Do queer people make better parents? Prof Susan Golombok has all the answers (plus the data)

Professor Susan Golombok joins Lotte and Stu to discuss the research and findings in her new book, ‘We Are Family: what really matters for patents and children’. Susan talks about where her research started, in the 70s, where lesbian mothers were having custody of their children taken away because of their sexuality. Her research has since developed to study different types of family structures, and has been used as evidence in same-sex marriage legislation in a number of countries. Susan is Professor of Family Research and Director of the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge.


Full transcription below:

Susan Golombok: People, you know, have these assumptions so that if children are brought up in a family that is different from the traditional nuclear family, even to this day, the assumption is that these children will in some way be disadvantaged. And in fact, we haven’t found that at all, we’ve found dependent thing, the opposite.

It’s really about, you know, being open to your child’s questions and making them. Feel that it’s fine to ask the questions in some of our studies, the lesbian and gay parents ended up, you know, doing better in terms of our assessments of parenting and child development. 

Lotte Jeffs: Hello, and welcome to some families.

If you don’t already know, I am  Lotte 

Stu Oakley: and I am Stu welcome one and welcome all to our fabulous LGBTQ plus celebration of queer families. 

Lotte Jeffs: We have a fantastic episode today where we’re speaking to an academic, no less a professor called Susan Golombok, and she is the author of a new book called we are family.

What really matters to parents and children. And I’ve wanted to get Susan on some families for a while to talk about all of the amazing research she does into non-traditional. Family forms and her book talks about all of these different kinds of family structures and what it means for children and their development.

Stu Oakley: Yeah. You’ve loved that book. Haven’t you love to speak to Susan? And we spoke to her about her research that has been informing legislation, not just in the UK, but around the world. It was 

Lotte Jeffs: used to help same-sex marriage legislation in the U S in 2015 and in the UK on the human fertilization and embryology act in 2008, that allowed same-sex parents to be joint legal parents and the 2019 amendment that allowed single parents to become the legal parents of children born through surrogacy.

So basically. Susan and her data and how research has enabled all of these laws that help us LGBTQ people have the families 

Stu Oakley: that we want. I think the work that season is doing is incredible as well 

Lotte Jeffs: as schooling me on so much about the fight that particularly lesbian mothers had in the seventies, eighties, and even nineties to keep their children.

When they came out and divorced their husbands. It’s also brilliant vindication for being an LGBTQ family because spoiler alert, right. The main headline result of her research is that gay parents really, really good at being parents. I felt like it was a big Pat on the back for me. I am getting 

Stu Oakley: my teen atten Alexa is simply the best and my knees are knocking together.

Gay parents. We’re here. We’re queer. We are 

Lotte Jeffs: so welcome. And to some families, professor Susan Golan book, who is the author of this fantastic book. And it’s an amazing compendium of all of your years of research, into different kinds of families and the subtitle for your book is what really matters for parents and children.

So, Susan, would you mind starting by introducing yourself and your work and telling us a bit about how you ended up studying LGBTQ plus 

Susan Golombok: families? Yes, I’m. Well, thank you for having me on your podcast. So. I work university of Cambridge I’m director of the center for family research there. And a lot of the work we do focuses on research on different kinds of family forms.

So I’ve been working in this area for a rather long time. I first got involved in the mid 1970s and it was really quite by accident. So I happened to pick up a copy of the feminist magazine, spare rib. And in, it was an article about lesbian mothers, losing custody of their children when they divorced their ex-husbands.

And in these days, custody was almost always awarded to mothers. Over fathers, except if the mother was a lesbian or in a lesbian relationship, in which case, without exception, she lost custody of her children. So this article presented some cases that, um, had gone through the British courts and one of the mothers who lost custody of her children.

Called for somebody to volunteer, to do some research on the children, because what was happening in these court cases is that an expert witness would be brought in on behalf of the mother who would argue that what really mattered was the quality of relationships between parents and children. And then the father’s side would bring in an expert to was often a more psychoanalytic in his.

Uh, approach. I say his, it was always, of course, uh, a male expert who would argue that the children would experience all kinds of problems growing up in a lesbian mother, family, and the judge with absolutely no evidence was they’re very dependent on the views of these experts and generally awarded custody to the father who by that time had often remarried.

