Same-sex parented families in Australia

CFCA Paper No. 18 – December 2013

Children's wellbeing in same-sex parented families

To date, there has been far more research conducted on the wellbeing of children raised by lesbian parents than children raised by gay male, bisexual or transgender parents. Studies conducted prior to the late 1990s focused on same-sex parented children conceived in the context of heterosexual relationships (see Andersson et al, 2002; Barret & Robinson, 2000; Tasker, 2005; Tasker & Patterson, 2007, for reviews). A considerable body of literature comparing children raised in planned lesbian-parented families with samples of heterosexual families now exists (see Anderssen et al., 2002; Biblarz & Savci, 2010; Crowl et al., 2008; Stacey & Biblarz, 2001; Tasker & Patterson, 2007). At the time of writing, there were no known published comparative studies of children's development or wellbeing in families created by gay men through surrogacy, and only one comparing children in families with known "donor dads" with children from heterosexual parented families (Bos, 2010). Furthermore, no comparative research of this kind has been conducted in Australia or New Zealand.

One study into the health and wellbeing of children in Australian LGBT parented families has recently commenced and only preliminary data and information about the study were available at the time of writing (Crouch, Waters, McNair, Power, & Davis, 2012, Crouch, 2013). The Australian Study of Child Health in Same-Sex Families (ACHESS) based at the University of Melbourne has collected data on 500 children aged 0-17 years from 315 LGBT parents. The study is based on self-report data from parents and children, and utilised the Child Health Questionnaire and the Infant and Toddler Quality of Life Questionnaire. For 80% of the children a female parent completed the survey, 18% were completed by a male parent, and 2% were completed by an other-gendered parent. On measures of general health and family cohesion children aged 5 to 17 years with same-sex attracted parents had significantly better scores when compared to Australian children from all other backgrounds and family contexts. For all other health measures there were no statistically significant differences. These preliminary findings indicate Australian children with same-sex attracted parents are developing well.

To turn now to closer analysis of the literature comparing children in same-sex parented families with children raised in other kinds of families, this body of literature arises from a range of largely unsubstantiated concerns about the effect of parental sexual orientation on children's development or welfare (see Bozett, 1987; Clarke, 2001; Stacey & Biblarz, 2001). There are several kinds of concerns guiding the literature: those relating to children's family relationships; their psychological adjustment; their experiences with peers, particularly with regard to teasing or bullying; and concerns about their sexuality or gender identity. Further to this, a number of studies also consider how well lesbian- and gay-parented children fare educationally. Each of these themes are discussed in turn. In the final section of this part of the report The New Family Structures Study published in the US in 2012 is discussed, given this is the only study to date reporting harms to children raised in same-sex parented families.

Parent-child and family relationships

Children in lesbian- and gay-parented families generally report harmonious relationships with their parents, whether or not they were born to heterosexual couple parents who subsequently divorced, or in the context of a planned same-sex family (Brewaeys et al. 1997; Bozett, 1987; Golombok, Spencer, & Rutter, 1983; Harris & Turner, 1986; Kirkpatrick, Smith, & Roy, 1981; Wainright et al. 2004). Wainright et al. (2004), in a randomly sampled representative survey of 44 young people raised in lesbian or gay parented families in the US, found the teenagers described relationships with their parents as warm and caring. Other studies have also found that lesbian-parented children reported more warmth from and interaction with their parents than their peers raised in heterosexual couple families (Golombok et al., 1997; Golombok et al., 2003). Children who are parented by lesbian couples display greater security of attachment to parents (Golombok et al., 1997, 2003), are more likely to perceive their parents as available and dependable (MacCallum & Golombok, 2004), and are more likely to discuss sexual and emotional issues with parents (Vanfraussen, Ponjaert-Kristoffersen, & Brewaeys, 2003). Some studies have considered the family relationships of children of divorced gay fathers. Bigner and Jacobsen (1989, 1992) surveyed gay and heterosexual divorced fathers who were members of parenting groups. In responses to their inventory of parenting practices, the authors found the gay fathers were more responsive to their children's needs than the heterosexual fathers, and reported more use of reasoning strategies with children.

