A TALK WITH GAY PARENTING RESEARCHER ABBIE GOLDBERG
Dr. Abbie Goldberg’s research focuses on exploring parenthood, relationship quality, and well being in diverse families, including adoptive parent families and lesbian/gay parent families. She is currently exploring the transition to adoptive parenthood among a diverse group of couples in the Transition to Adoptive Parenthood Project, a longitudinal study focused on the transition to adoptive parenthood among same-sex couples and heterosexual couples.
She also recently co-authored a study of how teens and young adults with LGB parents feel about marriage equality in The Journal of Marriage and Family.
Now that the brouhaha from Mark Regnerus’ flawed gay parenting study is dying down, we thought we’d speak to a researcher that actually knows a thing or two about lesbian and gay families.
Dr. Goldberg has been tapped by a wide variety of media outlets, including NPR, HRC, USA Today, The New York Times and CBS to comment on her LGB family research (most recently, she was busy commenting on the Regnerus study and its fantastically flawed set-up). We spoke to Dr. Goldberg to talk about her research on gay and lesbian adoptive parents and children of LGB parents.
IC: Why were you initially drawn to the topic of lesbian and gay families?
AG: When I was doing my Ph.D. in the early ‘90s, I was working with someone who was focusing on a transition to parenthood among one particular understudied group – namely working class heterosexual couples in which both partners had less than a college degree.
In looking at this group’s unique challenges, and reviewing the literature on the transition to parenthood, I found that there was not a single study on lesbian or gay couples’ transition to parenthood. And, even more surprisingly, there was not a study on any couples’ transition to adoptive parenthood. This was very important because there are hundreds of studies on heterosexual couples that pursue biological parenthood through “natural means.” The issue of reproductive technology wasn’t on the map in the late 90s the way that it is today. So, and for my dissertation I did the first study of the transition to parenthood for lesbian couples that pursued insemination to become pregnant.
Really, from the very beginning [of my research], I’ve been interested in diverse families, generally; and I’ve really seen it as a problem that our policies and our media reflect a so-called dominant norm which is no longer so dominant (that is, the heterosexual, nuclear family structure). So my work is focused on helping to fill that gap – and there are a number of other wonderful researchers who are helping to fill that gap as well.
After completing my study of lesbian couples who became parents via insemination, I realized that there was still no research on lesbian or gay couples who adopt for the first time. There were studies that look at adopted kids when they’re older, but these studies are not specifically about lesbian and gay parents, and then there was not a single study on heterosexual couples’ transition to parenthood, with the exception of a study done in the early 1990s in Israel. To address that gap, since 2005, I’ve been studying over 150 couples – lesbian, heterosexual, and gay – whom I’ve followed from the pre-adoptive period (before they adopt) to after they adopt and beyond. Now their kids are transitioning into preschool and kindergarten. So it’s become a long-term longitudinal study, which is very exciting.
IC: In those studies, did you see a difference between why gay parents were adopting vs. straight parents?
AG: So this is the interesting stat – in our study, about 80% of the heterosexual couples compared to less than half of the lesbian couples were pursuing adoption because their conception efforts had failed. So, about half the lesbian couples tried to conceive and were unsuccessful. But they also didn’t go as far as heterosexual couples. For example, it was not atypical that lesbian couples would “give insemination a try” and try for about 4 cycles before then looking into adoption. So there was a much lower level of investment in this biological link, in part perhaps because only one partner can be biologically related to the child. But it was also that these women often didn’t grow up thinking, “I’m going to have a child that is biologically related to me”. They assumed that they would adopt, or were at least open to it. In heterosexual couples, only 20% of those we studied were intentional adopters; so, they pursued adoption without trying to conceive biologically first. So that group of heterosexual couples was more like the lesbian couples – more willing to go straight to adoption.
I find that very compelling and a story that does not get told much. And the people who fall into that category – particularly the heterosexual couples – say, “You know, people don’t get us. We go to our adoption classes and people assume that we tried to conceive and were unsuccessful.” So the adoption world tends to come at these minority groups with all these assumptions – just a very interesting story.
IC: Comparing lesbian couples to gay male couples. It seems that lesbian couples are more likely to start a family through biological means than gay male couples. Would you say that is correct?
AG: Yes, because it’s more expensive [for gay male couples]. Lesbian couples can essentially inseminate for free. Of course with sperm donation and medical costs, that can add up, but gay men are simply more likely to adopt through the foster care system (which is essentially free), and private domestic adoption, (which can run from 20,000-40,000 on average) compared to surrogacy The gay couples that opt for surrogacy, which is $100,000-$150,000, on average, is a small percentage of the gay male population, because it’s a fairly small percentage of gay men who can afford that. So in our sample of gay men, probably less than 10% tried surrogacy. I do get into that in my new book, because really surrogacy seems like this “you could have it all” kind of thing for gay couples, but it does come with its own baggage, and its own uncertainties. So while adoption may seem like it creates uncertainties, surrogacy can as well.
