Gay marriage: Good for the kids?

A book finds same-sex couples produce perfectly healthy offspring. Is this the best argument for marriage equality?

Published November 9, 2009 9:20PM (EST)

Where I grew up, the issue of whether gays and lesbians made OK parents was a non-starter. In the liberal enclave of Berkeley, Calif., the answer is considered so obvious the question almost seems rhetorical: Of course there are both "good" and "bad" homosexual parents -- just as there are both "good" and "bad" heterosexual parents. So, when I saw an article in Sunday's New York Times Magazine announcing proof that same-sex couples are capable of raising children who turn out to be perfectly healthy adults, I rolled my eyes with a huff.

Then I regained perspective: This has to be said.

Abbie E. Goldberg, an assistant psychology professor at Clark University, has done just that in her book, "Lesbian and Gay Parents and Their Children," which analyzes more than 100 studies on same-sex families. The Times' Lisa Belkin summarizes the book's finding like so: The children of gay and lesbian couples "show no increased incidence of psychiatric disorders, are just as popular at school and have just as many friends." Then there's this stereotype-shattering fact: "Neither sex is more likely to suffer from gender confusion nor to identify themselves as gay" as a result of being raised by same-sex parents. 

On the other hand, "These children tend to be less conventional and more flexible when it comes to gender roles and assumptions than those raised in more traditional families." They have more progressive and egalitarian attitudes toward sex roles. For girls, that translates into a less restricted sense of their own possibilities: Daughters of lesbians are far more likely to "aspire to professions that are traditionally considered male, like doctors or lawyers." Both sons and daughters of same-sex couples are more likely to end up working in social justice -- presumably because they witnessed first-hand some of the profound discrimination that is considered acceptable in this country.

The book's findings may seem glowingly positive to progressives -- in fact, it makes you wonder, as Belkin does, how it is that children are so rarely used as an argument in defense of gay marriage. Still, there is plenty for homophobic, strident traditionalists to interpret negatively. Some will inevitably argue that egalitarian households and other non-traditional influences pose a threat to the fabric of marriage (or something). 

Then there's this little gem, as explained by Belkin: "Girls raised by lesbian mothers seem slightly more likely to have more sexual partners, and boys slightly more likely to have fewer, than those raised by heterosexual mothers." Surely some will interpret this to mean that lesbian mothers invert the natural way of things, making daughters promiscuous and sons sexless. Of course, others like myself will be more inclined to assume that being raised in a more egalitarian household where sex roles are not rigidly enforced allows daughters to pursue sex without the usual shame imposed on girls and discourages sons from doggedly pursuing it as proof of their masculinity; in other words, it corrects for the sexual double-standards found in the world at large.

These findings are important and should be shouted from the mountaintops by supporters of non-traditional families and same-sex marriage. But statistics alone aren't likely to change political opinion when the results are so subjectively interpreted. For every person who looks at the data and concludes, as Goldberg does, that "these children do just fine," there is another who does the exact opposite -- or disregards the research altogether. Take, for example, this comment in response to the Times article: "Sons deserve and need a father AND a mother. Daughters deserve and need a mother AND a father. This is exactly what was originally modeled for us by God in the Bible."

I suspect the real reason children haven't been fully utilized as an argument in support of gay marriage isn't due to a lack of data up until now, but because so many opponents see this debate as having nothing to do with what's actually good for kids and everything to do with staunchly upholding tradition. It's perhaps a bit too generous to presume that children's well-being will actually change those minds.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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