Date of Award


Document type


Access Type

Open Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Program


First Advisor

Joya Misra

Second Advisor

Naomi Gerstel

Third Advisor

Miliann Kang

Subject Categories



This dissertation examines the contested terrain of family through qualitative analysis of child custody decisions. Legal parenthood was historically based on the heteronormative family ideal of a legally married monogamous heterosexual couple and their biogenetically related children. In the context of diverse family forms of the twenty-first century, however, courts struggle to draw the boundary lines of legal parenthood. Although previous research has examined the role of parental gender or sexual identity on child custody decisions, my research fills an important gap, as I analyze variations in gender, sexual identity, and path to parenthood for heterosexual, gay, lesbian, and bisexual mothers and fathers. Using the universe of state-level child custody decisions from 2003 to 2009, I created a unique data set in which I matched court cases involving gay and lesbian parents to cases in the same court and time period that involved heterosexual parents, resulting in 254 court decisions. This research design enabled me to illuminate how courts construct families and parents in the context of variations in parental gender, sexual identity, and path to parenthood. In addition, qualitative textual analysis demonstrates how the courts struggled to conceptualize family forms outside of heterosexual marriage and biogenetically related children. Indeed, biogenetics continue to remain central to legal constructions of parenthood. This research also reveals the continued legal regulation of family forms that deviate from the heteronormative ideal. Overall, this research elucidates larger questions about inequality, gender, sexuality, and family in the United States.


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Sociology Commons