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Research-Based Practice

School Support and Same-Sex Parents

By Rebecca Adams & James Persinger

Home–school collaboration is strongly related to educational outcomes of children. However, not all families feel equally welcome at their children's schools. Children of lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) couples are often met with perceived hostility when they attempt to participate in discussions about family, and their parents report feeling invisible and ignored at school (Kosciw, Greytak, Diaz, & Bartkiewicz, 2008). With the most recent U.S. census indicating that 300,000 school-age children live in LGBT-headed households, schools should ensure that they are safe and welcoming settings for all members of their community.

Evolving Parenthood Rights For LGBT Couples

LGBT individuals become parents in many ways— for example, through surrogacy arranged with close friends, artificial or “unofficial” insemination, adoption, or birth of offspring from different-sex relationships where one of the parents later discloses his or her sexual orientation. However, laws pertaining to some of these means are not yet inclusive and can cause difficulty for these parents.

The first legal agreement of surrogacy in the United States took place in 1976 (Naomi & Hollinger, 2004). Since then, the number of babies born from surrogates has continued to rise, with thousands of babies born every year (Dey, 2005). However, surrogacy is controversial in the United States, and laws concerning surrogacy agreements vary greatly from state to state. Some states have no laws in regard to surrogacy contracts or have declared contracts unenforceable in public policy, while other states only allow surrogacy agreements where the carrier is not biologically related to the child (Dey, 2005). Many states prohibit same-sex couples from entering into surrogacy agreements, or require intended parents to be a married male/female couple (Colenso, 2009). With these barriers to parenthood through surrogacy, many LGBT people turn to adoption as a way to become parents.

In 1851, Massachusetts passed the Adoption of Children Act, recognizing adoption as a social and legal operation based on child welfare. This act directed judges to ensure that adoption decrees were given to those who were “fit and proper” (cf. Herman, 2003), as determined by judicial discretion, a standard that still applies today. Originally, “fit and proper” was seen as White, middle-class, married heterosexual couples (Carp, 2002), but the progression of civil rights legislation and expanding conceptions of social justice has encouraged states to consider other groups as adoptive parents. Single individuals, minorities, multiracial couples, the aged, and the poor successfully advocated for inclusion as adoptive resources (Herman, 2003).

The issue of LGBT adoption did not emerge until 1974. Before that, homosexuality was defined as a mental disorder; therefore, homosexuals were not permitted to adopt (Naomi & Hollinger, 2004). With the progression of the gay right's movement, the declassification of homosexuality as a mental disorder, and a more accepting public, LGBT adults began to advocate for acceptance as adoptive parents. The first adoption by openly gay parents took place in California in 1982 and, subsequently, there has been an increasing trend to include LGBT individuals and couples as adoptive resources. With this trend comes strong support from major legal, medical, and mental health organizations. For instance, among organizations that focus on health and mental health, adoption by homosexuals is supported by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Child Welfare League of America (cf. 1995), the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychoanalytic Association, and the National Association of Social Workers (Human Rights Campaign, 2011; Stone, 2008). However, in all but 20 states, statutes limit the right of adoption to single individuals or married couples adopting jointly. These statutes make it impossible for same-sex couples to adopt in all but a few states—states where same-sex marriage is legal (Human Rights Campaign, 2008; National Center for Lesbian Rights, 2012).

Obtaining full parental rights is another major issue for same-sex couples. In one much-cited case (Delong v. Delong, 1995), sole custody was granted to a father because a court found that the mother's disclosure of homosexual behavior made her unfit. Those who disclose their sexual orientation after having children with a different sex partner have particular difficulty. They find that they have no way to share legal parenting rights with a same-sex partner, since adoption severs the parental rights of existing parents (Naomi & Hollinger, 2004). This also applies to those who have adopted as individuals or had natural children using a surrogate since same-sex couples are rarely afforded legal adoption rights. The parent without legal guardianship is often required to obtain costly legal instruments in order to have the ability to do simple parenting tasks, such as sign permission slips. These documents are also required in order to make decisions that impact the well-being of a child, like authorizing medical care and special education services. Other problems for LGBT parents include insurance benefits, the right to inherit, military deployment issues, and signing school documents. Tasks that must be performed by legal parents/guardians are often denied to LGBT couples because often only one person has legal custody.

