The Gay Parenting Difference – and Why it Doesn’t Matter to Marriage

First published at on June 11, 2010

Opponents of marriage equality often refer to the “untested experiment” of same-sex parenting, asserting that we just don’t know how children in these families will fare over the long haul. They point to the fact that there has never been a significant long-term longitudinal study of such children’s welfare—that is, one that follows the same group of children over time.

They can no longer make the latter claim.

In the current issue of the journal Pediatrics, Drs. Nanette Gartrell and Henny Bos report on their 25-year study of the psychological adjustment of donor-conceived children in 78 lesbian-parented families. They followed the families from before the children’s birth until they were seventeen years old, interviewing the lesbian birth mothers at various points during this span, as well as interviewing the children at ages 10 and 17.

They then compared this data with a general normative sample of American youth (known as Achenbach samples), controlling for similar socioeconomic status. The study, which is ongoing, constitutes the largest, longest-running, prospective longitudinal study of same-sex parented families to date, with results published in the peer-reviewed official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

What they found is that the 17-year-old children of the lesbian mothers scored significantly higher than their peers in social and academic competence, and significantly lower in social problems, rule-breaking, and aggressive behavior.

That’s right: the lesbians’ kids outperformed their peers. This does not surprise me.

One reason it doesn’t surprise me is because I’ve known lesbian parents, and they rock.

But it also doesn’t surprise me because of an important general fact about same-sex parents. Unlike heterosexual parents, same-sex parents typically don’t wake up and say “Oops, we’re pregnant.” For them, becoming parents is never a matter of simply going through the motions. It’s something into which they must put a great deal of planning and commitment—factors which translate into positive outcomes, for traditional and non-traditional families alike.

If I’m right about this, then the moral of the story is not that lesbian parents are better than straight parents. (Sorry, lesbians.) It’s that thoughtful, committed parents are better, and that a lot of lesbian parents fit that description.

Many marriage-equality opponents claim to know this already. “Sure, there are good lesbian parents out there,” they say. “But on average, two-biological-parent families do better than any other family form.” They will doubtless argue that the current study doesn’t show otherwise, because it doesn’t control for biological relatedness in the Achenbach comparison group.

Let’s suppose they’re right about all that. What follows?

What follows is that gays and lesbians shouldn’t kidnap children from their own biological mothers and fathers. Since that’s not happening, the opponents’ point is a red herring.

I don’t mean to be glib, but from the premise “on average, two-biological-parent families do better than any other family form,” to the conclusion “Therefore, we should not allow same-sex couples to marry,” there are a lot of missing steps. Indeed, more like entire missing staircases. Marriage-equality opponents never acknowledge those missing staircases, much less address them.

We allow many couples to marry who fall short of the purported parenting ideal—as we should. Notably, we allow stepfamilies to form, even though the very same premise that opponents cite against same-sex-parented families applies to them: “on average, two-biological-parent families do better than any other family form.”

We allow poor people to marry, people without college degrees to marry, people in rural areas to marry, and so on, even though there is substantial research—far more decisive than that surrounding same-sex parenting—showing that, on average, children fare less well in these environments than in the contrasting ones.

My point is that the debate over marriage equality is not the same as the debate over parenting ideals—as much as our opponents try to make it so. We need to call them out on this diversion.

Meanwhile, we should welcome this new study as providing insight into lesbian families. Like any study, it has its limitations. It studies only lesbians, not gay men. The data are based on mothers’ reports (although so are the Achenbach comparison data). The lesbian parents studied were not randomly selected—a procedure that would have been preferable, but also unrealistic in the 1980’s when same-sex families were more often hidden. (On the other hand, it is a prospective study, so volunteers wouldn’t have known ahead of time that their children would fare well.)

These limitations, and the study’s broader implications, will inevitably be subject to critical debate. That is as it should be.

But let’s not confuse that debate with the debate over our right to marry.