New results from the National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study (NLLFS), the longest-running and largest study of American lesbian families, has found that among the 78 17-year-old children of lesbian mothers in the study, none report having ever been physically or sexually abused by a parent or other caregiver. This contrasts with 26% of American adolescents who report parent or caregiver physical abuse and 8.3% who report sexual abuse.
The long-term, “longitudinal” study of the same group over many years offers a picture of lesbian families few other studies can match. The NLLFS 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 the 17-year-olds.
Is the lesson from the new results that no lesbian parents ever abuse their children? Unfortunately, no. Drawing that conclusion would be bad science. The lesson is, however, that rates among the lesbian population are likely to be lower than that of the population as a whole. That’s still good news—but as LGBT family law expert Nancy Polikoff points out, most concerns about sexual abuse by LGBT people are directed at gay men, not lesbians. We still need an in-depth, academic study of gay male parents and their children before we can put those fears to rest.
Last spring, as I wrote here, results came out in the prestigious journal Pediatrics that showed the teens in the study “were rated higher than their peers in social, academic, and overall competence, and lower in aggressive behavior, rule-breaking, and social problems, on standardized assessments of psychological adjustment.” (Readers may also want to look back at my 2008 interview with principal investigator Dr. Nanette Gartrell of the University of California, San Francisco, and a 2010 Williams Distinguished Scholar at the UCLA School of Law. She talked about some of the preliminary results that have since been finalized and published.)
Add these results to the growing number showing our children are developing no better and no worse than any others. And yes, some studies could even be construed to indicate that lesbian parents are “better”—but as I’ve explained before, I think it is a waste of time to ponder the question, “Who makes better parents, LGBT or non-LGBT people”? It sets us up as competitors rather than seeing us as fellow travelers on this grand journey of parenting.
A better question might be, “Where are the strengths of different groups of parents, and what can we learn from each other?” That question, unlike the first, has the potential to benefit our children—and that’s really what it’s all about.