June 15, 2022
Same-sex parents should be extra proud this month. Seven years ago this June, the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that states must issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Sociologist Kathleen Hull found that child development questions dominated legal debates in her study of the social science research cited in same-sex marriage litigation. Opponents argued that having and raising children was a primary purpose of marriage, and that same-sex parenting harms children. A typical argument was that a child’s biological mother and father each play a “vital and unique” role based on their different sexes and biological relationships to the child.
Proponents argued that the available research did not support such a claim, and that any differences in child outcomes could be due to discrimination against same-sex parents. At the time of the Obergefell decision, rigorous quantitative research on sexual and gender minority parenting was relatively sparse and mostly limited to small nonprobability samples. Since then, researchers have made significant advances largely due to the growing availability of high quality data from nationally representative household surveys and national population registers.
This new generation of research consistently shows that children raised by same-sex parents do at least as well as children raised by different-sex parents. In her review of research on sexual- and gender-minority families conducted between 2010 and 2020, Corrine Reczek concluded that “studies using new nationally representative population-based survey data … consistently [show] that children in same-sex households experience similar health, behavioral, and educational outcomes compared to children in different-sex households.”
Reczek’s review includes a number of post-Obergefell studies that use US data from large-scale, nationally representative federal government surveys like the National Health Interview Survey and the American Community Survey (ACS). For example, using the ACS, Boertien and Bernadi find “no effect of parental union sex composition on school progress … within any area or among any group studied.” Using the American Time Use Survey, Pickett and her colleagues find that “women (regardless of the gender of their partners) and men coupled with other men spent significantly more time with children than men coupled with women…”
Reczek’s conclusions are bolstered by a growing list of subsequently published studies. Three particularly notable studies published in the last two years use high quality population register data from the Netherlands and find either no difference or better outcomes among children raised by same-sex parents. Kabátek and Perales find that “children in same-sex-parented families outperform children in different-sex-parented families on multiple indicators of academic performance, including standardized tests scores, high school graduation rates, and college enrollment. Such advantages extend to both male and female children, and are more pronounced among children in female than male same-sex-parented families.”
Similarly, Mazrekaj, De Witte, and Cabus find that “children raised by same-sex parents from birth are 4.8 percentage points more likely to graduate from high school than are children raised by different-sex parents.” Even after controlling for “a range of socioeconomic factors, the significantly positive association does not entirely disappear.”
Looking at behavioral outcomes, Mazrekaj, Fischer, and Box conclude that “children in both [same-sex and different-sex] family types show similar levels of behavioral adjustment, and that no statistically significant differences between children with same- and different-sex parents can be found.”
Finally, a recently published meta-analysis looking at 32 studies and six child outcomes concluded that the “overall effect size of having same-sex parents on the developmental outcomes of the children [in these studies] was positive and significantly different from that of heterosexual parents.”
Taken as a whole, this now substantial body of research should put to rest the right wing idea that there is one ideal family arrangement for children.