And was offering a traditional nuclear family. So the article I read in spare rib asked for somebody to come forward, to study the children and provide some independent data on what happened to children who did grow up in lesbian mother families. I was very interested in the women’s movement, but also I was just starting a master’s degree in child development.

So I volunteered to do this. For study. And that was in 1976, thinking it was just, you know, a really small project that would last a few months. Of course it all turned out to be very different. So one thing led to another and different kinds of families emerged, which raised related, but different questions.

And. So here we are in 2021, then I’m still working on this field. 

Stu Oakley: So at that time season, were you, did you have a lot of lesbian friends or counterparts that you knew as well? 

Susan Golombok: W I was, I had just finished my first degree at Glasgow university and yeah, I mean, some of my friends were lesbians and so that, I suppose, made a difference as well, because although they were too young to have children at that point, it did mean that I was sort of.

Yeah, involved in lesbian issues at that time. And actually gay men who were my friends as well. But of course the issue of gay fathers didn’t really come up until 

Stu Oakley: yeah. At that time, were there many gay dads in your experience or was it more, it was more commonplace for lesbian couples to be having children.

Susan Golombok: Yes. I mean the word gay fathers, there were lots of gay fathers, but they were mainly gay men who were married. And so that. What would happen if, if the couples split up is that the children would stay with the mum. And some of the fathers did continue to have contact with the children, but they weren’t living with them.

And some had contact broken because they were gay. So, I mean, it’s, it’s quite hard to imagine now. Just how different things were in the 1970s. Yeah. 

Lotte Jeffs: Could you paint a bit of a picture for us? Excuse my ignorance. Really. And that’s part of the reason we wanted you on this show is to help us understand the, the.

Footsteps that we now walk in in terms of LGBTQ families and equality, and the people that came before us who fought amazing fights for us to be where we are today. And I’d just love to understand a bit more about what it would have been like for a lesbian mother in the 1970s. 

Susan Golombok: Yes. So a lot of the mothers I interviewed had felt they had to keep their sexuality secret from.

Most of those around them. So, I mean, somewhere in relationships and some were openly in relationships, but most of them were not, and sometimes felt they couldn’t be because they would automatically lose their children. If they were. So it was just a very different time. And as I mentioned, you know, they fought for custody of their children.

They began to in the mid seventies, but they didn’t win. And it was really heartbreaking the way women had their children just taken away from them, children that were their own biological children that, you know, they love to love them, who they have brought up simply because the, the father. Was providing the kinds of family that everybody in these days thought was the ideal family.

And it wasn’t just in the UK. I mean, it was other countries as well. And in the book, I talk about some of the most notorious cases involving lesbian mothers in the 1970s. So much later, there was one in the book in which involved a lesbian mother. This was the 1990s and lesbian mother in the U S. Losing custody to her former husband who had murdered his first wife.


Lotte Jeffs: this was it. This really stood out for me in the book as a real, I think I texted Stu when I read that, 

Susan Golombok: well, I came across that story, but again, by accident because I was at Harvard at the time and there was an LGBT film festival on, and I saw an ad for this film and I thought, Oh, I must go and see that.

Um, you know, just never realizing quite how. Horrendous the story was, and it was the 1990s. So it was very, very difficult. And of course, a lot of lesbian women stayed in marriages that they weren’t happy in. Because they were worried about losing their children, 

Stu Oakley: that particular story. And did that, did that person get custody?

Susan Golombok: That question, I think eventually, but it was a very, very long drawn out case. Certainly it was a huge legal battle and it went on for a very long. 

Lotte Jeffs: How would it have worked then in terms of lesbian mothers, having. Children taken away from them. Would it be that they separated from their husband? They’re living happy lives with their new partner and suddenly there’s a knock on the door and it’s social 

Susan Golombok: status, divorce arrangements.

They would go to court. If it wasn’t great outside court, they would go to court to have custody decided. So, you know, often the lesbian mothers would have all kinds of expert witnesses who would come and speak on their behalf. You know about their really good relationships with their children and how well their children were doing and their child, psychiatrist and board and all kinds of things.

But the judge would generally, you know, the fact that the issue that always came up was the children might grow up to be lesbian or gay themselves, which was in these days enough of a reason to stop lesbian mother having custody, even though they had, you know, a whole string of experts saying what a great mother she was.

