"Homosexual marriage [could be] taught in schools whether parents like it or not."
Sound familiar? The ultra-right used the argument to drum up support for Prop 8. Now, Stand for Marriage Maine is busting out the same drivel in support of that state's Referendum 1, which would overturn marriage equality there. (You can see a copy of their latest ad at YouTube.)
I'm therefore reposting a piece I wrote earlier this year about how we need to counter this approach. The right has long tried to own the argument that what they are doing is in the best interests of the children. We need to reclaim that argument and show that equality is in fact in children's best interests. If we simply assert "no they won't" or "so what" when the right says children will be "forced" to learn about same-sex couples getting married, we still run the risk of making the right look like they care more than we do about the needs of children. If instead we show how inequality in fact hurts children, and equality helps them, then we position the LGBT community and our allies as the side that is doing more for the next generation. More on this below.
The piece first appeared in slightly modified form at 365gay.com.
Marriage Equality and the Protection of Children
Denying marriage to same-sex couples harms our children.
So said the New Jersey Civil Union Review Commission, which published its final report at the end of 2008. Although many of the arguments focused on the economic damage of civil unions and the difficulty of equal access to health care and other services, much of the report also discussed the harm that inequality causes to the children of same-sex couples.
Judith Glassgold, Psy.D., President of the New Jersey Psychological Association and a faculty member at Rutgers University, testified:
Children of same-sex relationships must cope with the stigma of being in a family without the social recognition that exists through marriage. Children of same-sex relationships are the secondary target of the stigma directed at their parents because of their parents' sexual orientation.
Such stigma may be indirect such as the strain due to lack of social support and acceptance. Also, some children may be targeted due to teasing in school or from peers. . . . As a result of the lack of marriage equality, both lesbian, gay and bisexual adolescents and children of same-sex relationships face continued stigma. The stigma has negative mental health effects.
Separately, the American Psychological Association published new research in January that also found anti-marriage-equality amendments "have led to higher levels of stress and anxiety" among LGBT adults and their families. The research looked at families from all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
A number of teens and adult children of same-sex parents also spoke to the New Jersey Commission and shared personal experiences that support the professionals' claims.
Meredith Fenton, national program director of COLAGE and the daughter of a lesbian parent, summed up what many of the others were saying:
Many youth we work with have reported that one of the common ways that they have been teased by other kids is that kids have questioned the validity of their families because their parents aren't able to get married.Young people often equate the notion of a real family with the idea of a family that has married parents. . . . And denying families marriage equality merely gives more fodder to those bullies who can say, "Your family is not a real family, your parents can't get married.
We also find youth in COLAGE who report that hearing that their family can't have the same rights as other families leads them to feeling scared or confused when they hear that folks are against their families being married. They say that they think somebody is going to come and break up their family.
Youth have also shared that they're confused about the idea of civil unions and why there needs to be this separate category for their family.
We need to shout this from the rooftops.
The right-wing defined the Prop 8 battle in large part as being about the best interests of the children. It's time to take back control of the argument and show that the best interests of children everywhere rest with equality. (I have yet to see any demonstrated harm to children of opposite-sex parents who learn that same-sex couples and their marriages exist. They may experience some momentary confusion if they haven't been brought up knowing this, but that doesn't count as harm.)
LGBT parents are raising millions of children across the country. By extension, LGBT families are part of the lives of millions of non-LGBT friends and classmates. If we can broaden the discussion of marriage equality and put it in the context of the needs and well being of all children, we have a message with the potential to resonate far beyond the LGBT community and our close allies.
In building our case, we must find ways to ally with other non-traditional families, including straight single parents, divorced parents, grandparent-headed households, interracial families, and adoptive families, as well as fair-minded traditional families, who realize that the structure of a family is less important than the love and care it provides.
This does not mean avoiding specific images of LGBT families or refusing to use the words gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender, but it does mean making the argument about more than just LGBT rights. We need to talk about ways to make sure that no child is stigmatized and bullied because of his or her family structure, whether it is an LGBT family or some other type.
If we can accomplish this, we undercut the "think of the children" argument that the right-wing has used over and over to devastating effect. Marriage equality will seem less like an outside agenda being thrust upon unsuspecting young minds, and more like a way to give all children the environment they need to learn and grow.
Marriage equality is an important right for same-sex couples regardless of whether they have children, of course (and while the lack of it can lead to the negative effects discussed above, it is not strictly a prerequisite for successful parenting, as the numerous happy, healthy children of unmarried same-sex parents make clear). Still, many in this country make a strong connection between parenting and marriage, and it behooves us as a movement to acknowledge this and use it to our advantage, rather than letting it be used against us.
As we continue to battle for marriage equality and other LGBT rights, therefore, it is the needs of our children that will create some of the most compelling arguments. The New Jersey Civil Union Commission has made a good start at compiling this evidence.
They were only able to do so because LGBT parents and our children have continued to tell our stories, in classrooms and playgrounds as well as courthouses and statehouses. It is these stories of individual circumstances but universal themes--love and family--that will show people how a better world for the children of LGBT parents means a better world for all.