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Growing Up with Gay Parents

Jesse Carr is a 23-year-old nonprofit organization staff member from rural Pennsylvania. Erinne Kovi is a 29-year-old businesswoman and mother of one from Ohio. Orson Morrison is a 32-year-old psychologist from Toronto.

What do these three people have in common? They all have gay or lesbian parents. Each of them recognizes that in many ways they are unique. But a recent study published in the journal Child Development confirms what they have always known: They’re just as well-adjusted as people with straight parents.

New Research

Researchers have been studying the children of gay and lesbian parents for almost 50 years, trying to find out if they have more problems than other kids. Do they have more behavior problems, a harder time making friends, or difficulties with sexual identity? The answer, time and again, has been “No.”

And a recent study that included a larger and more diverse sample of people makes researchers even more confident about past findings. “What this study shows, and what countless other studies have shown, is that sexual orientation is irrelevant in terms of promoting and rearing a healthy child,” says Suzanne Johnson, associate professor of psychology at Dowling College and co-author of The Gay Baby Boom: The Psychology of Gay Parenthood (with Elizabeth O’Connor, New York University Press, 2002). “What matters is who the person is, not who they love.”

Relationships Are Key

The recent study in Child Development found that teens with same-sex parents were identical to those with opposite-sex parents in almost every area analyzed, from anxiety levels to independence, and even grade-point average. It was kids’ relationships with their parents — not the gender of their parents’ partners — that clearly influenced their development. Children with warm, caring family bonds were doing better at home, in school, and in their social lives than those without them.

This comes as no surprise to those with experience in child development, including Aimee Gelnaw, executive director of the Family Pride Coalition, a lesbian and gay organization, and a mother herself. “There’s so much that we know about the ingredients to well-being,” she says, referring to the importance of loving, stable households. “When you bake a cake, it doesn’t matter who dumps in the flour. It’s just got to be there.”

Finding Strength in Difference

It may not matter who dumps in the flour, but, as children of gays and lesbians often point out, their family structure does affect their lives. “A lot of the emphasis has been on proving to the world that we’re normal,” says Orson Morrison, who, in his work as a clinical psychologist, has studied other adult sons of gay men. “I think that once it’s accepted that we’re normal, then we can start talking about how we are different.”

Those differences may make life more challenging sometimes, but they may also be an advantage for some children with gay and lesbian parents. Erinne Kovi says that for her, having a lesbian mother helped to make her open-minded and accepting of many different kinds of people and lifestyles. “It’s something that I’m praying I teach my own child,” she says.

The Push to Belong

While being open-minded is a quality that any parents — gay, lesbian, bisexual, or heterosexual — can instill in their children, some children of gays and lesbians may have particular insights from witnessing the struggles and experiences of their parents, including struggles with homophobia and discrimination.

Jesse Carr, a staff member at COLAGE (Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere) — a nonprofit organization that offers advocacy, education, and support — says he learned to deal with obstacles in his life from his mother and her lesbian partner. “They definitely gave me a lot of strength and encouragement and humor skills for coping with people who are going to mess around with you [because you have gay parents],” he says.

Like many other researchers, activists, and people who grew up in gay and lesbian families, Carr hopes that some day, the facts about gay and lesbian parents and a willingness to embrace difference will win out over homophobia.

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