OUTSTANDING VIRGINIANS 2013

Charlotte J. Patterson

Researcher

Charlotte J. Patterson

University of Virginia Psychology Professor Charlotte J. Patterson’s academic curriculum vitae runs to 25 pages. It includes distinguished awards, editorial assignments, and fellowships; six book authorship credits and dozens of journal articles. She serves on the Faculty Senate and directs the University’s interdisciplinary program on Women, Gender and Sexuality — when she’s not conducting groundbreaking research on the psychology of sexual orientation. More than anyone else, her research on the emotional health of children in same-sex households has dispelled the misconception that heterosexual parents are a prerequisite for children to grow up happy and well adjusted. Her work has contributed to precedent setting court decisions and has been cited in amicus briefs for two current Supreme Court cases concerning marriage equality.

Yet science and the law were not foremost on Professor Patterson’s mind when EV spoke with her one Saturday in March. David and Eliza — her 15-year-old twins with Deborah Cohn, her partner of over three decades—were off at a debate tournament, and she was thinking about them.  Having kids — Charlotte and Deborah have three, including the twins’ older sister Sarah — gives Patterson “points of connection” to the issues she studies. For instance, she can analyze statistics from nationwide population studies of children living with same-sex parents and conclude that “family diversity is a growing reality.” She can get the same message from her daughter’s preschool classmate, whose amused straight parents once reported being asked, “Why can’t I have two moms like Sarah does?”

Charlotte and Deborah in 1983

Charlotte and Deborah in 1983

The flip side of having the special perspective of a lesbian mother is the need for careful research controls and peer review.  Early on in her research, detractors from the political right assumed that Professor Patterson had biased her research findings by counting only the healthy kids. When that assumption was proven groundless, they turned their attention to the way that the mainstream press reported her research, hoping to find bias there. The headline of one editorial about her research read “Homosexuals are winning the media wars.”

Now that they have been replicated by other researchers, Professor Patterson’s findings on the health and well-being of children with lesbian and gay parents are widely accepted in the mainstream. When she joined the UVA faculty in 1975, however, things were different. “In those days, you edged out of the closet slowly,” she says. But soon she co-founded the University’s LGBT faculty/staff organization (called UVA PRIDE) and later was founding co-chair of the board of UVA’s LGBT Resource Center. She and Deborah were early supporters of Virginians for Justice and continued to be enthusiastic supporters as that organization transformed itself into Equality Virginia. “It takes patience, persistence, and vision to work for justice, and Equality Virginia has shown that it has all three of these important qualities,” Patterson says.

Patterson and her family.

Charlotte J. Patterson expects marriage equality to become the law of the land, and she looks forward to the day that she and Deborah can marry here in the Commonwealth and have their marriage recognized under Virginia law.  Indeed, the 2013 Commonwealth Dinner will take place soon after the Supreme Court has heard oral arguments in Perry v. Hollingsworth and United States v. Windsor, two cases that could strike down DOMA and other discriminatory marriage restrictions. If and when that happens, it will be in part because of research evidence provided by this Charlottesville scholar and mom.