There is some suggestion that children raised from infancy by lesbian couples in the UK may be more likely than children of heterosexual couples to experience their parents' separation (MacCallum & Golombok, 2004). Gartrell et al. (2005, 2006) also commented on the higher than average separation rate among the lesbian couples in the US based National Longitudinal Study of Lesbian Families. Researchers comment that more studies are needed in order to confirm this finding, and speculate that it could be due to the relative lack of institutional support for lesbian co-parenting relationships (see Biblarz & Stacey, 2010).

Historically, many lesbians and gay men have had difficult relationships with or been rejected by their families of origin because of their sexuality (Carrington, 1999; Weeks et al., 2001; Weston, 1991). However, the transition to parenthood is often reported to bring new parents closer to their families of origin, and children appear to have good access to grandparents. Gartrell et al. (1996) found that lesbian parents in the National Longitudinal Lesbian Families Study reported strong social support from their parents. Most grandparents were very happy about having grandchildren, and grandparents' openness about their daughters' lesbian-parented families increased over time (Gartrell et al., 1999, 2000, 2006). Goldberg (2007) also found that both partners in lesbian couples received increased support from their own parents in the transition to parenthood. In a study that explicitly compared the amount of contact that children had with grandparents in different family types, parental sexual identity did not make a difference to the amount of contact children had with their grandparents (Fulcher, Chan, Raboy, & Patterson, 2002). A recent study of gay men creating families through commercial surrogacy in the US found that the transition to parenthood brought them closer to their other family members, particularly mothers, and that grandparents take a keen interest in their grandchildren (Bergman et al., 2010).

Methodological issues and studies of children's wellbeing

Evaluating the effects of family structures upon children's wellbeing and development is complicated, particularly when the population of interest is a very diverse, stigmatised, numeric minority. Some questions have been asked about the methodological rigor of research studies on the wellbeing of children raised in same-sex parented families, by scholars who (implicitly or explicitly) have political or moral objections to same-sex parenting (see Marks, 2012; Regnerus, 2012; Schumm, 2012) and by those who do not. For instance, Tasker and Patterson (2007), two respected psychologists who support the rights of lesbian and gay parented families and have published widely on various aspects of the wellbeing of children raised by lesbian and gay parents, commented that the field would benefit from a wider variety of data collection methods. They noted that most of the data collected about children raised in lesbian and gay parented families comes from self-reports by their parents, supplemented with psychometric testing of children by the research team. Few studies have been blind, or made use of psychometric tests administered independently of the researchers. That said, many researchers emphasise the importance of contextual, qualitative studies in learning about the family experiences and processes in same-sex parented families from the point of view of parents, children and other family members (Biblarz & Savci, 2010; Dempsey, 2012b; Goldberg, 2010; Goldberg, Kinkler, Richardson, & Downing, 2011; Lindsay et al., 2006; Riggs, 2007).

Researchers in this field have noted a range of limitations with regard to how their samples of participants are drawn. Although this is beginning to change, many studies are based on small and homogenous samples of highly educated and middle-class participants. Many of the comparative studies conducted to date on children or young adults raised in same-sex parented families are based on volunteer samples of participants rather than random samples. This means that it is unknown how representative and generalisable the studies' results are. Further to this, many researchers in this field note that their participants were mostly white and well educated, which does not reflect the likely socio-economic, ethnic and racial diversity of the same-sex parenting population. That said, it is important to emphasise all research designs have limitations and not to dismiss the cumulative findings from many small scale or volunteer sample studies, as some critics of this literature attempt to do (see Marks, 2012; Regnerus, 2012; Schumm, 2012). Amato (2012) indeed pointed out that if there were noteworthy harms accruing to children resulting from parental homosexuality per se, which is often the concern of those scholars who criticise research designs and methodology, these would be revealed in research on high socio-economic, ethnically homogenous samples of parents and children.

Some randomly sampled nationally representative data projects now include questions that enable the identification of gay, lesbian and bisexual respondents. These include the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health and other health-oriented surveys in the US (see Biblarz & Savci, 2010) and The Avon Longitudinal Study of Children in the UK (see Golombok et al., 1997, 2003; Golombok & Badger, 2010; MacCallum & Golombok, 2004). There have now been several randomly sampled comparative studies published on educational outcomes for children from same-sex and heterosexual families (Potter, 2012; Rosenfeld, 2010), and also social outcomes (Regnerus, 2012; Wainwright, Russell, & Patterson, 2004). Even the critics concede it is extremely difficult to use random, representative samples of same-sex families in comparative or other kinds of research. For instance, Schumm (2012) noted that large random samples are extremely expensive and often appear not to yield sufficient numbers of same-sex parents for quantitative analysis.

