What happens to kids raised by gay parents?
Rebecca Meiksin, 22, is white, middle-class, college-educated, with plans to earn a graduate degree in public health.
Terrance McGeorge, 20, is black, grew up in the Hill District, has a high school degree and works in an AmeriCorps service program at Beginning With Books.Despite their differences, both of these young people have something in common with the new grandson of the vice president of the United States, who was born to Mary Cheney and her partner, Heather Poe, on May 23: They grew up in a family with a gay parent.
And both of them believe they have turned out just fine-- in no small way because of how they were raised.
"My dad has been my best friend since I was a kid," said Mr. McGeorge, a tall, friendly young man who wants to pursue a career in theater and fashion. "He always encouraged me and was there for me, for whatever it was, graduations, performances, he was there, immediately."
Mr. McGeorge, like his father, is gay. That might provoke an "Aha!" moment for those who warn that children of gays are more likely to adopt their parents' lifestyle, but he says his father had nothing to do with it, except, possibly, providing DNA.
"I've always known I was that way, since I was 3- or 4 years old, when I started getting crushes on other boys. My father didn't come out until I was 6," he said.
Ms. Meiksin is heterosexual.
"Um, I'm going to spend the month of June with my boyfriend," she says with a shy laugh. Asked if her lesbian mother encouraged her to follow in her footsteps, she rolls her eyes.
"I never felt any pressure to be gay," she said. "Although I did take my boyfriend to a gay pride parade once, which was a real trip for him."
Ms. Meiksin represents part of a first wave of babies intentionally conceived or adopted by gay parents in the 1980s as the gay pride movement took off. Mr. McGeorge, on the other hand, is part of a different group of children -- many from minority and low-income communities -- born of a heterosexual union that dissolved when one parent came out as gay.
So how are they doing, now that they've reached young adulthood?
Some critics have suggested these children -- along with Samuel David Cheney, Mary Cheney's infant son -- are doomed to a life of struggle compared with those raised in a more traditional, Ozzie-and-Harriet-model family, with a mother and a father.
But most studies have found that outcomes for children of gay and lesbian parents are no better -- and no worse -- than for other children, whether the measures involve peer group relationships, self-esteem, behavioral difficulties, academic achievement, or warmth and quality of family relationships.
No one knows precisely how many children in the United States have at least one parent who is lesbian or gay. Estimates range all the way from 1 million to 9 million.
For many of these young people, though, growing up in what census researchers call a "same-sex parent household" doesn't have to be a big deal -- except that, these days, it is.
"With all due respect to Cheney and her partner," Dr. James Dobson of the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family, wrote in Time magazine in December, "the majority of more than 30 years of social-science evidence indicates that children do best on every measure of well-being when raised by their married mother and father."
Some liberals chimed in too, notably Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Leonard Pitts, who cited "a growing body of research that tells us the child raised without his or her biological father is significantly more likely to live in poverty, do poorly in school, drop out altogether, become a teen parent, exhibit behavioral problems, smoke, drink, use drugs or wind up in jail."
The problem with the research cited by both Dr. Dobson and Mr. Pitts is that it compares children of heterosexual couples only with those of single parents and not with children of same-sex parent families, said Gary Gates, a senior research fellow at the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law and an expert on census data involving gay and lesbian households.
"There are virtually no studies that make a direct comparison with same-sex parents," he said, noting census data show one in four same-sex couples are raising a child under the age of 18.
A number of professional medical organizations -- including the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychiatric Association -- have issued statements claiming that a parent's sexual orientation is irrelevant to his or her ability to raise a child.
For the most part, the organizations are relying on a relatively small but conclusive body of research -- approximately 67 studies -- looking at children of gay parents and compiled by the American Psychological Association. In study after study, children in same-sex parent families turned out the same, for better or for worse, as children in heterosexual families.
Moreover, a 2001 meta-analysis of those studies found that the sexual orientation of a parent is irrelevant to the development of a child's mental health and social development and to the quality of a parent-child relationship.
More research needed
The problem with these studies, Dr. Gates says, is that most of the children are from "intentional" same-sex parent families, where the parents tend to be better educated, more affluent and more open about their sexual orientation, and who deliberately conceive or adopt children with the intention of raising them in a same-sex parent family.
"My research suggests that's not the typical gay parent household," Dr. Gates said.
In fact, only 6 percent of same-sex parents have an adopted child, and a sizable number appear to be living in some kind of step-family arrangement, in which parents "come out later and have children from an earlier heterosexual marriage or relationship," he said.
While white couples of relatively high income have been the focus of most studies, Census figures show that about 45 percent of same-sex parents are either black or Latino. And most of those same-sex couples with children have household incomes below that of their different-sex married counterparts.
Mr. Gates speculates that the omission of children from minority and low-income communities may be because the children have been pressured by their parents not to talk since "there may be higher levels of stigmatization in minority communities regarding homosexuality."
Mr. McGeorge says he knows about that firsthand. When his father first came out, he recalls, children in his Hill District neighborhood "cut me no slack whatsoever. They all knew about it. He looked different, acted different, and they made sure I knew it."
