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 12, 2006

New Census Data: More Same-Sex Couples in the US

Posted at 12:33 pm (Pacific Time)

The 2000 US Census had special importance for sexual minorities because it yielded data on the number of households headed by someone in a cohabiting same-sex couple.

Now a newly released analysis of data from the Census Bureau has found that the number of such couples increased dramatically between 2000 and 2005.

The analysis was conducted by Dr. Gary Gates, a senior research fellow at the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation, Law, and Public Policy at UCLA. Gates examined data on same-sex couples from the 2005 American Community Survey (ACS).

Unlike the decennial Census, which attempts to count every person living in the United States, the ACS is an ongoing survey conducted every year with a sample of households representing roughly 2.5% of the US population. By 2010, it will replace the Census long form. The 2005 ACS, the first to be conducted on a national basis, sampled 1.4 million households.

Here are some key findings from Dr. Gates’ analysis:

  • The number of cohabiting same-sex couples in the U.S. grew from nearly 600,000 in 2000 to almost 777,000 in 2005. This is an increase of more than 30%.
  • Based on the 2005 data, 53% of same-sex couples consist of two men while 47% consist of two women.
  • The rate of growth isn’t uniform across the country. Of the ten states with the largest percentage increases, 8 are in the Midwest (Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana, Nebraska, Kansas, Ohio, Iowa, Missouri, and Indiana). Their rates of increase ranged from 54% to 81%. These states had fairly small percentages of same-sex couples in 2000.
  • Also on the top ten list are New Hampshire (106% increase) and Colorado (58% increase).
  • Six states with a 2006 ballot initiative that would ban same-sex marriage — Arizona, Colorado, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wisconsin — experienced more than a 30% increase in the number of same-sex couples in their population, even more than the national rate.

How to explain these huge increases between 2000 and 2005? Although some of the change may result from more gay, lesbian, and bisexual people cohabiting in committed relationships, Gates suggests that this factor is unlikely to account for the magnitude of growth documented by the ACS. Rather, it is probably the case that more same-sex couples are reporting their relationships to Census Bureau researchers.

This greater visibility could result from several factors, including more widespread awareness of the Census data about same-sex couples and a greater willingness to be out of the closet. That increased willingness to disclose may reflect a sense that sexual stigma has declined and it is now safer to be openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Coming out may also represent a decision to take a stand against antigay groups and ballot campaigns.

The Census only counts same-sex couples, and only those who are living together and in which one partner is the household head. Because it doesn’t ask directly about sexual orientation, the Census doesn’t tell us how many Americans are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or heterosexual.

Using data from another large-scale survey, however, Gates estimated that 4.1% of US adults identify as a sexual minority. This translates into an estimated 8.8 million gay, lesbian, and bisexual persons.

Applying this estimate to the ACS data, Gates came to some additional interesting conclusions:

  • In terms of absolute numbers, California, Florida, New York, Texas, and Illinois have the largest sexual minority populations, along with the District of Columbia.
  • New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, and Boston have the largest sexual minority populations among metropolitan areas.
  • Ranking states by the percentage of the adult population who are gay, lesbian, or bisexual, the District of Columbia, New Hampshire, Washington, Massachusetts and Maine come out on top.
  • Among large metropolitan areas, San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, Portland (OR), and Tampa have the highest percentages of sexual minority residents.
  • Same-sex couples are found in all Congressional districts in the U.S.

The full report, Same-sex Couples and the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual Population: New Estimates from the American Community Survey, and other analyses of Census data are available at the Williams Institute Web site.

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

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September 29, 2006

Hidden Minorities

Posted at 12:46 pm (Pacific Time)

Researchers have long known it’s difficult to count and classify men and women on the basis of their sexual orientation. Because homosexuality is stigmatized, many people are reluctant to disclose that they’re attracted to others of their same sex, or that they’ve had homosexual sex.

Two recently published studies offer interesting data relevant to this problem.

In a study conducted by Preeti Pathela and colleagues (reported in the Annals of Internal Medicine) nearly 4200 New York City men were interviewed by telephone and asked 130 questions about health-related matters. Embedded in the demographic questions midway through the survey was a question about the man’s sexual orientation. Later, at the end of the survey, each man was asked about the number of men and women with whom he’d had sex during the previous 12 months.

Of the men who labeled their sexual orientation and reported having sex in the past year:

  • 85.8% identified as straight and reported sex only with women
  • 3.3% identified as gay and reported sex only with men
  • 1.1% identified as bisexual and reported sex with men, women, or both.

But:

  • 8.9% identified as straight and reported sex only with men
  • 0.7% identified as straight and reported sex with women and men.

Combining the last two groups, nearly 10% of the men identified themselves as straight but had at least one male sexual partner in the previous 12 months. About 70% of these men were married. Nearly all reported having sex with only one partner in the past year.

