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A Rainbow of Differences in Gays' Children

July 17, 2001

A Rainbow of Differences in Gays' Children


Jamie Bergeron listens to hip-hop, cheers at high school football games, brings home A's and B's on her report cards, shoots hoops with her little brother and gossips with her friends about clothes and boys.

She is, in other words, a bright and outgoing teenager, much like other students in her high school in Cortland, N.Y.

But Jamie, who is 16, also sees differences between herself and her peers, differences she attributes to having been raised by two mothers, Lynette Bergeron and her partner, Sharon Trinkl.

For example, she believes she is more tolerant and open-minded than many of her classmates, in part because she herself has experienced taunting and ridicule from the outside world.

She is more apt to speak her mind. And she is more confident of her sexuality, having wondered at an early age if she herself may be lesbian. (She concluded that she was firmly heterosexual.)

But Jamie's conviction that having lesbian parents has made her a different person does not fit neatly with the work of researchers, who over the last two decades have published a host of studies concluding that no important differences exist between children raised by homosexual parents and children raised by heterosexual parents.

In a paper that is stirring both interest and controversy, however, two sociologists now argue that Jamie's perspective on her upbringing is probably closer to the truth.

While there is no evidence that having gay or lesbian parents harms children, the sociologists say, the notion that it has no impact on a child's life is implausible at best. And, after reviewing two decades of research on the topic, the authors conclude that social scientists in fact have found provocative differences, but have played them down for fear that their findings will be misused.

"It doesn't make sense to claim that there are no differences based on the research that's been done so far," said Dr. Judith Stacey, a professor of sociology and gender studies at the University of Southern California and the lead author of the paper, which appeared in The American Sociological Review.

Dr. Stacey and a colleague, Dr. Timothy J. Biblarz, also of U.S.C., reviewed 21 studies of the children of gay or lesbian parents published from 1981 through 1998.

The sociologists noted that the body of research on such children is still small, and that many findings still need to be confirmed. Nevertheless, in many studies, they said, there are suggestions that both the experience of having two parents of the same sex and of growing up in a home accepting of homosexuality influence children's behavior, self-image and life goals.

Some of the distinctions noted by researchers, Dr. Stacey said, had to do with attitudes toward sexuality and sexual behavior. Others involved how flexibly children interpreted gender roles: several studies, for example, found that the sons and daughters of lesbian mothers were less likely to have stereotyped notions of masculine and feminine behavior, and more likely to aspire to occupations that crossed traditional gender lines.

Still other studies, Dr. Stacey and Dr. Biblarz found, charted differences in how children raised by gay or lesbian parents expressed themselves verbally, how close they were to their biological mothers' partners, and how equally their parents divided parenting duties and household chores.

And while many researchers found that the children of homosexual parents often faced teasing and harassment from their peers, the sociologists wrote, the studies also showed that such children "seem to exhibit impressive psychological strength."

Yet in spite of these "provocative" findings, Dr. Stacey and Dr. Biblarz said that many researchers virtually turned their backs on such results.

In one study, for example, the sociologists said they counted "at least 15 intriguing, statistically significant differences in gender behavior and preferences" between children raised by single lesbian mothers and those raised by single heterosexual mothers, though the authors of the study had emphasized in their summary abstract that few differences had been found.

In another study they reviewed, Dr. Stacey and Dr. Biblarz said, the researchers reported a finding that the young adult children of lesbian mothers were more likely to have had, or to have considered having, a homosexual relationship than the children of heterosexual mothers. But the study's authors emphasized data showing that the children of the lesbian mothers were no more likely than other children to identify themselves as gay or lesbian.

"We recognize the political dangers of pointing out that recent studies indicate that a higher proportion of children with lesbigay parents are themselves apt to engage in homosexual activity," Dr. Stacey and Dr. Biblarz wrote in their paper. "Nonetheless, we believe that denying this probability is apt to prove counterproductive in the long run."

In an interview, Dr. Stacey said she was not suggesting that the researchers were actively censoring their results.

Rather, she said, "People are appropriately anxious when the consequences are so weighty, and when your research is going to be so instantly taken up and used in a variety of contexts."

"It's not so much political correctness but political anxiety," Dr. Stacey added.

The sociologists' critique won praise from the representatives of several gay and lesbian organizations, who said its conclusions did not surprise them.

"What I think it's done is, It's opened up a whole new area of inquiry about whether there's a positive lesson that anyone interested in parenting can learn from gay and lesbian parents," said Lisa Bennett, the deputy director of FamilyNet, a Web site for gay, lesbian and transgender families sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay and lesbian advocacy group.

But the article was also lauded by Lynn D. Wardle, a law professor at Brigham Young University, who has argued that the custody of children should be presumptively awarded to heterosexual parents. "I was quite pleased to see the writers actually saying ĀYeah, the studies just don't show what they purport to show,' " Mr. Wardle said. "The science that has been done is simply unreliable."

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