Despite that childhood trauma, and continued harassment when he himself came out as a teenager, Mr. McGeorge says he's proud of who he is -- a working adult with a partner and big plans for a career. He says his own robust self-esteem stems from a strong relationship with his father. (His father declined to be interviewed for this story.)
"He doesn't mind that I'm talking to you," he said, "but he's a more private person than I am."
One of the reasons for that is because of a high level of intolerance of homosexuality in the African-American community, Mr. McGeorge believes.
"Oh my God, I think maybe four or five times a week I'm getting called 'faggot,' " he said. "I can't go into a store to buy cigarettes without being told I'm a 'faggot' and I'm going to hell. I can't get on a bus without someone getting in my face. Sometimes the discrimination hurts, but I'm unapologetic for who I am. I won't apologize and I won't change for anyone. I've always just been myself."
On the other hand, Ms. Meiksin, born to a single lesbian mother in Squirrel Hill who moved in with a partner when Ms. Meiksin was 12, says she rarely felt any kind of discomfort growing up. (Her mother declined to be interviewed for this story.)
Ms. Meiksin says she is very comfortable talking about growing up with a lesbian mother -- and challenging anyone who believes it might not be appropriate or beneficial.
A graduate of Allderdice High School and Oberlin College, in Ohio, she says her life "always felt normal to me. A lot of my mom's friends are gay, and she's really politically active. She took me to gay pride marches and whatnot. I remember sitting out on the deck at New York New York (a Shadyside bar) eating french fries while she was at meetings."
Ms. Meiksin is probably part of the "intentional" same-sex parent family that Dr. Gates was talking about, but at least one prominent researcher takes issue with his contention that they may be overrepresented in studies.
"I've actually seen lots of diversity in the psychological literature, although what is right about what he said is that more of the research focuses on middle and upper classes," said Dr. Charlotte Patterson, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, editor of two books published by Oxford University Press on gay and lesbian identity and youth, as well as the author of a number of articles in peer-reviewed journals.
Still, she and others noted that in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, which surveyed 12,000 high school students across the socio-economic and ethnic spectrum -- outcomes for children of gay parents and heterosexual married parents were comparable.
All of this is anathema, however, to Peter Spriggs of the Family Research Council, a conservative group that assailed Mary Cheney's pregnancy.
He also dismissed studies cited by the American Psychological Association, saying the researchers used flawed methodology and self-selected subjects inclined to favor homosexuality.
"I don't trust that group at all," said Mr. Spriggs.
The feeling appears to be mutual.
Judith Stacey, a sociology professor at New York University and co-author with Tim Biblarz of "(How) Does the Sexual Orientation of Parents Matter?" in the American Sociological Review, says conservative groups distorted the findings of her 2001 study, which found some slight differences in children of lesbian mothers in terms of career choices and sexual experimentation. And while some of her ongoing work is finding "minor differences in sexuality and possibly in the range of comfort, but just barely, with non heterosexual behavior," a European study of daughters of lesbians has found a skew toward more heterosexual partners.
Conservative groups have cited Ms. Stacey's writings to bolster their contention that children in gay families don't turn out "the same" as children of heterosexuals, but Ms. Stacey said what few differences she detected had no impact on child well-being.
"These groups just cherry-pick the data to suit their needs," she said of the Family Research Council, which, she noted, performs no research that has been peer-reviewed by a credible, mainstream professional institution.
Still, the battle between political conservatives and university researchers rages on.
When Dr. Dobson, in his Time magazine essay criticizing Ms. Cheney, cited research from Kyle Pruett at Yale University to state that children need fathers, Dr. Pruett, author of "Fatherneed: Why Father Care Is as Essential as Mother Care for Your Child," was furious, claiming Dr. Dobson had misrepresented his findings to suggest that children of gay parents would somehow suffer developmentally. After attempts to contact Dr. Dobson proved fruitless, he taped an interview and posted it on YouTube.com excoriating the conservative leader.
"Look, I said, if you're going to use my research to judge and implicate personal decisions people are making, you are going to hear from me about it because I consider this a destructive use of good science," Dr. Pruett said in an interview.
While "fathers make unique contributions to children, never do I say in my book that children of gay parents are at risk. Love binds parents and children together, not gender. There are plenty of boys and girls from these families with masculine and feminine role models who turn out just fine."
Mr. Spriggs remains unrepentant about his and Dr. Dobson's use of research to bolster their contention that children do best with a mother and a father.
"No scholar has the right to dictate how another person will use his data, just because he happens to disagree from a political point of view," he said.
Perhaps not, but from Ms. Meiksin's perspective, all the fuss about Ms. Cheney's baby will mean nothing if the child is loved by his family -- as she has been loved by hers.
"It doesn't really bother me that there's a focus on it because she's the daughter of this beloved conservative leader and is being accepted by him and his wife. Granted, I don't think he has a respectable policy on gay rights, but from what I have read, it seems that (Vice President Cheney) and his wife are totally accepting of their grandson as their family, and that's helpful."
First published on June 9, 2007 at 10:59 pm
Mackenzie Carpenter can be reached at [email protected]