December 15, 2006

Dobson Does Time

Posted at 12:01 pm (Pacific Time)

The Christian Right responded predictably to the recent news of Mary Cheney’s pregnancy. As James Dobson, chairman of Focus on the Family, summed it up in an opinion article in this week’s Time Magazine, “Two mommies is one too many.”

Although the prospect of having a lesbian-parented grandchild in the Republican Vice-President’s family may be particularly unpalatable to antigay activists, it hasn’t led them to change their basic rhetoric. (However, the tone of Dobson’s Time article was unusually civil.)

Like most conservative arguments against sexual minority families, Dobson’s piece invoked scientific authority. And like most conservative diatribes in this arena, it misrepresented the research findings, suggesting the data show that children are damaged by having lesbian mothers or gay fathers.

However, the nature of that misrepresentation is a bit subtle and warrants comment.

In her rebuttal to Dobson, Jennifer Chrisler, Executive Director of Family Pride, assumed that Dobson’s assertions about “30 years of social science evidence” referred — albeit untruthfully — to studies of families headed by lesbian and gay parents. That is certainly a reasonable inference. When someone cites data to support a point, after all, the data usually have something to do with the argument.

Not so in this case.

When Dobson and other Christian Right activists claim that research shows “children do best on every measure of well-being when raised by their married mother and father,” they are not talking about research comparing gay versus straight parents.

Instead, they are trying to apply the findings from studies comparing children from two-parent (heterosexual) homes and children raised by a single parent, often in poverty. Many of the single-parented kids in those studies had endured divorce, the death of a parent, or other types of family disruption now known to have negative effects on children’s well-being.

Those studies show that, all else being equal, children generally do better with two parents than with one. However, they don’t address the question of whether the parents’ gender or sexual orientation makes a difference.

As I’ve discussed in previous postings, the research that has actually looked at families headed by sexual minority adults has consistently found no inherent deficits among gay parents. Moreover, their kids have proved to be as well adjusted as children with heterosexual parents.

Refreshingly, Dobson has been publicly called to task by the two researchers he cited by name in his article. As detailed on Wayne Besen’s Website, both wrote letters to Dobson criticizing his misuse of their work.

Dr. Kyle Pruett, a clinical professor at the Yale Child Study Center, accused Dobson of “cherry-picking” from his book and wrote:

“…There is nothing in my longitudinal research or any of my writings to support such conclusions [opposing lesbian and gay parenthood]. On page 134 of the book you cite in your piece, I wrote, ‘What we do know is that there is no reason for concern about the development or psychological competence of children living with gay fathers. It is love that binds relationships, not sex.’ “

Prof. Carol Gilligan, a University Professor at NYU, asked Dobson to refrain from ever quoting her again and demanded an apology for “twisting” her work. She continued:

“[T]here is nothing in my research that would lead you to draw the stated conclusions you did in the Time article. My work in no way suggests same-gender families are harmful to children or can’t raise these children to be as healthy and well adjusted as those brought up in traditional households.”

The fact that Dobson and his allies feel compelled to buttress their opposition to sexual minority families with misleading and false claims about scientific data may reveal the inherently limited appeal of their religious and political arguments. I suspect that most Americans intuitively understand the conclusion that Dr. Charlotte Patterson reached after reviewing the relevant scientific research:

“More important to youth than the gender of their parent’s partner is the quality of daily interaction and the strength of relationships with the parents they have.”

Or, as Dr. Pruett tried to explain to James Dobson, “It is love that binds relationships, not sex.”

Mary Cheney’s parents seem to get this. On December 7, the New York Times quoted a spokesperson as saying the Vice-President and his wife are “looking forward with eager anticipation” to their new grandchild’s birth.

* * * * *

Update (December 18, 2006). Wayne Besen has posted a video interview on YouTube in which Dr. Carol Gilligan discusses her reaction to Dobson’s Time article.

Copyright © 2006 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.

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November 3, 2006

LA Times on Lesbian/Gay Parents: He Said/She Said?

Posted at 11:37 am (Pacific Time)

I didn’t plan my October 30 posting about parenting by same-sex couples to coincide with an article on the same topic in the Los Angeles Times.

But there it was in last Monday’s edition — the story by Kevin Sack, titled “Do Children of Gay Parents Develop Differently?“, a sidebar to his 3-part series on a gay male couple attempting to have children.