Well-designed longitudinal research, which enables following the same families over a number of years, can provide valuable data on how lesbian and gay parented children fare over time. The National Longitudinal Lesbian Families Study (NLLFS) in the US (Gartrell et al., 1996, 1999, 2000, 2006; Gartrell & Bos, 2010; Gartrell, Rodas, Deck, Peyser, & Banks, 2005; Gartrell, Rodas, Deck, Peyser, & Banks, 2006;) utilises in-depth interviews, and standard measures of child development to chart the wellbeing of children raised from birth by lesbian mothers. Gartrell and colleagues recruited 154 prospective lesbian mothers to their study between 1986 and 1992, and have followed them from conception until early adulthood. The study is ongoing, with a 93% retention rate to date.

Psychological adjustment and cognitive development

Three meta-analyses (all conducted in the US) have now been published that consider whether and how the sexual orientation and/or gender of parents is associated with particular aspects of children's development (Allen & Burrell, 1996, 2002; Crowl et al., 2008). All have concluded that being raised in a lesbian- or gay-parented family has negligible influence on children's psychological adjustment. "Psychological adjustment" encompasses children's emotional wellbeing, their capacity to adhere to socially defined standards of appropriate behaviour, the quality of their relationships with peers, the degree of stigmatisation they experience, their self-esteem, and overall mental health. Allen and Burrell, in 1996 and again in 2002, found no statistical differences between the lesbian- or gay- and heterosexual-parented children on any measures with regard to children's psychological adjustment, whether the data included was based on parents' reports, teachers' reports of children's behaviour, or reports from the children themselves. The authors concluded each time there was no reason for US courts to continue their bias against same-sex parents. In 2008, Crowl and colleagues investigated children's psychological and cognitive adjustment across 19 different studies. These authors also found no differences between children raised in lesbian- or gay-parented and heterosexual-parented families with regard to psychological adjustment or cognitive development. In these studies, however, other demographic differences between same-sex and heterosexual families, such as income and education levels, were not always taken into account.

Family processes such as the level of conflict between the parents and the relative equity of their divisions of labour are known to be associated with children's wellbeing. As mentioned earlier, planned lesbian parent families with young children are known to have more egalitarian divisions of parenting and household labour than matched samples of heterosexual couple families (Chan, Raboy, & Patterson, 1998; Patterson et al., 2004; Tasker & Golombok, 1997; Vanfraussen et al., 2003) although birth mothers tend to assume more caring responsibilities than co-parents (Ciano-Boyce & Shelley-Sireci, 2002; Patterson, 1995). Two studies have found an association between this more equitable division of child care among lesbian parents and higher scores on measures of children's psychological adjustment (Chan et al., 1998; Patterson, 1995). Chan et al. (1998) additionally found that neither the number nor gender of parents influenced children's psychological adjustment. What was important for all family types were family processes such as parenting stress, conflict, and relationship dissatisfaction. High stress, conflict and relationship dissatisfaction were associated with increased behavioural problems among the children.

Longitudinal studies have also followed the psychological adjustment of young people approaching adulthood who were raised in lesbian-parented families. In the National Longitudinal Lesbian Families Study in the US, the young people being followed have now reached early adulthood. Their psychological adjustment throughout early childhood was found to be similar to normative samples of American children raised in all kinds of heterosexual families (Gartrell et al., 1999, 2000, 2005, 2006). Gartrell and Boss (2010) recently reported that the 17-year-old young people in the study continued to display healthy psychological adjustment. According to their mothers' reports, the 17-year-old daughters and sons of lesbian mothers rated significantly higher in social and total competence and significantly lower in social problems, rule-breaking, aggressive, and externalising problem behavior than their age-matched peers raised in heterosexual-parented families in a normative sample of American youth. Golombok and Badger (2010), in a recent publication from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Children in the UK, reported that the young adults raised from birth by lesbian couples and single mothers had higher psychological adjustment scores than the children in the study raised in conventional nuclear families.