All the rest of it. So, you know, it really is hard to imagine now, but I remember, but 10, 15 years ago, and I was asked to go and speak to judges about the research because judges, you know, they do have kind of training days and that kind of thing. And I I’d been asked to do this a few times. I went along and I was sitting chatting next to one of them at lunchtime.

And he said something that was a bit of an eye-opener to me. He said, you must realize that. You know, the judges who were sitting in these cases in the mid 1970s, they’d been born in the 1920s, very, very different social circumstances. And in a way that kind of brought it home to me, this was really, you know, these were people who grown up in a very different era.

And what 

Lotte Jeffs: was the effect on the, the children and the families once they had been taken into their father’s care with? Did you study that at all? 

Susan Golombok: No, I don’t think anybody did. I mean, that was quite a difficult thing to study because generally the fathers were pretty hostile, so I haven’t studied that and I can’t think of anybody.

That has, but certainly one can imagine certainly for the mothers, it was just terrible because suddenly, you know, they’d be given notice that almost immediately they would have to hand their child over. And if they were lucky, you know, see them. Every couple of weeks, something like that, or, you know, sometimes they had to fight to have them stay over.

And then there was stories of, well, that could happen once a month or twice a month, but the mother then wasn’t allowed to sleep with her partner. And, you know, there were all these conditions hoot on the mother just to have her child or children stay overnight. Certainly from the mother’s point of view, it was devastating.

I imagine from the children’s point of view, it was also devastating because you know, here they were taken out of their home, taken away from their mother who they lived and be brought up by all their lives to live with their father and a new stepmother. So, I mean, I’m sure it was extremely hard. I’m being 

Lotte Jeffs: made to feel that your parent has something wrong with them as well.

Must have been. 

Stu Oakley: Yeah, well, I, I think I would like us just as a side note of this episode, but I’d love to find one of somebody that went through that and speak to them about their experience would be really, really fascinating.

We want to talk about your book as well, Susan, before we do, actually, I just wanted to ask about the state of the nation now. And have you experienced any cases? Lately, cause everything we’re talking about is fairly recent history, but in terms of, you know, recent, recent cases where even if it’s attempted that, you know, People wanting to take custody because their partners have come out and wanting to try and use that as a case against them.

Has that been a case that you’ve seen 

Susan Golombok: recently? No, not for a long, long time. That’s positive though, which is a good thing. Um, I mean, sometimes it might come up in an acrimonious dispute, but you know, the judgment is never depended. Just purely on a parent’s sexual 

Stu Oakley: orientation, which is great to hear. I mean, it’s another, that’s another step forward, isn’t it for LGBTQ rights and within the human rights.

Fair. So your book Susan, so what really matters for, well, your subtitle is what really matters for parents and children in a nutshell, what would you say does really matter if you were to put it in just to a few words? 

Susan Golombok: So it’s a question that I’ve been thinking about and studying. Well, really for the last 40 years, I think it’s become clearer and clearer as, as the years have moved on because, you know, I started studying lesbian mother families, and then I, when IVF became possible assisted different kinds of assisted reproduction began to be.

Either also possible or more widely practice that raise different questions. And then, um, you know, other types of families, single mothers by choice and gay father families, and more recently, we’ve been studying children with transparents and the more I do this research and we find that the structure of a family really in itself makes little difference to children.

Then the conclusion that well, I come to in the book is that what really matters is the quality of relationships between parents and children. So that matters a lot. And by that, you know, there’s a large body of research not carried out by me, but you know, other psychologists around the world on what that really means, but it boils down to warmth between parents and children being sensitive to.

Towards the children and, you know, sensitive to their needs, or when, if they’re upset beings have tuned into their moods on what’s upsetting them. It’s showing appropriate discipline and control. So not harsh and not too lenient, but you know enough to guide children and give them. Secure, you know, boundaries about what they can do and what’s not acceptable.

Good communication. That’s something else that’s really positive. And it’s particularly relevant for some of the family types that. I talk about in the book because many of the children in the book have different biological parents to the parents who are bringing them up. So they may have been born using an egg donor, a sperm donor, embryo donors, or through surrogacy, more and more.