The headline’s question was answered — sort of — in the sub-headline, which read “Research suggests there’s no distinction. But the field is a young one, and studies are often colored by politics.”

The questions raised by that “but” prompted me to write this post.

To begin, it’s important to note that the Times accurately characterized current knowledge in many respects:

  • It reported (correctly) that experts generally agree that no empirical basis exists for concluding the children of lesbian and gay parents fare worse or better than those raised by heterosexual parents.
  • It (correctly) summarized the conclusions of sociologists Judith Stacey and Timothy Biblarz in their 2001 literature review published in the American Sociological Review: “Almost uniformly, they wrote, the research found no systematic differences between children reared by a mother and father and those raised by same-sex parents.”
  • It quoted Dr. Charlotte Patterson, one of the leading researchers in this field (whose recent paper I summarized in Monday’s posting), as saying the children of lesbian and gay parents display “pretty positive adjustment.”
  • And it noted (correctly) that major professional organizations with relevant expertise — including the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Psychological Association, American Psychiatric Association, and American Medical Association — have endorsed the conclusions summarized by Dr. Patterson.

In discussing the limitations of current research, however, the article raised three questions that may have left many readers doubting the validity of this entire area of research.

Question #1. Is the research definitive?

I’m sure everyone working in this area would agree that more research is needed on parenting and sexual orientation. In making this point, however the Times adopted what struck me as an accusatory and dismissive tone that cast undue doubt on the findings to date:

“Despite three decades of research on gay parenting, social scientists cannot conclusively determine whether children raised by homosexuals develop differently, for better or worse, than those raised by heterosexuals. Though the early consensus is that they do not, even the investigators acknowledge the field is too young, the numbers too few, the variables too many and the research too values-laden to qualify as definitive.”

The message seems to be that the lack of conclusive findings is damning. In truth, however, social scientists lack “definitive” findings on practically every topic we study. The investigators are usually the first to acknowledge this fact.

Yes, we need more research on parental sexual orientation and its effects (or lack of them) on children. Yes, that research should be conducted with bigger and better samples. But the published studies now number more than two dozen. Over time, the measurement techniques and sampling strategies used in this research have grown increasingly sophisticated. Recent studies have reported findings from a representative sample of the US population.

On the specific questions of (a) whether the children of gay parents are less well adjusted than the children of heterosexuals, and (b) whether their parents are less fit, we actually know quite a lot, especially about families headed by lesbians. The research to date has consistently found no inherent deficits among gay parents, and their kids have proved to be as well adjusted as children with heterosexual parents. The burden of proof rests with those who claim that being raised by lesbian or gay parents harms children.

As more data become available, our understanding of parental sexual orientation and child development will become even more extensive and nuanced. We’ll be better able to describe the entire population of kids with sexual minority parents. But scientists’ reflexive caution and our oft-repeated mantra that “more research is needed” hardly mean we know nothing in this area today.

Question #2. Do scholars disagree about how some of the data should be interpreted?

The Times quoted Dr. Stacey, who questioned researchers’ interpretations of some of their findings, echoing the comments she and Dr. Biblarz made in their 2001 paper.

Drs. Stacey and Biblarz agreed there are clearly no deficits in the psychological or social adjustment or intellectual abilities of children raised by sexual minority parents. However, they hypothesized that those children might differ from kids with heterosexual parents in other areas, namely, conformity to traditional gender roles and sexual attitudes and behavior. They discussed a few studies that reported such differences, and speculated that other studies might also have found significant differences if the researchers had recruited larger samples or used different statistical techniques.

I reviewed the latter studies myself and, for the record, I respectfully disagree with Drs. Stacey and Biblarz about most of them, as I noted in my 2006 American Psychologist paper. But the questions Drs. Stacey and Biblarz raised are legitimate and useful.

This is how science works. Researchers report their data in detail so other scholars can examine the results, debate them, and build on them in future studies.

However, it’s important to stress that, while Drs. Stacey and Biblarz proposed alternative interpretations of the data, they didn’t equate differences with deficits. Rather, they concluded:

“Most of the differences in the findings discussed above cannot be considered deficits from any legitimate public policy perspective. They either favor the children with lesbigay parents, are secondary effects of social prejudice, or represent ‘just a difference’ of the sort democratic societies should respect and protect.” (p. 177)

Nor did they question the researchers’ honesty or integrity. Such accusations have been the province of the Christian Right. This leads to the final question raised in the Times article.