IC: How likely is it that gay couples experience discrimination in the adoption process?
AG: The short answer is that it’s geographically dependent. I have samples from almost every region and most states represented. So I can tell you that the experience of a gay male couple adopting in San Francisco California is fundamentally very different from a gay male couple adopting in urban South Carolina or a rural area in Delaware. That being said, it’s very hard for the couples in those less gay-friendly areas to say with certainty that they are experiencing discrimination. For example, they’ll often say, “We don’t really know what’s going on – we’ve put in our profile and we’ve been waiting for years,” or “We don’t think our profile is being shown.” But they don’t want to challenge the agency they are working with because if they do, they could be blackballed. Or they go to their first agency class – which is usually focused on “overcoming your infertility” – which, by the way is really alienating for heterosexual couples as well who chose to adopt over biologically conceiving – and feel a little out of place. So there’s all these hetero-normative assumptions built in that aren’t necessarily discrimination, but more of a deprioritization.
Yes, gay men in my sample have also had doors slammed on them, had phones hung up on them, but more often it’s this more subtle kind of micro discrimination where people are sort of unfriendly and there are all these unstated assumptions.
IC: Is there any advice you would have for gay couples just starting the adoption process?
AG: Yes, I have two big pieces of advice.
First, don’t limit yourself to your region. We had many couples work with agencies that are far away from them. Some of the most gay-friendly agencies are on the west coast and east coast – so in places like Seattle, CA, VT, and MA, there are well-known gay friendly agencies that will work with couples from all over. Now it does require that the couple travel to see them a couple of times a year, but they’ll work with you no matter where you are. It is sometimes less convenient, but at least you feel like you have people that are working for you.
Second, ask for a list of references. Meaning, ask if there are other gay couples who the agency has worked with in the past, which you can call or have email contact with. Find out their experiences – were those couples happy with the agency? Any agency that really is gay-friendly and feels confident about their success in serving their adoptive families would be delighted to share names and phone numbers.
And then, lastly, not being afraid to take your business elsewhere if you feel you are not being treated with respect.
IC: We’ve seen some stories on the site that make it seem like gay male couples are favored over lesbian couples in the adoption process. Have you seen this trend in your work as well?
AG: It is a trend and we have some data on this as well. The wait time, in our sample for gay men, is shorter than for lesbian couples. So we’re seeing lesbian couples wait the longest. This is very consistent with anecdotal reports we’ve heard from agency directors. They don’t always keep records on this kind of stuff. But I present my work throughout the country, and whenever I present to an adoption agency, this frequently comes up as a question and something that they’re seeing.
We have a paper about this and I talk about it in my new book (Goldberg recently published Gay Dads: Transitions to Adoptive Fatherhood). What gay men say they hear from prospective birth mothers is “You know, I didn’t want to have to compete (with another woman),” symbolically or in reality.
We have a lot of really wonderful quotes of men sort of talking about these mothers – these birth mothers – who like the idea of being called “mom,” and perhaps are aware that this will not happen if there are two other mothers. Some of the gay men note that they don’t have a problem with the birth mother being called “Mom.” They don’t feel directly threatened by it. So there really is the potential for a more complex relationship with two moms, and more of relaxation around the notion of two dads, for some birth mothers.
IC: Are there discoveries from your research that can help prepare gay parents – things they may not realize before they start?
AG: It may seem sort of obvious at this point, but people should be generally be aware that there are really no more closed adoptions; rather, there is some level of openness in all adoptions. Some people start the adoption process uninformed about what adoption looks like today. So they may be very confused and disappointed regarding the current state of adoption, and struggle with the openness – the notion of having contact with their child’s birth family. That being said, we’ve also found that some people who were initially not so into the idea of open adoption became totally on board once they started the adoption process and they said it was the best thing that could have ever happened.
In general, I would say parents should get updated information about adoption in general, and understand what adoption looks like today. You’d be surprised at the myths that people still carry around. They think international adoption is still a possibility for LGBT couples; they think it’s much cheaper than it is; they think that closed adoption is still the norm.
IC: Can you speak a little about international adoption and why that’s not really an option for lesbian and gay couples anymore?
AG: The countries that used to be open to adoption for single people are no longer open to that. There is now greater demand and less supply, so some countries have become very selective about what kind of adoptive parents they are open to. So now, China for example, has a long list of requirements, such as “must be heterosexual,” “must be married,” “cannot be obese,” etc.
