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Researcher sorts out fact from fallacy in three-decade study of lesbian families

Dr. Nanette Gartrell does stereotype-toppling research about lesbian families.
In the early 1970s, when being homosexual could get a person arrested, condemned as a "sinner" or diagnosed as mentally ill, gutsy Stanford University undergraduate Nanette Gartrell came out as a lesbian, and then some: She started conducting research to counter pervasive beliefs that gay and lesbians were deviant and even downright dangerous.
In her very first study, Gartrell’s research results upended a purported link between homosexuality and deficiencies of the male sex hormone. She found that gay men actually had higher levels of testosterone than straight men.
"I wanted to do research that would address stereotypes about LGBT people because the reasons for the laws, the religious prohibitions and the psychiatric diagnoses were stereotypes. There weren’t any appropriate research data to counteract these stereotypes," said Dr. Gartrell, a psychiatrist and former faculty member of Harvard Medical School and UC San Francisco. Currently, she’s a visiting distinguished scholar at the Williams Institute of the UCLA School of Law and a member of the institute’s Founders’ Council.
Four decades after her first study, Gartrell continues to topple stereotypes about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people as principal investigator of the National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study. The nation’s longest-running investigation of its kind, the study of lesbian parents and their children by donor insemination has provided groundbreaking insights since its inception in 1987 on questions of health care, adoption, sociology, public policy and other issues. National media, from Time and Discover magazines to "The Colbert Report" have reported on Gartrell’s findings that the kids of lesbian parents grow up to be healthy, happy, and well-adjusted teenagers who admire their mothers — findings that contrast to beliefs three decades ago that LGBT people "couldn’t parent without injuring or sexually abusing their children," Gartrell said.
In the 1980s, growing numbers of gay and lesbian parents were coming out, divorcing their heterosexual spouses and finding themselves summarily denied legal custody of their children. Meanwhile, lesbians who didn’t have children but wanted to had to find a cooperative male to help them get pregnant and possibly even co-parent. Then, mid-decade, the Sperm Bank of California became the first such facility in the nation to make donor sperm available to unmarried heterosexual and lesbian women.
Katrina Thomas Photography
"All of a sudden, sperm was being shipped in dry ice all around the country," recalled Gartrell, who was then on faculty at Harvard. "And all of a sudden, it occurred to me and another colleague this is a new social phenomenon, and wouldn’t it be fascinating to document this? And I was young and nave enough not to imagine what a now-27-year study might entail. So we launched."
To recruit their subjects, the researchers distributed flyers in women’s bookstores and events in the Boston and Washington, D.C., areas, and then in San Francisco when Gartrell joined the UC San Francisco faculty. Ultimately, 84 lesbian families signed on, excited by the prospect of having children.
"They were realizing a lifelong dream," said Gartrell. "At the same time, they were very realistic in terms of anticipating that their kids were going to be the first generation of [donor-inseminated children of lesbians] entering schools and growing up in a homophobic culture."
To fund the study, Gartrell used income from her private practice as a psychiatrist — a funding strategy she’d previously used in documenting sexual exploitation of patients by physicians. That research led to a PBS "Frontline" documentary, "My Doctor, My Lover" and prompted a reform of physicians’ ethics codes.
"One of the things that’s characteristic of my research is that at the time I start a project, it’s usually so controversial that I have many people who are opposed to what I am doing, and few people who would ever consider funding it," said Gartrell. "But it makes for very interesting work for me. I’m not afraid of controversy. I believe in justice."
Photo by Gigi Kaeser
While the lesbian families study has garnered supplemental support from the Williams Institute, the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association, and other organizations, it has also roiled the religious right and other opponents. Her critics have argued, for example, that children raised without a male role model will be indelibly harmed.
"Typically, the great fear has been that if two women raised a boy, he will somehow not be macho enough and most likely will end up gay," said Gartrell. There’s also the assumption that girls raised by lesbians will become lesbians.
The study, however, has found no differences in either psychological adjustment or gender identification between adolescents who did or did not have male role models — the 78 boys and girls who have been part of the study since infancy and who most recently were interviewed at the age of 17. In a separate analysis, the researchers found that 2.8 percent of the teens (all boys) identified themselves as predominantly to exclusively homosexual, a number significantly lower than the 3.8 perfect of Americans who identify as LGBT, according to a 2012 demographic analysis.
Gartrell also found evidence that runs dismisses the notion that homosexual parents abuse their children. In confidential data provided by the teens, none of them reported physical or sexual abuse by a parent or caregiver. In contrast, the National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence found that 26 percent of 17-year-olds in the United States reported having been physically abused and 8.3 percent reported sexual abuse by a parent or other caregiver.
To critics who say that her findings of happy lesbian-parent families can’t apply to all such households, Gartrell urges them to take a closer look at her study. "These families are just like every other family. They have hardships, joys, challenges. And they have illness and death."
One teen's comments about her lesbian mothers, published on BuzzFeed news site.
Her most recent findings, released in October, show that the teens are getting good grades, enjoying close friendships and even giving their mothers high marks as role models. One girl surveyed online said that her mothers "are very successful, powerful, and beautiful women who are happy with their lives and I would love to end up like them." One boy wrote that his mothers "have wonderful characters and a strong sense of values that I try to emulate."
The study has had wide-ranging, practical impact, from opening up more opportunities for adoption and foster care for LGBT parents to guiding organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics in developing recommendations on how LGBT people and families should be treated. The data that have been collected all these years have also contributed to the national debate over same-sex marriage, which won voter approval this month in Maine, Maryland and Washington.
"There are all kinds of families these days … and growing acceptance of LGBT families," Gartrell said.
Interestingly, Gartrell and her partner of 37 years, Academy Award-nominated filmmaker and psychiatrist Dr. Dee Mosbacher, have no children of their own.
"It’s probably a good thing that Dee and I don’t have children," Gartrell said. "Because it is so time-consuming, I don’t think I could have conducted this study and kept it going if I had children.
"I guess I’d have to say that the study is my child."
Find a complete set of downloadable publications at this National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study website
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