It was her career on the line. Could the publication of one paper “taint” a reputation built on 20 years of child development research? It was the question Charlotte Patterson asked herself when she went to work at her University of Virginia (UVA) office one morning in the 1980s.
“I can still remember walking up to this building, looking up and thinking, well, who else is going to do it if not me?” says Patterson, PhD, APA Fellow, Stanford grad, noted developmental psychology researcher. And lesbian.
The paper in question was her landmark work, “Children of Lesbian and Gay Parents.” It was among the first research that debunked then-prevalent beliefs that children with lesbian or gay parents showed compromised psychosocial development relative to children from heterosexual parents.
Published as the lead article in Child Development in 1992, it blew open doors for mainstream lesbian and gay studies and became a crucible for public and legal discourse about LGBTQ family issues for decades to come.
“In those days, and still today, if you write something on a LGBTQ topic as a professional research psychologist people will assume you have some connection to the topic,” Patterson says. “I was frankly worried that . . . it would be a real problem for my career. Would people let me work with their children?
“A lot of people were shocked that I wrote it,” she continues. “People saw that article as a kind of professional coming out. That won me some friends and lost me some, as you can imagine.”
Since then, Patterson has been at the forefront of LGBTQ family studies, worked as an expert witness on landmark child custody cases involving lesbian parents, and been party to changes in state recognition of gay marriage that paved the way for Obergefell v. Hodges (same-sex marriage ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court).
A major challenge for Patterson and other early LGBTQ researchers was the dearth of available data on lesbian and gay families. In statistics, as in life, these families remained hidden. To amass a review of the scant literature that existed in the 1980s, Patterson literally drove from campus to campus in search of doctoral dissertations.
“Information was strewn across many fields—some in social work, psychology, psychiatry—a few people here and there who didn’t seem to know one another. It wasn’t a coherent field at that point in time. I realized there were lots and lots of interesting things that nobody had studied, to put it mildly.”
As if to emphasize this, Patterson glances at a bookshelf full of gender studies texts at her UVA office, where she has spent her entire academic career. (“I arrived here at 25, when I didn’t even own a couch!” she laughs.) An entire row of publications are her own, including Handbook of Psychology and Sexual Orientation, the 2013 APA Division 44 Book of the Year. “In those days, it was this sense of seeing an open frontier in front of you and wondering where to begin.”
Patterson started by studying what she knew: the relatively large group of lesbians raising children in the San Francisco Bay area in the 1980s, where she was then living on sabbatical.
“This was the perfect place to try to do that work,” recalls Patterson, who later had children with her own partner-then-wife. “It was the only place in the world at that time with a large concentration of lesbian families who had kids together. So it was my great good luck to begin research there . . . to meet families and to interview them.”
Much of the early work highlighted data on similarities between same-sex and opposite-sex parented households.
“The first findings of primary importance to policy issues were that [same-sex] parents in general were pretty well-adjusted people. That doesn’t seem surprising to people today but it did then. A second conclusion was, in general, that the children were also well adjusted, pretty much like their neighbors and peers in school.”
One study that gained wide media attention presented data suggesting that same-sex parents have a more equal division of household labor than their heterosexual counterparts do, findings corroborated by other studies internationally.
“The division of labor was the first big difference we saw,” recalls Patterson. “It’s so dramatic. A lot of people have taken up the finding and said, ‘Look! This is same-sex couples leading the way into a less gendered world!’”
But that was just the beginning of the story as far as she was concerned. Patterson wanted to understand the nuances of family systems—the distinctive qualities of experiences in families of lesbian and gay parents—and the differences among them.
She embarked on wide-reaching research that yielded significant findings: sex-role identity among children of same-sex headed families; adoption issues among gays and lesbians; division of household labor among gay and lesbian parents; and LGBTQ family issues within the context of changing legal and social policy environments.
Interestingly, it was the cross-examination by a prosecutor in her first of many appearances as an expert witness in lesbian-gay family legal battles that prompted Patterson to take her research to the next level.
“There was a 1993 trial that took place in Henrico Co., Va., not far from here,” recalls Patterson. “It involved a lesbian mom being sued for custody of her little boy by her own mother. It was a dramatic case, a sordid tale.
“Testifying as an expert, I was asked by the opposing attorney, ‘This research you’ve done, isn’t it about some crazy people in Berkeley?’ And of course, the research was about people who lived in Berkeley, not people who lived in Henrico. I thought his point was well taken actually, and it led me to want to know more about other groups and more carefully selected samples. It really made a huge impact on me.”
To obtain a more objective sample, Patterson teamed up with a sperm bank that had extensive records of all clients seeking help in getting pregnant. “It made a wonderful sample—singles, couples, straight, gay. We were able to invite every single woman who had come to this clinic to participate.”
A resulting paper in Child Development in 1998, “Psychosocial Adjustment Among Children Conceived via Donor Insemination by Lesbian and Heterosexual Mothers,” showed that these children were developing normally, and that their adjustment was unrelated to parental sexual orientation or the number of parents in the household.
Later, Patterson was able to tap into a large national data set—the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health—to develop a methodological innovation in the study of child development in households headed by same-sex couples. The study didn’t ask parents if they were lesbian or gay. But by teasing out details among their answers—Are you in a marriage-like relationship? What is the gender of your partner?—Patterson was able to identify families with same-sex parents.
“It was very challenging to do that,” she recalls. “There were lots of technical challenges; we were trying to discern the signal from the noise.”
Importantly, this work confirmed her earlier findings.
Patterson takes satisfaction in the role of her work in expanding knowledge and public policy about what determines a family, but expresses something more personal about its effects on her own community: “I sometimes see that my research has made an impact when people tell me that they used the work in many ways when they were considering having children.
“Most people my age in the gay community grew up assuming they wouldn’t have kids. A lot of us were affected with what I would call internalized homophobia,” she explains. “If you’ve heard people around you forever telling you that you’d be a terrible parent you wonder, maybe I shouldn’t have children. A lot of people told me they read my articles and said, ‘Hey, maybe I could be a good parent!’ Or they used the findings to reassure worried grandparents-to-be.”
She looks at a photo of her grinning children on her desk, reflecting on the wonderful adults each has become.
“There are so many stories!” she marvels. “This work on families continues to rivet my attention. I think families are the most interesting thing in the world.”