The latest results from the National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study (NLLFS), the longest-running and largest study of American lesbian families, show that almost all of the teens in the NLLFS are academically successful and say they are happy with their lives. That’s great news—but brings with it one matter for concern.
The NLLFS began interviewing 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. For this latest paper, published in the Journal of Homosexuality, the 78 teenagers were asked questions about their everyday life including academics, extracurricular activities, aspirations, friendships, family interactions, role models, health problems and wellbeing.
According to a press release:
The 17-year-olds participating in the longest-running study of lesbian families had high school GPAs in the A- to B+ range, and nearly all planned to attend four-year colleges. These adolescents had strong family bonds, and they were nearly unanimous in describing their mothers as good role models. They also reported having numerous close friends—generally with same-age peers who were predominantly heterosexual. Most of the teens felt comfortable bringing friends home, informing friends about their mothers’ lesbianism and confiding in their mothers.
Principal Investigator Nanette Gartrell, MD, distinguished visiting scholar at UCLA’s Williams Institute, said, “These kids were planned and their lesbian mothers were very engaged in parenting. At the end of high school, the teens tell us that they have excellent grades, feel connected to their families and friends, and admire their parents. As a psychiatrist, I can say that these are the types of childrearing outcomes that every parent hopes for.”
Good stuff, although we should also note that 87 percent of the families were White, and 82 percent were middle- or upper-middle class. The children were also all created through donor insemination. As Gartrell explained to me in a 2008 interview, the racial diversity was limited by who volunteered, and the difficulty in finding and recruiting any intentional lesbian families back in 1986. The focus on DI families was because of a desire to limit the number of variables, especially with limited resources. While the NLLFS results are legitimate and important, therefore, they are only scratching the surface of a full view of lesbian families (not to mention BGT families). Let’s hope even more researchers turn their lenses to us.
What lingers in my mind, though, is this: Will findings like the above put pressure on other children of lesbian moms? Might they lead us to unwittingly promote a damaging stereotype akin to “You’re Asian, so you must be good at math”? Might we be more likely to overlook or discount depression or other emotional problems of children with lesbian moms (even if they are no more likely to have them than children of straight moms) because we assume they tend to be happy?
In her book Families Like Mine: Children of Gay Parents Tell It Like It Is, Abigail Garner writes of the pressure some children of lesbian and gay parents feel to be perfect, in an attempt not to reinforce the myth that lesbian and gay parents are inferior. Add to this the results of studies like the NLLFS, and there’s the potential for even more pressure.
I don’t mean to imply that we shouldn’t do studies like the NLLFS. We absolutely should—in even greater number. Legitimate academic studies of LGBT families such as the NLLFS provide vital information and evidence for social workers, health care professionals, lawyers, policy makers, educators, parents, and others. Anyone reading the studies, however, should distinguish what can be said about an overall group or trend and the variability of individual human behavior.
Related posts: Earlier results from the NLLFS showed that the lack of male role models “did not adversely affect the psychological adjustment” of teens in the study; that their social and psychological adjustment was just fine ( in some cases higher than peers); and that they had experienced no physical or sexual abuse from a parent or caregiver. A separate recent study of the play habits of young children with lesbian and gay parents found that they tend to play in less gender-stereotyped ways.
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