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Diversity refers to “a society which embraces different cultures, sexual orientations, values, ethnicities and religions” (Thompson and Thompson, 2002 :33). In a society which promotes equality for all, lesbians and gay men have faced inequalities due to their sexual orientation. The number of lesbians and gay men wanting to have a family through adoption and fostering has increased over the years. Transformations in legislation and policy framework have allowed lesbians and gay men to become legal parents (Fish, 2007). Currently, in America, “approximately 65,500 children have been adopted by a lesbian and gay parent and 14,100 foster children are raised by a gay parent” (Gates et al, 2007). In England, during the period of “2007-2008, 80 same-sex couples adopted children” (Stonwell, A Guide for Gay Dads). “Currently, gay couples adopt a child in at least 1 in every 20 adoption cases. The highest rates of gay adoptions are generally seen in Brighton, where 1 in every 5 child are adopted to a gay couple”. (Daily Mail, 19 January 2007)
Lesbians and gay men often face oppression for wanting to start a family, since this “morally” does not fit in with the idealist view of a traditional nuclear family .Social workers are reluctant to approve gay adoption due to widespread criticism from the media (Hicks, 1996; Logan et al.,1996).They are faced with the dilemma that gay parenting does not conform to the norm of a heterosexual family. The stigma that surrounds gay adoption includes concerns that the children will also be subjected to discrimination and the possibility of a child turning homosexual because of their gay parenting. Fish’s (2007) research reflects that children and family social workers encounter the moral dilemma of children been teased by their peers because they were raised by same sex parents and children not being exposed to an appropriate gender model.
Adoption UK statistics show that “64,400 children are currently in the care of local authorities waiting to be placed with suitable parents” (After Adoption, 2010) .The increasing need for children to be adopted has put immense pressure on social services and adoption agencies to assess appropriate families according to the best interests of the child rather than their own feelings and values. Trotter and Hafford-Letchfield (2010) believe education in social work practices prepares professionals to develop self awareness regarding discriminating against homosexuals on the grounds of their sexual identity. A person’s sexual preference is no longer a reason for rejecting their application to adopt or foster on the grounds of not being a well adjusted parent. However, Browna S et al (2009) argue that potential lesbian and gay parents encounter negative experiences due to agencies’ attitudes and ignorance by social workers because of their personal opinions regarding gay adoption. If professionals are looking at the suitability of gay adopters and fosterers, they are more inclined to choose parents who are religious, better educated and are professionals (Manthorpe and Price, 2005). Many fostering and adoption practices conform to society’s perception of a heterosexual couple raising a family (Hicks, 2000). If social workers are committed to promoting social justice, they need to be aware of their own attitudes and acknowledge the discrimination faced by lesbians and gay men in our heterosexual society (Langley, 2001; Sowers-Hoag and Sandau-Beckler, 1996).
In this essay I will examine how gay and lesbian adoption is supported by legislation, policy, practice and services to overcome discrimination. This article will focus on the oppression faced by lesbians and gay men with regard to gay parenting and how social workers adopt anti-discriminatory practices to screen the suitability of a gay parent whilst putting the best interests of the child first. Finally, it will explore whether gay parenting promotes inappropriate gender role models for a child and whether children of lesbian and gay parents grow up confused about their sexual identity.
Discrimination towards lesbians and gay men
Oppression arises from unfair discrimination exercised by a group of people with preconceived beliefs (Thompson, 2006). Hostility, fear and feelings of homophobia are central to the reasons why lesbian and gay people face oppression (Fish, 2007). Logan et al (1996 p3) states “discrimination against lesbians and gay men can take form of homophobia or more common heterosexism” Before legislation in the UK was implemented to make gay parenting legal, lesbians and gay people always wanted to adopt but hid their sexual identity because of society’s disapproval. Lesbian mothers were afraid to come out and admit they were a lesbian due to the fear of losing their children (Manthorpe and Price, 2005). Hicks’ (2005) research reflects that, prior to the early 1990’s, lesbian and gay men were afraid to come out because they feared they would be rejected by fostering and adoption agencies because of their sexual orientation (Hicks, 2005).
