Gay parent adoption or same-sex adoption refers to the adoption of children by individuals who prefer romantic partners of the same sex—gays and lesbians. Same-sex adoption is portrayed by the media as being a potentially good thing but with potentially detrimental side effects, most notably for the adopted children. This type of adoption is often made to look as if it might well be done but perhaps should not be for the sake of the children involved. With groups such as the religious right, fundamentalist Christian denominations, and private religiously affiliated adoption agencies backing the opposition to adoption by gays and lesbians and, on the other side, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Human Rights Campaign, and various LGBT (lesbian gay bisexual transgender)-friendly groups making up the proponents, the battle over same-sex adoption is well defined and entrenched in a deep and long-standing debate. That battle begins with the media and its portrayal of gay parent adoptions as against the agencies and advocacy groups and their perspectives on placing children in the homes and care of homosexual individuals.
II. Laws and Research
Adoption remained for a long time a rather homogeneous action, with the placement of children in the homes of middle-class, married couples. Over the course of the last three decades, adoption went through a metamorphosis, from being merely a source for married, middle-class couples to create families to being a pathway for a number of diverse and sometimes marginal populations to establish families of their own. According to estimates prepared by the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System, some 123,000 children in the public child welfare system were waiting to be adopted in late 2008. The average age of children awaiting placement in adoptive homes was between six and seven years of age. Many of these children who were awaiting adoption spent 38 consecutive months in foster care. That same year, only 55,000 children were adopted from public welfare agencies. Those who were adopted ranged in age from infants to teenagers and differed in race from Latino to white to African American. The adoptive parents were also diverse: 28 percent were single women, 3 percent were single men, and 2 percent were unmarried couples. Among these adoptive parents was a select group of gay and lesbian individuals and partners.
According to Ada White, director of adoption services for the Child Welfare League of America, many agencies do make placements with gay or lesbian parents, but they do not necessarily talk about these adopters. Agencies are not specifically tracking such adoptions and do not intend to track them. Consequently, the practice of adoption with many of these agencies is that they may place these children in homosexual homes but are not willing to make it public knowledge that they are doing so. The adoption of children by homosexual parents is often done so that others’ knowledge of its occurrence remains minimal. The practices of adoption vary greatly from state to state and region to region and even from judge to judge. The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay and lesbian advocacy organization, has conducted research to determine that 21 states and the District of Columbia allow gay adoption. This would not be the case if the religious right had its way. It is suggested that the ability for gay and lesbian individuals to adopt would become much more limited, with a minimal number of states being welcoming of gay adoption.
Laws and Research
New Jersey was the first state to specify that sexual orientation and marital status could not be used against couples seeking to adopt. New Jersey also allows second-parent adoption, a legal procedure in which a co-parent can adopt the biological or adopted child of his or her partner. New York soon followed, granting second-parent adoptions statewide and forbidding discrimination in adoption proceedings. California joined the party by enacting new domestic partnership legislation that legalized second-parent adoptions. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a number of states exclude gays and lesbians from adopting either as primary or as secondary adoptive parents. Florida stands out among the states in that gay adoption has been banned since 1977. Utah prohibits adoption by any unmarried couple or individual, regardless of sexual orientation. While Mississippi does not actually ban gay and lesbian individuals from adoption, same-sex couples are absolutely prohibited from adopting. The laws regarding same-sex adoption within most states are not actually on the books and are similar to accepted (or not accepted) practices within each state—based more on tradition than on legal precedent.