Question #3. Do the researchers in this area lack integrity? Are they merely pursuing their own political agenda?

This charge came from Timothy J. Dailey, to whom the Times implicitly accorded the status of social scientist. Dailey, however, isn’t a scientist. He’s a representative of the Family Research Council, a Christian Right organization with an unabashedly antigay political agenda.

(Regular readers of this blog may remember that Mr. Dailey also wrote the FRC’s report claiming child molesters and pedophiles are disproportionately likely to be gay men; see my October 7 posting.)

Dailey’s allegation (quoted by the Times) is that much of the existing research on sexual minority parenting has been “compromised by methodological flaws and driven by political agendas….”

Moreover,

” ‘openly lesbian researchers’ — he named Patterson specifically — ‘sometimes conduct research with an interest in portraying homosexual parenting in a positive light….’ To do so, Dailey wrote, ignores ‘the accumulated wisdom of cultures and societies from time immemorial, which testifies that the best way for children to be raised is by a mother and a father who are married to each other.’ “

Although the Times article gave voice to Dailey’s ad hominem attack on Dr. Patterson’s work, it didn’t note that her research has been subjected to extensive peer review and published in the most highly regarded professional journals in the field. Unlike the FRC, scientific reviewers base their evaluations on the quality of the research, not the researcher’s personal characteristics or claims about “the accumulated wisdom of cultures and societies from time immemorial.”

+++++++++++++++

On balance, the Times mostly got it right. However, by granting unwarranted legitimacy to the FRC’s claims, the article probably led some readers to dismiss the research in this area as simply “colored by politics.” If so, this is unfortunate.

Empirical research can’t reconcile disputes about core values, but it is very good at addressing questions of fact. Policy debates will be impoverished if this important source of knowledge is simply dismissed as a “he said, she said” squabble.

Copyright © 2006 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.

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October 30, 2006

Parents’ Love, Not Sexual Orientation, Is Key to Kids’ Well-Being

Posted at 12:02 am (Pacific Time)

Does a parent’s sexual orientation affect her child’s development? And if so, how?

These are the questions posed by Prof. Charlotte Patterson in her article in the newest issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, a highly respected academic journal published by the Association for Psychological Science.

Papers in Current Directions are intended to be “concise reviews spanning all of scientific psychology and its applications” that are “written by leading experts in terms that are accessible outside of the realm of research subspecialties.”

Consistent with these criteria, Dr. Patterson’s article doesn’t report new data. Rather, it reviews previously published research and synthesizes the findings for other professionals.

Noting that most studies have focused on lesbian mothers rather than gay fathers, Dr. Patterson highlights two eras in contemporary research on sexual minority families.

In early studies — conducted mainly during the 1970s and 1980s — researchers examined children who were born to a married mother and father but were subsequently raised by their lesbian mother after a divorce or separation. They found few significant differences between the children with a lesbian mother and children whose divorced mothers were heterosexual.

Because these children began life in the context of a heterosexual marriage, however, the question of how their early experiences might have affected their long-term development remained open. What would be the outcome for, say, infants adopted by same-sex couples or children conceived by same-sex couples through donor insemination?

More recent research has addressed this issue by studying children raised from birth in families headed by a same-sex couple. For these studies, children and parents have been recruited through a variety of strategies. Some researchers have located participants through friendship networks and word of mouth, while others have sampled specific groups that included both heterosexual and lesbian parents (e.g., sperm bank clients). Still others have used probability samples that are representative of the entire population.

Regardless of how participants were recruited, all of the studies converge on similar conclusions. In Dr. Patterson’s words,

“Does parental sexual orientation have an important impact on child or adolescent development? Results of recent research provide no evidence that it does. In fact, the findings suggest that parental sexual orientation is less important than the qualities of family relationships. More important to youth than the gender of their parent’s partner is the quality of daily interaction and the strength of relationships with the parents they have.

Thus, if you want to know which children are most likely to be developing in a healthy way, don’t focus on their parents’ sexual orientation. Instead, find the children who have warm and affectionate relationships with their parents.

Dr. Patterson’s article, “Children of Lesbian and Gay Parents,” appears in the October 2006 issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science.

In addition to her many scholarly publications on this topic, Dr. Patterson has also written a summary of research findings on lesbian mothers, gay fathers, and their children that is available on the website of the American Psychological Association.

