Homosexual Families Essay, Research Paper
Counseling the New Generation of Families
Table of Contents
I. Introduction . 2
II. Societal Issues and Beliefs Facing Gay and Lesbian Parents .4
III. Research on the Family Environment in Gay and Lesbian Homes 6
IV. Implications for Training 9
V. Coping Strategies …11
VI. General Critique of the Literature ..12
VII. Conclusions 14
VIII. Works Cited 15
As years pass, fewer families fit the traditional family mold of mother, father, two children and a dog. Diversions from this form are the result of divorce, chosen single motherhood and other factors. In recent years, another family form has emerged: gays and lesbians with children.
While this may seem to be an unlikely situation, researchers estimate that between one and five million women are lesbian mothers, and there are between one and three million gay fathers (Gottman, 1990). In total, it is estimated that there are between six and fourteen million children being raised by homosexual parents, and these numbers are increasing. Most of these children were the result of heterosexual relationships, in which one parent later revealed his or her homosexuality. Some of these parents remain in heterosexual commitments, either despite such revelations or because the parent has not come out publicly. Still, increasing numbers of openly gay and lesbian men and women are choosing to have children, by a variety of means. Up to 10,000 lesbians had children after coming out, usually by Donor Insemination (DI), using either an acquaintance or an unknown donor. Most gay men either adopt children or become foster parents, although some use DI or heterosexual intercourse.
These new definitions of family create a number of concerns for mental health professionals. Homosexual families are faced with legal and social obstacles which may be unfamiliar to counselors. In addition, professionals are encouraged to make themselves aware of their own value systems and how those principles may influence the course of counseling. Counselors should also be aware of the role of scientific research in the lives of gay and lesbian families, including how it may affect legal decisions and social conditions, and how research in this area can become less biased by researcher influence.
The purpose of this paper is to provide a general overview of issues relevant to counselors with gay or lesbian families as clients. Included will be societal attitudes and concerns, research findings, implications for training and discussion of coping strategies. As the number of homosexual family s increase, so does the likelihood of facing these issues in counseling practice. This paper intends to give counseling professionals a general sense of the issues facing these families, and to discuss how counselors may equip themselves to increase their effectiveness in the counseling role.
Societal Issues and Beliefs Facing Gay and Lesbian Parents
Despite their substantial and increasing numbers, homosexual families are often not accepted by society. Many people view gay and lesbian families as deviant, immoral and even dangerous to the development of children. Such societal beliefs create more than just a moral controversy. They create important issues for legal, and particularly custody, decisions.
One popular belief is that a mother and father each make a unique contribution to their child s development, each perspective being crucial to that child s well being (Patterson, 1992). This view is supported by a variety of theories of psychological development. Psychoanalytic theories particularly stress this idea, which is also held in some strains of social learning theory. According to this belief, without the input of both sexes a child will experience difficulties adjusting to life in general.
Another common assumption is that homosexuality is a mental illness. Although homosexuality is no longer listed as such in the DSM-IV, there are still therapists who attempt to cure it. If it were a mental illness, then certainly it would be a critical consideration in custody battles and petitions for marriage.
Opponents of gay rights are often legitimately concerned with the welfare of the children in these situations. People are often concerned that these children will suffer from a disturbed sexual identity, be sexually abused, become homosexual themselves or otherwise less healthy or have difficulty with social relations. Although research has not supported the other concerns listed, there has been a potential link identified between homosexuality and genetics (Green et al., 1986). Higher rates of homosexuality were found in male near relatives of gays than in those with no gay relatives. This could potentially be relevant to ethical and legal concerns surrounding the DI process.
A substantial source of disapproval of homosexual families is found in the religious community. Many religions describe homosexuality as a sin, and therefore followers of such religions are unlikely to accept gay and lesbian families. In the King James Version of the Bible, two verses are frequently quoted to reinforce this belief. First, Leviticus 18:22 reads: You shall not lie with a male as with a woman: it is an abomination . Second, Romans 1:27 mentions men committing shameless acts with men . With strong faith, religious people often fight against homosexual rights.
Interrelated with the obstacles discussed is the general acceptance of homophobia in today s society. It is particularly important for counselors to recognize this as something gay and lesbian families face every day. In addition to making these families feel isolated and disliked, homophobia often breeds prejudice and discrimination.