We’re coming to understand that it’s important that parents are open with the children about their origins. And that children feel able to ask questions and talk freely to their parents about these other people. Who were involved in their conception and birth? I think some, 

Lotte Jeffs: yeah. Do you and I talk about quite a lot on the show is how has gay parents, we feel maybe an extra pressure to be good parents stewards and adoptive father feels it particularly.

And I feel it as well as the other mother, too. To my daughter, that we sort of somehow have something that we need to prove Susan do gay people make better parents 

Susan Golombok: than straight in some of our studies we found they do. Yay. And I think he shot, um, you know, that the next question of course is, well, why is that?

And I think it’s because children. Are not born generally by accident to gay parents, that an awful lot of thought and planning has gone into this. And they are raised by parents who really want to have them. So therefore, it’s not surprising that the parents are very involved, committed, you know, warm, loving, interact a lot with their kids that I think that.


Stu Oakley: And I think as well to add to that, I mean, not blowing our own queer trumpet here, but I am slightly it’s about the security of relationships. When you go through that long process that you just described about having children, it brings you together as a couple, I feel as well. So whether that’s going through fertility treatment and really coming together to support one another, or whether that’s the adoption process where you are literally.

Almost going through therapy together to, to be able to, to be approved, to have your children. But yeah, I’ve kind of gone off on a monologue about how wonderful we are as, as couples, 

Lotte Jeffs: as well. Gold stars all around the season. We just are thirsty for your approval. 

Susan Golombok: Uh, but yes, I mean, I think that, I think it’s true.

And the other thing, of course, when you were saying, you know, going through the, say the adoption process or years of fertility treatment, is that. If maybe couples her not quite so committed to having children, they may fall off along the way. And they may think, well, actually we want to do different things with our lives and they don’t keep going.

But. Those who actually, you know, make it to the end of the adoption process, which is arduous difficult. And the same, you know, with, with assisted reproduction can also be arduous and difficult that those who stay caught in there too, you know, and actually do end up having children after all of that, there really seem to meet people who just really, really want to be parents.

And really appreciate the children being parents. And, um, you know, a very loving, 

Lotte Jeffs: you mentioned just briefly then, um, earlier about, uh, communication and couples being one of the key things, um, that really matters for parents and children and, and. Pete talking about to children about their origin and how they’ve come into the world or how they’ve come into this family.

Just sort of, I guess, a bit selfishly in terms of thinking about myself, my wife and our two and a half year old, what advice would you give me based on your research in terms of when and how it’s best to talk to our daughter about a family? 

Susan Golombok: So our research shows that the earlier the better. Partly from the parent’s point of view because parents often say they, they worry about this whole thing.

You know, they, they worry the child will be upset or distressed or, you know, it might affect the bad way it might affect the relationship typically between the non-genetic parent and the child. And so parents worry about this whole telling process and. The idea of having to sit down with her child and reveal this to the parents is a really big issue.

And what we find is the parents who find it easier. So the ones who start talking to their children, when they’re tiny, before they can understand anything of tall, um, that way they’re kind of used to telling the story. And they never have this time where they feel they have to kind of sit down and reveal all to the child.

It’s something that’s always been talked about in the family, even if the child doesn’t necessarily understand. So it’s a process, but our research shows that if you start this process before the children go to school, generally before the children are four years old, then. These children, we find following them up.

Cause we do a lot of longitudinal research. We follow them up from babies up to adulthood that when they were teenagers, they actually had better relationships with their mothers. Oh 

Lotte Jeffs: wow. That’s so interesting. Great advice. Thank 

Susan Golombok: you. People. Other psychologists would probably say the same, but I think.

We’re the only research group who’ve done this longitudinal research, looking at one parents told and the impact of that. So it’s like adoption the earlier the better. And another important aspect is that the child feels that able to ask questions in, you know, as they grow older, they’ll have different questions, their understanding will change.

And so, you know, you will have to explain things in a different way, but it’s just. Having this open communication, because some children feel is kind of a taboo subject in the family. And if they mention it, then people get a bit upset and a bit edgy. And it’s really about, you know, being open to your child’s questions and making them.

I feel that it’s fine to ask the question. 

Stu Oakley: I mean, we have talk a lot about shame in the LGBTQ plus community, but actually shame within the children can feel definitely from an adoption point of view, but also, you know, through those that have been born through donors, et cetera, if they don’t feel exactly, as you said, the opportunity to be able to talk about it, understand it, and understand the, the reasons why.

