Dana Rudolph

Lesbian and Gay Parents Are Not Better--and That's Okay

Filed By Dana Rudolph | November 18, 2009 9:30 AM | comments

Filed in: The Movement
Tags: birkbeck college, fiona tasker, LGBT families, parenting, stephen scott

Everyone's been asking the question. The New York Times: "Are Same-Sex Couples Better Parents?" The Advocate: "Gay Parents Better than Straight?" SF Gate: "Are same-sex couples better parents?" The Dallas Voice: "Do gays and lesbians make better parents?"

All were talking about the research in Lesbian and Gay Parents and Their Children: Research on the Family Life Cycle, by Dr. Abbie Goldberg, which I discuss in my latest newspaper column.

Much as the competitive part of me would like to believe lesbians and gay men are better parents, it's just not true. Goldberg clarified for me in an e-mail:

It is interesting that the media has suggested that the "take-home message" of my book is that gay parents are "better." In fact, I would not make such a generalized statement - just as I would never say that heterosexual parents are 'better' (and nor should anyone else, in my opinion). Rather, the take-home message is that sexual orientation per se does not have much to do with one's ability to parent, and the similarities between lesbian/gay and heterosexual parents outweigh the differences. Yes, there are some differences, and some could be interpreted as favoring same-sex couples ON AVERAGE - but it is important to emphasize that many of the characteristics that make (some) same-sex parents "special" (e.g., encouraging flexibility with regards to gender roles; engaging in a great deal of thoughtful preparation before becoming parents) also occur in some heterosexual parents.

Now, I know how media coverage works. Sometimes an editor adds an edgier title to a writer's piece. Not all of the authors above interpret Goldberg's work to mean that lesbian and gay parents are better. The casual reader might, however, assume so from the headlines.

On top of those articles come additional ones this week from the U.K.: "Lesbians make 'better parents', says senior parenting official," according to the Telegraph. "Lesbians parents better at raising children," states Times Online. In both cases, it is more than just the headlines that make the claim. Here is Times Online:

Stephen Scott, director of research at the National Academy for Parenting Practitioners, told a meeting last week that the latest research showed that children of such couples did better in life.

Speaking at the launch at the think tank Demos of a report on the influence of character on life, Scott said: "Lesbians make better parents than a man and a woman."

I looked at the National Academy for Parenting Practitioners' press release about the Demos report on character, and followed it to the Demos report (PDF). Much of the report was based on a new statistical analysis of the Millenium Cohort Study (MCS). The only reference to lesbian or gay parents in the report? This footnote:

In the case of same-sex partnerships, the MCS only contains eight same-sex partnerships at wave 2. This is not enough to estimate any reliable statistical information on the effects of being brought-up by two parents of the same sex on child behaviour (if any).

The U.K. articles also reference research from Birkbeck College. I do not have access to the full article, but based on the abstract, it is impossible to say that one of its main conclusions is that lesbian parents are "better" than others. It says only:

Research on non-clinical samples of children raised in lesbian-led families formed after parental divorce, together with studies of children raised in families planned by a single lesbian mother or lesbian couple, suggest that growing up in a lesbian-led family does not have negative effects on key developmental outcomes. In many ways family life for children growing up in lesbian-led families is similar to that experienced by children in heterosexual families.

It's time to stop the nonsense, folks.

No one has proven lesbian and gay parents are better, so let's not imply that we are. That means you, parenting experts, journalists, and editors. At best, we can say that there are certain areas in which, on average (but not exclusively), we tend to have strengths. While it very much behooves us to repeat--loudly--the findings that show our parenting is no worse than that of any other parents, and is in many ways very similar, there are two very good reasons not to overstate matters:

Number one, LGBT-rights supporters often, and with good cause, bash the right for their sketchy science about LGBT families, or the sketchy conclusions they draw from good science. We need our science and our conclusions to be rock solid.

