Leveling the playing field – A brief history of LGBTQ parenting

Written by our guest contributor, Rachel Epstein, Coordinator, LGBTQ Parenting Network, Sherbourne Health Centre. 

Historically, LGBTQ people have been denied the right to have children, and sometimes, tragically, to retain custody of their children. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when lesbian mothers started to become visible in North America, it was in the context of custody cases.  Women who had children from heterosexual relationships were “coming out,” and being forced to fight for custody of their children.  Thirty years ago, 88% of lesbians who went to court fighting for their children, were denied custody.  These cases were based on a series of arguments designed to prove that lesbians and gay men are unfit parents.  LGBTQ people, and now many heterosexual friends, colleagues and professional associations, have spent decades rebutting them with much evidence-based research that proves otherwise1,2.  Sadly, we are now having to debunk similar arguments about trans people and their right to parent.

The denial of our right to parent has taken the form of barriers to access to assisted reproduction services, as well as outright denial of services.  Similarly we have been confronted with both systemic barriers to LGBTQ adoption and adoption laws that exclude LGBTQ people. Family law has historically provided inadequate legal recognition and protection to us as parents, and to our children.

Of course much has changed over the past thirty years.  Today lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans parents in Canada enjoy unprecedented legal and social recognition.  Our presence and our activism has spurred monumental change in the areas of law and policy, access to fertility clinics and sperm banks, adoption and family recognition.  LGBTQ folk of all sorts are creating families and transforming the landscapes of their neighbourhoods, schools and communities.  There is much to celebrate.

And yet, close to half the Canadian population continues to believe that gays and lesbians should not be allowed to parent3.  LGBTQ people still fear that we will be denied the right to have children or that our children will be taken away from us.  Participants in LGBTQ family planning courses continue to struggle with questions about their own legitimacy as parents.

We celebrate the social and political change that has made it possible for so many of us to have children, and we continue to live in the shadow of our history.  We continue to walk into fertility clinics and adoption services not knowing if we will be accepted as clients, not knowing if the people providing us service understand the unique experiences and needs of our communities, and not knowing how we will be treated.

Many leading child welfare, psychological and children’s health organizations have issued statements declaring that a parent’s sexual orientation is irrelevant to his or her ability to raise a child.  Many have also condemned discrimination based on sexual orientation in adoption, custody and other parenting situations and called for equal rights for all parents and children. More recently medical ethicists have issued similar statements with regards to trans people and parenting. For example, the Canadian Psychological Association’s4 statement reads, in part:

“According to the CPA, the psychosocial research into lesbian and gay parenting indicates that there are essentially no differences in the psychosocial development, gender identity or sexual orientation between the children of gay or lesbian parents and the children of heterosexual parents.”

In addition, medical ethicist Timothy Murphy5 recently wrote:

“There is insufficient evidence to show that children of transgender men and women are harmed in any way that would justify prohibition of this kind of parenthood.”


For more information about assisted human reproduction and LGBT individuals in a Canadian context, click here:

A Guidebook for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Queer People on Assisted Human Reproduction in Canada

To access this document in French, click here.

The LGBTQ Parenting Connection has also created a fact sheet for assisted human reproduction service providers working with LGBTQ people. To read this fact sheet, click here. You can also access this document in French, here.


1. Patterson, C. (2005). Lesbian and gay parents and their children: Summary of research findings. In Lesbian and gay parenting: A resource for psychologists, 2nd ed. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

2. Stacey, J., & T.J. Biblarz. (2001). (How) does the sexual orientation of parents matter? American Sociological Review, 66, 159–183.

3. Rayside, D. (2008). Queer inclusions, continental divisions: Public recognition of sexual diversity in Canada and the United States. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

4. Canadian Psychological Association, Press Release, November 24, 2003. https://www.cpa.ca/documents/CEM03.pdf

5. Murphy, T. (2010). The ethics of helping transgender men and women have children.  Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 53, 46-60.


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