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The Definition of ‘Family’ is Changing, and It Matters to Our Work

By Dylan L. Galos, MS, and Eugene Hall, MA, Graduate Research Assistants — Family Development; and Jenifer McGuire, PhD, MPH, Associate Professor and Extension Specialist — Department of Family Social Science

This is the second of two articles on the effects of the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage.

On June 26, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) ruled that same-sex marriages are legal in all states, causing a sea change in policy across the nation. In addition to expanding the definition of marriage, the ruling on who can marry whom also changes our definitions of family — we touched on that in the first of these two articles. While it’s important for family researchers, evaluators, and practitioners in FD to understand policy changes emanating from the Supreme Court ruling, our focus must be on how those policy changes affect our focus on inclusivity. As we consider this expansion in the definition of family, we in Family Development have to find ways to expand our capabilities to include sexual and gender minority (SGM) families in our work. Like so many other issues in research, this one begins with discussing assumptions.

Assumptions in Data Collection

One important way we can adapt is in our processes of data collection. For example:
  • When we send a survey to program participants about family life, if we assume a respondent is (or was) part of a heterosexual couple, we miss an opportunity to identify SGM families and find out what their needs are.
  • When we ask questions about gender and provide only “male” and “female” as possible responses, we miss an opportunity to learn about those whose gender identity does not fit within that binary.
  • When we assume someone is heterosexual, we miss the opportunity to capture the intricacies of their identity. For example, although a woman says she is married to a man, she may not identify as straight.
These are just a few examples of situations that call for changes in data collection design in order to serve SGM families. While these families may comprise a small proportion (two recent studies estimate that between 3 and 4 percent of the U.S. population is SGM; Gates, 2011; Gates & Newport, 2012) of the people we work with, their needs are real.

Assumptions in Research and Program Design

We must be inclusive of SGM families in the design of our programs in both Family Resiliency and Health and Nutrition, including food access, food security, and nutrition. It's never wise to make assumptions about gender roles as we develop family-based nutrition interventions, and that rule applies as much to SGM families as it does to families headed by heterosexual couples.

We need to incorporate the work of scholars studying disparities in obesity, nutrition, and dietary behaviors among SGM individuals, as well as reach out to them and ask about their needs in these areas. Until we do so, the food and nutrition-related needs of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons will remain invisible to us.

Parents Forever™ Work Has Already Begun

One Family Development program is asking important, and sometimes difficult, questions to keep its components relevant and inclusive of all families. That program is Parents Forever™. In 2013, when the Minnesota Legislature passed a law allowing SGM couples to marry, Parents Forever™ team members recognized the impact this legislation would have on the efficacy of their program. For years, Parents Forever™ has striven to be inclusive of all families, but passage of the Minnesota law in 2013 and this year's SCOTUS ruling have elevated the importance of serving these formerly invisible couples. For Parents Forever™, this means that even though the current curriculum is inclusive in language, the content does not incorporate the unique needs of SGM families. As a result, SGM parents enrolled in a Parents Forever™ course may not receive the same benefits as heterosexual parents in the same class. We have already begun work to close this benefits "gap" for SGM families.

The Parents Forever™ research team has launched a study of the experiences of SGM families working through a divorce or separation. This project aims to identify the unique challenges SGM families face throughout this transition. The research is based on a set of questions generated from a review of relevant literature in this area. The research team will use these questions to conduct interviews with SGM parents who have navigated a separation with their child’s (or children’s) other parent.

Along with interviewing SGM parents, the Parents Forever™ team will interview key community stakeholders who have direct experience working with SGM families in their separation process. Interviewing these lawyers, judges, court administrators, and court clerks will provide a view of an external system that interacts with SGM families during and after the separation process. Coding done by the team will highlight the common themes among these experiences and analysis will help determine the salient differences in the separation process for SGM families.

Intentionally incorporating the data from this research with the already effective Parents Forever™ curriculum will guide the creation of an SGM adaptation of the Parents Forever™ program. This adaptation will integrate the unique components of the divorce or separation process for SGM parents while using the core modules of Parents Forever™ as a foundation. Implementing the adaptation provides SGM-inclusive education on co-parenting. The team will continue to evaluate the program while adding strategic questions to the evaluations that address the strength of this adaption and ensure its effectiveness. Continued research and evaluation will keep Parents Forever™ on the forefront of helping the ever-evolving family.

Summing Up

The June 26 SCOTUS decision meant change in family life is coming for SGM individuals living in the United States. For Family Development, this day meant we have work to do. Redefining family on such a broad scale illuminates the seemingly endless ways we can better help families. Dr. Jenifer McGuire and Graduate Research Assistants Dylan Galos and Eugene Hall are working on ways of improving research methods and adapting programs in order to benefit all families. If you have questions about what this means for your work or want to explore ways of helping families in this context, please contact them. Working together, Family Development can apply this redefinition of family in all areas and move forward inclusively to meet the needs of all families.


Gates, Gary J. (2011). How many people are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender? Los Angeles, CA: Williams Institute, University of California School of Law.
Gates, G.J. & Newport, F. (2012, October 18). Special report: 3.4% of U.S. adults identify as LGBT. Gallup.
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