In 2009, when the legislature in my state, Maine, was considering legalizing marriage for gay and lesbian couples, I wrote a version of the following as an opinion piece for our local paper. Since the op-ed is no longer accessible online, I thought I would excerpt it here on my blog with the hope that it might prove useful to those who are working to make marriage legal for all citizens. Apologies to those expecting a piece on framing – I’m being selfish here by using this space to restate the conclusions from science on what constitutes a healthy family environment.
As the legislature considers expanding civil marriage to all adults, regardless of sexual orientation, the public discourse on the issue should be informed by a fair rendering of the extant social science research on the relationship between policy and family functioning. Understanding that relationship helps us to create the systems of opportunity and equality fundamental to our values.
What do we know about optimal environments for child development? Nurturing, supportive, stable and responsive interactions with caring adults are what children need. What is bad for children’s development is exposure to violence, chronic stress, and social isolation. And what does the social science literature attest, as regarding children born to or adopted by gay and lesbian parents? Healthy development and psychological well-being of children is unrelated to parents’ sexual orientation.
It is stress and conflict in the home that can disrupt children’s development, not parents’ sexual orientation. In a 2004 summary of research on lesbian and gay parents, the American Psychological Association asserted that, “results of research suggest that lesbian and gay parents are as likely as heterosexual parents to provide supportive and healthy environments for their children.” The research also confirms that children of gay and lesbian parents are as likely to thrive as children of heterosexual parents.
It is not surprising, given the research findings, that the APA determined that children raised by a same-sex couple benefit from legal ties to each parent. Given the thousands of federal and state laws in which marital status is a factor in the determination of benefits (from those involving health care decision-making, property rights, retirement benefits, pensions and inheritance) the APA also concluded that it is discriminatory to deny civil marriage to same-sex couples, as any lesser status simply does not confer equivalent legal rights, benefits and privileges.
What the APA decisions remind us is that families’ health and well-being are affected by the legal, political and cultural contexts in which families live. And the climate of public opinion about social issues certainly affects us all. That is why it is troubling to see anti-gay/anti-lesbian prejudice, which has been a context of development for gay and lesbian citizens and their families, continue to pervade public conversations today.
Certainly, the decisions churches and other private institutions make about how best to serve their communities are private decisions, and are qualitatively different from the decisions we make together about the rights that we preserve and defend through policy and our public institutions. The challenges in family environments that we should seek to address with policy are not based on sex, age, ethnicity, race, religion or sexual orientation – they are based on differential access to jobs that pay, high quality health care, affordable housing, and healthy communities.
Again, the social science is clear: When families do not have access to the systems and structures that provide equal opportunity, we put our children’s futures and the well-being of our communities at risk. That is what we should be worried about, what we should seek to address with policy and with due diligence. We all have a stake in overcoming prejudices brought about by living in a world that continues to struggle with understanding. We all have a stake in ensuring equal opportunity for all.Lynn Davey, Ph.D. Portland, ME (The author is a developmental psychologist and a member of the American Psychological Association)