Lotte Jeffs: Yeah, it’s so true. I’ve never really thought of it like that. Like if you, as the parent have any residual shame about your sexuality or don’t feel a hundred percent okay. In the family dynamic, kids will pick up on that. Weren’t they? And I think that’s so important to like, not put on your kids, any of your own.

Feelings about it, not being the done thing or carrying the weight of homophobia or experiences of bullying when you were younger and 

Susan Golombok: stuff. And the other thing to say that so slightly related to that is although many parents worry about beginning to talk to their children, you know, about either about their family or about, you know, them being born using a donor, something like that, the children are generally uninterested.

So, you know, this big telling such the parents are so worried about in a way it just becomes a con dumb Squibb because the children either are not very interested or they’re curious. But I think I’m mean, I can’t remember how many children, there was one particular study I was thinking of. And there were, I don’t know, probably more than 50 children that were involved in this.

You know, we asked the parents, how did your child respond? And only one out of all these children showed some concern or distress. And the majority just weren’t very interested or were curious and wanted to know more stew. That 

Lotte Jeffs: just makes me think. I’ve never really asked you about how your, your kids feel about having been adopted or how you talk to them.

Do you talk about it? Often does it come up like every day? Or do you sit down and have big talks about it everyday? 

Stu Oakley: But it’s definitely the age. It’s the season. My children are five, three, and one. And to the bags under my eyes at the moment, um, it’s mostly through literature at the moment through books.

And, um, there’s a great book. We actually spoke to her on this series called Carolyn Robinson. He wrote a book called two dads about two dads that adopt. And it’s just a really simple story. And adoption just happens to be part of the story. And I think those, the power of those stories to be able to talk to children.

So when I read it to them, they go, I go, both my dad’s adopted me and they all just look up at me and they’re like, Oh, like we do where? Like we were, we were adopted, we were adopted. And you know, we talk about it. As openly as we possibly can, especially to others that I never hold back when speaking to parents was at the school gate or anything like that, about the fact that it’s, they’ve been adopted sometimes with the outside society as well.

I feel that if you’re holding back, it raises other questions, especially as an educator, BT parent, where it’s obviously, they’re wondering how. My husband and I did have children and whether it was a doctor, I felt getting it out there, just put us out there. We’re really proud of it. The children should be proud of it.

And that is part of their life story. And that’s who they are. Do 

Lotte Jeffs: they ask about their birth? Family much. Well, we 

Stu Oakley: talk about because they have a relationship with their older brothers and we starting to get to the age, especially with my five-year-old about questions about her birth mother. But she hasn’t, to be honest shade, much interest, I must say.

Lotte Jeffs: It’s so interesting that you said that as well. So some kids just won’t be interested when I tried talking to Mike. Two and a half year old about it. And I was really nervous and I was just wanting to introduce the word donor to her and say, we found a special man, a donor who gave us what we needed to make you, because we’re two women or something like that was kind of like slightly, probably like tying myself in knots were there.

And then she was like big dis does he like penguins? And I was like, Oh, um, yeah. Sure. But at least I planted the 

Susan Golombok: idea. Yeah. Yes. And then you feel, you started talking about yeah. Just 

Lotte Jeffs: say the word won’t feel too alien. If it comes up again. 

Susan Golombok: Can I comment something that you said just now asked you, which I realized I wanted to say a bit earlier, but when you started talking about school, because you asked me what matters for children, I talked about what matters within the family, but of course, what matters.

Happens outside the family as well. And so that school is a really important place. Some schools are great and other schools are really terrible in terms of children with LGBT parents. We did a study with Stonewall a few years ago off the school experience, um, of children with LGBT parents. And we found that for some children, it was really hard because the schools just didn’t acknowledge their family or their family being different.

They didn’t see families like theirs and the thing they read or they, you know, films, they saw pictures on the walls. And also they said they were really fed up having to explain about their family over and over again, because the school should have done that. But the school didn’t. So it was up to them.

And that, that was something that they didn’t like at all. So this study was that Sheri liked to study because the children themselves, I think we interviewed about 82 children and they themselves came up with a set of 10 recommendations. Of things that schools could do better. It was, you know, I think that’s still available on the Stonewall website.

