Journal of School Health * August 1997, Vol. 67, No. 6, pp. 236-241.
Preservice Elementary Teachers' Attitudes Toward Gay and Lesbian Parenting
Dolores W. Maney, Richard E. Cain
ABSTRACT: This preliminary investigation assessed preservice elementary teachers' attitudes toward homosexual parents and their children. The study population included 195 college students enrolled in an elementary school health methods course at a large north eastern university. A 51-item "Gay and Lesbian Parenting Questionnaire" was used for data collection purposes. Reliability estimates for the scales were: attitudes toward lesbians and gay men (alpha = .90), comfort toward gay and lesbian families (alpha = .92), and knowledge about homosexuality (alpha = .52). Most respondents agreed gay men: were not disgusting, should be allowed to teach, were not perverted, and should not overcome their feelings of homosexuality. Most respondents disagreed lesbians cannot fit into society or were sick. Nearly all agreed female homosexuality should not be a basis for job discrimination. Females were significantly (p < .001) more comfortable with gay or lesbian parents and their children than were males. Females had significantly (p < .01) more favorable attitudes toward gay fathers than did male respondents. Respondents with stronger religious attitudes had significantly (p < .01) more negative attitudes toward lesbian parents than respondents with weaker religious attitudes. (J Sch Health, 1997; 67 (6): 236-241)
Traditionally, the term "family" described two or more persons living together who are related by blood, marriage, or adoption.1 Changing demographics of the American household are prompting people to re-examine their definition of family. A more contemporary definition includes anyone living in a nuclear family, living with a spouse, living with minor children, living with unrelated children, and living with a same gender partner.2 The traditional family of working husband, mother at home, and children may have accounted for only 10% of all households in the late 1980s.3 An "alternative family" structure, which is gaining national attention, includes one or both parents who are gay or lesbian. About 10% of the population has been estimated to be predominantly homosexual.4,5 Homosexual individuals or couples also form family units, either as single parents or as couples, and gay men and lesbians are pioneering a decision that touches the most cherished elements of American society -- parenthood.6-8 A growing number of gay men and lesbians bring children from previous heterosexual relationships or have children through adoption, artificial insemination, or surrogate motherhood.9
Estimates differ about the number of gay and lesbian parents. Bozett7 estimated that 1 to 3 million gay fathers and 1.5 million lesbian mothers are rearing children in the United States. The Gay and Lesbian Parents Coalition International and other gay rights activist groups estimated that some 4 million gay men and lesbians rear about 10 million children.6 Gay men and lesbians are similar to heterosexual parents in terms of lifestyle, maternal interests, and parenting behavior;9 and children of lesbian mothers are no different in terms of their self-esteem, gender identity, sexual orientation, and general development than children of heterosexual mothers.11-14 Likewise, gay fathers are equally as effective as heterosexual fathers and have positive relationships with their children.15
Gay or lesbian parents share common concerns about the acceptance of gay and lesbian families among school personnel.8,9,16 Specifically, gay and lesbian parents are concerned about the reaction to their children by members of the teaching community or that school personnel may be somewhat embarrassed teaching about homosexuality or gay families.8 Many gay and lesbian parents want to make sure the school's philosophy promotes an effective family life education program to help develop fulfilling, satisfying personal and family relationships. They also want their children to feel comfortable as members of a family unit.
Homophobic views are evident among school personnel.15,16 Though not always overtly obvious to school personnel, homophobic views impose on teachers' abilities to interact positively with their students. Benkov16, noted that, regardless of subtle or blatant attitudes, homophobia is reflected in the classroom in a variety of ways, including lack of sensitivity to alternative family structures or rigid assumptions about the role of gender in students' lives. Butler and Byme17 reported that students enrolled in preservice elementary programs were slightly homophobic, which is problematic since an elementary school requires teachers to interact positively with all children, regardless of the nature of the family unit.18
The behavior of teachers when interacting with children of gay or lesbian parents and their degree of comfort in dealing with gay and lesbian families represent an important aspect of healthy child development. The elementary years are critical for development of all attitudes of children , including those toward children with gay or lesbian parents. Elementary school teachers who feel uncomfortable around students of gay or lesbian parents may cause a lasting negative impact on students' self-esteem and general well-being. A better understanding of the attitudes preservice elementary school teachers hold regarding gay and lesbian parenting would allow universities to better prepare preservice elementary educators for the classroom. Therefore, this preliminary investigation assessed the attitudes of preservice elementary teachers regarding gay and lesbian parenting.
The study population consisted of 195 college students attending a large northeastern university who were enrolled during spring semester 1996 in five sections of an elementary school health methods course. The population included primarily elementary and kindergarten education majors and exercise science majors. Students attending class on the day data were collected were provided informed consent information and asked to volunteer to complete a survey regarding homosexuality and their comfort when interacting with gay and lesbian parents. A total of 170 students participated in the study, representing an 87.1% participation rate.
