Adult children of parents who were in same-sex relationships differ notably on a variety of social, emotional and relationship factors from adult children raised by biological parents who are married and heterosexual, according to research led by Mark Regnerus, an associate professor of sociology at The University of Texas at Austin.
The findings, to be published in the July issue of Social Science Research, are particularly significant because they are based on the first large-scale, population-based survey of young adults that features a large number of cases in which survey respondents' parents had been in same-sex relationships.
"Most conclusions about same-sex parenting have been drawn from small, convenience samples, not larger, random ones," Regnerus said. "The results of that approach have often led family scholars to conclude that there are no differences between children raised in same-sex households and those raised in other types of families. But those earlier studies have inadvertently masked real diversity among gay and lesbian parenting experiences in America."
Regnerus cautions that his analysis identifies differences in outcomes, but it does not provide causal evidence as to why the differences exist.
Since children are more likely to live with a lesbian mother than a gay father, Regnerus primarily focused on the larger sample adult children of lesbian mothers in making comparisons with children who live their entire childhood with both of their married, biological parents.
According to his findings, children of lesbian mothers were significantly different as young adults on 25 of the 40 outcomes measured in the study when compared with those who spent their entire childhood with both of their married, biological parents. For example, they reported significantly lower levels of income, poorer mental and physical health, and poorer relationship quality with a current partner.
Sixty-nine percent of children of lesbian mothers reported that their family received public assistance at some point, compared with 17 percent from intact biological families. Just under half of children of intact biological families reported being employed full time at the time of the survey, compared with 26 percent of children of lesbian mothers.
The study did not isolate the effect of having a parent who had a same-sex relationship from other effects such as marital disruptions that preceded or coincided with a parent's same-sex relationship. Most of the young adults in the survey with gay or lesbian parents experienced divorce or other household disruption as children, and their outcomes were thus more similar to those of children from heterosexual stepfamilies and single-parent households.
Regnerus said the study best captures what might be called an "earlier generation" of children of same-sex parents, many of whom witnessed a failed heterosexual union.
"This study may not reflect the experience of younger children growing up today in same-sex families, particularly because society has become more accepting of gay and lesbian families in the last decade," he said. "Nor does the study tell us that same-sex parents are necessarily bad parents. Rather, family forms that are associated with instability or nonbiological parents tend to pose risks for children as they age into adulthood."
Regnerus oversaw data collection for the New Family Structures Study (NFSS), which surveyed nearly 3,000 American adults (ages 18-39), including 175 who reported their mother having had a same-sex romantic relationship and 73 who reported their father having had a same-sex relationship.
Controlling not only for socioeconomic status differences between families of origin, but also political-geographic distinctions, age, gender, race/ethnicity and the experience of having been bullied, Regnerus drew upon 40 social, emotional and relational variables, comparing outcomes of young adult children who had a parent in a same-sex romantic relationship with outcomes of young adult children from other (heterosexual) family-of-origin types, including stepfamilies, single-parent families and adoptive parents.
"Whether same-sex parenting causes the observed differences cannot be determined from Regnerus' descriptive analysis," said Cynthia Osborne, associate professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin. "Children of lesbian mothers might have lived in many different family structures, and it is impossible to isolate the effects of living with a lesbian mother from experiencing divorce, remarriage or living with a single parent. Or it is quite possible that the effect derives entirely from the stigma attached to such relationships and to the legal prohibitions that prevent same-sex couples from entering and maintaining 'normal relationships'."
In general, Regnerus said the study's findings "are consistent with a large body of research that suggests that children are most likely to thrive when they are raised by their own married parents. Such families provide a biological link between parents and children, and unparalleled levels of stability, both of which have a long reach in the benefits they afford to children."
More information about the study can be found at the NFSS website.
UT's Center for Women's and Gender Studies, working with the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement, has compiled an online bibliography of academic studies on this issue as well as other resources for the LGBT community.