Since the turn of the millennium, there has been an increase in the number of children within the child welfare system in need of homes and a growing acceptance of nontraditional families looking to adopt them. Among those opposed to such adoptions, however, such as the religiously based organization Focus on the Family, there is a strong sentiment that placing children in the care of gay and lesbian individuals or partners is not in the best interest of the children. In April 2001, researchers Judith Stacey and Timothy Biblarz of the University of Southern California published findings regarding this issue in the American Sociological Review. The duo examined 21 studies concerning the effects of gay parenting. Their meta-analysis concluded: “There were subtle differences in gender behavior and preferences. Lesbian mothers reported that their children, specifically their daughters, were less likely to conform to gender norms in dress, play or behavior; more likely to aspire to nontraditional occupations, such as doctors or lawyers. They also discovered that children of gay and lesbian parents are no more likely to identify themselves as gay or lesbian than the children of heterosexual parents” (Stacey and Biblarz 2001). The latter part of their summary corresponds to what one might consider to be a fear among a majority of adoption agencies and judges—that children placed in homosexual-parented homes stand a greater chance than those in the general population of coming out as homosexuals. This suggests that the environment of a homosexual family is instrumental in the child’s development as a gay person. This argument is regarded as a fallacy among members of the liberal left and by more and more of the general public, as the alternative, biological model of the origin of sexual orientation gains support. A similar aspect of the right’s argument against the placement of children in homosexual-parented homes is that being raised in this fashion will have psychologically detrimental effects on the children. Stacey and Biblarz, in contrast, found that children of homosexual parents showed no difference in levels of self-esteem, anxiety, depression, behavior problems, or social performance but do show a higher level of affection, responsiveness, and concern for younger children, as well as seeming to exhibit impressive psychological strength.
Stacey and Biblarz also report that gay parents were found to be more likely to share child care and household duties. The children of gay partners reported closer relationships with the parent who was not their primary caregiver than did the children of heterosexual couples. The increase in affection and higher psychological strength that this study shows is, arguably, just part of the positive effects that gay adoption can have on children. In opposition to these and similar findings, however, are those who continue to believe that only heterosexual couples should adopt and that homosexuality is morally wrong. Some even claim that gays and lesbians are likely to abuse their children (see Stacey and Biblarz 2001).
The American Psychological Association (APA) has adopted the view that same-sex adoption is fine, as long as the best interests of the children are served in particular cases. In its Resolution on Sexual Orientation, Parents, and Children, from July 2004, the organization noted that, in the 2000 U.S. Census, 33 percent of female same-sex couple households and 22 percent of male same-sex couple households reported at least one child under the age of 18 living in the home. Opponents have expressed concerns over the idea of a minor living in a homosexual-parented household. Yet, according to research cited by the APA, there is no scientific basis for concluding that lesbian mothers or gay fathers are unfit parents based solely on their sexual orientation, and moreover households maintained by these individuals clearly can provide safe, nurturing, and loving environments in which to raise children.
The proponents of same-sex adoption argue in favor of the practice on the basis that both past and present research shows no difference in the health and success of the children of lesbian and gay parents as compared to the children of their heterosexual counterparts. There is no definitive indication of a disadvantage among children of gay and lesbian parents on the basis of their parents’ sexual orientation. Home environments with gay or lesbian parents are just as likely to provide solid foundations of comfort and compassionate understanding as the homes of heterosexual couples. Data such as these supported the decision by the American Academy of Pediatrics to issue a policy statement endorsing adoption by same-sex couples.
In the view of opponents, homosexual parents do not act in the best interest of the child. A number of scholars, theorists, and researchers have posted the claim that gay parents subject children to unnecessary and increased risks. One notable suggestion is that children of gay parents are more likely to suffer confusion over their own gender and sexual identities, thus becoming more likely to claim a homosexual status later in their maturity. There are also claims that homosexual parents are more likely to molest their children; that these children are more likely to lose a parent to AIDS, substance abuse, or suicide; and that they are more likely to suffer from depression and other emotional disturbances. Arguments such as these abound, but there remains little or no scientific—or even consistent anecdotal evidence—in support of them.
Regardless of one’s position as to whether gay parents should be permitted to adopt, there are distinct differences in how each side is portrayed in the media and in various advocacy groups’ Web sites. Agencies exist on both sides of the issue. The Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute has done extensive work in improving the knowledge of the public in this area. In 2003, the institute published a national survey titled “Adoption by Lesbians and Gays: A National Survey of Adoption Agency Policies, Practices, and Attitudes.” Drawing on a number of surveys and studies, the report gives a plethora of statistics regarding the acceptance and placement of children into homosexual homes. Among the findings are that: (1) lesbians and gays are adopting regularly, in notable and growing numbers, at both public and private agencies nationwide; (2) assuming that those responding are representative (and the results show that they are), 60 percent of U.S. adoption agencies accept applications from homosexuals; (3) about two in five of all agencies in the country have placed children with adoptive parents who they know to be gay or lesbian; (4) the most likely agencies to place children with homosexuals are public, secular private, Jewish- and Lutheran-affiliated agencies, and those focusing on special needs and international adoption. In addition to the specific findings, the study’s results led to several major conclusions on the levels of policy and practice. These may be summarized as follows: (1) for lesbians and gay men, the opportunities for becoming adoptive mothers and fathers is significantly greater than is generally portrayed in the media or perceived by the public; (2) although a large and growing number of agencies work with or are willing to work with homosexual clients, they often are unsure about whether to or how to reach out to them; (3) because so many homosexuals are becoming adoptive parents, it is important for the sake of their children that agencies develop pre-placement and post-placement services designed to support these parents.