Negative attitudes such as homophobia and heterosexism is the oppression lesbians and gay men have lived with (Langley, 2001).Heterosexism is communicated mainly through media, religion and language to actively discriminate against homosexuality (Thompson, 2006). Cowan K (2007) reports that British people’s attitudes are changing since the implementation of gay rights; however, statistical evidence illustrates that 38% of people aged between18 to 29 felt that the media had the power to reduce homophobic attitudes rather than parents, government or the police. However positive results in a UK poll on gay adoption showed 64% of people thought gay couples should be allowed to adopt, whilst 32% were against it. The results also demonstrated that 55% of respondents thought that male couples should be able to adopt whilst 59% of people thought that lesbian couples should be able to adopt (UK Polling Report, 2007).
Legislation and Policy to promote equality for same sex parenting
Changes in legislation and policy such as The Children and Adoption Act (2002),the Equality Act 2006 and the Civil Paternship Act 2004 has enabled homosexuals to become foster carers and adopters(Cocker and Hafford-Letchfield ,2010).Lesbian and gay families are no longer stigmatize as unnatural families (Hicks 2000, Manthrope and Price,2005) . The Adoption and Children Act 2002 has enabled lesbians and gay men to be considered for adoption and be assessed on their suitability to be good parents, rather than their sexuality. Society’s acceptance of raising traditional nuclear families through marriage and heterosexual unions has allowed same sex couples to access the same equal rights as heterosexual couples. The infamous section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, which made the promotion of homosexuality illegal (Cocker and Letchfield, 2010), and the Embryology and Fertilisation Act 1990, which made it a requirement for doctors to take into consideration the welfare of the child (including the need of that child to have a father) before allowing women to access fertility treatment, were both abolished (Donovan, 2000).
Another pivotal legislation was the 2008 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, lesbians and gay men are the legal parents of children conceived through the use of donated sperm, eggs or embryos (Department of Health, 2008). Despite the constructive legislative changes for gay parenting, challenges are still faced within practices. Langley (2001) suggests the legislation imply gay parenting is no longer viewed as make up families but are neither valued by society. Clarke (2001) reports that discrimination lies within health and social care services.For instance a lesbian mother openly disclosing their sexuality to a midwife can leading to embarrassment (Wilton, 1996),. Social workers’ values are supposed to reflect social justice and human rights, but some professionals struggle to accept the concept of lesbianism (Hardman, 1997). Brown and Kershaw (2008) suggest that legislation embraces equal rights, but homophobic attitudes and discrimination still exist. For instance, the 2006 Equality Act banned discrimination on the basis of a person’s sexual orientation, which posed a major problem with Catholic adoption agencies in the UK. Catholic adoption agencies were strictly against accepting the new legislation on the grounds of their religious beliefs and opted to shut down agencies rather than encourage homosexuality (Politics, 2007). Misconceptions regarding social beliefs that children would experience behavioural and emotional difficulties, develop weak relationships with their peers and be sexually confused are the reasons why gay parents are often rejected (Perrin, 2004). According to Brown et al. (2009), in the United States, legislation and policies in some areas of the country are designed to prevent or discourage homosexuals from adopting. Hicks (1998) viewed similar cases in the UK were agencies did not have policies for gay parenting but social workers adhere to equal opportunities regulations to promote the applicants sexuality. Manthrope and Price (2005) argues that not all agencies policies conform to excluding gay and lesbian parenting, charities such as The Children’s society and Barnardo’s have actively revised their old policies to recognise and address gay and lesbians as adoptive and foster carers.
Gay parenting-Children emotional and psychological development
The presumption that a child needs both a mother and a father is one of many stereotypes gay parents have to live with. A child brought up in a home with a homosexual parent or parents is no more at risk of psychological or emotional issues than one brought up by a heterosexual parent or parents (Katzen, 1997). Although Patterson’s (1994) research illustrates that children of lesbians do grow up in a healthy way, they do face daily challenges from homophobic attitudes. The main views opposing gay parenting stem from the concern that the children of homosexual parents also grow up to be homosexual. Hicks (2005) argues that society’s view that children are at “risk” of turning gay or lesbian is a way of promoting traditional views of a heterosexual family.
