Culture

Same-Sex Parenting Doesn’t Raise Problem Children; Homophobic Stigmas Do

On the eve of Mardi Gras, it's worth revisiting some of the stigmas still attached to same-sex parenting.

At the end of January, a new study was presented by the USA-based Social Science Research Network: ‘Emotional Problems Among Children With Same-Sex Parents: Difference By Definition‘. The report was put together by Donald Paul Sullins from The American Catholic University, who argues that children with parents of the same sex are emotionally and psychologically at a disadvantage to those who were raised by straight couples, and end up less happy as a result.

With Mardi Gras on our doorstep, and as someone who was raised in a same-sex parental environment, I thought it’d be a good time to have a look at the reasons why same-sex parents shouldn’t be feared — and why we need to change our thinking around same-sex parenting.

Take a closer look at Sullins’ report. In it, the author claims that the many other pieces of research that contest his ideas are inaccurate, because their sample size of the studies were too small and too “conveniently chosen”. Which is a nice way of saying “this can’t be right because you chose the gays from the place where all the gays are”.

The sample sizes might be too small, but to me this speaks to a more pertinent issue: the stigma attached to homosexual parenting, brought about in part by studies like his, which discourages gay parents from taking part in more of them.

Sullins’ report does acknowledge this stigma, but he’s adamant that it’s just one of the problems. “Children who have two mommies or two daddies may suffer higher teasing, isolation, or bullying from their peers, leading to greater emotional distress. Same-sex persons and their children report suffering stigma in many social settings,” it reads. “The present study tests the hypothesis that bully victimization accounts for at least part of any differential distress for children with same-sex parents compared to those with opposite-sex parents.”

Sullins’ report is more about blaming the gay parents, who, he says, are less desirable than their hetero counterparts for a variety of reasons: they’re not biological; the parents are unwed and more transient; step-families are less structured; and — here’s the kicker — gay people are more likely to have mental health issues.

“Evidence is robust that the possession of mentally or affectively ill parents is a potent risk factor for child mental or emotional distress, and that same-sex attraction is associated with elevated risk for mental disorders or psychological distress,” it reads. “Parent emotional dysfunction may … compromise family relationships and parenting quality to induce child emotional distress.”

Are The Kids Really Alright?

Homophobic stigmatisation is the main theme explored by the Journal of Adolescence in its most recent publication. The team, comprised of researchers from the Netherlands and United States, studied the behaviour of over 60 Dutch adolescents who are being raised by female same-sex parental units, and compared them against the same amount of teens from heterosexual-parent families.

The study discovered that the most common reason for the children internalising problem behaviour is homophobic stigmatisation and bullying that they encountered outside of the family home: at school, on the street, from strangers and peers.

To me, this says that we need to be having more talks with our friends, our peers, our children, and our parents about why kids are still being treated poorly because of something they cannot change. Why are children being subjected to bullying at school about the way they’re being raised? How is the love that is given to them from their parents any different than what heterosexual parents give to their children? If a child brought up in a dad/dad or mum/mum home is less happy, do we truly believe it’s because of their parents?

Australian scriptwriter and performer Catherine Fargher has co-parented her son, O, with her female ex-partner and his two fathers, who are also in a same-sex relationship. O spends equal time with each parental unit: one week with Catherine and her ex-partner, and one week with his two fathers. The dynamic has seen their family excluded from a lot of the ‘straight family’ gatherings, but has found support among other queer families and single parents within O’s private school circles.

“He had a really hard time [in] Personal Development: people had to draw their family, and he didn’t know how to do that,” Catherine said. “Especially at a school of quite uptight upper-class kids. He got very stressed and anxious about this.”

Despite these anxieties, O has now developed better friendships. “O is now managing social relationships better, and has a great new friend who came to high school last year,” said Catherine. “He came home and said, ‘T identifies as a tri-gendered omni-sexual, and he doesn’t like Tony Abbott, so I think we can be friends!’”

Growing Up As A ‘Gay Baby’ In Australia

I was raised by gay parents. My mother is a lesbian and has been with her partner since I was four, after her and my father split up. The person who I have become was developed and shaped by a same-sex parental unit. I think I’m doing pretty alright: I’ve graduated from high school, I’ve finished one degree and now onto postgraduate study, I’ve lived out of home for the last five years – I’ve survived.

Growing up, I did see my dad a lot. He and mum lived close to each other, so I got to forge a really good relationship with him. I thank my parents every day for maintaining a good friendship, and encouraging me to have strong bonds with both of them and their separate lives.

I’ll admit that I did have problems growing up with two step-mums. But I think that’s a given for every kid who has family change in their lives; it’s never easy to accept new people into your comfortable little family bubble. I know of a lot of other kids who had arguments with their heterosexual step-parents, and generally didn’t agree with what was happening in their family unit. I know I wasn’t alone on that one.

Throughout my school years, I had some really shitty encounters with other students, because kids are cruel. I distinctly remember one time, when I was holding my best friend’s hand, and a kid who was a grade or two above us came up and said, “Are you going to be a filthy lesbian like your mother?”

That memory is so vivid to me, because it wasn’t until that point I had ever actually thought about my mum’s sexuality. I still naively believed that we lived with Mum’s best friend, and her son.

I can’t blame the kid, either, because that prejudice and homophobia must have come from somewhere. The way that kid spat his words at me very likely came from his parents, and the influence of the world around him. Somewhere in his development he was taught about heteronormativity; taught to be disgusted at anyone whose sexuality is different.

That’s what needs to change. The discussions parents are having with their kids about other people and their families are what needs to be altered. We need to correct the way we speak about same-sex parents, in order to remove the stigma that is burdening their children. As society progresses, so must the conversation, because it’s not fair for children to have to put up with the ignorance of others.

This is Courtney Fry’s last piece as a Junkee intern. Follow her on Twitter.

Feature image via Caitlin Childs/CC.