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Hormonal changes in gay fathers: A Q&A with Dr. Erin Burke

Hormonal changes in gay fathers: A Q&A with Dr. Erin Burke

6 min read

While our culture places an enormous amount of emphasis on the physical transition and experience of becoming a mother (hormones, pregnancy, birth, and more), it’s important to remember that fathers also experience physiological changes when adapting to the role of dad. Until recently, studies on hormonal changes in men have mostly focused on heterosexual fathers — some have even examined changes in fathers across various cultures and ethnicities.

While this is undoubtedly cool, men who are in same-sex relationships have largely been left out of research? What about their hormonal changes? Awesomely enough, Dr. Erin Burke, a member of our Modern Fertility family, has been looking into just that for the past few years. With her doctoral research paper recently published (check it out it here!), we asked Erin to grace us with her expertise through some good, old-fashioned Q&A.

Tell us about your background and your work generally. What are you doing inside and outside of Modern Fertility?

I run research and clinical operations at Modern Fertility. I joined the team in January. Before that I was a professor of anthropology at Southern Connecticut State University. The study that was published this month in Physiology & Behavior was part of my doctoral research at Yale.

You recently had a research paper come out — congratulations! Can you summarize the focus of the study for us in your own words?

Thank you! First, some background: We all know that women go through some significant physiological changes when they become mothers (If you just think about gestation, birth, lactation, those are pretty obvious). And we can measure these changes in a scientific way using hormones. Why hormones? Well, because hormones are what regulate physiological and behavioral functions in the body, so they are a great tool for biosocial research.

Roughly 15 years ago, researchers started measuring what happens to men when they become fathers and they found similar hormonal changes to the ones women undergo when they become mothers. This is interesting, because men have these same changes without having to give birth. This holds up cross-culturally if a man is caring for his kids. Studies have found these hormonal changes in fathers in the US, the Philippines, Germany, Israel, Tanzania, Jamaica, Canada and more; all over the world. It is hypothesized that these physiological changes are responsible for making men better fathers by diverting bodily investment from mate-seeking to caretaking.

I wanted to explore if these same physiological changes, as reflected by hormones, were happening in gay fathers as well. To do so, I measured a cortisol and testosterone (two hormones we know from previous studies are implicated in paternal care) in gay male couples with and without kids.

What first got you interested in this topic, and how did this study come about?

Humans are pretty exceptional in that we are one of a handful of mammals in which males are known to care for children (chimp dads aren’t changing diapers, or the chimpanzee equivalent, at least). But more interestingly, we also have situations where two men care for children, sometimes without the involvement of a woman.

Anthropologists are interested in how humans evolved, and the traits that unite or distinguish us from our primate cousins. Therefore, there have been a lot of studies in the last 15 years or so exploring the way in which men are involved in caretaking, and the implications that this has had for our species’ evolution. Men are capable of a spectrum of fatherhood behavior, from child abuse and neglect to direct caretaking. And the biological correlates of that behavior, namely neuroendocrine, have gotten a lot of attention. However, the majority of these studies have concentrated on opposite sex couples or polygynous men. I wanted to expand our focus to one of the ends of the fathering spectrum--gay fathers.

Cortisol, a hormone we often associate with stress, was found to be decreased in the couples with children versus the couples without children. Most of us would think that children would increase stress levels, therefore increasing cortisol. Why would the opposite be true?

There are three possible explanations for why cortisol was lower in gay dads with kids compared to gay couples without kids:

  1. One interpretation of our results is that gay fathers experience less stress compared to gay male couples without children. One way to reduce stress is to have a good support system. Gay dads might experience less stress than gay couples without children because they are a part of a parenting or family community. Lower stress could also be because of a stronger sense of “family.” Having a secure family attachment in a country where legal and social opposition to gay marriage and family-making still exist might lower stress levels.

  2. However, the relationship between stress and cortisol is complex. Chronic stress can actually lower cortisol. It might be that being a parent, especially a parent who belongs to a sexual minority group, is like being chronically stressed.

  3. And thirdly, the lower cortisol levels could be because of some other unknown factor that we didn’t measure.

Testosterone levels did not vary significantly between gay fathers and gay non-fathers. Why could this be the case?

Testosterone levels might be the same in gay dads and non-dads because gay dads need to protect their children and their status as a family. In other primates, infant protection is the primary form of paternal investment. In gay fathers, protective behavior may be the result of stigma which can lead to higher testosterone levels.

Just by having children, gay fathers are challenging the notion of what it means to be a father, and are often put in the position of defending their identity as such. This is known as a “minority stress.” Other studies have shown that stigma does not always have to be expressed by someone else towards an individual. Internalized stigma sensitivity (such as thinking others judge one on their sexual orientation) and stress were correlated for North American gay fathers of adopted children.

Our study did not specifically ask participants about their experience of stigma or defensiveness and protection, so future studies of gay fathers could incorporate these types of questions to determine if there is a correlation with testosterone.

What was the best or most exciting part of conducting this study? The most challenging? Any memorable stories you'd like to share?

The best part was just hanging out with couples and their adorable children, to be honest! Also, dads with small kids are pretty busy, so it was difficult to find a lot of people to participate. Hopefully future studies will be able to capture a larger sample size.

What is the big-picture take away from your study? What can we, as readers, learn from this?

Our findings suggest that hormones associated with paternal care can and do vary depending on sexual orientation. Also, this is the first time that reproductive hormones have been studied in humans in the context of gay paternal care, and hopefully will not be the last. This is just the tip of the iceberg, so-to-speak, and there’s so much more to learn.

What makes this research so useful and relevant to the scientific community and world?

I first became interested in gay dads specifically when I realized that the biosocial literature on fathers was pretty robust, but was missing an important community--gay dads. To put this in context, gay families, and specifically the children of gay individuals, have received a lot of attention from, for instance, LGBTQ/Women’s Studies or Psychology programs. There has only been one single biosocial study to-date of gay dads.

So this is a huge part of the populace, of humanity really, that has been ignored when we talk about what it means to be a dad in an evolutionary context. I think we are living in a period where the definition of family is thankfully changing and expanding. I hope that my research shines a light on the need for more inclusive research in the biosocial sciences.

How long did this research project and paper take — from conception to publication? How does it feel to have the published study out in the world?

This was about a five-year process. It’s great to finally see the paper published, but I hope that this is just the first of many studies to explore the physiological changes that gay fathers go through.

What further research, if any, would you like to see done on this topic? Are there any important next steps or questions to be answered?

In a sense, the conclusions from this study have raised more questions to be answered, so there are a lot of opportunities to expand this research. Future studies could follow men longitudinally as they go through the transition to fatherhood. Other studies could be more experimental in nature, by measuring hormones in gay dads before and after interacting with their children.

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Kara Earthman

Kara Earthman is a Women's Health Nurse Practitioner (WHNP) and writer living and working in Nashville, TN. You can find more of Kara's work on her blog EarthWoman.

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