Same-Sex Parenting

For as long as people have understood themselves as gay, gay people have parented their children. In the past, however, homosexual parents often shielded themselves and their children from scrutiny by publicly concealing their sexual orientation. By the end of the twentieth century, an estimated six to ten million gay and lesbian parents in the United States were raising six to fourteen million children, often in openly recognized gay families. Most of these children were born to heterosexually married parents, one or both of whom later came out as gay or lesbian. Some were born to single gay men or lesbians. An increasing number, however, were born to same-sex couples living together in long-term partnerships. The sharp rise in same-sex couples having children in the late twentieth century was celebrated as a "gayby boom," yet these couples faced many challenges to creating and protecting their families.

By 1995, studies of children raised in same-sex families were fueled by growing interest in parenting by gays and lesbians, increasing attention to the phenomenon of same-sex parenting in the culture at large, and a burst of custody cases involving gay and lesbian parents. Until the late 1990s, most psychological and sociological research of these children aimed to counteract assumptions made by courts about the unfitness of gay parents. The studies concluded that children raised by gays or lesbians do just as well in school and are as psychologically well-adjusted as children raised in comparable heterosexual families. One study by Charlotte Patterson (1994), however, departed from this trend by identifying two major differences: greater symptoms of stress and a greater sense of well-being among the four-to nine-year-old children of lesbian mothers. Patterson concludes, then, that although children raised from birth by lesbians showed signs of anxiety about their difference from their peers, the substantial support that they received at home buttressed them from outside criticism and shored up their self-esteem more generally. Researchers have noted that data on children raised by gay fathers is especially sparse. Scholars have encouraged, but rarely completed, studies that do more than dispel myths about risks to children and that explore the diversity of gay families themselves.

For many years, social and legal stigma bred shame and fear among same-sex parents and their sons and daughters. Before the rise of the American Gay Liberation Movement in 1969, only six child custody cases involving a gay or lesbian parent dared to challenge the universal assumption that only heterosexuals were fit to raise children. As sociologist Judith Stacey points out, however, the courts' denial of parental rights to these pioneers made their cause visible. In the midst of the vigorously anti-family ideology of the early gay liberation, feminist, and lesbian-feminist movements in the United States, gay and lesbian parents initiated over fifty custody suits in the 1970s. Joined by a growing number of "out" lesbians conceiving outside of marriage, previously married gay and lesbian parents, in the words of Judith Stacey, "level[ed] a public challenge against the reigning cultural presumption that the two terms–gay and parent–are antithetical" (p. 110).

Unfortunately, parents seeking custody of their children were often unsuccessful. In 1995, for example, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that Sharon Bottoms was an unfit parent because she came out as a lesbian after having a child; as a result, she lost custody of her five-year-old son, Tyler. In 1996, the state appeals court of Florida ruled that John Ward, a convicted murderer, was a more fit parent than his lesbian ex-wife, Mary. By the early twenty-first century, U.S. courts in most states adopted a "nexus approach" to evaluating parental fitness, requiring that the party suing for custody demonstrate a link between the gay parent's sexual orientation and harm to the child rather than assuming it outright. Nevertheless, child custody and visitation cases involve a great deal of judicial discretion and vary considerably from state to state.

Despite the obstacles, increasing numbers of same-sex couples began bringing children into their lives. Thousands of lesbian women, including several celebrities, around the country, especially in tolerant regions such as the San Francisco Bay Area, have conceived children through donor insemination (DI). Performed at home or by medical professionals, DI is the most common way that lesbian women choose to become mothers. Many women use anonymous sperm from sperm banks (though many doctors and banks still discriminate against unmarried women) for its convenience and/or in order to decrease the chance that the donor will assert himself as the father of his offspring. Other single lesbians and female couples choose to conceive using sperm from a "known donor," avoiding institutional discrimination and/or preferring the opportunity to foster a relationship of some kind between their children and the donor.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, rising numbers of lesbians and (especially) gay men began pursuing other avenues through which to have children, including SURROGACY, foster parenting, and ADOPTION. Traditional surrogacy, when a woman agrees to bear a child for another person using the father's sperm and her own or a donated egg, allows one member of a gay male couple to form a biological relationship with the resulting child. Similarly, gestational surrogacy, when one woman carries a child conceived using her female partner's egg and donor sperm, links both partners of a female couple to the biology of their son or daughter. In tolerant areas, alternatively, many gays and lesbians create families through foster parenting. Though Florida and New Hampshire prohibited gays and lesbians from adopting children (including their foster children), international adoption became especially common in the 1990s. In addition to "stranger adoption," same-sex parents rely heavily on "second-parent" or "step-parent" adoption, when one member of a couple shares the legal parentage of his or her partner's biological child with the existing legal parent. According to Lambda Legal Defense, as of 1997, courts in twenty-one states had approved second-parent adoptions by same-sex couples. Without access to this process, nonbiological parents have no legal right to custody of their children.

Gay and lesbian parental rights in Europe vary by country but usually by 2003 fell short of those afforded in the United States. Only the Netherlands provided same-sex couples all of the protections afforded by civil marriage, including adoption and custody rights. Although Denmark, Norway, Greenland, Sweden, and Iceland created a new marital status for gay and lesbian people in the 1980s and 1990s, Lambda Legal Defense explains that these "registered partnerships" generally do not allow their beneficiaries to adopt either nonrelated or even each other's children. In the early 2000s, other European countries afforded neither marital nor parental rights to their gay and lesbian citizens.

Since the 1980s, gay, lesbian, and bisexual people have created dozens of local and national organizations to support and advocate for same-sex parents and their children. For example, The Sperm Bank of California, founded in 1982 as the nation's only nonprofit sperm bank in order to serve lesbian and bisexual women, reported in 2001 that over one thousand children had been born through their services. California is also home to Maia Midwifery, established in 1994 to facilitate the creation of lesbian families. Other organizations, such as COLAGE (Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere), focus on the children of same-sex parents. The National Center for Lesbian Rights has defended lesbian parental rights in court and has educated women about protecting their families from legal assault. Reflecting the emphasis on gay families within the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender civil rights movement, national organizations such as the Equal Rights Campaign added gay-parenting rights to their agendas.

In addition to resources available through organizations, popular books about conception, pregnancy, and child rearing for gay male and (especially) lesbian parents multiplied in the 1990s and early 2000s. On top of practical and legal advice, this literature offers humor, personal reflection, and opinions about topics such as gender-conscious parenting, the role of nonbiological parents, and family formation by transgender people.

See also: Divorce and Custody; Homosexuality and Sexual Orientation; Parenting.


Patterson, Charlotte. 1994. "Children of the Lesbian Baby Boom: Behavioral Adjustment, Self-concepts, and Sex-role Identity." In Contemporary Perspectives of Gay and Lesbian Psychology: Theory, Research, and Applications, ed. B. Greene and G. Herek. BeverlyHills, CA: Sage.

Patterson, Charlotte. 1995. "Lesbian Mothers, Gay Fathers and their Children." In Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Identities Across the Lifespan: Psychological Perspectives, ed. A.R. D'Augelli and C. Patterson. New York: Oxford University Press.

Stacey, Judith. 1996. In the Name of the Family: Rethinking Family Values in the Postmodern Age. Boston: Beacon Press.


Family Pride Coalition. Available from

Lambda Legal Defense. 1997. "Lesbian and Gay Parenting: A Fact Sheet." Available from

National Center for Lesbian Rights. 2003. "NCLR Projects: Family Law." Available at

National Center for Lesbian Rights. 2003. "NCLR Projects: Family Law." Available at