Joya Misra Kristina Thomas University of Massachusetts Amherst
American family life has changed significantly in the past fifty years. Rates of divorce and non-marital childbearing have increased; gay and lesbian partnerships and families have also gained greater acceptance. The courts have played a crucial role in defining parenthood, particularly in the adversarial context of child custody disputes. While researchers have examined how parental gender or sexual orientation affects custody decisions, this dissertation will fill a significant gap by examining how both the gender and sexual orientation of the parent affects judicial constructions of parenthood in child custody decisions. Using a legal research database, the investigator has determined the universe of state-level judicial opinions regarding gay, lesbian, and bisexual parents in all 50 states and the District of Columbia from 1996 through 2008. These 175 cases were then matched to similar child custody cases involving heterosexual parents, resulting in 350 total court cases. A qualitative textual analysis of these 350 cases will be completed comparing both heterosexual and homosexual parents as well as both mothers and fathers. This research will study to two research questions: In judicial custody decisions of same-sex parents and heterosexual parents, how does the gender and sexuality of the parent play a role in the courts' constructions of "parent" and "family?" In a comparison of mothers to fathers, as well as gay and lesbian parents to heterosexual parents, do any meaningful differences or similarities emerge? The courts hold enormous power to influence the cultural definitions of family and this research will help us understand how courts draw the boundary lines of legal parenthood. Findings will provide important insights into understanding power and inequality in the family, which have real consequences for American families. In addition, through scholarly presentations and articles, the investigator will disseminate the research to a broader audience, including policymakers, legal professionals, and family practitioners. Finally, this study will inform future child custody policy, child support policy, and other policies that affect families.