The truth about children of gays

IT’S the sort of thing that happens in fiction: a young woman lies heavily pregnant in a hospital bed, ill from the stress of a police investigation relating to her child’s conception.

Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood wrote about such scenarios in her chilling book The Handmaid’s Tale. She created a futuristic America in which a fundamentalist state regulated how and with whom women bred children; police prosecuted – persecuted? – any who dared to breach the rules.

Such a vision seemed far removed from Melbourne – until this week. A pregnant mother who is a police officer has required hospital treatment for a stress-related illness after a police inquiry into the way she and a gay colleague managed to conceive an IVF child.

It has been alleged that the two falsified a document to get into an IVF program, a claim the couple denies. They face the possibility of criminal charges and the loss of their police careers. Gays are not licensed to breed – not in ways that require medical assistance, anyway.

The reasons for that are a matter of common sense, aren’t they? Bans on gay access to IVF arise largely out of concern for the children who might result from it. Everyone knows that children need parents of both sexes if they are to be sexually normal. Everyone knows that children in gay families are more vulnerable to all sorts of emotional and social problems. How could you justify visiting that upon a child?

But here’s the rub: it seems that 20 years of studies by social researchers comparing the children of gay parents with the offspring of heterosexuals have failed to discover any significant negative difference between the two.

In 1992, American researcher Charlotte Patterson analysed the findings of 12 studies that had assessed more than 300 children of gay or lesbian parents, often comparing them with the children of divorced heterosexual women. They found that adult children of gay people were no more likely to be gay than were the children of heterosexual parents.

They did not differ from “normal” children in terms of gender identity (how good they felt about being male or female) or gender role behavior (lesbians’ children played just as often with “feminine” toys such as dolls, and as adults were just as
likely as others to choose jobs that fitted with conventional sex roles).

The studies found no differences in terms of intelligence, self-concept, emotional problems and development of moral judgment.

The significant differences they did find were nothing you could base a discriminatory law upon. One study reported that lesbians’ children saw themselves as more lovable and were rated by others as more affectionate and more protective towards younger children.

Another reported that lesbian mothers were more concerned than heterosexual mothers that their children have good relationships with adult men; a third, that children of lesbians saw more of their fathers than the children of heterosexual divorced women.

No evidence here of ideological brainwashing against heterosexuality. Maybe that’s because gay parents know how painful and destructive it is to be pressured to deny your true self. Maybe they don’t want that for their own children, gay or straight.

If a child’s healthy development depends not on family structure, but on the quality of family relationships, what precisely are we protecting potential children from when we ban gays from using technology to conceive them? Our own prejudices?

A 1995 survey of 732 Australian lesbians found that 20 per cent already had children and another 14.5 per cent planned to have children within five years. Using conventional means to conceive must be abhorrent to them, and exposes them to the health risks of unsafe sex with people who are not their chosen partners. Under current laws, illicit artificial insemination attracts a penalty of up to four years’ jail.

If it cannot be shown that gay families are detrimental for children, then the only remaining justification for refusing them access to artificial insemination is based on the religious notion that homosexual activity is ungodly and somehow against “the natural order”.

“The natural order” tends to be a euphemism for “the status quo”. It was called upon often by those who tried to keep women out of voting booths, universities and pulpits. It’s a concept that has had its day.

First published in The Age.