A small number of studies have also compared adopted children's development in heterosexual and same-sex parented households and found negligible differences based on parental sexual orientation. Farr, Forssell, and Patterson (2010) in the US compared 105 lesbian, gay male and heterosexual couple families with adopted children on a range of measures. There were no inter-country adoption children in the study but some trans-racial adoptions, and all of the children studied were adopted as infants. Children's psychological adjustment along with the adults' parenting approach, parental stress and couple relationship adjustment were not significantly associated with the sexual orientation of the adults (see also Erich, Leung, Kindle, & Carter, 2005). Lavner, Waterman, and Peplau (2012), also in the US, compared the cognitive and emotional development over time (at 2, 12 and 24 months after placement) of adopted children who had previously been in foster families and who were being raised in heterosexual or same-sex parented families. Children in both household types displayed considerable gains in their cognitive development after adoption in both kinds of households, in spite of the fact that the lesbian and gay parents in the study were raising children who were considered "higher risk" prior to their adoptions. The authors concluded that adoption had been a great success for these children regardless of parental sexual orientation.

Social and peer relationships

Children raised in same-sex parented families generally report good social networks and friendships, and peer relationships that follow typical patterns. Most school-aged children report they have mainly same-sex best friends and wider friendship networks (Golombok et al., 1983; Green 1978; Patterson 1994). Children's peer relationships tend to be positive (Green, Mandel, Hotvedt, Gray, & Smith, 1986; Golombok et al., 1983, 1997). Gartrell et al. (2012) found that 17-year-olds raised from birth by lesbian parents reported numerous close friendships that had lasted for a number of years. Most of the 78 young people in this study felt comfortable with bringing friends home and informing their friends of their parents' sexuality.

Although relationships with friends are generally good, children raised in lesbian- or gay-parented families are known to worry about being teased, harassed or bullied, particularly by peers in the school environment. Indications are that teenagers are more concerned about this than younger children. Fear of losing friends because of parental sexuality or being judged negatively by others have been reported in studies of the teenaged children of lesbian mothers (Gartrell et al., 2005; Lindsay et al., 2006; Ray & Gregory, 2001; Tasker & Golombok, 1997) and children are known to use selective disclosure strategies with regard to telling people about their parents' sexuality (Bozett, 1987 ; Lindsay et al., 2006; Ray & Gregory, 2001). In Ray and Gregory's Australian study of children and young people raised in lesbian-parented families, primary school aged children reported more teasing and bullying than the high-school-aged children. The 5- to 8-year-old children were found to be less aware of the potential for homophobic bullying or teasing than older children. Whereas the 5- to 8-year-olds were often open about having two mothers with peers at school, teenagers raised in lesbian-parented families were more guarded about providing this information. Although some were simply sick of having to explain their family configuration to others, other children expressed they were fearful of being bullied. Lindsay et al. (2006) found that teenaged children of lesbian parents used a process of trial and error to decide how to manage information about their parents' sexuality. Those who had overtly experienced discrimination, teasing or bullying were more likely to adopt selective or private strategies but could try a more open strategy at a later date.

Despite fears and some negative experiences of bullying, teasing or harassment, it appears children raised in lesbian-parented families do not seem unduly vulnerable to experiencing difficult relationships with peers or bullying, although the US evidence is mixed. Comparative research has consistently found that children with lesbian mothers are only modestly more likely than their peers with heterosexual parents to be teased about their family composition or parents' sexuality (see Bos & van Balen, 2008; Tasker & Golombok, 1997; Vanfraussen, Ponjaert-Kristoffersen, & Brewaeys, 2002). Rivers, Poteat, and Noret (2008) in the UK and Wainwright and Patterson (2006) in the US found that teenagers raised in same-sex parented families were no more likely to have experienced serious bullying or victimisation than their peers in conventional families. Conversely, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) report in the US indicated relatively high levels of reported bullying and harassment (Kosciw & Diaz, 2008). The 588 LGBT parents and their 154 children in this study reported multiple forms of verbal and/or physical abuse, exclusion from representation in classrooms or requests not to talk about same-sex parented families, and generalised victimisation/harassment. Just over half of the children (51%) reported experiencing at least one form of abuse or discrimination, with 15% of this coming from teachers, the remainder from other students. van Gelderen, Gartrell, Bos, van Rooij, and Hermanns (2012), also in the US, reported that those teenagers in lesbian-parented families who had experienced bullying or teasing displayed considerable resilience and used a broad range of coping skills, more often adaptive (e.g., optimism, confrontation or seeking support from others) than maladaptive (e.g., depression or avoidance).

