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Barriers to Same-Sex Parenting Remain in Europe and are Unfounded

Feminist Perspectives
Silvia Palmaccio (KU Leuven), Deni Mazrekaj (University of Oxford), and Kristof De Witte (KU Leuven)

12 August 2021

While some countries in Europe fully recognize same-sex parenting rights, other countries offer only an incomplete protection of same-sex families or even maintain discriminatory anti-LGBTIQ+ laws. In this piece, we reflect on the arguments often employed to oppose same-sex parenting rights, we outline the challenges of doing research on children’s outcomes in same-sex families, and we present the findings of a recent rigorous study on school outcomes of children with same-sex parents.

There is still uneven support for LGBTIQ+ rights across European countries. Although 76% of citizens agree that gay, lesbian and bisexual people should have the same rights as heterosexual people, most countries do not offer full recognition of same-sex families, and in many others LGBTIQ+ people still face discrimination and prejudice because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. For example, the Hungarian Parliament recently approved a law which conflates LGBTIQ+ people with pedophilia, and prohibits LGBTIQ+ content being shared on TV-shows and in educational material directed at people under 18. As this law is openly against the EU’s principles of tolerance and non-discrimination, it has been considered a breach to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, and has prompted sixteen European leaders to sign a written letter in which the new bill is condemned. In Poland, same-sex couples are prohibited from adopting children and some Church leaders condemn LGBTIQ+ people as a ‘rainbow plague’.

Under the umbrella of LGBTIQ+ rights, same-sex parenting rights are particularly controversial. For instance, the Hungarian anti-LGBTIQ+ law mentioned above comes after the country had previously decided to ban adoptions for same-sex couples in 2020. In fact, nine European Union countries prohibit adoptions for same-sex couples. Opponents of same-sex parenting rights commonly claim that growing up with same-sex parents exposes children to a series of adverse life events. For example, it is often argued by politicians and religious organizations that children with same-sex parents would not benefit from the diversity in parenting styles different-sex parents convey, that children may receive less care as parents invest more in the education of biological children than non-biological children, and that they may be discriminated against during childhood as a result of the discrimination and social stigma their same-sex parents are subjected to. However, these lines of argument are not supported by most of the empirical literature. A large number of studies have shown that children raised by same-sex parents perform at least as well as (if not better than) children raised by different-sex parents, on a series of health, psychological and educational outcomes (for a review, see Manning (2014)).

Nonetheless, previous studies have suffered from significant limitations. On the one hand, to identify children raised by same-sex parents from birth, convenience and snowball sampling was commonly used, whereby same-sex parents were recruited either through advertisements or by word of mouth, resulting in small samples that were not representative of the entire population of same-sex parents. On the other hand, studies which used nationally representative samples could only take a cross-sectional snapshot of the family structure in a given year. These large studies were not able to distinguish between children who were raised by same-sex parents from birth and children whose parental situation had changed over time due to separation, the coming out of a parent or other factors.

A recent study was able to address both methodological challenges and identify children raised by same-sex parents from birth while still maintaining a large representative sample. Using population data from the Netherlands, Mazrekaj, De Witte, and Cabus (2020) identified over one million children born between 1998 and 2007, of which 2,971 lived with same-sex parents (2,786 lesbian and 185 gay male parents). The results showed that children raised by same-sex parents from birth outperformed children with different-sex parents in both primary and secondary education. One possible explanation for this positive relationship between growing up with same-sex parents and school outcomes lies in the higher socioeconomic status of same-sex parents relative to different-sex parents. Given that the procedures to have children for same-sex couples are especially costly and time-consuming, it is likely that only the most motivated (and wealthiest) couples will embark on starting a family. However, while controlling for the socioeconomic status reduces the positive association between growing up with same-sex parents and school outcomes, it does not cancel out the positive relationship. Therefore, other unobserved mechanisms are likely to also play a role.

Mazrekaj, De Witte, and Cabus (2020) show that children raised by same-sex parents do not experience academic difficulties at school, but rather do better than their peers with different-sex parents. We should not forget, however, that these results pertain to the Netherlands, the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage in 2001, and where people are generally favorable to the LGBTIQ+ community, both legally and socially.

Nonetheless, these findings may provide an indication to countries that recently extended same-sex couples’ parenting rights (e.g. France or Ireland), of how children with same-sex parents may perform in school in the near future. Of course, for these results to hold in new settings, extending same-sex legal rights should go hand in hand with societal support and inclusion of sexual minorities. Several European projects have been created for this purpose, promoting inclusivity in higher education, building LGBTIQ+ friendly schools, and implementing evidence-based policy actions to combat homophobic violence. The Hungarian anti-LGBTIQ+ law discussed earlier and the support it received from some conservative governments such as that in Poland, suggest how these pro LGBTIQ+ policy-initiatives are essential to create an environment where children with same-sex parents can thrive.

Photo by RODNAE Productions

About the authors

Silvia Palmaccio is a Ph.D. student in Economics at KU Leuven (Belgium). She holds a MSc Degree in Economics at the University of Rome Tor Vergata (Italy) and a Master of Advanced Studies in Economics at KU Leuven. Her research topics are family economics and education economics. She is particularly interested in exploring the role of non-traditional family structures on adult outcomes of children.

Twitter: @silviapalmaccio

Deni Mazrekaj is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Utrecht University and an affiliated researcher at the University of Oxford and KU Leuven. His research is situated at the intersection of sociology of education and the sociology of the family. Deni is particularly interested in the role of school and family environment in the development of children’s outcomes.


Twitter: @DeniMazrekaj

Kristof De Witte is a professor at the Faculty of Economics and Business at KU Leuven, Belgium, and he holds the chair in “Effectiveness and Efficiency of Educational Innovations” at United Nations University (UNU-MERIT) at Maastricht University, the Netherlands. Kristof is also a Fellow member of the CESifo Network (Ludwig-Maximilians-University and Ifo Institute), and of the Finish VATT Institute for Economic Research.


Twitter: @DeWitteK

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