Recent Studies Shed Light on Families with Lesbian Parents | Opinion

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Two recent papers from the longest-running study of lesbian families shed light on the now-grown children’s relationships with their donor siblings, their own parenting practices, and what their lesbian parents think about becoming grandparents — and offer insights on talking about donor conception with children.

Dr. Nanette Gartrell, now a Visiting Distinguished Scholar at UCLA’s Williams Institute, began the National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study (NLLFS) in 1986, with a group of parents who were inseminating or pregnant. She and her team of collaborators have since interviewed the same families in seven waves, and questioned the children starting at 10 years old.

Both recent NLLFS studies included 75 adult offspring, ages 30 to 33 years old, from the original 84 families, an impressive retention rate. One-third of the offspring have known their donors since childhood, roughly another third have donors who agreed to contact when the child turned 18, and another third have unknown donors.

One study, by NLLFS researchers Audrey S. Koh, et al. (in Human Reproduction, 38:11, 2023), is the first research anywhere to focus on the relationships between “established adult” (as opposed to young adult) donor-conceived offspring from LGBTQ families and their donor siblings.

More than half of the offspring (53%) had found donor siblings, most often via a donor-sibling or sperm bank registry (45%), but sometimes via the donor (29%) or parent (29%). Most of them then made contact, primarily to find out what they are like, consider forming a relationship, and/or to better understand themselves. These motivations were largely fulfilled. Overall, those who had contacted donor siblings said their relationship was good (with a mean of over four on a five-point scale), and 65% had maintained an ongoing relationship via calls, video calls, texts, meetings, or social media.

Half of all the offspring (51%) considered their donor siblings to be “only a genetic connection;” 16% considered them to be “a ‘real’ sibling.” Other descriptions included “a distant member of the family” (24%); “unrelated” (17%); and “a special relationship, like a good friend” (15%). (Multiple responses were allowed.) Even among those who had contacted their donor siblings, almost half called them an “acquaintance” (49%), though some used the terms “brother/sister” (39%) and “relative” (26%).

Overall, the offspring were satisfied with their level of knowledge about their donor siblings and with their level of contact (or lack thereof). This contrasts with donor-conceived offspring of non-LGBTQ parents, who have in other studies reported problems with donor-sibling contact, including “feeling overwhelmed” by the number of siblings and “a loss of agency and individuality.” The fact that one-third of the NLLFS offspring had known donors, who were less likely to have multiple offspring across different families, may have played a part here, the researchers say.

The relatively small and nonrepresentative number of participants, however, mostly White and highly educated (factors related to the difficulty of finding participants when the NLLFS began), begs the need for further research on more diverse populations, the authors add. Nevertheless, they conclude that early discussion of donor conception and possible donor siblings with children, as well as (on a policy level) enforcing quotas of offspring per donor so that donor sibling groups are smaller, may contribute to offsprings’ satisfaction with their donor-conceived identities and with their donor siblings.

Another recent NLLFS paper, by Esther D. Rothblum, et al. (in LGBTQ+ Family, 20:1, 2023), is the first study to look specifically at the parenting plans of adult donor-conceived offspring and the grandparent aspirations of their sexual minority parents. Of the 75 offspring, eight had children and 42 hoped to. The offsprings’ own sexual orientation and relationship status were not significant factors in whether they had or wanted children.

The offspring generally did not feel their “nontraditional” family background would be a challenge in their own parenting. A few noted potential difficulties from negative societal reactions to that background, however, and some thought that not being familiar with the role of a father might also be challenging. Nevertheless, the authors say that other research has shown offspring of lesbian parents “may have developed resiliency in the face of stigmatization due to their parents’ sexual orientation,” and their parents may have shown them how to navigate obstacles.

Overall, the researchers found that “offspring were excited to love and accept their future children with open-mindedness to the children’s uniqueness, including their gender and sexual identity. They were proud of their own parents as supportive and accepting role models and hoped to follow in their footsteps.”

The majority of offspring planned to mention their own donor-conceived status to their children (the original participants’ grandchildren) early on, “in a casual, honest, and straightforward way.” Those who had already done so said the children saw it as normal. The authors advise those considering donor conception to “take heart” from this study, where the offspring “mostly see few challenges and many benefits in telling their own children about nontraditional conception and diverse families.”

Finally, the researchers interviewed the eight NLLFS lesbian mothers who were grandparents, finding that most saw that role “as very important and essential.” One participant observed, “I believe that being a lesbian parent has given me the courage to trust my children, my grandchildren, and the job I did as a parent. Coming from being nontraditional, I have the flexibility to support my children and grandchildren in their choices.”

The researchers speculate that the joy the grandparents felt in being grandparents “dissipated potential concerns they might have had when conceiving their own children in a heteronormative and stigmatizing context in the 1980s.”

In other words, the kids — and their kids — are all right.

Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian (, a two-time GLAAD Media Award-winning blog and resource directory, plus a searchable database of 1,400+ LGBTQ family books.


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