The country in which children are raised appears to have a bearing on the likelihood of experiencing bullying or teasing. In the first cross-cultural study of the wellbeing of same-sex parented children raised in the US and The Netherlands (Bos, Gartrell, van Balen, Peyser, & Sandfort, 2008), the US-resident lesbian-parented children were significantly more likely than the Dutch children to report teasing by peers, and the US children were also less likely to disclose their family configuration to others than the Dutch children. The authors speculated these differences were due to the greater social acceptance of same-sex relationships in The Netherlands, which was the first country in the world to legalise gay marriage in 2001. Crouch et al. (2012) recently calculated that children's wellbeing scores on comparable measures are higher in European countries than the US, indicating that the prevailing socio-cultural climate of support for same-sex relationships may have some bearing on child wellbeing, indicating that the prevailing socio-cultural climate of support for same-sex relationships has some bearing on child wellbeing.

Educational achievement and school performance

With regard to academic performance, the evidence is that lesbian- and gay-parented children perform as well as or better than their peers raised in heterosexual couple families. Wainwright et al. (2004) found that 44 young people with lesbian parents felt more connected to schools than those with heterosexual parents, and had similar grade point averages and levels of behavioural problems in the school environment. Gartrell and Bos (2010) reported similar findings to Wainwright and colleagues regarding school behaviour of both groups of young people, but higher than average academic achievement among the young men and women raised in lesbian-parented families (see also MacCallum & Golombok, 2004, in the UK). Rosenfeld (2010), also in the US, compared matched random samples of lesbian- and gay-parented and heterosexual-parented children, controlling for parental education, income and household stability of the parents and found no differences between the two groups with regard to children's progress in primary school. As some other studies that compare children's outcomes in same-sex and heterosexual couples do not adjust for differences in financial resources and education, this finding can be considered particularly important.

Potter (2012) set out to test whether the reported similar or better levels of academic achievement noted among the children and young people in lesbian-parented families held in data gathered from a large, random and nationally representative US sample of 19,043 children. His results indicated initially that the 158 children in same-sex parented families scored lower than their peers with heterosexual, married parents. However, when Potter controlled for experience of family transitions (i.e., parental divorce or separation), the disadvantages noted in the same-sex parented group disappeared. In other words, the disadvantages were better explained by family transitions the children had experienced rather than being raised in a same-sex parented family per se. This is in keeping with other American studies on children's academic achievement, which have found that children from single-parent, divorced or step-parented families do not do as well educationally as their peers with two continuously married parents (see Amato, 2005; McLanahan & Percheski, 2008; Raley & Wildsmith, 2004). These poorer levels of school performance are believed to stem from disruption and insecurity during the period of parental separation and re-partnering, rather than family structure per se (see Potter, 2012).

Sexual and gender identity and behaviours

A popular belief among people who object to same-sex parents is that they will raise gay, lesbian or gender non-conforming children (see Barret & Robinson, 2000; Clarke, 2001; Goldberg, 2007; Stacey & Biblarz, 2001). From this point of view, homosexuality or gender non-conformity is a deficit, and if these traits are more prevalent in same-sex parented children it constitutes evidence of harm. At the same time, various psychoanalytic and other social constructionist theories of sexuality and gender development emphasise parental sexuality and gender relations as pivotal influences on growing children's sexuality and gender identity (see Hicks, 2005a, b; Goldberg, 2007; Stacey & Biblarz, 2001). It is not unreasonable to expect that the sexual orientation or gender of parents would make a difference to how children express some gendered behaviours and view gender relations, and their degree of tolerance or acceptance of unconventional sexualities or gender. Lesbian and gay parents may indeed seek to challenge prevailing stereotypes of deeply etched gender differences between boys and girls in their parenting practices.