In the last few years, state family courts have tried to accommodate stepparents and stepchildren seeking to maintain contact after the end of a cohabitating relationship. A few states (e.g., Delaware) provide de facto parent status to third parties who are not biologically related to the children, yet claim to have parent-like relationships with them and seek to continue the relationship. The de facto status is used when nonmarried couples have been living together and jointly raising children (Rohlf, 2009). As Polikoff (2009) points out, such approaches may convey full parental status, conveying not only the custody, visitation, support rights, and responsibilities that some courts have extended to a nonbiological or nonadoptive parents, but also entitlement to government benefits for the child of all parents and the right to inherit from and through all parents. These laws are controversial; thus, in most jurisdictions the law does not consider all parents as equal.

LGBT Individuals and Couples as Parents

Much research has focused on outcomes of children raised in households headed by LGBT parents. For instance, opponents of gay rights have raised questions concerning sexuality and increased potential abuse, despite studies of children with same-sex parents reporting the same incidence of homosexuality as the general population (c.f. Patterson, 1987), and reports of domestic violence reported at the same rate in both homosexual and heterosexual relationships (Mills et al., 2000). Stacey and Biblarz (2001, p. 160) report that “children raised in same-sex households show a high level of affection, responsiveness, and concern for those younger than them and seem to exhibit impressive psychological strength.” Another study, comparing children who have lesbian mothers, heterosexual parents, and heterosexual single mothers, found “similar rates of positive mother–child interactions and positive child adjustment regardless of family type” (Golombok et al., 2003, p. 20). Goldberg (2010) reports that the sexual orientation of parents has little to do with their parenting. He also indicates that children of gay couples do not differ from their peers raised by heterosexual couples in terms of their mental health, self-esteem, life satisfaction, social skills, or number of friends. A national study by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, in partnership with COLAGE and the Family Equality Council (Kosciw et al., 2008), concludes that LGBT parents are highly involved with their children's education, are active volunteers in schools, participate in parent–teacher conferences and back-toschool nights, monitor their children's academic performance and school experience, and are strong advocates for their children (Kosciw et al., 2008). The vast majority of social science literature is well summarized by Howard (2006, p. 14) who reports that, “…research concludes that children reared by gay and lesbian parents fare comparably to those of children raised by heterosexuals on a range of measures of social and psychological adjustment.” Patterson (1992) adds that “not a single study has found children of gay or lesbian parents to be disadvantaged in any significant respect relative to children of heterosexual parents.” Many professional organizations, including the National Association of School Psychologists, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Association of Social Workers, and American Psychological Association, have formally recognized that outcomes for children of same-sex parents do not differ from those of traditional parents.

Experiences of LGBT Couples and Their Children in Schools

Most research on LGBT issues in schools has focused on LGBT students, not students who have LGBT parents, but the available literature suggests that the experiences of students with LGBT parents may be similar to that of LGBT students (Kozik- Rosabal, 2000). Many LGBT parents and their children report feeling neglected, excluded, and mistreated by other members of their school communities (Kosciw et al., 2008). Traditionally, schools have the implicit goal of socializing children to mainstream cultural norms and expectations; thus, schools rarely take the lead when it comes to addressing issues that are not the norm (Kozik-Rosebal, 2000). Society's dominant cultural values concerning expected family composition are reflected when schools implicitly define a family through a noninclusive curriculum or through the illustration of twoparent, heterosexual-headed families as the norm in classroom discussions, lesson plans, books, or other media. Even school registration forms often define family members as mother and father rather than as parent. These practices by educational institutions mean that schools are not always inclusive environments for LGBT-headed families.

Kosciw et al. (2008) examined the school experiences of LGBT-headed families, reporting that 53% of parents felt excluded from the school communities. LGBT parents reported hearing negative comments and experiencing mistreatment from other parents (26%), as well as students (21%). The study states that significant numbers of students from LGBT-headed households report being harassed in school because of their family, and that some experienced assumptions or perceptions about their own sexual orientation because of their parents' sexuality. Mistreatment comes not only from only other students: Nearly a quarter of students had been mistreated by or received negative comments from the parents of other students because they had an LGBT parent, while 11%–15% of students from LGBT-headed households report being directly mistreated by or receiving negative comments from a teacher because of their family. In an earlier study (Kosciw, 2003), 16% of LGBT parents reported that they had been mistreated by or had received negative reactions from their child's teacher or day care provider.

Kosciw and colleagues' (2008) study indicates that many students with LGBT parents reported more subtle forms of exclusion from their school. Thirty percent reported feeling that they could not fully participate in school because they had a LGBT parent, and 36% felt that school personnel did not acknowledge that they were from an LGBT family (e.g., not permitting one parent to sign a school form because they are not the legal parent or guardian). Disparaging looks or comments of disapproval were commonly reported. In addition, about a fifth of students reported that they had been discouraged from talking about their parents or family at school by a teacher, principal, or other school staff member, and otherwise felt excluded from classroom activities because they had an LGBT parent (e.g., not being included in class activities, such as discussing their family tree; Kosciw et al., 2008).

