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Using a feminist approach, discuss the issues surrounding Gay and Lesbian couples raising families. Does having same sex parents affect the development of children?

What is feminism? What is the definition of varying sexual orientations?

Feminism is an individual inclination to favour the notion of equality between males and females, be it socially, economically or legally. Feminist researchers are more likely to utilise qualitative methods of research as opposed to the restricted approach of the laboratory experiment, arguing that it is open to bias at every stage of the research. (Cardwell, 2000). Heterosexual herein refers to individuals who are orientated in sexual preference to members of the opposite sex and homosexuals are those with a sexual attraction to members of the same sex.

So, what‘s the problem?

Psychologists and feminists have been studying the effects of same sex parenting on children for more than 25 years (Clarke, 2000a). This has led to a dichotomy of ideas which relate to the welfare and emotional development of children raised by gay or lesbian parents. There is no other singular aspect of family dynamics that has raised as much controversy as the topic of lesbian and gay men rearing children (McLeod and Crawford, 1998). It has been addressed in the literature as research into whether the children raised by same sex parents are inherently different from children raised in heterosexual families. This concerns feminist and conventional psychologists interests regarding debates of sex differences and an assumed lesbian or gays’ pathology amongst ‘anti’ and ‘pro homosexual’ psychologists. It appears that there is a clear divide between those involved in the research, more commonly known as the ‘anti-gay side’ and the ‘pro-gay’ side (Clarke, 2000b).  From this is a predominance appears such that the research questions the similarities or differences between heterosexual or homosexual parents, and thus asks if homosexuals are ‘fit to parent’ (Clarke, 2000a, p.273). .

This is an issue with feminists such as Victoria Clarke feels is irrelevant in homosexual parenting research due to the inherent ‘concerns’ and ‘dangers’ it suggests (Clarke, 2000).

In 1999 it was estimated that in the United States, there were 2-6 million homosexual parents, and 6-14 million children (Bozett, 1987, cited in Fitzgerald, 1999). Since then it is likely that figures have risen due to the increasing acceptance of ‘coming out’; to announce to family and friends that one is homosexual. With this rise, the number of children being raised by homosexual parents will have also increased. Although the general acceptance of being gay or lesbian has increased, there does not appear to have been as much tolerance for homosexual parents to live in a same sex relationship whilst raising a child id. n regards to legal preferences to deny parents the right to have custody due to assumed differences between them and heterosexual parents (Clarke, 2000b). Clarke argues that from a feminist perspective, legal decisions are based on personal feelings towards lesbian and gay individuals, which is not only ‘legally’ wrong, but morally also. Legal decision makers should be unbiased of feelings towards homosexual individuals, although this does not seem to be the case.

Are children raised by gay or lesbian parents, different from those raised by heterosexual parents?

Gender Identity:

What is clearly evident from the literature, is that many of the early and predominant theories of child development indicate the presence of both male and female roles in family units, and as such individual children develop a sense of self, who and what they are by identifying with their parent of the same sex (Freud, Oedipus complex). Issues regarding gender development seem prominent in research comparing children raised by heterosexual parents compared to homosexual. However, key here is the fact that none of the research has indicated any issues in regards to the child’s gender development, nor has there been any confusing regarding their gender identity (Fitzgerald, 1999). This adds further support for the feminist argument, that homosexual parents are no different that heterosexual ones. Golombok, Spencer and Rutter (1983, cited in Fitzgerald, 1999) found that amongst 37 children of lesbian mothers, and 38 children of heterosexual mothers (combined with questionnaires completed by teachers and parents), that there were no significant differences in the psychosexual or gender identity. Further research has also indicated that the parent’s sexual orientation is of no unfavourable affect nor complicates the normal gender development of children (Gottman, 1989). Furthermore, the research is conclusive that the sexual orientation of the parents does not affect the child in the ways in which central Western medical-scientific defines ‘normality’. It is herein that we note that there is a predefined term of ‘normality’ suggesting that individuals of a homosexual orientation are in some way pathological in development. This however, is not an issue of child welfare and more an issue of individual perceptions of what is right and that which is wrong. Depending on the standpoint of the observer, homosexuality is viewed as a normal and acceptable sexual preference, or abnormal; ‘pro-gay’ or ‘ant-gay’. . Clarke argues this further embraces feminism, such that homosexuality has no knock on effect on gender identity. Feminist argue however, that the gender identity of a child should not be considered of ‘abnormal’ development, if they develop interest in peers of the same sex.

Hoeffer (1981), looked at the sexual behaviours of children of both lesbian and heterosexual mothers, and found that there were in fact no differences, yet inherently more similarities in the way the child develops sexual behaviours, again accepting inherent feministic ideologies that heterosexual and homosexual parents are in fact no different, and such should not be legally seen as so.. Furthermore, there were no differences between lesbian or heterosexual raised children in the type of toys they were likely to play with, in that boys from lesbian mothers were just as likely to play with traditionally male themed toys, as the boys from heterosexual mothers. Again we note typically associated toys for boys and girls are not something defined by law, but by opinion, such that there is nothing to say that female children choosing to play with male orientated toys makes them different in some way, from girls who decide to play with female orientated toys.

