Williams Institute demographer Gary Gates begins his new article in National Council of Family Relations by indicating that the gay parents in the hilariously funny Modern Family (okay- the hilarious part is my editorializing, not Gary's analysis) are decidedly not the typical same-sex couple raising children.
The most important conclusion from Gates's review of census data and several other large scale surveys is that large numbers of children of same-sex couples almost certainly are the product of previous heterosexual relationships. For example, 28% of those who were previously married have children in their home, while the figure is 16% for those who were never married. When looking at who has a biological or step-child, 23.5% of those who were previously married are in that category; for those who were never married the figure is 9.5%. Conversely, couples who do not report a previous marriage are twice as likely as those who do to have an adopted child.
There is other, fascinating, evidence supporting the likelihood that most lesbians raising children have a child from a previous heterosexual relationship. In the 2009 California Health Survey, which asks respondents to identify their sexual orientation (unlike census data, which can only report numbers of same-sex couples raising children, thus exclusing gay men any lesbians raising children without living with a partner ), 22.4% of heterosexual women reported having a child before age 20, while 37.9% of lesbian and bisexual women reported having a child before age 20. (Does denial about one's sexual orientation lead to riskier behavior? less likelihood of using birth control? The data doesn't give us the "why," only room to speculate...)
In this article, Gates repeats information he has provided elsewhere, for example that the greatest percentage of same-sex couples raising children is in the south. Also, couples with less than a high school education are almost three times as likely to be raising children as couples with a graduate degree. (This discrepancy does not exist for heterosexual couples). Furthermore, African-Americans in same-sex couples are 2.4 times more likely than their White counterparts to be raising children. On the other hand, looking at adopted children only, White same-sex couples are almost twice as likely to have an adopted child when compared with couples where at least one partner is not White, and the couples with adopted children are more likely to have completed higher education.
Nineteen percent of same-sex couples with children have an adopted child, almost double the percentage in 2000. Yet the percentage of all same-sex couples raising children has decreased. It looks like lesbians and gay men are less likely to have children in heterosexual relationships now -- hence the more recent decline, perhaps because they are coming out earlier -- and that for all the attention to the "gayby boom," the actual number of children deliberately born or adopted into gay or lesbian families cannot make up the shortfall.
Couples raising one partner's biological child from a prior relationship have legal concerns that can be different from those of couples raising children planned for by the couple together. For example, if there is another biological parent in the picture at all, that parent would have to consent to a second-parent adoption (where that's possible -- which it isn't in many of the southern states with concentrations of such couples). And we shouldn't forget that in some parts of the country a heterosexual parent or relative can still challenge a lesbian or gay parent for custody of a child, a circumstance that isn't going away any time soon.
Once again, Gary Gates's data collection and analysis makes a huge contribution to our community and gives us lots to think about.