There appears to be at least one explanation for the disconnect between the problems LGBT familiies experience at school and the belief of many school dministrators that there are not significant issues for students from LGBT headed households: The GLSEN report (Kosciw et al., 2008) indicated that less than 48% of students reported incidents of harassment and assault to school authorities Of the parents told, about half (58%) reported the incident to school authorities. This indicates that school administrators are only hearing about a small percentage of the harassment, exclusion, and discrimination experienced by students from LGBTheaded households. Ultimately, the GLSEN report concludes, these experiences and perceptions result in parents feeling a sense of isolation and exclusion, and thus becoming much less likely to become involved at school and in other community groups where they could interact with parents from their child's school.

Microaggressions, which refer to the subtle and often unintended ways that people posture themselves against an oppressed person or group different from themselves, are commonly experienced by LGBT individuals and their families (Nadal, Issa, et al., 2011), even in school settings in which an overtly welcoming attitude is presented. One example is a teacher not correcting the use of the word “gay” as a derogatory term, such as “this class is so gay.” Nadal and colleagues (Nadal, Wong, et al., 2011) and Shelton and Delgado- Romero (2011) suggest microaggressions negatively affect the mental health of these persons. Nadal, Issa, et al. (2011) report in a study with youth that it heavily contributes to an unhealthy school climate, calling it “death by a thousand cuts” (p. 234) for LGBT youth.

How Can Schools Support LGBT Parents and Their Children

The mission of the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) is to promote educationally and psychologically healthy environments for all children and youth by implementing research based, effective programs, which prevent problems, enhance independence, and promote optimal learning. Furthermore, NASP specifically has a position statement (NASP, 2011) on LGBTQ youth, supporting the opportunity of all children to be free of harassment and to receive equal support, and recognizing that children perceived to be nonconforming are likely targets of harassment and discrimination. Schools can help support LGBT families by fostering an atmosphere where students and staff understand and respect differences. Schools today are teaching children from a variety of socioeconomic, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds, as well as children living in a variety of family constellations. The traditional nuclear family is no longer the norm; this is apparent in the makeup of families represented in classrooms. Children are now living with parents who are biological, adoptive, foster, step, single, heterosexual, and nonheterosexual (Gillespie, Weston, Kaeser, & Martin, 2002). It is estimated that 99% of U.S. counties have at least one gay or lesbian family (Smith & Gates, 2001). In response to changing families, school districts should strive to create inclusive atmospheres, where students from all different backgrounds are respected and feel safe, yet LGBT families are typically not represented in curriculum, and biased language is often tolerated, or worse, used by staff.

It has been suggested that schools should reflect the diversity that is found within the community at large (Wickens, 1993). To address the need to educate students about our diverse country, schools have started to include minority lessons in the curriculum; a much-implemented example is Black History Month. Other schools have special programs on multicultural awareness that include information about cultural heritage, contributions of minority groups, and race. Few, however, systematically include LGBT issues or the history of these struggles for equality in their programming (Rubin, 1995).

Learning about diversity can decrease prejudice and prepare children to live in a multicultural society. It can reduce stereotyping and misconceptions, and can help others develop a more accepting viewpoint. While the primary fear of LGBT parents is that their children will be bullied in school, their second concern is a lack of an inclusive curriculum (Family Pride Coalition, 1999; Kosciw et al., 2008; Ray & Gregory, 2001).

GLSEN's education department offers free curricula and lesson plans for educators to use with elementary, middle, and high school students. ThinkB4YouSpeak is a website launched in conjunction with the Ad Council campaign to fight anti-LGBT language by raising awareness among straight teens about the prevalence and consequences of anti-LGBT bias and behavior in America's schools. Ally Week and the Gay Straight Alliance were created by students as a way to encourage people to be allies against anti-LGBT name-calling, bullying, and harassment in schools. The Family Pride Coalition, COLAGE, Family Equity Council, Rachel's Challenge, No Name Calling Week, Welcoming Schools, Second Step, Skillstreaming, Lady Gaga's Born This Way Foundation, the Bully Project, and Cartoon Network provide information, programming, and resources intended to build inclusiveness and alleviate bullying and harassment in schools. These programs and others are helpful ways for schools to build inclusive curriculum and environments for all students.

LGBT families find support in student clubs, like Gay and Lesbian Alliance or Diversity Clubs. Staff members willing to be supportive and accessible to LGBT families can help children with LGBT parents feel safe and accepted at school, and can help address questions and concerns of parents, students, and school staff (Kosciw et al., 2008).