In addition to the various types of programs that the adoption agencies utilize, ranging from special needs to international adoptions or a mixture of both, there is also a definite difference in the overall acceptance of adoption applications from homosexuals on the basis of the agency’s religious affiliation. While Jewish-affiliated agencies were almost universally willing to work with LGBT clients, as were the majority of public agencies, private nonreligious, and Lutheran-affiliated agencies, only samples of Methodist and Catholic agencies were willing to consider applications from homosexuals. Twenty percent of all agencies responding to the study acknowledged that they had rejected an application from homosexual applicants on at least one occasion.
Not all of the agencies surveyed through the Donaldson Institute survey responded to the questions presented to them. Of those who willingly did respond, an estimated two-thirds of the agencies had policies in effect on adoption by gays and lesbians. Of those, an estimated 33.6 percent reported a nondenominational policy, 20 percent responded that placement decisions were guided by the children’s country of origin, and another 20 percent said that religious beliefs were at the core of rejecting the homosexual applications. More than one-third of the responding agencies reported in follow-up phone calls that they did not work with homosexual prospective adoptive parents. On the other hand, an estimated two in five, or 39 percent, of all agencies had placed at least one child with a homosexual adoptive parent between 1999 and 2000. Owing to the fact that fewer than half of all agencies collect information on the sexual orientation of potential adoptive parents and do not actively track the statistics regarding the placement of children with adoptive parents who are homosexual, the Donaldson Institute was forced to estimate the number of such placements made. One adoption placement with a homosexual client per year was counted for statistical purposes. Based on these assumptions, there were an estimated 1,206 placements with homosexual parents (or roughly 1.3 percent of the total placements). This number is much higher in reality.
One aspect not yet discussed is the input of the birth parents in the proceedings of the adoption of their child. The Donaldson Institute delved into this issue and released the following findings: (1) About one-quarter of respondents said that prospective birth parents have objected to the placing of their child with gays or lesbians or have specifically requested that their child not be placed with homosexuals. At that time, nearly 15 percent of all agencies said birth parents had requested or chosen lesbian or gay prospective adoptive parents for their child on at least one occasion. (2) Although most agencies worked with lesbians and gays, only 19 percent sought them to be adoptive parents, and the vast majority of these (86.6 percent) relied on word-of-mouth for recruitment. Outreach efforts were made most often at agencies already willing to work with homosexuals (41.7 percent of Jewish-affiliated, 29.9 percent of private, nonreligiously affiliated, and 20 percent of public). (3) Similarly, adoption agencies focused on children with special needs were the most likely to make outreach efforts (32.1 percent) to gays and lesbians, followed by international-focused agencies (19.7 percent). (4) Nearly half of the agencies (48 percent) indicated an interest in receiving training to work with lesbian and gay prospective parents. Most likely to be interested were agencies already working with them; public, nonreligiously affiliated, and Jewish- and Lutheran-affiliated agencies. Additionally, special needs programs and those with mixed needs were more likely to be interested in training than were those focusing on international and domestic infant adoptions.
There seems to be a growing interest in and flexibility toward the idea that homosexual prospective parents may be a viable option for the placement of children into homes to ultimately give them a more stable and nurturing environment than one would find in child welfare systems. However, religious affiliation of the agency remains an important and prominent issue. Over half of the agencies held no religious affiliation (55.38 percent), while the rest represented a variety of faiths, the largest of which was Catholic-affiliated at 14.8 percent, with various other denominations reporting 5 percent or less. With as many placements as are being made, it is clear that, somewhere along the line, the individuals who work in these agencies do actually want to place these children in good, stable, nurturing homes. However, a number of the agencies to which this survey was sent declined to participate. Their reasons for declining ranged from: (1) agency does not make adoption placements (36.7 percent); (2) agency does not work with homosexual clients (34.1 percent); (3) interested but agency director too busy (13.3 percent); (4) no reason given or not interested in the study (12.5 percent); (5) incomplete data from returned survey (3.0 percent). While there is still 0.4 percent missing from this data set, it does give some startling ideas about the various agencies’ reactions to this survey.
