Equity & Diversity

Estimates Emerge on Number of Students With Same-Sex Parents

April 29, 2015 5 min read
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As the U.S. Supreme Court weighs whether to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide, recent research estimates that 122,000 same-sex couples in the U.S. were raising almost 210,000 children under age 18 as of 2013.

The analysis released in March by the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law and Public Policy at the UCLA School of Law provides a statistical portrait that school district administrators can use to provide support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender parents, students, and their families.

Infographic: Same-Sex Parents: A Statistical Snapshot

But that picture—based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2013 American Community Survey and the National Health Interview Survey that same year—is incomplete in some places due to the limited nature of some data and the fact that most school districts do not collect it.

The actual numbers also are likely to have changed significantly since the Supreme Court struck down a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013, leading additional states to legalize same-sex marriage.

Gauging the Scope

Currently, same-sex marriage is legal in 37 states and the District of Columbia and, according to data by the Gallup Organization released April 24 and based on surveys earlier this year, there are almost 1 million same-sex couples in America—roughly 40 percent of them married.

The students of same-sex couples—about 145,000 school-age children in all, according to the Williams Institute—remain a tiny fraction of the nation’s public-school enrollment of some 50 million elementary and secondary students.

But the presence of married same-sex parents is already evident in the nation’s schools, said Gary J. Gates, the report’s author and the research director at the Williams Institute, in a recent interview. “These schools were already serving these families,” he said.

And if same-sex marriage becomes legal nationally, Mr. Gates said those same-sex parents who had either “stayed under the radar” or appeared to be a single-parent family at their children’s school because they were unmarried will likely become a bit more visible.

Family Profile

According to the Williams Institute study, most same-sex couples—both married and unmarried—are female and younger than different-sex couples. However, married, same-sex couples earn more than married different-sex couples and are less likely to be raising children in poverty—9 percent, the lowest rate of any couple.

Mr. Gates said one the biggest challenges in analyzing demographic data about same-sex parents is the “lack of detail about the legal and social relationships between couples and their children.” For example, he said, population-based data identifying joint parent adoption, custody, or guardianship are not available.

Defining these parental relationships is of particular importance since same-sex parents are almost three times as likely as different-sex couples to be raising foster or adopted children—4 percent compared to 1.4 percent. The institute estimates that nearly 27,000 same-sex couples are raising about 58,000 adopted and foster children. Almost half of those children or 46 percent were being raised by married same-sex parents.

Many districts are working to build bonds with such families.

After more San Francisco Unified School District students began publicly acknowledging that they had LGBT parents, that district asked students about their parents’ sexual orientation on its Youth Risk Behavior Survey in 2011 and 2013. Gentle Blythe, the district’s chief communications officer, explained that the 57,000-student district wanted to ensure that the school system’s programming was inclusive of the needs of same-sex parents and their children.

Today, however, Ms. Blythe said the district no longer asks that question since it could be perceived as an inquiry regarding parental behaviors. Instead, she said San Francisco Unified is focused on developing an inclusive curriculum and school culture. In November, for example, more than 190 people attended the district’s fourth annual LGBT Families Dinner, which celebrates such families and their allies.

Ms. Blythe noted that some San Francisco elementary schools have informally become a “big draw” for same-sex couples. She said word-of-mouth spread that certain schools are a “great place for same-sex parents to send their children.”

In Washington, a city where the Williams Institute estimates that more than 8 percent of same-sex couples are raising children, Diana K. Bruce, director of health and wellness for the District of Columbia public school system, said the district simply continued with its “obligation to treat all children and parents fairly” when same-sex marriage became legal in the city in 2010. Ms. Bruce said the district held “listening sessions” in 2011 with LGBT-headed families to inform its policies and programming.

“A lot of the families we spoke with wanted to be normalized in the school community,” Ms. Bruce said. “Many were able to do it. Serving on the PTA. Running fundraisers.”

Offering Support

But not all school districts are as far along as San Francisco and the District of Columbia, in meeting the needs of LGBT parents. The newly formed Stonewall National Education Project is assisting public school districts in establishing policies and programs to protect and support LGBT students and families.

The Stonewall National Museum and Archive in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., launched the initiative in 2013, with a three-day symposium, which gathered 60 educators from 14 school districts, including some from New York City, Los Angeles, and Washington. About 160 education leaders representing 49 school districts are expected to attend the project’s third conference in Fort Lauderdale May 13.

Jessica Herthel, the Stonewall National Education Project’s director, said this year’s conference will focus on providing educators with specific strategies to implement new programs and changes to school policies, like broadening anti-discrimination rules to include gender identity. Ms. Herthel said the project wants educators to learn how to craft their message to garner support for LGBT-policies and programs.

“The magic of the Stonewall National Education Project is not in generating content,” Ms. Herthel said. “The magic is having the school districts come together in our house and help them build year-round partnerships.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 06, 2015 edition of Education Week as New Research Emerges on LGBT Parents

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