The 51-item "Gay and Lesbian Parenting Questionnaire," compiled by the authors, was subdivided into four measures: 1) attitudes toward lesbians and gay men,19 2) comfort when interacting with gay and lesbian families, 3) knowledge about homosexuality, and 4) demographic characteristics. The Herek19 subscale of "Attitudes Toward Lesbians and Gay Men" (alpha = .90) was a 20- item scale in Likert-type, nine-point format ranging from strongly disagree to strongly agree and included statements such as "Male homosexuality is a perversion" or "Lesbians just can't fit into society." These two 10-item subscales produced satisfactory measures of internal consistency: (Attitudes Toward Lesbians, alpha = .77) and (Attitudes Toward Gay Men, alpha =.89).
The "Comfort When Interacting with Gay and Lesbian Families" scale, designed by the researchers, consisted of 10 Likert-type items that were rated from "very uncomfortable- able" to "very comfortable." The Cronbach's alpha reliability estimate for the comfort scale was .91 (n = 166) and consisted of items such as "How comfortable would you feel during a parent-teacher conference with the homosexual parent(s) of your student?" or "How comfortable would you feel intervening with a bully who is teasing a student of a homosexual parent(s)?" The "Knowledge About Homosexual Relationships" scale, also designed by the researchers, was subject to KR-20 reliability analysis and yielded an alpha coefficient of .52. The knowledge scale included true and false items such as "A child who is exposed to a homosexual person at an early age is more likely to become homosexual than heterosexual" or "Gay fathers are not as effective parents as are heterosexual fathers." Given the low reliability estimate for the knowledge scale, no further analysis was conducted on those data.
For descriptive data analysis purposes, the range, standard deviation and mean values are shown using a nine- point scale. For readability purposes, the response options for three subscales of "attitudes toward gay men," "attitudes toward lesbians," and "comfort with homosexual parenting" were collapsed from nine response options and re-categorized into three response options. Data are presented in categories of "strongly disagree," "uncertain," strongly agree"; or "very uncomfortable," "comfortable," and "very comfortable."
All respondents provided usable data. Most respondents were female (85.3%) and Caucasian (91.6%) (Table 1). Ages ranged from 18 to 42 (M = 20.7, SD = 2.8) years. Most respondents were sophomores (43.5%) or juniors (38.2%), and most were elementary and kindergarten education majors (73.5%). Most respondents indicated their sexual orientation was heterosexual (98.8%). When asked about the level of religiosity, a nearly equal proportion said "somewhat weak" (23.5%) or "very strong" (24. 1 %), while nearly half (48.8%) said their religiosity was "somewhat strong."
Attitudes Toward Male Homosexuality
From a total of 90 points (very positive) to 10 points (very negative), respondents' attitudes toward gay men (ATG) scale ranged from 10 to 87 points (M = 38.5; SD = 19.2). Only one-third (36.5%) of respondents said they were uncertain whether gay men should be allowed to adopt children, while nearly one-fourth (24.7%) said they "strongly agreed" with this idea (Table 2). Nearly two- thirds of respondents "strongly disagreed" that gay men are disgusting (62.9%). Most respondents "strongly disagreed" that gay men should not teach school (84.7%), "strongly disagreed" male homosexuality is a perversion (72.0%), "strongly disagreed" men having homosexual feelings should overcome them (70.2%), and "strongly disagreed" homosexual behavior between men is wrong (63.1%).
Interestingly, however, more than half respondents "strongly disagreed" that male homosexuality is a different kind of lifestyle that should not be condemned (56.8%).
Attitudes Toward Female Homosexuality
The attitudes toward lesbians (ATL) nine-point response format was identical to the ATG. Respondents' attitudes on the ATL scale ranged from 17 to 80 (M = 37.6, SD 16.4). Most respondents "strongly disagreed" lesbians cannot fit into society (71.8%), and "strongly disagreed" lesbians are sick (70.8%) (Table 3). Approximately two-thirds "strongly disagreed" female homosexuality is a sin (65.3%), "strongly disagreed" the growing number of lesbians represents a decline in American morals (67.9%), "strongly disagreed" female homosexuality threatens basic social institutions (65.7%), and "strongly disagreed" female homosexuality is an inferior form of sex (62.0%). In addition, most respondents "strongly agreed" female homosexuality should not be cause for job discrimination (87.6%).
Comfort When Interacting with Gay Parents and Lesbian Parents
The Comfort with Gay/Lesbian Parenting scale scores ranged from 14 to 90 (M = 61.9, SD = 16). Nearly three-fourths of respondents said they would feel "very comfortable" when conversing with gay and lesbian parents at a parent-teacher conference (70.6%) (Table 4). In addition, more than half the respondents felt "very comfortable" with the following being interviewed by a gay or lesbian parent about school curriculum on family issues and sexuality (50.6%), receiving a student information card noting co-moms or co-dads (58.6%), teaching about gay and lesbian family units (52.4%), and not knowing the biological or adoptive parent (50.3%).
Between one-fourth and one-third of respondents, however, said they would feel "very uncomfortable" with the following: talking to a homosexual parent about their familiarity with gay and lesbian families (25.3%), asking a homosexual parent questions about their family unit (24.9%), and asking a homosexual parent questions about homosexuality (36.7%).
