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Last week’s column about the myth that wife beating jumps 40 percent following the Super Bowl reminds me of another hard-to-swallow statistic I’ve run across, this one in Baker v. Vermont, the 1999 Vermont supreme court ruling that gay and lesbian couples deserve the same rights as married straight couples (dol.state.vt.us/gopher_root3/supct/current/98-032.op). Citing a scholarly article, the court said that “between 1.5 and 5 million lesbian mothers resided with their children in [the] United States between 1989 and 1990.” The court also cited an article entitled “Children of the Lesbian Baby Boom” in Lesbian and Gay Psychology observing that “although precise estimates are difficult, the number of families with lesbian mothers is growing.”

Mercy, I thought. We’re living in a changed world. Can there really be five million lesbian moms with kids at home? I decided to find out.

I looked up the scholarly article cited in the Vermont decision (“Lesbians Choosing Motherhood,” Flaks et al, 1995). Right off the bat I got an indication the numbers were flaky. The article didn’t say 1.5 to 5 million lesbian moms lived with their kids between 1989 and 1990. It merely quoted numbers from articles published in 1989 and 1990. The quoted articles didn’t contain original research either but cited still earlier articles.

Eventually I tracked the numbers down. The higher figure–five million lesbian moms–apparently came from a plaintiff’s trial brief in a 1975 divorce case in Wayne County (Detroit), Michigan. The Wayne County clerk’s office informed me that a copy of this document would cost $198, too rich for what struck me as a highly suspect source. Besides, even the lower figure–1.5 million lesbian moms–was doubtful. A 1976 article in the Buffalo Law Review explained that “there are an estimated 11 million lesbians in America–one out of every ten women.” The article estimated that 13 to 20 percent of lesbians were mothers. Thirteen percent of 11 million was 1.43 million.

There were two problems with this number. The first was that the 10 percent estimate for the incidence of lesbianism, once commonly cited, was probably high. Current estimates generally run in the 3 to 6 percent range. Applying this number to 1990 census data, we arrive at an estimate of 500,000 to 1,000,000 lesbian moms.

The second problem with the 1.5 million figure was that the article never claimed it was the number of lesbian moms living with their children–that embellishment was added by later authors. The number we’ve just computed is the total number of lesbians with children. The majority of those children are adults no longer living at home. In 1990 only 26 percent of the U.S. population was under 18. Making certain simplifying assumptions, we may estimate that 130,000 to 260,000 lesbian moms have children living at home.

One can dispute these numbers too. The publicity surrounding gay adoption and artificial insemination notwithstanding, most children of lesbian mothers are the product of traditional heterosexual relationships. Although many marriages involving lesbians no doubt end in divorce, it seems likely that in their early years many, perhaps most, of the children are raised in a conventional mom-and-dad environment. There has been a sharp increase in the number of single moms, but the percentage of these women who are openly lesbian is probably low due to the hostility of the courts, which have been reluctant to give lesbians custody. These factors would tend to reduce the number of lesbian families. On the other hand, some research suggests that half of lesbians have children, not just 13 to 20 percent.

Is it impossible to know, then, how many lesbian moms are living with their kids? Not necessarily. An indication may be obtained from the Census Bureau, which estimates that 135,000 U.S. households consist of two unrelated women with children under 15 at home (comparable number for males: 32,000). One may argue whether this number over- or understates the actual number of lesbian families, but I think it gives a ballpark idea. Add in your own guesstimate of the number of single-parent lesbian families, and it’s easy to believe there are a quarter million lesbian households with young children. Possibly there are more, but claims of 1.5 to 5 million are far-fetched.

In short, an implausibly large number that arose from a comedy of errors and escaped scrutiny because it was useful in an argument has now been used to support a ruling by Vermont’s highest court. I don’t claim the mistake invalidates the court’s opinion–however you figure it, millions of children have been born to lesbian moms, and in a better world more of these kids would be raised by their mothers. Nor do I claim women’s rights advocates are uniquely prone to exaggeration. But the preceding exercise does show you how the facts get trampled in the heat of debate.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.