Also, before, when they were adopting to single men and women, some countries were beginning to get wind of the fact that a certain number of those people were not heterosexual. And some countries made their policies more specific, in order to prevent singles from adopting.
IC: You did another big study recently on children of LGBT parents. What would you say affects kids of gay parents the most?
AG: These kids expressed various benefits with regards to having same sex parents. They feel that having two parents is positive. Seeing their parents be who they were, regardless of sexuality, enabled them to be flexible and accepting of themselves – to understand that they can be a woman who likes to fix cars, or a guy who likes to dance, for example. Basically LGB parents serve as role models for not having to live in gender straight jackets, and these young adults grew up feeling they could do and be anything. Other benefits for these kids were seeing the division of labor shared among their parents and modeling more egalitarian ideals for them that they aspire to in their own relationships, in their heterosexual romantic relationships.
So that’s the positive. And then the negative is the stigma that they experienced growing up. And though certainly things are changing, many of them had stories of being victimized on various levels because of having gay parents. Being told, for example, when their parents broke up, that their parents weren’t really married so it wasn’t a “real divorce.” Just a lack of understanding about their families, and a lack of understanding about legal inequities such as marriage inequality and its effects on same-sex parent families. There were portions of these kid’s lives where they had no health insurance because their non-biological moms worked, but they couldn’t be covered under her insurance. Things like that that families just take for granted – there were a lot of stories like that.
IC: I think a lot of gay and lesbian parents are afraid of – or want to know – if their kids will pursue asking questions about their donors. Is that something that kids talked about in your research?
AG: It really varies. Research shows that there are kids who have a lot of questions and kids who couldn’t care less about their donors. But what is really interesting is that when kids are looking for more information about their donor, they typically aren’t looking to have a relationship with them. They want really practical, sort of basic information about them. Like the number one thing that they want is to know what he looks like – or to know what he does or what he looks like. It’s sort of like “Who is this person?” but it’s not necessarily a yearning for a daddy. I mean that’s really rare, wanting that level of relationship. It’s more curiosity.
IC: I think another worry gay parents have is around having a masculine or feminine influence when their kids are growing up. Is it necessary? Do kids talk about it?
AG: In terms of adult kids of LGB parents who I’ve talked to – many of them have these influences. When people worry about male or female influence – it’s kind of an odd worry, in the sense that it’s almost impossible to go through your life without having contact with people of one or the other gender. So inevitably you’re going to have teachers, coaches, pediatricians, grandparents, uncles…it may not be a parent role, but the idea that a little boy raised by two moms isn’t going to know what being a man is like, or isn’t going to know how to be a man, is a little short sighted.
With the families that I’ve interviewed, inmost of the cases, the parent has a sister or a brother or a good family friend that plays some kind of important role with their child. And usually it’s not because they think, “Oh, my son needs a male role model,” it’s because “Oh, my brother really wants to be involved” or “We think he’s an awesome guy.” The prerequisites for a male role model don’t have to complicated. It’s the kind of thing where, yes it’s important to be aware of, it’s important to be attentive to when the child is older and develops more of a sense of gender, but it’s not the kind of thing that I think should ever paralyze a couple from pursuing parenthood.
IC: What’s your response to the recent study by Mark Regnerus on gay parents?
AG: The study is methodologically flawed. It defines participants’ parents as gay and lesbian parents when they were not really gay and lesbian parents. Regnerus asked adults if their parents ever had a same sex relationship. If they said yes, he categorized them as people who grew up with gay or lesbian parents. Nevermind if that same-sex relationship was a week, a month, two weeks, if it happened a year ago or 15 years ago – it didn’t matter. So he basically took everyone who had ever had a same sex relationship and put them in one box and compared those individuals to individuals who lived with married heterosexual parents their entire lives. These two groups were so different in so many different ways and he compares them, so it’s almost impossible to say anything about the study. It’s one very homogenous group compared to one very heterogeneous group.
The scientific community largely regards it as a poorly done study that’s really flawed, and can tell us very little except that multiple transitions and parental separation and divorce is bad for kids. And we knew that already, so the study doesn’t add much to the debate on kids with gay parents. Not to mention the fact that some of these kids – their parents were probably in the same sex relationship 30 years ago, so it doesn’t tell us anything about the climate of gay marriage and tells us absolutely nothing about kids of planned gay and lesbian families which is what most couples are forming today.
Read the APA statement in response to the Regnerus study that Dr. Goldberg helped craft.
Abbie Goldberg, Ph.D., is Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at Clark University in Worcester, MA. Her research focuses on exploring parenthood, relationship quality, and well being in diverse families, including adoptive parent families and lesbian/gay parent families. Her book, Gay Dads: Transitions to Adoptive Fatherhood was recently published by NYU Press. You can follow her work at her website.