In their published report Dr. Pathela et al. acknowledge various ways in which the phrasing or ordering of the questions might have affected the results. Nevertheless, their data underscore the fact that the labels people use for their sexual orientation, such as gay and straight, don’t always fit neatly with their actual sexual behavior. A significant minority of self-identified straight men in New York engage in sex with other men.

Based on another recently published paper, the New York data might actually understate the case.

In Public Opinion Quarterly, Maria Villarroel, Charles Turner, and their colleagues report data from a large-scale telephone survey conducted with a national sample and a Baltimore (MD) sample. The participants (age 18-45 years) were asked questions about their sexual behavior and attractions.

The participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups. Either they were interviewed by a “live” person or they completed most of the survey using a computer-automated system in which they responded to questions by using the buttons on their touch-tone telephone. The researchers expected people to be more candid in reporting about their sexuality when they didn’t have to speak to a live person.

Sure enough, those who were “interviewed” by the computer were significantly more likely to say they were attracted to people of their same sex (17.8% vs 12.8% of those interviewed by a live person). They also were more likely to report having sex with a person of their same sex (14.2% vs 9.1%).

Follow-up analyses revealed that the computerized interview was especially likely to get more reports of homosexual behavior in less tolerant locales — outside large cities and outside the Northeast and Pacific Coast. The computer also elicited more reports of same-sex behavior from people who might be particularly cautious about revealing such information — those who were currently married and had children in their home.

Together, these studies underscore the difficulties inherent in obtaining reliable data about stigmatized sexual behavior. Many people are reluctant to disclose information about their same-sex attractions and behavior, and many men (and probably women too) who call themselves straight have nevertheless had same-sex sexual partners.

For the full reports, see:

  • Pathela et al. (2006). Discordance Between Sexual Behavior and Self-Reported Sexual Identity: A Population-Based Survey of New York City Men. Annals of Internal Medicine, v. 145, pp. 416-425 .
  • Villarroel et al. (2006). Same-Gender Sex in the United States: Impact of T-ACASI on Prevalence Etimates. Public Opinion Quarterly, v. 70, pp. 166-196.

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

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September 23, 2006

The Kids Are Alright

Posted at 3:17 pm (Pacific Time)

Debates about parenting by sexual minorities often include disputes about whether the children of gay, lesbian, and bisexual parents differ from the children of heterosexual parents in their psychological or social adjustment. To date, empirical research has overwelmingly failed to detect such differences.

A newly published study contributes to scientific knowledge in this area by comparing the functioning of adolescents raised by same-sex female couples to that of adolescents raised by heterosexual couples. The study is especially noteworthy because it reports data from a large, nationally representative sample recruited for the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health.

Drs. Jennifer Wainright and Charlotte Patterson, developmental psychologists at the University of Virginia, compared two groups: (a) 23 adolescent girls and 21 adolescent boys who were living with two female parents, and (b) 44 adolescents living with a male and female parent. The two groups were matched on relevant demographic characteristics, including sex, age, ethnicity, family income, and adoption status.

In their paper, which was just published in the Journal of Family Psychology, the researchers highlighted three main findings.

  1. All of the adolescents were generally functioning well.
  2. Whether an adolescent’s parents were a same-sex couple or a heterosexual couple didn’t affect her or his functioning. The researchers found no significant differences between the two groups in a diverse array of assessments, including measures of delinquent behavior, alcohol and drug use, and qualities of family relationships.
  3. Although the parents’ gender didn’t matter, the quality of the adolescent-parent relationship did. Regardless of whether they were being raised by a same-sex or heterosexual couple, adolescents whose parents described closer relationships with them reported less delinquent behavior and substance use.

These findings add to the growing body of research demonstrating that sexual orientation doesn’t affect parenting ability. What children need is a warm, close, supportive relationship with their parents, regardless of whether the latter are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or straight.

For the full report, see: Wainright & Patterson. (2006). Delinquency, Victimization, and Substance Use Among Adolescents With Female Same-Sex Parents. Journal of Family Studies, v. 20, pp. 526-530.

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

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September 18, 2006

Marriage Equality: The Social Science Data

Posted at 3:20 pm (Pacific Time)

In a new paper published in this month’s issue of American Psychologist, I review behavioral and social science research to assess the validity of key factual claims in the debate about whether and how civil society should recognize committed relationships between same-sex partners. In brief, the data indicate that:

  • same-sex and heterosexual relationships do not differ in their essential psychosocial dimensions;
  • a parent’s sexual orientation is unrelated to her or his ability to provide a healthy and nurturing family environment; and
  • marriage bestows substantial psychological, social, and health benefits.

I conclude that same-sex couples and their children are likely to benefit in numerous ways from legal recognition of their families, and that providing such recognition through marriage will bestow greater benefit than civil unions or domestic partnerships.

The article, Legal Recognition Of Same-Sex Relationships In The United States: A Social Science Perspective, is based on my work on the American Psychological Association’s amicus briefs in marriage cases in New Jersey, Washington, and other states. A copy can be requested on my website.

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

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