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Philip N. Cohen

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Gay and Lesbian Parents Making the Grade

Posted: 09/23/10 08:01 AM ET

The Florida appeals court that threw out that state's ban on gay parent adoptions yesterday didn't need this study to rule against the junk science of homophobia. But this new research does provide the first large-scale analysis of educational outcomes for children living in homogamous-couple families.

The latest issue of Demography features an article by Michael Rosenfeld that uses a common measure of educational progress to compare how children are doing according to the marital status of their parents. The bottom line is that children living with partnered gay and lesbian parents show no educational delays, once education and income are taken into account.

The article first reviews previous research (some of which I've discussed), concluding: "In 45 empirical studies of outcomes of children of same-sex couples ... none found statistically significant disadvantages for children raised by gay and lesbian parents compared with other children." (There is a helpful supplement listing those studies, too.) Still, the problem with all that research is it has used small samples, sometimes "convenience" rather than random samples, and often not included important control groups for comparison.

Rosenfeld gets around that by using 2000 Census data. The Census measured primary education status in categories, grades 1-4 and grades 5-8. Rosenfeld, conservatively, counts students as "behind-grade" if they are listed in grades 1-4 and 11 years old or older, or in grades 5-8 and 15 years old or older. Because the Census is a cross section, and you can't know which kids moved around when (especially in step, gay/lesbian, and single-parent situations), he limited the analysis to kids and parents who were living in the same place for at least 5 years.

These are the "behind-grade" rates for kids living in different types of parent situations (note "homogamous" are same-sex couples regardless of legal marital status, and "heterogamous" are male-female couples):

Source: My graph from Rosenfeld (2010), Table 1.

You can see that kids in homogamous-couple families do have higher grade-retention rates than those in heterogamous-married families. Higher still are the retention rates of those with single parents, heterogamous cohabiting parents, and those who are formerly married. In the subsequent analysis, however, the article shows conclusively that the homogamous-couple effect is accounted for by the lower education and income of those couples compared with heterogamous married couples.

These grade retention differences could be the result of parenting "quality," but also no doubt reflect the effect of living-arrangement disruptions and other unknown elements in the children's histories. It's a very nicely done article that explores these factors as thoroughly as possible, and pushes the research definitively forward. However, it's important to remember that, as long as homogamous couples can't legally marry, we can't make genuine apples-to-apples comparisons about family life among different kinds of families.

On language

By this point in the post, you might be sick of the terms homogamous and heterogamous. Believe me, it hurts me more than it hurts you, but I think our science is held back by the language deficits we experience in this area. I've been working on this for a while now, trying to advance better language that avoids the term opposite-sex for men and women, who differ by degrees -- and doesn't presume men and women married to each other are heterosexual.

Rosenfeld's article uses the terms "same-sex couples" and "heterosexual married couples," rather than "opposite sex couples." The problem with heterosexual is that we don't know the sexual orientation of people in those couples - as many gay, lesbian, and bisexual people are married to people of another sex category. So heterosexual is not logically juxtaposed with same-sex. If we were starting from scratch, we could make "heterosexual" mean "different sex," but its use for sexual orientation - attraction, not identification - is too well established. I'm sticking with my suggestion -- spelled out in long form here -- to describe couples as homogamous versus heterogamous.

Cross posted from the Family Inequality blog.