Lesbian Parents & Their Well-Adjusted Kids: What the Study Really Means

By Andrew Moseman | June 8, 2010 11:31 am

WomenCoupleBabyThe U.S. National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study, a quarter-century look at the welfare of kids born to lesbian couples, has finally come out in the journal Pediatrics this week with the headline-grabbing finding that those children not only do as well as the rest of the population, they might actually fare better. You can download the paper by lead author Nanette Gartrell for free right now, but here are the key parts:

Select population only

Census data says that there are more than 270,000 American kids in same-sex households, with twice that many having a single gay parent. Gartrell’s study follows a particular slice: Lesbian couples who were together before the child’s birth, identified themselves as a lesbian couple, and went through the artificial insemination process. It didn’t include, for instance, women who may have had a child in a previous heterosexual relationship and then entered into a lesbian one later.

Better than the rest?

The study, which began in 1986, ended up following 78 kids from lesbian couples who were recruited for the study in Boston, Washington D.C., and San Francisco.

The mothers were interviewed during pregnancy or the insemination process, and additionally when the children were 2, 5, 10 and 17 years old. Those children are now 18 to 23 years old. They were interviewed four times as they matured and also completed an online questionnaire at age 17, focusing on their psychological adjustment, peer and family relationships and academic progress [CNN].

The children of these lesbian couples were just as well-adjusted as the kids of heterosexual couples to whom the researchers compared them. Indeed, the kids in the study proved superior in some areas, like academics, self-esteem, and behavior, as shown by the standard “Child Behavior Checklists”  that were part of the surveys.

Planning, and parenting

This is a quantitative study, so the “why” question becomes the subject of speculation. But for Gartrell, the fact that she studied families with planned pregnancies and involved parents was the key.

Salon’s Tracy Clark-Flory puts the first point more forcefully:

One factor that seems awfully important here is that these pregnancies were all planned. Like, really, really planned. There were no forgotten pills, broken condoms or one too many glasses of red wine; these women had to actively seek out sperm donors and then undergo artificial insemination [Salon].

The parents in her study, Gartrell says, “reported using verbal limit-setting more often with their children” (as opposed to any kind of corporal punishment). They had dealt early with the difficult conversations about sexuality and prejudice, she says. That may have contributed to the fact that at 10 the kids of lesbian families appeared to have experienced more anxiety from being stigmatized, but by 17 that effect no longer showed up.

“They are very involved in their children’s lives,” she says of the lesbian parents. “And that is a great recipe for healthy outcomes for children” [TIME].

That is, good parenting is what matters, not gay parenting.


Buried in the study is a curious stat: When heterosexual first marriages end in divorce, 65% of the time mothers end up with sole custody. But, in the study of lesbian couples, things ended up much differently.

The percentage of separation was about the same: about 50% for heterosexual couples and 56% for the lesbian couples in the study. But when the study couples split up, they retained joint custody in 70% of the cases. The paper says, “Custody was more likely to be shared in these families when the mothers had previously completed a co-parent (second parent) adoption agreement.”


The study’s long-term view of families headed by lesbian couples is its strength, along with the fact that gathering study participants before they gave birth meant the study wouldn’t be skewed by “families who volunteer when it is already clear that their offspring are performing well.”

But it does have weaknesses. For one, Gartrell’s funding came in part from gay and lesbian organizations like the Gill Foundation and the Lesbian Health Fund from the Gay Lesbian Medical Association. That has led anti-gay organization to respond to the study with charges of bias. Indeed, if Gartrell had been able to secure complete funding from an independent source like the National Institutes of Health, that would have been nice. But there have been easier things to do in the last quarter-century than glean government grants to study families led by same-sex couples.

A more pressing scientific question is: How much you can extrapolate the study’s data to 2010? As the study says, the differences between 1986 and today made recruiting a nationally representative sample quite difficult:

The NLLFS sample is drawn from the first-wave planned lesbian families who were initially clustered around metropolitan areas with visible lesbian communities, which were much less diverse than they are today; recruiting was limited to the relatively small number of prospective mothers who felt safe enough to identify publicly as lesbian, who had the economic resources to afford DI, and who, in the pre-Internet era, were affiliated with the communities in which the study was advertised.