Research on the Family Environment in Gay and Lesbian Homes
Focusing on societal beliefs offers a limited understanding of homosexual families. To more clearly identify the needs of these families, particularly from a counseling perspective, relevant empirical findings must be reviewed. This section will describe gay and lesbian family environments from a research perspective, identifying the positive and negative implications of findings.
For the most part gay and lesbian families are more similar to heterosexual families than they are different (Bigner & Jacobsen, 1992). These similarities are related to both parent and child factors. Parenting skills of homosexual and heterosexual parents tend to be similar on most measures, including general attitudes about parenting (Mucklow & Phelan, 1979), and a variety of background variables (Shavelson et al., 1980). Parents also scored alike on measures of self-concept and responses to child behavior. Lesbian and heterosexual mothers scored alike on measures of maternal attitudes and parent effectiveness (Kirkpatrick et al., 1981). Both groups also equally emphasized the value of social support from friends and family (Lewin, 1981).
Children from these families were also quite similar to children from heterosexual homes. These children scored alike on measures of moral maturity, intelligence, locus of control, family and peer relationships, adjustment to single parent family life and self-concept (Green et al., 1986). These categories are commonly used by researchers to assess overall adjustment. Contrary to some of the societal beliefs reviewed earlier, these children also scored alike on measures of sexual identity and gender role preferences.
Counselors should be aware of these similarities. They indicate that having a homosexual parent does not completely redefine the meaning of family. As their daily lives are similar to those of heterosexuals, so are many of the problems which bring them to counseling. However, while it is valuable to recognize the similarities among family types, it is critical to note the differences which classify gay and lesbian families as a unique group, with special needs in counseling.
Some differences indicate that these families may have some advantages over heterosexual families. First, it appears that homosexual parents go out of their way to facilitate their children s development. When compared with heterosexual single parents, gay and lesbian single parents were more likely to seek out opposite sex role models for their children (Harris & Turner, 1986). Golombok, Spencer and Rutter (1983) also found that more children of lesbian mothers than those of heterosexual mothers had weekly contact with their fathers. Homosexual households are also typically characterized by flexible sex role behavior and a more equal division of household labor than heterosexual families, which is viewed as an advantage (Miller et al., 1982). Despite these positive advantages there are also some negative qualities of homosexual homes. These families are frequently formed following a divorce or other legal proceedings (Gottman, 1990; Miller, 1979). Therefore, children in these homes often experience an adjustment period associated with divorce, foster care or adoption. While these situations are certainly not unique to gay and lesbian families, they are disproportionately relevant. As an added stressor, divorce and custody hearings are often complicated by the parent s sexual orientation. The coming out process often creates intense stress within a family, and children involved are subjected to problems like limited contact with relatives and being in the middle of family feuds (Levy, 1992). When the parents do not divorce, situations may be more stressful than if they did. When a gay parent remains in the closet , family tensions are often high (Buntzly, 1993). The stressors described are some of the issues gay and lesbian families may bring to counseling.
When a homosexual family enters counseling, a mental health professional must keep several points in mind. First, the family may have undergone a major restructuring process, such as adoption or divorce. Second, the clients may have lost some of their social support during the coming out process and may demand new coping techniques. Finally, one cannot assume that every homosexual family is in therapy to discuss problems associated with sexuality. Counselors must recognize that while homosexuality is an important aspect of their lives, it is only one part of their existence.
Implications for Training
According to Murphy (1992), knowledge about gay and lesbian issues is critical for counselors in training. The implications for training include general human sexuality education, specific training on gay and lesbian issues and the role of professional organizations. A more active effort to incorporate homosexual concerns in the educational process may make counselors more effective in dealing with gay and lesbian clients.
Often, graduate students receive little or no training in human sexuality (Murphy, 1992). Those who do receive such education are often required to take these courses outside their departments. It is critical for sexual education to be presented in a manner that is consistent with the overall training approach of the department.
In addition to general courses about sexuality, counselors may also benefit from specific training on homosexual issues, unfortunately it is offered in few schools across the country. In addition to teaching professionals about the gay and lesbian experience, such education may help to eliminate heterosexist biases which are prevalent in practice as well as research. Herek, Kimmel, Amaro & Pope (1991) offer guidelines to recognize and avoid heterosexist biases throughout all stages of research.