Homosexual parenting is often associated with children being sexually abused or molested. However, there is little evidence connecting homosexuality to paedophilia. Findings from studies on molestation do not reveal that gay parents are more inclined to abuse their children because of their sexuality (Groth & Birnbaum, 1978; Brooks and Goldberg 2001). Most studies demonstrate that it is more likely that a heterosexual male will sexually abuse a younger female child (Gebhard, Gagnon, Pomeroy & Christenson, 1965; Groth & Birnbaum, 1978; Meiselman, 1978; Patterson, 1992; Brooks and Goldberg, 2001). Fish (2007) believes these homophobic fears have evolved from western beliefs that women should yearn for children and the motives of gay men wanting to care for a child must be sexual. Thompson (2006: 154) sympathises with the “constant discrimination to which gay men are subjected as a threat to children, consequently portraying children as objects of sexual desire”. A study carried out by Bigner and Jacobsen (1989) rejects the negative perception of gay men deemed as perpetrators. The study compared 33 gay men with 33 heterosexual men .The results showed a difference in their approach to parenting, but nonetheless they demonstrated competent “parenting abilities and skills” (Bigner and Jacobsen, 1989; Brooks and Goldberg, 2001). Another study carried out by Bigner and Jacobsen (1992) measures gay men’s techniques and behaviour towards parenting .The study illustrates that gay and heterosexual fathers were almost identical in their style of parenting with regard to being responsive to their child’s needs and behaviour (Bigner and Jacobsen, 1989; Brooks and Goldberg, 2001).
Most children in the UK are from single parent families; thus, there is no longer a need for a child to experience a heterosexual role model of a mother and father. Studies have effectively demonstrated that gay couples can play an effective gender role model to their children. Findings of a study carried out with more than 300 children showed that children did not suffer from gender identity confusion, did not engage in cross-gender activity and neither desired to be with the same sex because they had gay parenting (Perrin, 2002). Brooks and Goldberg (2001:152) argue that ongoing research demonstrates that “children raised in families in which a parent is gay or lesbian do not appear to be affected negatively by their experience.” For example, a study was carried out by Golombok, Spencer and Rutter in 1983 on children’s emotional development, their interaction with peers and their psychosexual development. They used 27 children from lesbian households and 38 children from single heterosexual households. The results conclude there were no significant findings which indicate homosexual parenting raises children to be a lesbian or gay (Golombok, Spencer and Rutter, 1983; Katzen,1997). Patterson’s (1994) research on lesbian and gay parenting concluded that the parenting of lesbians and heterosexual women was equal and their relationship with their partner in no way distracted them from caring for their child.
It is claimed that children of gay parents are subjected to teasing and harassment from their peers because of their parent’s sexual orientation. Perrin (2002) argues that, although children of lesbian parents are discriminated against by their peers, they are able to cope remarkably well and are “more tolerant of diversity.” Similarly, the research of Brooks and Goldberg (2001) shows that children of lesbian parenting are likely to be teased by their peers; however, admirably children seem well adjusted and support their mothers’ courage in being lesbian. Since homosexuality is not socially accepted, the stigma that surrounds the parents is generally attached to the child (Clarke, 2001). Fish (2007) argues children are likely to be bullied because they come from a same sex family; thus, some social workers may decide against a same-sex couple for fostering or adoption, rather than explore what help can overcome the stigmatisation the children face.
Public attitudes towards gay parenting view it as being “selfish” and not thinking of the child’s best interests;” however, lesbians and gay people take the time to make the choice to become parents. They are consciously aware of the difficulties a child may face. A study was carried out by Golombok et al. (1983) 14 years ago in the UK to discover the psychological effects on children of lesbian mothers compared with single heterosexual women. The results from following up the children 14 years later demonstrated that the young adults were well adjusted and had no long term mental health problems (Golombok, Spencer and Rutter, 1983; Manthrope and Price, 2005).