Copyright © 2006 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.

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October 24, 2006

Marriage Equality & Health (Conclusion)

Posted at 8:01 pm (Pacific Time)

To summarize my posts of October 22 and October 23, legal recognition of same-sex couples will benefit the partners in a variety of ways. It is likely to increase their financial security and reduce the stress they experience when facing life’s traumatic events. As a consequence, the members of the couple are likely to be physically and psychologically healthier. To the extent that legal recognition enhances the well-being of parents, it will also benefit their children.

But can’t the problems and inequities experienced by same-sex couples be adequately addressed through arrangements other than marriage? Civil unions and second-parent adoptions, it might be argued, could conceivably grant all the rights and privileges now conferred by marriage without actually designating the couple as “married.”

This argument is problematic for at least three reasons.

First, marriage is recognized across borders. By contrast, same-sex couples in civil unions can’t be certain they will be treated as a couple or family outside their home state. If they face a medical emergency when they’re away from home, for example, the consequences can be nightmarish. Their mobility is thus restricted or, if they leave their home state, they are subjected to heightened uncertainty, anxiety, and stress, compared to heterosexual married couples.

It’s true that within the US, this concern about mobility currently affects married same-sex couples from Massachusetts as much as domestic partners from other states. Interstate recognition, however, is likely to come sooner for marriage than for civil unions. This is because the states already have laws on the books dealing with marriage. Thus, they’ll be able to assimilate same-sex spouses to their existing legal structures more easily than domestic partners.

Second, while marriage has profound effects on the lives of spouses, the extent to which civil unions and domestic partnerships have a comparable impact isn’t certain. Many studies have shown that heterosexual cohabiting couples don’t enjoy the same health advantages as their married counterparts. Similarly, although forming a domestic partnership or civil union probably increases a couple’s feelings of love and commitment, those institutions may not confer the same social and psychological benefits as marriage.

We don’t yet have research data to directly address this question. However, the unique status of marriage in US society is evidenced by the very fact that so much controversy surrounds the question of granting marriage rights to same-sex couples, as well as by the desire of so many lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals to marry a same-sex partner. (In a 2001 Kaiser Family Foundation poll of sexual minority adults, 74% said they would someday like to legally marry someone of the same sex.)

A third reason why civil unions and domestic partnerships aren’t equivalent to marriage is that these separate-but-ostensibly-equal institutions perpetuate and may even compound the stigma historically associated with homosexuality.

Social science research has shown that same-sex committed relationships don’t differ from heterosexual committed relationships in their essential psychological qualities, their capacity for long-term commitment, and the context they provide for rearing healthy and well-adjusted children. Once these facts are acknowledged, the rationale for according same-sex partners a different legal status from heterosexual spouses must ultimately focus on the former’s sexual orientation.

Indeed, sexual orientation is inherently about relationships, whether they are enduring, transient, or merely desired. The intimate personal connections that people form to meet their deeply felt needs for love, family, and intimacy lie at its heart.

Denying same-sex couples the label of marriage — even if they receive all other rights and privileges conferred on spouses — arguably devalues and delegitimizes those relationships. It conveys a judgment by society that committed intimate relationships with people of the same sex are inferior to heterosexual relationships, and that same-sex partners are less deserving of society’s recognition than heterosexual couples. It perpetuates power differentials whereby heterosexuals have greater access than sexual minorities to the many resources and benefits bestowed by the institution of marriage.

These elements — discrediting, denigration, powerlessness — are the crux of stigma.

Sexual stigma has many negative consequences for sexual minorities, including social ostracism, discrimination, and violence. Because of it, lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals often feel compelled to conceal their sexual orientation, which can have negative effects on their psychological and physical health. This concealment also reinforces sexual prejudice among heterosexuals. As I’ve discussed in previous posts, antigay attitudes are significantly less common among heterosexuals with a close friend or family member who is gay or lesbian.

Thus, by denying same-sex couples the right to marry legally, the State compounds and perpetuates the stigma attached to homosexuality. This stigma has negative consequences for all gay, lesbian, and bisexual people, regardless of their relationship status or desire to marry.