Training for school personnel contributes greatly to the comfort and inclusion of LGBT parents at school. The resources below provide information and training materials designed to inform school staff concerning how to create an inclusive and supportive environment for LGBT families. This support results in a more inclusive and accepting educational experience for LGBT parents and their children, and models for all students that diversity is accepted at school. Official school policies must also make clear what will and will not be allowed at school, and what consequences there will be for those in violation of school policy.

Fostering a Welcoming Environment

School psychologists can help create a safe and inclusive learning environment for students with LGBT parents by identifying LGBT households and discussing with teachers and administrators how to welcome and include LGBT parents and their children. School staff should be encouraged to:

  • Ask LGBT parents directly how they wish to be addressed and how their children address them. This reduces the awkwardness experienced by teachers and parents alike. Let them know to whom they or their child should speak concerning any problems. Make clear that reports of biased and inappropriate language, and bullying behavior are expected and encouraged. Have frank conversations with students and parents concerning how to address parents, and what to do should bullying occur.
  • Directly invite LGBT parents to participate in school and classroom activities. This models the expectation that all are welcome at school and provides a welcoming adult for LGBT parents to interact with as they join the school community.
  • Encourage school staff to recognize their feelings, biases, and misconceptions about LGBT families, and the way those may be contrary to our responsibility as educators to create a safe and welcoming learning environment for all students. Biased language and actions by teachers should not be permitted.
  • Identify wording used on forms, paperwork, and school programs that should be reworked to be more inclusive of nontraditional families (e.g., several lines for the contact information of guardians). School districts should create paperwork reflective of student populations. Paperwork is often one of the first exposures families have to a school and it is important that it accommodates the makeup of all families.
  • Develop a diversity curriculum, including curriculum that acknowledges the struggles and accomplishments of LGBT individuals. Diversity is a common topic in schools, but often LGBT families are not included in the discussion, especially in younger grades. This omission creates an unwelcoming atmosphere for LGBT families. GLSEN has created age-appropriate educational resources (linked to in the resources below) to help educators include LGBT families in the topic of diversity.
  • At the beginning of school, use posters from the listed organizations on your bulletin board or in material sent to parents to identify the school psychologist as a safe and welcoming place for students with LGBT parents to feel welcome and to report bullying.
  • Encourage or sponsor a Diversity Club or Gay/Lesbian Alliance Club, or multicultural awareness event to reduce stereotypes and misconceptions, to recognize the diversity in your school community, and to encourage and support alliances that make school communities safe and welcoming to all students regardless of sexual orientation or family dynamics. Excellent, free resources to help start such alliances are available from http://www.gsanetwork.org/ resources, http://www.advocatesforyouth.org/publications/608?task=view, and http://www.glsen.org/cgi-bin/iowa/all/educator/index.html.
  • Encourage your school to participate in national campaigns to raise awareness, encourage tolerance, and reduce bullying, such as those listed in the resources below.
  • Advocate for state and local safe schools policies. These policies have been shown to reduce bullying behavior in schools. It is vital for all students that schools identify what will and will not be tolerated in their buildings by staff, parents, and students.


The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN; http://www.glsen.org) website has a great deal of information and resources. Available is a Safe Space Kit, Back-To-School Guide for creating LGBT inclusive environments, lesson plans for teachers, educator training information, a Lunchbox Training Program for ending anti-LGBT bulling, information on increasing staff competency in addressing anti-LGBT bullying, information for principals and administrators, and book links and lists for staff members, parents, and students. Also available on the GLSEN website is the report, Involved, Invisible, Ignored, a current and comprehensive guide to the experiences of LGBT parents and their children in schools.

ThinkB4YouSpeak (http://www.thinkB4YouSpeak.com) provides tips on how to support LGBT families and discourage biased language use in schools.

No Name-Calling Week (http://www.nonamecallingweek.org) provides resources and programming, lesson plans, and art lessons to help create a positive school environment for all students. Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere (COLAGE; http://www.colage.org) provides resources for people with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer parents as well as information for school staff. This website is youth-driven and can be a very helpful and informative site. This site has especially good resources for students with transgendered parents. Available is Let's Get This Straight: The Ultimate Handbook for Youth With GLBTQ Parents.

The Family Pride Coalition (http://www.familypride.org) provides information for educators about the concerns of LGBT parents and how they can be helpful to LGBT families. Opening Doors: Lesbian and Gay Parents and Schools provides information for interactions with LBGT parents and how to answer questions children may ask, and a list of resources for both families and educators.

