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I. SUMMARY OF RESEARCH FINDINGSOrder now
Charlotte J. Patterson
University of Virginia
Like families headed by heterosexual parents, lesbian and gay parents and their children are a diverse group (Martin, 1993).
Unlike heterosexual parents and their children, however, lesbian and gay parents and their children are often subject to
prejudice because of sexual orientation that turns judges, legislators, professionals, and the public against them, frequently
resulting in negative outcomes such as loss of physical custody, restrictions on visitation, and prohibitions against adoption
(Falk, 1989; Editors of the Harvard Law Review, 1990). As with all socially stigmatized groups, the beliefs held generally in
society about lesbians and gay men are often not based in personal experience, but are instead culturally transmitted (Herek,
The purpose of this summary of research findings on lesbian and gay parents and their children is to assist psychologists
and other professionals to evaluate widespread beliefs in the light of empirical data and in this way ameliorate the negative
effects of unwarranted prejudice.
Because many beliefs about lesbian and gay parents and their children are open to empirical test, psychological research can
evaluate their accuracy. Systematic research comparing lesbian and gay adults to heterosexual adults only began in the late
1950s, and research comparing children of gay and lesbian parents with those of heterosexual parents is of a more recent
vintage. Research on lesbian and gay adults began with Evelyn Hooker’s landmark study (1957) and culminated with the
declassification of homosexuality as a mental disorder in 1973 (Gonsiorek, 1991). Case reports on children of gay and lesbian
parents began to appear in the psychiatric literature in the early 1970s (e.g.
, Osman, 1972; Weeks, Derdeyn, ; Langman,
1975) and have continued to appear (e.g., Agbayewa, 1984). Beginning with the pioneering work of Martin and Lyon (1972),
first person and fictionalized descriptions of life in lesbian mother families have also become available (e.g., Alpert, 1988;
Clausen, 1985; Jullion, 1985; Mager, 1975; Perreault, 1975; Pollock ; Vaughn, 1987; Rafkin, 1990).
Systematic research on
the children of lesbian and gay parents did not, however, begin to appear in major professional journals until 1978, and most of
the available research has been published more recently.
As this summary will show, the results of existing research comparing gay and lesbian parents to heterosexual parents and
children of gay or lesbian parents to children of heterosexual parents are quite uniform: common sterotypes are not supported
by the data.
Without denying the clarity of results to date, it is important also for psychologists and other professionals to be aware that
research in this area has presented a variety of methodological challenges, not all of which have been surmounted in every
study. As is true in any area of research, questions have been raised with regard to sampling issues, statistical power, and other
technical matters (e.g., Belcastro, Gramlich, Nicholson, Price, ; Wilson, 1993); no individual study is entirely invincible to such
One criticism of this body of research (Belcastro et al., 1993) has been that the research lacks external validity because it may
not be representative of the larger population of lesbian and gay parents. This criticism is not justified, because nobody knows
the actual composition of the entire population of lesbian mothers, gay fathers, or their children (many of whom choose to
remain hidden) and hence researchers cannot possible evaluate the degree to which particular samples do or do not represent
the population. In the long run, it is not the results obtained from any one specific sample, but the accumulation of findings from
many different samples that will be most meaningful.
Research in this area has also been criticized for using poorly matched or no control groups in designs that call for such
controls. Particularly notable in this category has been the tendency in some studies to compare development among children of
a group of divorced lesbian mothers, many of whom are living with lesbian partners, to that among children of a group of
divorced heterosexual mothers who are not currently living with heterosexual partners.
It will be important for future research to
disentangle maternal sexual orientation from maternal status as partnered or unpartnered.
Other criticisms have been that most studies have involved relatively small samples, that there have been inadequacies in
assessment procedures employed in some studies, and that the classification of parents as lesbian, gay, or heterosexual has
sometimes been problematic (e.g., some .