(Originally published in Bay Windows, August 20, 2008.)
The 17-year-olds participating in the National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study (NLLFS) “demonstrate significantly higher social competence” and “significantly lower total problem behavior [than the standard population]. This is a very high indication of mental health,” asserts Dr. Nanette Gartrell, principal investigator of the NLLFS and Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California-San Francisco. “They are performing much better than the enormous [overall] population of teens out there.”
She and her colleagues Heidi Peyser, the study’s executive director, and co-investigator Dr. Henny Bos of the University of Amsterdam have begun releasing preliminary results from the teen phase of this multi-year study of a group of lesbian families, the longest-running and largest investigation of its kind. To date, they have completed interviews (including questionnaires and standardized psychological tests) with about half of the families. They hope to have the rest by next spring. Their findings provide reassurance for lesbian parents and prospective parents, and offer evidence and guidance for educators and policy makers.
The primary goal of the study was to follow the first wave of lesbian families created through donor insemination. (Limited resources meant they did not also look at adoptive families.) Gartrell’s team began interviewing the mothers in 1986, when they were inseminating or pregnant, then again when the children were a year and a half to two years old, five, and ten. They directly questioned the 10-year-olds, and now the 17-year-olds, as well. Of the initial 84 families, 79 are still participating, Gartrell says, a “phenomenal” retention rate for studies of this type.
One finding from the teen phase that “knocked my socks off,” she observes, was that “in terms of overall quality of life, almost 80% say they enjoy, are satisfied with, and find life worthwhile.” She reflects, “I don’t know how your teenage years were, but I wouldn’t have given mine a rating anywhere close to that. That says something pretty remarkable about what the moms are doing in terms of helping these kids navigate adolescence.” While her team has not yet compared this to an overall norm, she notes, “As a subjective consideration of that finding, when people think about the struggles of being teens . . . every time I have presented that so far, people have been surprised and amazed.”
One ongoing goal for the study has been to document the effects of homophobia on lesbian families. Slightly more than half of the teens felt their schools responded adequately to homophobic incidents. Those who were satisfied with their schools’ responses were “less withdrawn, less aggressive, and rated their overall quality of life higher,” Gartrell says. “These preliminary findings suggest that school involvement in educating kids about discrimination has a direct impact on mental health and the quality of life of the teens.” In the future, she adds, her team is going to look at “what that consists of, what’s needed, and how it can be refined.”
Just over half the teens, too, felt their mothers had adequately prepared them to deal with homophobia. One of the most important ways the mothers did so was by embracing their own lesbian identities and participating in the lesbian community. That much was evident from the 10-year-old interviews. As the children reached their teens, however, and became more concerned about fitting in, some of the moms were careful to let them take the lead in disclosing to friends that they came from a lesbian family. The mothers did not abandon their identities or the lesbian community because of this, but let the teens come out about their families on their own time.
The mothers have also been educating their children about a range of diversity issues, including racism, sexism, and antisemitism, as well as homophobia. “It’s the whole spectrum,” Gartrell says. “That’s a really promising and needed transformation in our culture and in future generations.”
The NLLFS also asked the 17-year-olds about their sexual activity. To Gartrell’s surprise, half had had no sex at all yet. The ones that did had only opposite-sex activity. While Gartrell notes they are only halfway through the teen interviews, and she expects some of the youth to have same-sex activity, the results so far cast doubt upon homophobic predictions that lesbian and gay parents create a disproportionate number of lesbian and gay children. She wants to interview the families again as the children turn 25, which might provide further evidence of “their basic lifetime sexual orientations.”
Are the teens being honest? Gartrell thinks so. They give their answers via a private online questionnaire, she says, and some have talked about actions such as substance use that they might have tried to hide if they were not being truthful all around.
Beyond the teen phase, she says, her younger colleagues will be invaluable in carrying the study forward. “Henny has said,” she relates, “that as long as she’s alive, she’s going to keep it going, so she’s going to interview these teens’ grandchildren at some point.”
Gartrell hopes that educators in particular can learn from what the NLLFS has found. She explains, “We have concrete evidence that teaching appreciation of diversity, teaching tolerance, welcoming people of all backgrounds, all skin colors, all sexual orientations, all body types, being the big tent, benefits our culture as a whole. The more that the educational systems in which kids are growing up can incorporate that big-tent philosophy, the better we all are.”