Anti discriminatory practice for Lesbians and gay men
Social workers have a duty of a care to identify and challenge heterosexist myths of gay and lesbian parenting and they hold the power to adopt anti-discriminatory practices when assessing lesbian and gay service users. Thompson and Thompson (2002) stress the importance of incorporating anti discriminatory practices in social care to empower the service user against oppression, to promote social justice, to challenge society’s negative prejudices and to provide an intervention to help the service user.Payne (1997) highlights that the significance of maintaining anti-discriminatory practices is to challenge the dominant ideas of prejudicial groups and to reduce their preservation of power
The creation of the PCS (Personal, Cultural, and Structural) model helps social workers to understand the concepts of discrimination and oppression (Payne, 1997). The three level model looks at the relationship between individual personal beliefs and feelings of prejudice towards a particular group of people, the cultural views of shared values regarding what’s right or wrong and the structural level illustrates how society (institutions such as the government and religion) conforms to these beliefs, supported by cultural and individual beliefs.(Thompson,2006).
In order to develop an anti-oppressive practice, social workers can implement the PCS model by understanding society’s homophobic beliefs, but explaining and challenging oppression for homosexuals. For instance, Hicks (1998) affirms that social workers who adopt an anti-oppressive model when assessing lesbian and gay applicants try to understand how homophobic discrimination impacts on them, assess lesbians and gay men in a non-discriminatory manner on the basis of sexuality and makes adequate judgments as to whether they will be acceptable parents for children.
Problems arise if social workers do not fully engage in an anti-discriminatory practice. Lesbians and gay men may suffer in silence with the possibility being denied services to which they are entitled (Logan et al, 1996) Social workers have a duty to promote inclusion for the needs of lesbian and gay men by tailoring materials and services to support their application (Fish,2007) Likewise, Brown (2008) argues that lesbians and gay men need to be treated as individuals and supported through their fears and anxieties.
How can social work values, knowledge, skills and practice help to prevent discrimination?
The dilemmas faced by social workers with regard to gay adoption and fostering are conflicting views from society and the need to make the best decision for the child to be placed with suitable applicants. A social worker has to re-evaluate their own values of personal prejudices on homosexuality to make a fair judgement. If professionals working in adoption agencies promote inclusiveness and convey a message of acceptance ,prospective lesbian and gay parents will feel self assured and acknowledged (Goldberg et al. ,2007, Brown et al,2009).Social workers need to adopt a non judgemental approach ,promote the service user rights and dignity and show empathy to overcome discrimination (Thompson,2005)
Social workers should develop relationships based on trust, reliability, and integrity with the lesbian and gay service users to help to empower them. Brown (2008) believes the social worker assigned to a same sex couple needs to be knowledgeable regarding the legislative framework to meet the service users’ needs and possess current knowledge to implement practical interventions.
The importance of an open and honest relationship between the social worker and the applicant is paramount. Social workers must feel confident asking questions about the applicant’s sexuality, the couple’s relationship and their experience of coming out. Hicks’ (1998) research shows that social workers are reluctant to raise the issue of the applicants’ sexuality or directly ask them about it straight away during the assessment process. They felt more comfortable discussing it further at the home study stage of the Form F assessment (Hicks 1998:241)
It’s crucial within the social work profession for social workers to receive ongoing training and to pursue relevant research of their speciality (Logan et al., 1996). Cocker and Letchfield (2010) acknowledge the importance of education playing an important part of developing self awareness, accepting diversity and changing preconceived beliefs. Brown (2008) reports the importance of the Department of Health recommending social work educators to select the right candidates on social work programmes who have the ability to engage with different service users including lesbians and gay men.
The future of gay adoption and fostering becoming mainstream in the UK seems uncertain. Despite legislation which supports the rights of homosexuals to become legal parents, the changes are not vividly seen in most adoption and fostering agencies. All adoption and fostering agencies need to adopt policies which are explicitly and clearly conveyed so all gay and lesbian parents are given equal consideration of adopting a child.
Social workers face the challenge of fighting for equality and for gay parenting to be accepted, but at the same to determine the best interests of the child. Over the years, lesbians and gay men who have become legal parents have encountered the prevalent stigma and heterosexism.
Whilst it may be difficult to change society’s view on gay parenting, it is essential that lesbians and gay men are provided with a service which supports the individual’s sexuality, provides informed choice and embraces equal opportunities.
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