Related Content:
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DISCOVER: The Real Story on Gay Genes

Image: iStockphoto

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • YouRang

    I wonder by what mechanism the anti-gay groups are alleging bias? Scientifically, one can’t just say there is bias–one has to have a mechanism.

  • michael

    Mechanism (be it sound or not): pro-gay groups fund the study so that pro-gay messages materialize from the study. In other words, their financial involvement puts a positive pressure on the scientists to publish a pro-gay message. This assertion of potential bias isn’t controversial in science, it’s very common in the pharmaceutical industry for studies to be highly scrutinized and disregarded if there is a funding company whose product is the one being studied. It’s why when you read any medical paper, there are financial disclosure statements of the funding companies, to allow the reader to read between the lines.

  • taraphoenix

    Clearly, homophobia is so blatant in this country that we cannot even consider anything positive about gays — we have to immediately attempt to invalidate the study.

  • Mike Young

    The problem with the study is exactly as follows. Thie children from the Lesbian families were:
    1.) Chosen from cities with a very high proportion of college graduates.
    2.) Chosen from a population pool which visits book stores. (Parents who regularly visit book stores tend to be more highly educated then those that do not)
    3.) Chosen from a population that has purposely set out to have a child.
    4.) Chosen from a population that has eugenically chosen the sperm from a catalog, where the sperm donor characteristics are defined like a shopping list – IQ, education, medical conditions, mental health conditions, athleticism, employment, etc.
    5.) Chosen from a population that is willing to pay for expensive IVF treatment, thereby indicating lesbian parents who are well above poverty level and quite likely in the upper middle class or upper class of the socioeconomic ladder.

    And the control group chosen is ALL CHILDREN IN SOCIETY.

    This study design passed peer review? It would fail to pass muster in a methodology of science class.

  • Anthony NJ

    Good point Mike Y. You saved me some typing.

  • Amy V

    Flaws with Mike Young’s suggested problems with the study:

    Your statements, all though thoughtful, are not necessarily problems with the study.

    #1) Just because the cities have a high number of university educated people, does not necessarily mean the mothers have a higher education level. We would need to have that statistic, and if indeed higher, would be a factor that would set the study population apart from the control population.

    #2) Just because women visit bookstores, does not mean they are more intelligent, per se. Bookstores in the Lesbian community is akin to a bar in the heterosexual community…. it is a social meeting point, and healthier.

    #3) Number 3 actually SUPPORTS why Lesbians may be excellent parents…. doesn’t it make sense that couples, any couple, that plan their family would be better at parenting?

    #4) While I agree to an extent with you on this one, half of the genetics cannot be solely responsible for an individual’s emotional nor social well-being. Sure it may play a part, but nuturing plays a prodigious part in these areas in all types of families. There was nothing stated that the birth mom did not have mental illness, emotional issues, etc. P.S. IQ and athleticism are not a recipe for well-adjusted individuals.

    And finally,
    #5) While true, these women are probably at least middle class, they are not using expensive IVF… they are not infertile. They just need sperm, and in the big picture of raising a child, $650 + $200 for a proceedure of insemination is not all that much money, especially when you have credit. If they are healthy women, with reproductive technology of today, they are getting pregnant with in only a few tries. You really had to reach on this one.

    All in all, while your critique of this study has some merit, you really have infused several assumptions, some of which are proponents of good parenting, like being financially secure, educated, literate, and wanting children to raise and love.

    By the way, Anthony NJ, Mike Y not only saved you typing, he saved you all that trouble and effort of thinking.

  • Lorena

    Let´s say that you are right, that this study chose the best parents you can find in both lesbian and heterosexual communities. Still, this result is an important breakthrough. Even if the sample is small, and in no way representative of all the lesbian and gay families you can find out there, it does show that there is no “worsened” condition when you have two mothers and no father. Children that should do good in life are still doing good, no matter the parent´s sexuality.

  • Whatever


    Women who feel under scrutiny and seem very biased to prove their kids are as good or better than anyone else filled out voluntary SURVEYS and said that their kids are as good or better than anyone else.

    How is this a surprise?

    More importantly, why is this taken seriously?

  • lawrencelisa

    Wow! Let’s find our lesbian lovers @ Femmefish.com

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Odin-Matanguihan/789083462 Odin Matanguihan

    Well, if they are well planned by parents who have the resources, that is a big advantage indeed. Makes perfect sense to me. Any other lesbian couple with the resources out there want my sperm?


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