved a homosexual parent. Their 40 cases were compared with a randomly generated sample or 40 heterosexual vs. heterosexual cases. Cameron and Cameron argue for a method of research that involves systematically analyzing appeals court cases or cases cited in appeals court cases regarding the custody of children in which a homosexual parent was involved, and comparing them in the same manner with a random sample of heterosexual vs. heterosexual appeals cases. The authors suggest that the benefits of completing studies using court cases are that

they are official distillations of large bodies of information; they have passed through two or more layers of the legal system, a system that ostensibly arrives at society's best estimate of truth; the characters of the contestants and their associates have been scrutinized in a situation where, as antagonists, they had motivation to expose faults in the other; and the children tend to be older, thereby providing evidence of longer term effects (Cameron & Cameron, 1998, p. 1156).

Cameron and Cameron found that the difference in character as indexed by lying, criminality, or specific character ratings favored the heterosexuals because 82% of the homosexual parents vs. 18% of the heterosexual parents/guardians were scored with poor character. Of the 53 recorded harms to or negative environmental influences on children in the 40 cases involving homosexual parents, 51 (96%) were attributed to homosexual parents or their associates, while the remaining two were attributed to the heterosexual parents. It is necessary to note, however, that Cameron and Cameron categorized affectionate behavior between partners in front of children as harmful or detrimental exposure to sexual deviance. Additionally, "harmful behaviors" included homosexual parents stating that they would be comfortable with the idea of their children adopting homosexual lifestyles.

Cameron and Cameron's study has been criticized by psychologist David F. Duncan for presenting bias in its discussion of evangelism in reference to the homosexual parents. Cameron and Cameron only declare that evangelism is negative when homosexual parents favor or would not be opposed to their children living homosexual lifestyles, while they do not apply the same rhetoric to concepts of heterosexual parents encouraging their children towards heterosexuality. Furthermore, when Cameron and Cameron rate the characters of homosexual parents, the majority of character judgments against these parents involved matters of sexual morality. Lesbigay parents and their associates were rated as having poor character if they were gay activists, living in "buildings occupied mostly by homosexuals," and for "holding hands, kissing, or touching" their sexual partners in the presence of their children (Duncan, 1999, p. 792).

Cameron and Cameron (1999) report that their findings are consistent with other research published on homosexual lifestyles which has concluded that "homosexuals disproportionately suffer morbid conditions, have shorter life spans, and disproportionately disrupt society" (p. 798). Additionally, the authors refute the criticisms of Duncan, explaining that

a drug using parent who is asked whether she will 'keep the child from drugs' and replies that 'that is her life, it is up to her' is altering the court to her favorable disposition toward drug use for the childFrom a 'best interest of the child' perspective, if homosexual activity- like intravenous drug use- is life shortening morbidity-attracting, less productive, and socially disruptive, children should be placed with parents who will steer them away from it (pp. 799-800).

Research published by Paul Cameron in 1999 further develops his previous findings on gay parenting, this time focusing on the social and political theory called "common sense" which predicts that "like produces like." This school of thought is known as folk psychology and embraces the notion that homosexuality is a "learned pathology and is harmful to the individual and the society" (Cameron, 1999, p. 289). Cameron argues that because homosexuality is a deviant sexual activity, participants in such a lifestyle will be more likely to be involved with and practice other social and personal deviations that will lead to inferiority in character. Thus, because homosexuality is learned and negative, Cameron argues that homosexual parents are very likely to teach this pathology to their children. The philosophy of "common sense" states that because homosexuality is a nonconformist practice, homosexual parents will be more geared towards other nonconformist sexual practices that will lead to unstable relationships, poorer mental and physical health (due to increased exposure to things such as sexual transmitted diseases), and criminality and substance abuse. Cameron furthers his interpretation of folk psychology by stating that children raised by homosexuals will disproportionately have difficulty with peer relations and will experience gender confusion as exhibited through a lack of regular input from experiences with both a father and a mother.