Number two, it is a waste of time to ponder the question, "Who makes better parents, LGBT or non-LGBT people"? It sets us up as competitors rather than seeing us as fellow travelers on this grand journey of parenting.

A better question than "Who is better?" might be, "Where are the strengths of different groups of parents, and what can we learn from each other?" That question, unlike the first, has the potential to benefit our children--and that's really what it's all about.


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Don Sherfick Don Sherfick | November 18, 2009 9:50 AM

What a marvelous bit of absolutely common sense, Dana!

It sure beats all of the endless threads of ranting and raving back and forth, generating infinitely more heat than light.

Donna Pandori Donna Pandori | November 18, 2009 10:11 AM

Speaking as a parent I agree with you 100%.

A better question than "Who is better?" might be, "Where are the strengths of different groups of parents, and what can we learn from each other?" That question, unlike the first, has the potential to benefit our children--and that's really what it's all about.

Such a simple concept.

As a parent who has co-parented with a bi woman and then with a straight woman and known lots of parents of different identities I say thank you for this. I have seen good and bad parents of every identity.

I have, among my students, seen kids with every possible parenting combination and I often work with these kids for five or so years. I have found that some of these kids are well parented and some are not. But I can't link it to parent identities since one of the best set of parents that I have seen is a standard hetero-normative couple and another is same-sex-female (I don't assume that they are lesbians.)

Your point about our statements based on science being solid is important. Our opponents should come to be known for the misuse of science and the application of pseudoscience and we cannot afford to fall into that trap ourselves.

I wish I had lesbian mommies. That's all I know.

Dana as my lesbian mommy would be even better. :)

Dana and Portia DeRossi. That would make an AMAZING sitcom!

Ooh, with all due respect to my spouse (whom I think would say the same thing), I'd love to be paired with Portia DeRossi (although perhaps not in a way that would be appropriate for a family sitcom).

Regan DuCasse | November 18, 2009 3:56 PM

While it's a matter of sheer empirical evidence and observation that no human being is born a good parent, nor is such a talent bestowed on GROUPS. It's an ability that is from individual to individual, and it's up to society to facilitate what good parents there are, and reform those that are bad or take their children away and give them to those adults who would be more competent.

The thing is, the oft repeated rationalization for denying gay parents marriage or gay couples adoptive rights in all states is that moms/dads make the BEST parents.

That married op sex couples are 'superior', to any others.

Which we all know is bullshit on it's face, but it's put out there as if written in stone and asserted by God. As if God has been sitting in the dockets of every court in America and swore on the Bible too.

Not only that, we all know too that marriage has been held up as set aside ONLY for those couples who have or plan or are potentially going to have children. That's bullshit too, but you wouldn't know it by the way the legislatures, courts and so on are bombarded with it.

Even when the state of Florida was presented in court with foster parent gay couples who have won awards for exemplary parenting, the state STILL didn't see any reason for them to adopt the children they'd been so dedicated to.

This is completely irrational and unacceptable.
I remember asking a woman who was committed to being anti gay if she looked onto a playground, could she tell which kids had same sex parents and which ones didn't?
That the beauty and health of the children was no different, then why treat their parents different just to spite them?

She decided to act as if I hadn't asked her that. Remarkable since people like that ALWAYS have something to say on the subject, but don't hear themselves and how ridiculous they can sound.

I continue to reiterate this statement time and time again:
considering that it's legally impossible to MAKE a spouse or parent commit to their duties by staying married or in the home as full time parents, it is unreasonable for people to vote against adults doing so.
It is even less reasonable for the state to allow it. With so many children abandoned, abused, even murdered by biological parents, and marriages still failing by half.

When there are adults who manage to defy those failures and attend to their children or absorb state wards, there IS no good reason to deny gay couples marrying or adopting.
At least gay parents, most often have to go through a very serious and long process of expense, thought and patience to become parents, something that cannot be claimed by heterosexuals.
And that too, makes the difference between those successful at being parents. Gay or not.