It was in the Bay Area in 1983 when the first sperm banks opened their doors to lesbians—and launched what became known as the lesbian baby boom. But there were still many barriers to acceptance, starting with co-parent adoption. And yet, as Gartrell found in her longitudinal study, adolescents were incredibly proud of their mothers. Another take-away? Giving time to your spousal relationship matters as much as focusing on the children.
Previously on the faculty of Harvard Medical School and UCSF, Nanette Gartrell is a practicing psychiatrist, author and researcher. She is also the principal researcher of the US National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study (NLLFS), which has been following planned lesbian families with donor-inseminated children since the 1980s.
After homosexuality was no longer classified as a mental illness, the first series of events that happened were that women who knew that they were lesbian but wanted to have children had partnered up with men and were the starting to divorce and re-partnering with women, which was something that they had always wanted to do but didn’t find that it was a cultural environment in which they could do that.
In 1983, sperm banks opened up in the Bay Area to single heterosexual women and lesbians who wanted to become pregnant, and there began what is now known as the lesbian baby boom. And I and a colleague over a cup of coffee decided that we really needed to document this first generation of children who were conceived by donor insemination, and born into lesbian parent households—households in which the mothers were fully out and identified as lesbian, and follow them as they grew up.
Over the past 20 to 30 years, studies comparing children reared by lesbian parents and comparing them to children reared by heterosexual parents have essentially found that the kids are very similar. There are some reports in which kids reared by lesbian parents fare even better on standardized tests than those reared in heterosexual parent families, but for the most part the kids in both groups are very comparable.
I think the biggest factor contributing to the wellbeing of children who were conceived by donor insemination in this first generation of children that we’ve been following is that the parents were very, very committed to being involved parents, to seeking resources if they found that there were things they didn’t understand or they were having difficulties.
Co-parent adoption was the first hurdle for the families in our study because it was having the opportunity for the non-biological mother to be a legally adoptive parent of the child, really enhanced her feeling of legitimacy, the non-biological mother’s feeling of legitimacy.
The mothers in my study found it never worked to try to be secretive and that they were very often put in positions by virtue of the way that people have conversations randomly in the streets and the playgrounds, in the grocery store, of having to be out, about the fact that there were two of them and they were both the moms of the child, because they found that if they concealed it at any point then, one, it became confusing to the child, and two, they didn’t feel good about themselves.
The mothers feared that their children would experience discrimination, and in fact about half of them did. It was very painful to them, but the children had been prepared from a very early age that they were going to experience or likely to experience discrimination and the mothers helped them learn responses to the kinds of discrimination that they were likely to encounter, which had a big impact on the effect of the discrimination on these kids because they ended up being quite resilient despite these situations occurring.
By the time they were 17, the adolescents indicated to us that they were incredibly proud of their mothers. Over 93% of them considered their mothers good role models. It was incredibly inspiring.
Because a child doesn’t have a male role model does not necessarily mean that the child does not have plenty of men in his or her life, because they go to school and there are men in school and there are men in the community and they have male relatives and so on and so on. But we did not find that the absence of a strong male role model had a negative impact on the psychological adjustment of the children.
I would clearly say that the biggest takeaway lesson in terms of family dynamics out of our now 27-year study is that it’s wonderful to be great parents but if you’re raising a child as part of a couple, you also have to be an outstanding partner and spouse, and that means giving time to your adult relationship, being sexually active, continuing to be sexually active, and really attending to the adult relationship and not just focusing on the children.
The lesbian families in our study and the lesbians I see in my clinical practice have a very strong lesbian community on which they can rely, which is very, very, very supportive of lesbians and gay men having children.
The families in our study, they certainly influenced the culture. They were the first generation of moms to rear children conceived through donor insemination in planned lesbian families. They influence the culture around them and the culture also has influenced them as it has become progressively less homophobic and more accepting of same sex parent families.