Research to date has considered a range of different aspects of children and young people's gender and sexuality such as their self-identification as male or female; the extent of their preferences for stereotypically masculine or feminine activities and toys; and their sexual orientation, or the extent to which they identify as heterosexual, gay, lesbian or bisexual. It has also documented same-sex parented young people's sexual attractions and behaviours, as distinct from their overarching sexual identity. This is important, as sexual fluidity, or same-sex as well as heterosexual attraction and behaviour, is well documented among young people under 25, particularly young women (see Dempsey et al., 2001; Diamond, 2009). With regard to self-identification as male or female, there is no evidence that children of lesbian mothers are more unhappy with their gender or experience more gender dysphoria than their heterosexual counterparts (see Green, 1978; Green et al., 1986; Golombok et al., 1983; Kirkpatrick et al., 1981). Male to female transgender parents were included in Green's studies, although none of the above studies were of children of gay fathers. Similarly, the children raised by same-sex parents appear no more likely to describe themselves as conclusively lesbian, gay or otherwise homosexual. Numerous studies throughout the 1980s and 1990s compared the sexual orientations of children of lesbian and gay male parents with those of heterosexual parents (Bailey et al., 1995; Bozett, 1980, 1987, 1989; Golombok & Tasker, 1996; Green, 1978; Green et al., 1986; Tasker & Golombok, 1997). All studies (some based on reports by the parents, and some on self-report by the young people) found that most young people raised by heterosexual and lesbian, gay or transgender parents identify as heterosexual.

Some differences have been found in the sexual and gendered behaviour of lesbian parented, as opposed to heterosexual parented young people. Tasker and Golombok (1997) found that the young adult daughters of lesbian parents were more likely to have experienced an attraction or sexual relationship with a member of the same sex. Bos et al. (2007) found that the DI-conceived 10-year-old daughters of co-parenting lesbian couples were less likely to conclusively consider themselves heterosexual than their peers raised in heterosexual couple families, and also less likely to report parental or peer pressure to conform to gender stereotypes. Children of lesbian mothers report less aggressiveness (Vanfraussen et al., 2002), are less likely to believe their own sex is superior (Bos et al., 2006), are more tolerant of gender non-conformity in boys (Fulcher et al., 2008), and sons display more gender flexibility (Brewaeys et al., 1997; MacCallum & Golombok, 2004) meaning although they rate similarly to sons in heterosexual families on masculinity scales, they also tend to rate higher on femininity scales. Interestingly, however, daughters of lesbian mothers expressed fewer "masculine" occupational aspirations than the daughters of heterosexual parents (Bos et al., 2006). This is a finding that was contradicted in some of the earlier studies of children of lesbian mothers, in which girls had higher aspirations to traditionally male-dominated occupations than the children of heterosexual parents (e.g., Green et al., 1986; Steckel, 1987).

The New Family Structures Study

The New Family Structures Study (NFSS) (Regnerus, 2012) has recently created controversy in the US because its findings of harm for same-sex parented adults run counter to the results of many previous studies. The NFSS surveyed a randomly chosen sample of 2,988 American adults aged 18-39 who were raised in a range of family types. "Same-sex parented adults" were defined as those who reported their mother had had a romantic relationship with another woman during their childhood (n = 163) and/or those who reported their father had had a romantic relationship with another man (n = 73). Respondents were asked about 40 different social and psychological issues including their history of drug and alcohol use; experience of bullying; sexual experiences (including sexual abuse and forced sex); emotional closeness to family of origin; history of criminal convictions; depression, overall happiness and physical health. Regnerus then compared what he defined as the "lesbian mothered" and "gay fathered" adults' results with those who grew up in six other family configurations: adoptive families (n = 101), divorced families (n = 116), step-families (n = 394), single parent families (n = 816), married biological families (n = 919), and "other" (n = 406). In his discussion section, the author chose to highlight the differences between the same-sex parented families and the married biological family group.