Bivariate Data Results
Using the nine-point ATG, ATL, and Comfort scales, bivariate procedures were used to examine relationships between gender and comfortableness when interacting with gay men and lesbian parents and their children; gender by attitudes toward gay men or lesbians who are parents; religiosity by interacting with gay men and lesbian parents and their children; and religiosity by attitudes toward gay men, lesbians, and parenting in general (Table 5). To examine the statistical significance between dependent and independent variables, one-way analysis of variance was applied to these data.
Gender by Comfortableness with Homosexual Parents and Their Children
A statistically significant difference existed between level of comfort and gender of preservice elementary teachers (Table 5). Female respondents reported feeling significantly (p < .001) more comfortable when interacting with parents who are gay or lesbian and their children, than did male respondents.
Gender by Attitude Toward Gay Men and Lesbian Parents
Likewise, a statistically significant difference occurred between male and female respondents with regard to their attitudes toward gay fathers and lesbian mothers. Female respondents tended to have a significantly (p < .01) more favorable attitude toward gay men who are fathers than did male respondents. Nevertheless, female and male respondents did not have significantly (p < .25) different attitudes toward mothers who are lesbians.
Religiosity by Attitude Toward Gay Men and Lesbian Parents
Data analysis showed respondents' reporting stronger religious attitudes were significantly (p < .01) more likely to have had a negative attitude toward mothers who are lesbians than those with weaker religious attitudes (Table 5). Though the number of male respondents was low (n = 25), these male respondents with stronger religious beliefs were not significantly (p < .37) more likely to feel uncomfortable when interacting with gay men who are parents and their children than males with weaker religious beliefs. Interestingly, no significant differences existed (p < 11) with regard to respondents' degree of religious beliefs and level of comfort when interacting with gay and lesbian parents and their children.
This preliminary study focused on preservice elementary teachers' attitudes toward gay and lesbian parenting and working with children of gay or lesbian families. Due to the geographically localized nature of the study, and the relatively homogeneous makeup of the sample, these preliminary results should be interpreted accordingly. Further research should be conducted with more geographically and demographically diverse populations.
Overall, the findings showed fewer homophobic attitudes than were anticipated. For example, most respondents agreed that gay men: were not disgusting, should be allowed to teach, were not perverted, and should not try to overcome their feelings of homosexuality. Likewise, most respondents agreed that lesbians should not be subjected to job discrimination because of their sexual orientation. Many respondents, however, said they felt uncomfortable with regard to asking personal information from parents who are gay or lesbian or asking gay men or lesbians questions about homosexuality in general.
Nevertheless, more than one-half the respondents (n = 96) said that male homosexuality represents a lifestyle that should be condemned. These findings are consistent with other research;17,18 thus, the finding that male respondents strongly disagree with homosexual lifestyles is typical. Female respondents said they were more comfortable with gay men who are parents than did male respondents. Female respondents also said they would be more comfortable interacting with either gay or lesbian parents and their children than were male respondents. The changing nature of the American family, 2,6,7,8,16 as well as the perception that gay and lesbian parents are more similar to heterosexual parents with regard to parental instincts, 12,13,14 possibly reflects these normative attitudes toward homosexuality and gay and lesbian parenting.
Today, American school systems provide educational services to children from many types of family structures. Children are reared by parents with dual careers, single parents, divorced parents, step-parents, interracial parents, or gay or lesbian parents.20 Personal bias and the social stigma attached to homosexuality and parenting inevitably may influence pedagogy. Benkov16 reported that even when homophobia is not an issue and support is available in school environments for children of gay or lesbian parents, schools rarely demonstrate to families that they are sensitive to these issues. Parents can fail in this regard as well. It is equally important for the parents to voice, appropriately, their concerns about their family structures and the needs of their children.
These preliminary findings suggest that elementary education preparation programs should include curricula about gay and lesbian family structures. Administratively,
course curricula should include objectives that enrich students' understanding about alternative families and the role of elementary educators in meeting the needs of homosexual parents and their children. Preservice elementary programs could address the issue of reducing homophobia among preservice teachers. Elementary teachers also need to be aware of alternative family resources such as those listed in the reference section of this article. Requiring students to submit an annotated listing of resources on alternative family structures would be an enriching activity. Preservice teachers also could be encouraged to develop lesson plans that address the special needs of children of alternative families, or at a minimum, supplement lesson plans to address these concerns. Teachers who incorporate consistent information on alternative family structures into their lessons would contribute greatly to the healthy development- of their students.
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Dolores W. Maney, PhD. Assistant Professor, Dept of Kinesiology, 266 Recreation Bldg.. Penn State University, University Park, PA 16802,E-mail email@example.com, and Richard E. Cain, PhD, Assistant Professor, Div. of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation, Virginia Commonwealth University, 817 W. Franklin St., P.O. Box 842037, Richmond, VA 23284-2037. This article was submitted January 22, 1997, and selected for publication April 4, 1997.