Williams Institute 10th Anniversary Conference on LGBT Law and Public Policy – Day Two, Part One

Aimee Van Wagenen, Center for Population Research in LGBT Health at The Fenway Institute

Aimee Van WagenenIt’s Day Two at the Williams Institute Update Conference and I’m listening to the first panel of the day: Marriage and Family Scholars Thinking About LGBT Families. This panel of scholars was brought together to consider the benefits and challenges to addressing LGBT issues, marriage equality, and same-sex couples more routinely in marriage and family research.  It included:

  • Andrew J. Cherlin, Benjamin H. Griswold, III, Professor of Sociology and Public Policy, Johns Hopkins University
  • Gary J. Gates, Williams Distinguished Scholar, The Williams Institute
  • Wendy D. Manning, Professor of Sociology, Director, Center for Family and Demographic Research, Bowling Green State University
  • Mignon R. Moore, Assistant Professor of Sociology, UCLA
  • Anne Peplau, Professor of Psychology, Director, Interdisciplinary Relationship Science Program, UCLA
  • Moderated by Jennifer Pizer, Legal Director and Arnold D. Kassoy Senior Scholar of Law, The Williams Institute

Jennifer Pizer introduced the panel by articulating the importance of marriage and family research in court decisions, including Perry vs. Schwartzenegger–the recent Proposition 8 trial.  Gary Gates talked about data issues and training of research scholars as major challenges to putting LGBT family research on the map in academic research.  He suggested that students and young scholars are formally and informally channeled out of research on sexual and gender minorities.  Gates suggested that solutions will come when marriage and family scholars begin acknowledging the existence of same-sex couples.  He talked about the importance of training programs in using secondary data in LGBT couples and families, highlighting programs at the Williams Institute and giving a shout-out to TFI’s own Summer Institute in LGBT Population Health.

Ann Peplau recalled the pioneering work of Evelyn Hooker at UCLA who in the 1950s did some of the first psychological research challenging the psychological pathology of homosexual men by studying non-clinical samples of homosexual men and showing that they were no different from heterosexual men.  Peplau suggests the current research in LGBT families is in the same place – showing that same sex couples and different sex couples are doing equally well and that the same dynamics affect the well-being of same sex couples as do opposite sex couples, such as social support from family and friends and psychological investment in the couple relationship.  She suggested some new questions for same sex marriage research: Does marriage lead to enhanced support form family?  Does marriage and family lead couples to invest more in their relationships?  Does marriage lead to an increase in well-being?  Does marriage lead to a reduction in the level of stress – or if married couples are more visible, does it expose same sex couples to greater minority stress?

Mignon Moore highlighted her research on black same sex families and to the specific racialized social contexts that inform the meanings of marriage and family for these couples.  She argued that gay marriage for black same sex families is viewed (by some) as a radical act — to reject an image of gays and lesbians as promiscuous and at the same time an image of blacks as disordered or dysfunctional in their family formations.

Wendy Manning heads a Center that works to provide data on family well-being to researchers and scholars.  She points out today that less than half of children in America are raised in what is thought of as a “traditional family” with two different sex married biological parents.  Such homes are simply no longer the norm.  She echoed Gary Gates’ call and the IOM report’s call for new and more data on sexual minorities and same sex families.  But she also cautioned that all families are complicated, that same sex families are one of many of complicated family forms, and that researchers must take care in their definitions of family and take into consideration the subjective meanings of family for those involved.

Andrew Cherlin argued that the study of same sex families is important not just for understanding LGBT people but for understanding the future of the family in the US.  He highlighted recent public opinion research that has shows positive attitudes toward a number of non-traditional family forms, including LGB parenting.  Cherlin noted that the options now afforded to same sex couples in some states opens up new doors to study the choices people make around marriage and what those choices mean.

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