When compared with adults who grew up in families with married biological parents, Regnerus found a number of statistically significant disadvantages for adults whose parents had had same-sex relationships. Some of the notable differences were that adults raised by mothers who had had lesbian relationships were more likely to report experience of forced sex and childhood experience of sexual abuse, they had higher rates of depression, poorer sense of family-of-origin safety and security, poorer academic achievement, and higher marijuana use than those raised by married biological parents. The children raised by fathers who had had gay relationships were more likely than those of married biological parents to smoke, have higher rates of depression and poorer family-of-origin safety and security, to have been arrested for a minor offense, and reported more numerous sexual partners.

Although Regnerus (2012) ostensibly found more disadvantages for children raised in same-sex parented families than any previous studies, it would be false to draw the conclusion that these results are cause for alarm. This was certainly the consensus of the family studies scholars invited to provide expert commentary on the study (see Amato, 2012; Eggebeen, 2012; Osborne, 2012). In the first instance, the vast majority of participants in this study were not experiencing poor wellbeing irrespective of their family structure. Second, despite the large, random sample, a major disadvantage with the research design was that it defined "same-sex parented" too loosely to be of analytic use. Many of the participants with so-called "lesbian mothers" or "gay fathers" had not been raised by parents who lived with same-sex partners. The sampling strategy also did not enable the author to distinguish between same-sex parented young adults who have experienced their parents divorce or separation and those who have not, when this could actually be critical to the results.

By way of comparison, in Potter's previously mentioned 2012 US-based study of educational achievement for children in a range of family types, also based on a random, representative sample of children, the disadvantages that seemed associated with being raised in a same-sex parented family per se disappeared after controlling for family transitions within the lesbian mother and gay father groups. Furthermore, the higher levels of forced sex or parental sexual abuse for lesbian-parented adults in this study could well be explained by father abuse in the mother's prior heterosexual relationship. The author himself indeed makes this point (Regnerus, 2012, p. 763). By contrast, Gartrell et al. (2005), in the National Longitudinal Lesbian Families Study, found that 78 children parented from birth by lesbian parents reported experiences of sexual abuse well below the national US average, in that none of the young people in the study reported being sexually abused.

In comparative research of this kind, the question always arises about the politics of research and what researchers are seeking to find in highlighting some family type comparisons over and above others (see Osbourne, 2012; Stacey, 1997; Stacey & Biblarz, 2001). Amato (2012) re-analysed the Regnerus study data to compare differences between the adults whose parents had had gay or lesbian relationships and the entire group of heterosexual parented adults, on the grounds that this allowed a more accurate picture of the impact of parental sexual orientation. This is because most of the same-sex parented group in the Regnerus study would also have experienced parental divorce or separation, due to the way he drew his sample. Amato (2012) found the sizes of the differences between the same-sex and heterosexual parented groups were small to moderate rather than large and therefore of limited cause for concern when the group of same-sex parented young adults were compared to the total group of young adults with heterosexual parents. Arguably, Amato's analytic strategy is fairer in comparing "like with like" and therefore taking into account the family transitions likely to have been experienced by the participants in this study whose parents had had a same-sex romantic relationship.

Key messages: Children's wellbeing in same-sex parented families

  • Most studies suggest that children raised by lesbian parents do at least as well as their peers with heterosexual parents when compared on a range of social, psychological and educational variables. Only a few studies overseas have included children of gay men. No comparative research of this kind has been conducted in Australia or New Zealand.
  • Family processes such as levels of conflict between parents and their divisions of labour are more influential than the gender or sexuality of parents when it comes to children's wellbeing.
  • In several US studies with adopted children who had previously been in foster families, those raised in heterosexual or lesbian and gay parented families both displayed considerable gains in their cognitive development after adoption. This is despite the fact that the lesbian and gay parented children were considered "higher risk" prior to their adoptions.
  • Children raised in lesbian- and gay-parented families worry about being teased, harassed or bullied, particularly by peers in the school environment. This may lead to very selective disclosure about their parents' sexuality or family configuration. Despite this, children with lesbian mothers are only modestly more likely than their peers with heterosexual parents to be teased or bullied about their family composition or parents' sexuality.
  • Children raised from infancy by lesbian couples may be more likely than children of heterosexual couples to experience their parents' separation. This could relate to the relative lack of institutional support for same-sex relationships.
  • The country in which children are raised appears to have a bearing on the likelihood of experiencing bullying or teasing, indicating that the prevailing socio-cultural climate of support for same-sex relationships has some bearing on child wellbeing.