Gay Dads and Stigmas

A new study finds that two-father families still face discrimination, especially in states and settings that offer fewer legal and social protections
two dads playing blocks with their child
Potentially harmful to families and children, stigma must be recognized and called out, said Ellen Pinderhughes. “We all have biases, and we must own them,” she said. Photo: iStockphoto
March 11, 2019

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Public acceptance for gay marriage in America has grown since the Supreme Court legalized same-sex unions in 2013. By May 2015, a Gallup poll reported that 60 percent of Americans approved of gay marriage.

Despite that shift in attitudes, though, a recent Tufts study found that gay fathers still feel the brunt of stigma, experiences that the researchers linked to states with fewer legal and social protections for gays and their families.  

The study, a collaboration between Ellen Pinderhughes, professor of child study and human development at the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development, and Ellen Perrin, professor of pediatrics emerita at the School of Medicine, analyzed survey responses from 732 men in forty-seven states, revealing how social contexts shape personal experiences of stigmatization. It was published last month in the journal Pediatrics.

“The key takeaway is that states’ legal protections do matter,” Pinderhughes said. “In states that provide more protections, the dads are experiencing less stigma.”

Pinderhughes said the most striking finding was that about 63 percent of respondents reported that they had experienced stigma based on being a gay father in at least one aspect of their lives. Half also reported that they had avoided situations out of fear of stigma in the past year. Forty percent of those who attempted to adopt a child said they faced barriers on their pathway to fatherhood.

“We all live lives of such complexity, especially people who are placed on the margins of larger society,” said Ellen Pinderhughes. More than 30 percent reported stigma in religious environments, and about one-fourth reported experiencing stigma in the past year from family members, neighbors, gay friends, and/or service providers such as waiters, service providers, and salespeople.

These encounters in settings “that are traditionally expected to be sources of support and nurturing is particularly troubling,” reported the researchers. “It is important for pediatricians caring for these families to help families understand and cope successfully with potentially stigmatizing experiences.”

To understand the influence of the social environment on responses, the Tufts researches used equality ratings that reflect each state’s laws for protection of LGBT families. They also used rankings of religious groups based on the explicit beliefs of each group regarding homosexuality and marriage equality.  

Among fathers who identified with a particular religion, the likelihood of having experienced stigma in a religious context was directly associated with the tolerance ranking of the religious group with which they affiliated. Almost one-third of respondents affiliated with a religious community had avoided such contexts in anticipation of stigma.

Pinderhughes said that the research also has implications on how to support gay fathers and their children. Increasing evidence, she said, links feeling stigmatized “with reduced well-being of children and adults,” including psychiatric problems.

Potentially harmful to families and children, stigma must be recognized and called out, she said. “We all have biases, and we must own them,” she said. And if one feels stigmatized, “you must resist it and learn how to arm yourself and your children against it.”

The Big Picture for Families

Pinderhughes and Perrin have been working together for more than ten years on their shared interest in sexual minority parents.

The partnership, said Pinderhughes, reflects a long-standing commitment to understanding the experiences of sexual minorities so their needs can be better served. Perrin brings the perspective of a developmental behavior pediatrician and Pinderhughes brings a developmental and clinical psychologist’s lens to the issue.

“Together we wanted to think about how to put together a bigger picture of what is going on for these families as they navigate challenges and help their children grow into healthy, well-adapted adults,” said Pinderhughes.

“We all live lives of such complexity, especially people who are placed on the margins of larger society,” she added. “I’ve always been one who wanted to help the field to better understand what those lives are like and provide those voices a space to be heard. Whether it’s policies or services, either can be broadened or more specified so those family and individual needs can get met.”

Their study, the Tufts researchers noted, joins a growing body of research on gay parenting. Studies have documented that the quality of a stable, secure relationship with parents is more important to children’s growth than the parents’ sexual orientation.

At the same time, shifting social attitudes have opened multiple pathways to fatherhood for gay men. They can become fathers through custody of a child from a heterosexual relationship, by adoption, by donating sperm to women and sharing parenting, or through surrogacy.

While it is difficult to know how these changes impact the American family structure, the 2010 U.S. Census reported 377,903 male-couple households, of which 11 percent were raising a biological, step, or adopted child.‍

Pinderhughes and Perrin, along with their colleague, Sean Hurley at University of Vermont, plan to keep studying stigma among sexual minorities. “We’re hoping our research going forward will help us find out if this stigma is affecting their parenting,” said Pinderhughes. “That’s important to talk about.”

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.

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