Psychologist Lowell Brubaker (2002) commented on the research done by Cameron and Cameron, suggesting that their findings are the result of negative consequences of the parenting situation as opposed to simply bad parenting. Brubaker argues that the negative experiences and problems endured by children of homosexuals are secondary consequences of living in atypical family structures. Similar to Brubaker's argument regarding homosexual households, Amato (1993) finds that the success of parenting relies more so on the ability of parents to supply emotional support, practical help, guidance, supervision, and to act as role models, as opposed to simply the external factor of divorce. Both Amato and Brubaker understand that it is the total configuration of resources, rather than the presence or absence of a particular factor, that needs to be considered when critiquing unique households (Amato, 1993). As long as the aforementioned resources remain available to the children in the family situation, the adolescents involved "will have opportunities to develop social and cognitive forms of competence [and will be] better able to deal with stressful life situations than other children (Amato, 1993, p. 35)."

Furthermore, Brubaker maintains that in all studies completed by Cameron and Cameron, the authors are never able to prove that long term psychiatric damage occurs as a result of homosexual parents. Brubaker concludes that because the bulk of problems faced by children of homosexual households are the result of problems from outside as opposed to inside the family, the necessary changes should be focused on the larger society (Brubaker, 2002).

Currently, sociologists have moved away from pinpointing negative effects in families with homosexual parents to looking for the "modest and interesting" ways in which these children and parents differ from those in heterosexual families. Judith Stacey and Timothy Biblarz (2001) call for a reinterpretation of the data that acceptingly acknowledge differences between children with homosexual parents and those with heterosexual parents. The authors take a "non-defensive" look at 21 previous completed comparative psychological studies published from 1981 ­ 1988 on lesbian mothers, with hopes of finding differences that facilitate "intellectual progress" in theories on parenthood, child development, and gender/sexual identity.

Stacey and Biblarz report that significant differences are evident and that these differences tended to be downplayed in previous research. They analyzed children's gender preferences and behaviors, sexual preferences and behavior, and mental health, finding differences that could be defined as both positive and "alternative." Children, especially daughters, from lesbian households tended to dress, play, and behave in ways that do not conform with cultural norms, were more likely to participate in activities associated with both "masculine" and "feminine" qualities, and had higher aspirations to nontraditional gender occupations. Because lesbian mothers bear the responsibility of providing for their families, they orient their daughters towards the traditionally male role of worker as well as the traditionally female role of mother.

Although the majority of young adults raised in lesbian households tend to identify as heterosexual in adulthood, more young people from homosexual than from heterosexual households experiment in same-sex sexual relations (Golombok et al, 2003). Young adult girls from lesbian households tended to be less chaste and more "sexually adventurous," whereas boys raised by lesbians tended to be somewhat less "sexually adventurous" and more chaste. Stacey and Biblarz believe that these factors are attributed to having parents who have departed from gender and sexual identity norms. Because lesbian parents serve as role models for their teenagers as people who challenge the cultural pressures of a heteronormative society, lesbian parents shape their children's understanding of gender and sexual oppression, freeing them up to be more sexually open (Ward, 1996). Stacey and Biblarz's study also found that lesbian mothers, like heterosexual mothers, tended to hope that their children would acquire gender traits that resembled how the mothers saw themselves. Consequently, because lesbian women viewed themselves as less feminine and conventional than heterosexual mothers, the traits encouraged by lesbian mothers did not tend to involve engaging in traditional activities and play that are associated with certain genders. Because lesbian mothers rely on themselves as role models and see themselves as assertive, willful, and independent, lesbian mothers are actively using their homespace to instill characteristics of inner strength and perseverance that resist the culturally constructed gender roles of society (Ward, 1996).

Lesbian parents on a whole (including co-mother and step-mothers) when compared with heterosexual couples, tended to be more involved with all aspects of child care. Stacey and Biblarz could find no evidence to support theories that lesbian mothers have higher tendencies to suffer from mental illness and instead found that these mothers "display somewhat higher levels of positive psychological resources" (Golombok et. al., 2003, p. 30). The others acknowledge that because of constraints placed on lesbian relationships due to marriage and socialization, lesbians have a tendency to have children later in their lives when they are older, more educated, and more self aware. These factors can account for the higher psychological adjustment noted in the research (Stacey and Biblarz, 2001).