Children were able to tell us very clearly what they thought was wrong. At the school and what the school should be 

Stu Oakley: doing. Ask you, you mentioned it earlier about transparents and some of the studies you’ve been doing. And I was just curious to know what the current studies are around transparents and what you saw as like the key challenges and what the impact is on, on their 

Susan Golombok: children.

Yeah. So we did a study, which I write about this, a chapter in the book and we interviewed. 30 or 35 children with transparents. Now these were children who had experienced their parents transition. And so we were interested in how the children felt about that, but also what their concerns were or what they were happy with.

And so on. And the children were generally really happy in their families. Some had experienced some difficulties during the time of the transition. But on reflection. They generally said my daughter, my mom, they’re happier now. And they could see that. The transition actually made a big difference to how they felt and to their family life, but really where the parallels were with the children with lesbian or gay parents were at school.

And then the outside world where, you know, some parents just couldn’t turn up at school because people treated them so badly. And even out in the street, you know, the children would say, and that would also be a problem because people would say horrible. Things to them. And of course that was very upsetting for the children.

So there’s been very little research actually on children with transparents, which was one reason that we decided we should do that. Yeah. For 

Stu Oakley: you, Susan, what would you say has been, if you were to single out just one or two things from, from your studies from over the years, what would you say is the most interesting or the most surprising?


Susan Golombok: well, I suppose one of the things is. What you said before that in some of our studies, the lesbian and gay parents ended up, you know, doing better in terms of our assessments of parenting and child development. I mean, my prediction was there would be no differences and I mean, some of our studies did show no differences, but then I think that is for the reason I’ve said, you know, these were all very wanted children with.

You know, parents who were very thrilled to have them. The thing that I’ve had to explain more to other people, because people have these assumptions so that if children are brought up in a family that is different from the traditional nuclear family, even to this day, the assumption is that these children will in some way be disadvantaged.

And in fact, we haven’t found that at all. We found dependent thing the opposite, but as I say, the, the one remaining issue, of course. Is one of the stigmatization. 

Lotte Jeffs: It’s almost like saying to the person that questions are family dynamic. One, here’s a book that proves that you’re completely wrong. And so thank you, Susan, for the research you’ve done, which enables us to use fact and data to disprove the bigotry, which is great.

But also the back that we can say, the only one problem they face is bullying and homophobia from people like you. Who were questioning the, the existence of our family. So I just feel happy and vindicated to, to have your research out in the world. So just finally, what do you think is the future of the modern family?

Where do we go from here? 

Susan Golombok: Well, I mean, when I started out in the mid 1970s, it was, you know, I just couldn’t imagine all the different kinds of families that were going to appear over the next few decades. So. I don’t know the mind boggles. I’ve just, I have no idea. I just hope happy to see all these different families as they evolve.

I don’t know. You know what I mean? There are new developments on the horizon that will make a difference. So the idea of artificial sperm and eggs, so that would allow both partners in a lesbian or gay couple to be the genetic parents of their children. Well, that’s something that’s on the horizon. It’s not possible yet, but.

It’s very likely to happen. So I think some of the new family forums will follow. Scientific advances science is moving so quickly in this field. It’s hard to know what’s coming next. 

Stu Oakley: So very interesting season. Thank you.

Thank you, Susan, for joining us on some families. It was incredibly insightful. And if you want to hear more at particularly about the subject to transparency, because I feel everything Susan was saying about in her study, linked directly into the conversation we had with Zoe and Kelly back in season one.

Then if you haven’t listened to that episode, do go and have a listen. 

Lotte Jeffs: If you would like to join the conversation, then you can DMS on Instagram or Twitter at some families pod, or you can email us. At some, 

Stu Oakley: you can check out our website, which is www dot some families, where you can also sign up to be part of the sun families community.

And also please do take a note. As in the show notes, we have a link to Susan’s book. So if you feel like you want to learn more, then please go and buy her book and celebrate in the fact that. Queer parents are simply the best. 

Lotte Jeffs: Amen. We’ll be back next week with another episode until then. Goodbye. 

Stu Oakley: Goodbye.

Lotte Jeffs: This episode was produced and edited by Hattie Moir.

Stu Oakley: Some families is a StoryHunter Production.