Professional organizations have taken some steps toward greater knowledge of the homosexual experience, particularly through policies and publications. Murphy (1992) has suggested additional possibilities. First, the author recommends that openly gay candidates should be encouraged to hold professional office, so that they may offer their perspectives on various issues. Ricketts and Achtenberg (1990) view this as a gay responsibility; homosexual members of professional organizations have an obligation to speak up. Another suggestion by Murphy (1992) is to require involvement of gay and lesbian issues in the curriculum of schools seeking accreditation. Also, internships may be encouraged to offer training and supervision on homosexual issues. A fourth suggestion is that licensing exams could ask homosexual-oriented questions and a final recommendation is that resources should be available for homosexual clients, with education supplied to all organization staff members. In general, awareness about homosexual issues is likely to increase comfort levels of counselors. A stronger presence of gay and lesbian issues in schooling and professional organizations may foster less biased research, more awareness among counselors and more available options for homosexual clients.
Although it has been identified that homosexual issues are not always the presenting problems for gay and lesbian families, these issues should be familiar to counselors. One of the most recurrent themes when counseling homosexual families is how to cope with societal pressures (Levy, 1992; Pagelow, 1980). Coping involves the ability to manage stressors and utilize available resources (Levy, 1992). It may be achieved either through changing the situation or changing responses to a situation. For lesbian families, it was found that the most valuable coping mechanisms involved social support, lesbian identity and personal development. These elements appeared to give lesbian parents the strength to cope with discrimination and social abandonment. Such coping strategies involve a change in response, and may therefore be useful in a variety of situations. Counselors may be encouraged to provide clients with the necessary resources to increase coping abilities. This may include referral to support groups or using therapy to enhance identity and development.
General Critique of the Literature
The data and suggestions offered throughout this paper represent a body of literature which must be carefully reviewed. The study of gay and lesbian families is a relatively new concern. Because research is still in it s early stages, there are some general problems associated with methodology and conflict of interest, which presents ethical concerns.
The methodologies of some studies are unlikely to yield consistent or valid results for a number of reasons. First, sampling techniques are far from random. Of those few studies which mentioned how samples were selected, many were only obtained through support groups (Bigner & Jacobsen, 1992), political groups (Shavelson et al., 1980), and other specific sources. Several studies (Buntzly, 1993; Miller, 1979) did not even use a heterosexual comparison group. In addition to these flaws, one study by Harris & Turner (1986) used a sample group of less then thirty people.
It is likely that at least some of these methodological flaws are related to personal investments of the articles authors. A vast majority of researchers in this area appear to have strong personal opinions about the topic. One author identified his own gay parenthood status (Buntzly, 1993), which may indicate bias. Other authors, while not openly stating their homosexual or anti-homosexual status, appear to base their arguments largely on broad, unfounded assumptions. These issues make it difficult to separate position papers from empirical studies. When researchers are working for homosexual rights organizations or family preservation groups, their results are likely to affect this conflict of interest.
The problems surrounding personal position do not only influence the authors of the articles. Some journals are also affiliated with certain causes, including gay rights or family organizations. Because such journals may neglect the ethical expectation of unbiased reporting, it is critical for researchers to scrutinize their sources carefully. Hopefully, over time, replication and prospective studies will allow a clearer understanding of homosexual families, with less potential for bias. Until then, research in this area may still be considered preliminary, and should not be unconditionally trusted.
In many respects, gay and lesbian families are just like other families in counseling. They may enter counseling to discuss any number of problems, and may not identify parent homosexuality as the presenting problem or even as a critical issue. Nevertheless, counselors who choose to treat such families should be aware of the legal and societal issues facing them every day.
In addition to the issues facing the family, counselors must be aware of their own attitudes and beliefs about homosexuality. Exploration of values, education and experience with gay and lesbian clients may allow counselors to determine their capabilities and comfort levels in dealing with such situations. Counselors willing to take on these clients may be able to assist gay and lesbian families with coping strategies and other resources. Those who do not feel capable or comfortable enough to counsel these families maintain the ethical obligation to remain educated about the topic and provide an appropriate referral.
Over the last few decades the traditional definition of family has expanded to include a variety of households. Empirical research is necessary to create solid arguments for custody battles and other discrimination issues. Once these difficulties are settled, researchers and practitioners may focus on the special needs of these families, and develop any necessary interventions.
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