The Education of Children Raised by Gay Parents, by Dr. Patricia Fioriello, provides information and a book list helpful to educators. Also available on her website (http://www.drpfconsults.com/the-education-of-children-raised-by-gay-parents) is Understanding the Special Needs of Students with Same-Sex Parents, a valuable guide book that addresses the needs of students who come from diverse family backgrounds.

Celebrating Diversity in Schools (http://www.celebratingdiversity.org) is a website providing a range of resources for teachers and anyone working with young people to help make schools, and other youth settings safer, more supportive, and more inclusive places for same-sex attracted and transgender young people and staff.

Family Equality Council (http://www.familyequality.org) connects, supports, and represents the 1 million lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender parents in this country and the 2 million children they are raising. This website provides good information and insight into issues faced by LGBT parents in schools. For over 25 years, GLAAD (http://www.glaad.org) has worked with news, entertainment, and social media to bring culture-changing stories of LGBT people into millions of homes and workplaces every day.

The Human Rights Campaign (HRC; http://www.hrc.org) is a civil rights organization working to achieve gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender equality. By inspiring and engaging all Americans, HRC strives to end discrimination against LGBT citizens and realize a nation that achieves fundamental fairness and equality for all.

Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund (Lambda; http://www.lambdalegal.org) is a national organization committed to achieving full recognition of the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender people, and those with HIV through impact litigation, education, and public policy work.

Braving the Barriers: Supporting Faculty Inclusion of GLBTQ Youth Issues in Courses and Research (http://www.nasponline.org/advocacy/BravingtheBarriers_SS24.pdf) is a PowerPoint focusing on GLBTQ youth, but the same information can be applied to GLBTQ-headed households.

Handouts from Dragowski, Rubinson, McCabe, and Elizalde-Utnick's 2011 NASP convention workshop on advocating for LBGTQ students are available on the NASP website (http://www.nasponline.org/conventions/2011/handouts/ms/MS057_NASP%202011.pdf).

Advocacy for LGBTQ Students: Applying the Theory of Planned Behavior (http://www.nasponline.org/advocady/glbresources.aspx) contains information about issues faced by LGBTQ students in schools. The same information can be used to identify issues and provide supports for parents.

Just the Facts About Sexual Orientation and Youth: A Primer for Principals, Educators, and School Personnel (http://www.apa.org/pi/lgbt/resources/just-the-facts.pdf) is an informative booklet published by the American Psychological Association.

Ally Week (http://allyweek.org) is a week for students to organize events that serve to identify, support, and celebrate allies against anti-LGBT language, bullying, and harassment in America's schools. Students plan events appropriate to their school community.

The groundbreaking documentary, Bully (http://thebullyproject.com), written by Lee Hirsch and produced by the Weinstein Company in conjunction with GLSEN and other organizations, opened in select theaters starting on March 30, 2012. The documentary examines the effects of bullying in schools from all perspectives (from the victims, the bullies themselves, the educators, and those who stand by silently and watch). A YouTube clip is available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5114WHxofzU.

The Cartoon Network bullying awareness and prevention program, Stop Bullying—Speak Up (http://www.cartoonnetwork.com/promos/stopbullying/index.html), has many helpful resources including printable charts, outlines, and resources available by target age group and staff position. Materials have been identified for appropriate use in elementary, middle, and high school and for use by classroom educators, administrators, support personnel, community leaders, and peer leaders.

The AC360 Special Bullying: No Escape (http://www.cnn.com/video/#/video/education/ 2010/10/21/sn.escape.2.cnn) features the following components: (a) an interview with singer Crystal Bowersox, who was bullied as a child; (b) interviews with students in the South Hadley, Massachusetts school attended by Phoebe Prince, who committed suicide after being bullied; and (c) interviews with bullying prevention experts.

Led by Lady Gaga and her mother Cynthia Germanotta, the Born This Way Foundation (http://bornthiswayfoundation.org) was founded in 2011 to foster a more accepting society, where differences are embraced and individuality is celebrated. The Foundation is dedicated to creating a safe community that helps connect young people with the skills and opportunities they need to build a braver, kinder world. The three pillars of the foundation are (a) Safety: creating a safe place to celebrate individuality; (b) Skills: teaching advocacy, promoting civic engagement, and encouraging self-expression; (c) Opportunity: providing ways to implement solutions and impact local communities.

Dignity for All: Safeguarding LGBT Students, a book by Peter Dewitt (http://www.nasponline.org/publications/booksproducts/N1116.aspx; Dewitt, 2021), provides professional development ideas and real-life vignettes that will help educational leaders foster a more caring school culture not only for LGBT students, but for all students.


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Rebecca Adams is a social worker and will complete her school psychology internship at Emporia State University this year. James Persinger, PhD, NCSP, is a professor in the Emporia State University school psychology program.