Bailey et al (1995) found that 90% of male children of gay or bisexual fathers identified themselves as heterosexual, indicating that there is no plausible connection with a father sexual orientation and the development of perceived ‘normal’ development of sexual preference. There is little to suggest thus far, that environmental factors can contribute to sexual orientation. In fact, children of homosexual parents were more likely to be comfortable discussing sexual issues with their parents than those of heterosexual parents. These children were also less likely to define other individuals with ‘labels’ (Saffron, 1996). It appears that sexual orientation is in no way related to the sexual preference of the parents, and that an upbringing solely by one parent of either sex or sexuality is in any way responsible for the resultant sexual orientation of the children in question. Marciano (1985, p.300) writes:

‘The absence of consistent same-sex and opposite sex models does not produce gay children. Those in window-headed households, homes of divorce or desertion, do not have consistent models and there is little talk of their gay vulnerabilities’.

What can be noted from the literature, and perhaps the sole reasoning behind the explorations, is the idea that homosexual children are in some way less desired than heterosexual ones. It further suggests that merely being a homosexual indicates that you are in some way ‘abnormal’, ‘deviant’ or even ‘psychologically disturbed’. In fact, this can be supported by the inclusion of homosexuality in the DSM classification of mental disorders until 1980 (Cardwell, 2000). Although 28 years has passed since homosexuality was one perceived by mental health ‘experts’ as a mental condition, it would appear that sexual orientation is still regarded as something which warrants research. 20 years after the dissolution of homosexuality as a pathological disease, research was still being carried out examining the views and legal implications of homosexual parents parents as identified in the works of feminist Victoria Clarke (Clarke 2000a, 2000b) and the ‘worries’ that having a homosexual parents is likely to influence a child’s own sexual preference in a negative light. It is not individuals who perceive sexuality as having definitive guidelines, but society.  If in fact parental orientation cannot be held accountable for sexual development, then the indications are that is lies within social influence or predisposed genetic characteristics.

Emotional well-being and the growth of self-esteem.

Further research has considered the effect of homosexual parents on the emotional development of the child. As with gender development, no significant affects have been indicated in the emotional well-being of children with homosexual parents compared with those of heterosexual parents (Huggins, 1989, cited in Fitzgerald, 1999). In fact, it was found that sons of heterosexual mothers had the lowest scores on personal inventory scales of self esteem. It was further found that if a lesbian parent was living with their same sex partner, the self-esteem ratings were found to be higher amongst their children, than children of single heterosexual mothers, further enrichment that anti feminist philosophies have no place in research. Additional research has also indicated that children of homosexual parents are at no significant likelihood of developing or experiencing, depression or anxiety (Tasker and Golombok, 1995). Wainright, Russell and Patterson (2004) found that amongst 44 twelve to eighteen year old adolescents, reared with same sex parents, were no different in comparison with 44 opposite sex parents (matched on demographic status) in areas of psychosocial adjustment and school outcomes. Their sexual relationships were functioning stereotypically ‘normal’ and the best indication of overall wellbeing was related to the relationship they held with their parents, irrespective of heterosexual or homosexual orientation.

Social development:

Several studies have indicated that children of homosexual parents showed evidence of positive friendships and interactions with peers, and that they were accepted both at school and amongst their community (Tasker and Golombok, 1995). Children of homosexual parents were no more expected to be intimidated by peers (bullied) than children of heterosexual parents. The main issues found amongst the societal progression of children of homosexual parents were a feeling of need to be secretive about the sexuality of their parents in cases where legal custody of the child was being fought (Bozett, 1987). Herein lies one of the fundamental issues underlying this essay; that it is legal and societal prejudices as opposed to the actual welfare of children that have created a stigma surrounding the notions of rearing children in families with homosexual parents. It appears that negative outcomes (behaviour, sexual deviancy or even criminal activity), are more likely as direct result of society and the negative views and beliefs held about children from sexually ‘abnormal’ families. Feminist support the notion that society is held accountable for the ‘issues’ associated with normal development (if normal does thus exist) and not that of the sexual orientation of parents (Clarke, 2000a, 2000b).


Perhaps we see a need for more research, real-world research which allows an accumulation of facts from across all aspects of child development (legal, moral, societal and educational) that perhaps is more qualitative in nature. However, a number of feminist psychologists have implicated that if ‘science’ as a discipline for investigation is abandoned, then perhaps we are throwing away one of the most valuable tools available to us as researchers. Many ‘anti-gay’ researchers are unable to view research in neutral terms due to their own personal feelings towards homosexuals and that of public debates about the morality surround gay and lesbians raising children. It would also appear than ‘anti-gay’ psychologist are too concerned with pulling apart the research on children of homosexual families in regards to experimental design, rather than accepting or even acknowledging the data that it reveals. It appears that argument surrounding the raising of children in homosexual families does not boil down to the interests and happiness of the child, but to the disputes regarding the rights of gay and lesbian parents. It can therefore be assumed that until legal and psychological representatives are able to push aside their innate feelings towards homosexuals, then finding about that which is truly best for a child cannot be found.


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10(2), 273–278.

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Psychosocial and Legal Perspectives of Gay and Lesbian Parenting’, pp. 211–22 in

G.M. Herek (ed.) Stigma and Sexual Orientation: Understanding Prejudice against  Lesbians, Gay Men, and Bisexuals. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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Tasker, F. & Golombok, S. (1995). Adults raised as children in lesbian families. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 65(2), 203-215.

Wainright, J. L., Russell, S. T., & Patterson, C. J. (2004). Psychosocial adjustment, school outcomes, and romantic relationships of adolescents with same-sex parents. Child Development, 75(6), 1886-1898.