I don’t intend to malign civil unions and domestic partnerships, nor do I dispute their value. They represent an important step toward eliminating social inequalities based on sexual orientation and are vastly superior to nonrecognition of same-sex committed relationships. At a purely pragmatic level, more states are likely to enact laws recognizing domestic partnerships or civil unions than to permit marriages between same-sex couples, at least for the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, civil unions and domestic partnerships can’t be equated with marriage.

To summarize these three posts on marriage equality and health, marriage bestows many social and psychological benefits and protections on spouses and their children. As a consequence of being denied the right to marry, same-sex couples are more likely than different-sex couples to experience stress and thus are at greater risk for psychological and physical illness. Although data aren’t yet available to directly measure how the government’s nonrecognition affects same-sex couples, it is reasonable to conclude that being denied the right to marry has negative consequences for their well-being and ultimately creates challenges and obstacles to the success of their relationships that are not faced by heterosexual couples.

Thus, marriage equality isn’t simply a moral issue or a justice issue. It’s also a health issue.

For a more detailed discussion of these and related issues, see my 2006 paper, Legal Recognition of Same-Sex Relationships in the United States: A Social Science Perspective, published in the American Psychologist, vol. 61, pp. 607-621.

Copyright © 2006 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.

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October 23, 2006

Marriage Equality & Health (Part 2)

Posted at 5:27 pm (Pacific Time)

In my previous post, I summarized research findings on the health benefits of marriage. The data show that marriage bestows many benefits and protections with important implications for physical and mental health.

What are the health consequences for same-sex couples of being denied the right to marry?

Empirical data aren’t yet available to directly assess how governmental nonrecognition affects same-sex couples. But it is reasonable to conclude that their differential treatment, vis-a-vis married heterosexuals, creates special challenges and obstacles with ultimately negative consequences for their well-being. Without legal recognition, partners in same-sex couples lack both the practical benefits of marriage and the buffers marriage provides against the psychological and social consequences of traumatic events.

For example, their financial situation is likely to be less stable than that of married couples because they don’t enjoy the many economic protections of marriage in areas such as taxation and property rights. Even when gay and lesbian employees don’t fear dismissal or harassment because of their sexual orientation, they nevertheless receive fewer job-related benefits than their married coworkers. Family leave policies, health insurance, and pension plans, for example, typically include an employee’s spouse but not a same-sex partner. And when benefits such as health insurance coverage are extended to a same-sex partner, they are taxed as income; this is typically not the case for benefits to heterosexual spouses.

Because same-sex couples lack the protections that marriage provides when a spouse dies, they must incur the considerable expense of creating legal protections for the surviving partner through wills, trusts, and contracts for joint ownership of property. And these measures don’t always protect the partner. A will can be contested by the decedent’s biological relatives, for example and, unlike a spouse, the surviving partner is likely to incur a substantial tax burden when taking sole legal possession of a home that the couple jointly owned.

The consequences of having one’s intimate relationship unacknowledged by the law are not only financial. For example, a member of a same-sex couple may be excluded from her or his partner’s medical care. She or he may be denied as basic a right as access to the partner in a hospital setting restricted to “immediate family” members, such as an emergency room or intensive care unit. When a member of a same-sex couple dies, her or his surviving partner may experience a similar negation of their relationship. She or he may not even be able to make funeral arrangements.

Such experiences of what is sometimes called disenfranchised grief may compound the considerable psychological distress experienced by the surviving partner, with potentially long-term mental health consequences.

Examples of other areas in which same-sex couples are disadvantaged relative to married couples include immigration (foreign nationals cannot secure residence or citizenship through their relationship with a US citizen of the same sex) and private communication (members of same-sex couples can be called to testify against their partner in legal proceedings).

As a consequence of these and the many other forms of differential treatment to which they are subjected, same-sex couples are exposed to more stress than married couples, especially when they encounter life’s inevitable difficulties and challenges. Because experiencing stress increases one’s likelihood of mental and physical illness, their lack of legal protection places members of same-sex couples at greater risk for health problems compared to married couples.

But is complete marriage equality necessary to alleviate these disparities? Can’t the problems and inequities experienced by same-sex couples be adequately addressed through arrangements such as civil unions and second-parent adoptions?

I’ll address that question in the final post to this series.

For a more detailed discussion of these and related issues, see my 2006 paper, Legal Recognition of Same-Sex Relationships in the United States: A Social Science Perspective, published in the American Psychologist, vol. 61, pp. 607-621.

Copyright © 2006 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.

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