What if all the best scholarly research about children with lesbian or gay parents was gathered into a single online portal? The “What We Know” project has done just that, and will likely become a key reference for policymakers, journalists, researchers, and the public.
The project, housed at Columbia Law School, is intended to inform people about expert consensus on controversial public policy issues. Described by its founders as “part online library, part communications outreach tool,” its first phase focuses on LGBT equality, starting with the well-being of children with lesbian and gay parents.
Project director Nathaniel Frank, Ph.D., is an internationally recognized authority on LGBT public policy best known for his work on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Principal investigator Katherine Franke is the Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law at Columbia Law School, and director of the school’s Center for Gender and Sexuality Law. Along with other project staff and a board of advisors, they choose studies for the portal using a strict set of criteria for “credibility, relevance and usefulness.” Articles must be “peer-reviewed, published in a scholarly journal, and directly relevant to the policy question at hand.”
The site has compiled 70 key studies dating back to 1980 and concluding that “children of gay or lesbian parents fare no worse than other children.” There are abstracts along with links to the full studies on their original sites. (Not all full studies are available without a subscription to the journal in question.)
Additionally, there are three studies that conclude, in contrast, that these children “face added disadvantages.” The site notes that these studies (including a widely publicized one by Mark Regnerus), have been criticized by many scholars for using samples of children who had endured family break-ups, which itself can cause added risks.
The What We Know portal aggregates all the relevant research onto one page, so visitors can see—rather than just hear second-hand—what the preponderance of evidence says.
In an age of information overload, it can be increasingly difficult to know how to get reliable information about important topics and whom to turn to if you don’t have the capacity to delve into mountains of research yourself. The idea of the What We Know portal is to allow both a quick glance at the overview of scholarship on a topic, and the opportunity to access abstracts and studies (where available) directly, for those who want to verify or further research the topic.
When a group with a specific policy goal asserts something about what the research says on a given topic, or if you look at a single study, it’s reasonable to wonder if you’ve only gotten part of the story; the What We Know portal aggregates all the relevant research onto one page, so visitors can see—rather than just hear second-hand—what the preponderance of evidence says, and can pursue further research from the portal if they want a deeper dive.
While the studies currently on the site do not specifically cover children with bisexual and transgender parents, Frank told me:
We choose research studies and the parameters of our questions based on the relevance of the topic to current political debates and the availability of a critical mass of research informing the topic. Most scholarship and policy debates in this realm address “different-sex” and “same-sex”-headed households rather than orientation itself, or they identify people based on whether they have or have recently had a same-sex partner. So there is not a critical mass of research on bisexual parents per se. There is also inadequate research on the impact of having a transgender parent, but we do plan to undertake specific questions on transgender issues in the near future.
This spring, summer, and fall, they will gradually add sections of the site covering conversion therapy, transgender mental health, the impact of stigma on LGBT youth, and LGBT physical and mental health issues. Future phases of “What We Know” may include additional policy issues such as tax fairness, gun safety, climate change, and education reform.
I imagine the site will be of most use to journalists, scholars, and professional policymakers (who might include some of us, but not all). But if you’re a lesbian or gay person considering parenthood and ever questioned whether your sexual orientation would affect your child, if you’re involved in a local controversy about lesbian or gay parents, or you’re simply curious to see what scholars say about how children of lesbian and gay parents have fared over the last 35 years, go check it out. It’s an incredibly useful tool worth knowing.