The current material and research regarding the effects of gay parenting on child development has had a tendency to marginalize any potential differences in child development with heterosexual and homosexual parents in an effort to avoid the political dangers of perceived differences. Nevertheless, a reinterpretation of past and previous studies indicates that contemporary children with gay and lesbian parents do differ in ways that are positive and interesting. This difference typically involves gay and lesbian parents socializing their children against the heteronormativity and gender oppression structures of Western society. When they neglect to acknowledge this difference, psychologists and sociologists fail to increase the theoretical understanding of the roles of parenting on child development, and in general theories of gender and sexual identity development (Golombok et. al., 2003).

Although work has and is currently being completed on homosexual parenting styles, further research is necessary. It is very difficult to attain general demographic information on the households of lesbians and gays because of the social stigma that is associated with said lifestyles. Additionally, because of the "ambiguity, fluidity, and complexity of definitions of sexual orientation," traditional surveys that ask whether people are homosexual or heterosexual are inadequate (Stacey and Biblarz, 2001, p. 165).

Numerous problems exist with the samples that are selected, as these studies tend to rely on data gathered from the children of privileged, white, educated, lesbian households in urban communities. These studies fail to consider the racial, ethnic, or class based bias that can be conveyed through such samples. Furthermore, although the bulk of research has been completed on children of lesbian mothers, very little research since 1978 has been done to review the effects of male same-sex parenting on children. Like the work done on lesbians, these few cases stem from transitional families with lesbians and gays who became parents in the context of heterosexual marriages and relationships that dissolved before or after they assumed homosexual identities (Stacey and Biblarz, 2001). As of 2001, there had still been no studies conducted exclusively on lesbian or gay adoptive parents compared with heterosexual parents.

Despite limitations, the work completed has concluded that although no long term psychological or cognitive development issues ensue from having homosexual parents, differences in sexual identity and gender identity development are prevalent. These differences comply with Hill's (1987) work that states that adolescents' political and social understandings of the world tend to reflect those of their parents. Rather than condemning the differences that accumulate through relationships with non-traditional parents, psychologists, sociologists, and theorists must understand that these differences should be respected and protected in democratic societies (Stacey and Biblarz, 2001).


Amato, Paul R. (1993). "Children's Adjustment to Divorce: Theories, Hypotheses, and Empirical Support." Journal of Marriage and the Family 55:23-38.

Brubaker, L. (2002). Comment on Cameron and Cameron (2002): "Children of homosexual parents report childhood difficulties". Psychological Reports, 91, 331-332.

Cameron, K & Cameron, P. (2002). Children of homosexual parents report childhood difficulties. Psychological Reports, 90, 71-82.

Cameron, K. & Cameron, P. (1998). Homosexual parents: A comparative forensic study of character and harms to children. Psychological Reports, 82, 1155-1191.

Cameron, K & Cameron, P. (1999). Homosexual parents: Why appeals cases approximate the "gold standard" for science- A reply to Duncan. Psycho logical Reports, 84, 793-802.

Cameron, P. (1999). Homosexual Parenting: Testing "common sense"- A literature review emphasizing the Golombok and Tasker longitudinal study of lesbians' children. Psychological Reports, 85, 282-322.

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Golombok et al, J. (2003). Children with lesbian parents: A community study. Developmental Psychology, 39, 20-33.

Hill, J. P. (1987). Research on adolescents and their families: Past and prospect. In C. Irwin (Ed.) Adolescent social behavior and health (pp. 15-27). San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

Stacey, J. & Biblarz, J. (2001). Does the sexual orientation of parents matter? American Sociological Review, 66, 159-183.

Ward, J. V. (1996). Raising Resisters: The Role of Truth Telling in the Psychological Development of African American Girls in Ledbetter and Way, Urban Girls. NY: NYU Press. pp. 85-99.


Dale Jennings is a senior double major in sociology/anthropology and history.  This paper was written for Professor Lisa Smuylan's Education 23: Adolescence.