At the time of this survey, only Florida, Mississippi, and Utah had statutory bans on or prohibitive barriers to homosexual adoption. One of the more shocking discoveries of the Donaldson Institute research is that 17 adoption directors from other states incorrectly reported that lesbians and gays were barred from adopting children in their states; another 31 respondents were unsure of the states’ law on adoption by homosexuals. This is slightly alarming, considering the work that has been done to include homosexuals in the adoption process, and yet it would seem that they are being excluded yet again but this time by ignorance. Despite being somewhat unaware of their states’ legislation on homosexual adoption, there was a clear distribution of policy acceptance levels regarding homosexual adoption. According to the Donaldson Institute research, about 20 percent of all respondents said that their agencies, on one or more occasion, had rejected applications from gay or lesbian individuals or couples. The reasons for the rejections were as follows: (1) unrealistic expectations, (2) psychological problems, (3) questionable motives for adopting, (4) relationship problems, (5) placement with homosexuals violates agency policy, (6) applicant’s lifestyle incompatible with adoption, (7) placement with homosexuals prohibited by country of origin, (8) sexual orientation of applicant incompatible with adoption, (9) lack of adequate social support, (10) financial problems, (11) placement with homosexuals violates community standards, and (12) medical problems with the applicant.
Generally, the presentation of gays and lesbians as adoptive parents has been biased by the group doing the presenting. Conservative media outlets and family-values groups such as the Family Research Council argue, largely on the basis of a pre-established moral line of thought, that the best home for a child is with two heterosexual married parents. These groups cite arguments against homosexuality in general, such as the so-called unnaturalness of same-sex partnerships or the potential for somehow damaging the children, as evidence for why homosexuals should be prevented from adopting. Increasingly, however, the opinions of the general public toward LGBT issues and individuals have become more accepting and positive. Moreover, because there are many more children awaiting adoption than there are homes into which they can readily be placed, gay and lesbian individuals and couples are increasingly seen as an untapped market. Anecdotal evidence suggests that, not only have gays and lesbians been more willing to adopt children with special needs, for example, but the outcomes are more positive than many critics predicted. As pressure mounts on states to solve some of their child welfare problems, particularly in the area of foster care, the prospect of opening adoptions to a field of underutilized but potential loving parents is a step in a beneficial direction.
- American Psychological Association, “Sexual Orientation, Parents, and Children.” 2004. http://www.apa.org/about/policy/parenting.aspx
- Black, James C., “Same-sex Parents and Their Children’s Development.” In Same-Sex Marriage: The Legal and Psychological Evolution in America, ed. Donald J. Cantor, Elizabeth Cantor, James C. Black, and Campbell D. Barrett. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2006.
- Drescher, Jack, and Deborah Glazer, Gay and Lesbian Parenting. New York: Informa Healthcare, 2001.
- Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, “Adoption by Lesbians and Gays: A National Survey of Adoption Agency Policies, Practices, and Attitudes.” 2003. http://www.adoptioninstitute.org/whowe/Gay%20and%20Lesbian%20Adoption1.html
- Family Research Council, http://www.frc.org/
- Hennon, Charles B., Bruno Hildenbrand, and Andrea Schedle, “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered (LGBT) Families and Their Children.” In Family Influences on Childhood Behavior and Development, ed. Thomas P. Gullota and Gary M. Blau. New York: Routledge, 2008.
- Leung, Patrick, Stephen Erich, and Heather Kanenberg, “A Comparison of Family Functioning in Gay/Lesbian, Heterosexual, and Special Needs Adoption.” Children and Youth Services Review 27 (2005): 1031–1044.
- Mallon, Gerald P., Lesbian and Gay Foster and Adoptive Parents: Recruiting, Assessing, and Supporting an Untapped Resource for Children and Youth. Washington, DC: Child Welfare League of America, 2006.
- Stacey, Judith, and Timothy J. Biblarz, “(How) Does the Sexual Orientation of Parents Matter?” American Sociological Review 66, no. 2 (2001): 159–183.