Saturday, 25 January 2014

Times: Parents’ sexual orientation
Thursday, January 23, 2014, 00:01 by Fr Paul Galea

In last Sunday’s Circle magazine feature entitled ‘New choices, new families’, big chunks were reported verbatim from Civil Liberties Minister Helena Dalli, who was quoting studies related to the effects of gay parenting on children, including statements by the American Sociological Association.

Unfortunately, none of these were referenced, except for one article by Judith Stacey and Timothy Biblarz.

On the basis of this study, Dalli concludes that there is such a wide consensus in the area of social science that the American Academy of Paediatrics and all major professional organisations with expertise in child welfare support gay and lesbian parental rights.

I did access this article – ‘(How) does the sexual orientation of parents matter?’ (American Sociological Review, vol. 66, no. 2, April 2001, 159-183) – and, although dated, I found it quite intriguing and intellectually more challenging than the simplified rendition.

The following excerpts can give us an idea of some of the complexities at stake: “Given the weighty political implications of this body of research, it is easy to understand the social sources of such a defensive stance.

“As long as sexual orientation can deprive a gay parent of child custody, fertility services and adoption rights, sensitive scholars are apt to tread gingerly around the terrain of differences.

“Unfortunately, however, this reticence compromises the development of knowledge not only in child development and psychology but also within the sociology of sexuality, gender and family more broadly.

“For if homophobic theories seem crude, too many psychologists who are sympathetic to lesbigay parenting seem hesitant to theorise at all,” (p.162).

Moreover, “when researchers downplay the significance of any findings of differences, they forfeit a unique opportunity to take full advantage of the ‘natural laboratory’ that the advent of lesbigay-parent families provides for exploring the effects and acquisition of gender and sexual identity, ideology and behaviour.

“This reticence is most evident in analyses of sexual behaviour and identity – the most politically sensitive issue in the debate. Virtually all of the published research claims to find no differences in the sexuality of children reared by lesbigay parents and those raised by nongay parents – but none of the studies that report this finding attempts to theorise about such an implausible outcome.

“Yet, it is difficult to conceive of a credible theory of sexual development that would not expect the adult children of lesbigay parents to display a somewhat higher incidence of homoerotic desire, behaviour and identity than children of heterosexual parents,” (p.163).

In fact, while sensitive to the political implications, the authors do arrive at this conclusion and do not hesitate to state: “The evidence, while scanty and under-analysed, hints that parental sexual orientation is positively associated with the possibility that children will be more likely to attain a similar orientation – and theory and common sense also support such a view.

“Children raised by lesbian co-parents should and do seem to grow up more open to homoerotic relationships.

“We recognise the political dangers of pointing out that recent studies indicate that a higher proportion of children with lesbigay parents are themselves apt to engage in homosexual activity” (p.178).

This conclusion, apart from its moral implications, has been overlooked in the current debate.

On the other hand, the authors do believe that: “granting legal rights and respect to gay parents and their children should lessen the stigma that they now suffer and might reduce the high rates of depression and suicide reported among closeted gay youth living with heterosexual parents” (p.179).

This is an area where many stakeholders need to be engaged.

Many of the studies finding no problems can be faulted for using small, ‘convenience’ samples of lesbian couples who were part of advocacy and support groups, not representative samples.

The research on children is not clear and convincing enough to base public policy on, one way or the other.

It is still in the early stages and subject to ideological interpretation on both sides.

Fr Paul Galea is a clinical psychologist.

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