It’s not a matter of fashion: How psychological research can revamp common beliefs on lesbian and gay parenting

Lesbian and gay parenting is still controversial and same- sex parents are often subjected to prejudices founded on the belief that parental sexual orientation exposes children to various negative outcomes. On the basis of this concern, a number of studies have compared the developmental outcomes of children with lesbian and gay parents with those of children with heterosexual parents. Both personal and social outcomes have been examined: sexual identity, psychological adjustment and quality of the relationships with peers. This paper presents a summary of the studies on the developmental outcomes of children raised by same- sex parents so as to compare the common beliefs on lesbian and gay parenting with the empirical findings of psychological research. The review shows that the common stereotypical negative beliefs about children raised by lesbian and gay parents have no empirical foundation.

In 2015, the famous stylists Dolce and Gabbana opened the fashion spring season with a controversial interview to the Italian weekly magazine Panorama. “Children need a father and a mother” and “family is not a fad” were surprising statements from the openly gay designers, who expressed their disapproval at “synthetic children” and “wombs for rent”. The reactions were instantaneous, with Elton John urging a boycott of the fashion house and several celebrities from all over the world tweeting their support for gay and lesbian families.

Lesbian and gay parenting is still controversial; public opinion frequently takes opposing points of view based on common sense. However, more than 30 years of psychological research can change the diffused negative beliefs about children with same- sex parents.

'Gay parenting crop' by Grace Alexandra Russell (http://www.gracerussell.co.uk/)'Gay parenting crop' by Grace Alexandra Russell (http://www.gracerussell.co.uk/)

The vast majority of existing research on lesbian and gay parenting aims at comparing the developmental outcomes of children with same- sex parents to those of children with opposite- sex parents, in order to understand whether or not parental sexual orientation influences children’s development. Scholars investigate both personal and social outcomes of children raised by same- sex parents: sexual identity, psychological adjustment and quality of the relationships that children have with their peers. As the present review will show, research does not support the hypothesis that children raised by lesbian and gay parents are more likely to exhibit problems in these outcomes, but that is by no means the whole story.

 

Sexual identity: Children embrace tradition

Studies focused on sexual identity answer one of the main concerns about children growing up with same- sex parents: Will they be straight? In order to answer this question, research has investigated the three dimensions of sexual identity (Money & Erhardt, 1972): gender identity, gender role and sexual orientation. 

Gender identity is the individual’s self-identification as male or female (Stoller, 1968). It is a definition that excludes many other options for individuals to identify themselves as (e.g. queer, agender, intersex, trans, etc.) and will likely soon be replaced by more inclusive options. We have only to think that around 1.5 billion monthly active Facebook users worldwide are now allowed to customise their gender in the profile options to understand the variety of existing possibilities.

Many studies into lesbian and gay parenting address the question of gender identity. While research of this type has been vital in challenging concerns about supposed damaging effects upon children, it may also be criticized for employing a notion of gender as a fixed, measurable entity, thus failing to question the notion of expected gender or sexual identity development (Hicks, 2013).