Same-Sex Marriage & Parenting
by April Martin, Ph.D.
© 1996, Dr. April Martin
The Hawaii legislature has directed the State’s attorneys to use the “procreation” argument in their case against same-sex marriage: Since a man and a woman comprise the biological procreative unit, only heterosexual couples need the protection that marriage provides.
Four million lesbian and gay parents are dumbfounded. Are our eight million children not in need of protection?
Same-sex couples are not biological procreative units, but they are nevertheless parents. They raise children in families where, most often, one parent is related only by devotion and hard work to the biological children of the other. The children rely on them, often calling both women “Mom,” or both men “Dad.” But because they can’t get married, non-biological parents feel the ever present danger that a court may not even view them as relevant parties in a custody decision if the biological parent should die or the relationship end in separation. And their children live with the ongoing insecurity that losing one parent in a tragedy might simultaneously mean losing their other parent in a courtroom.
This summer, a Michigan court ignored the pleas of a non-biological mother when the biological mother died of ovarian cancer. The judge even ignored the wishes of the two adolescent boys, raised for as long as they could remember by their two moms, and gave them instead to their biological father — a man who abandoned them until there were Social Security benefits to be had. If the women had been legally married, the court would have viewed her as a valid stepparent. As it was, her years of parenting didn’t even merit visitation.
Child custody and visitation issues are the most frequent reasons that gays and lesbians go to court. In a system where unmarried couples are regarded as less stable than married couples, same-sex couples, who would gladly get married if they could, are dismissed for cohabiting without a license. Time after time we are told that we can’t have custody of our children because we are not married. Now the State of Hawaii is saying that we can’t get married because only heterosexuals need custody protection for their children. What’s wrong with this picture?
My life partner and I, who have spent many thousands of dollars on a variety of side-door legal documents in an attempt to protect our children, continue to spend thousands more annually buying additional health insurance because, without a marriage license, we do not qualify for one family policy. Our children could have used that money for their education.
The State of Hawaii will maintain that heterosexual couples are the optimal units for raising children. Yet Child Development, the most prestigious peer-reviewed journal in its field, says that argument is completely unfounded. Not a single one of the several dozen legitimate research studies reviewed in a 1992 article was able to find any detriment to children raised by same-sex parents. Despite traditional gender hysteria that boys will somehow fail to be manly if raised by either no men or two men (huh?), the children studied turned out indistinguishable from those raised by heterosexual parents.
Meanwhile the adoption profession has become a significant supporter of gay and lesbian parents. They increasingly turn to same-sex couples to provide stable, loving homes for neglected, abandoned, and disabled children who would have nowhere else to go. I know same-sex parents raising children who were born crack addicted, children with AIDS, and children with severe cognitive challenges. Do these families not also deserve the protections that marriage provides?
Unfortunately, our families are up against a serious adversary: invisibility. Those who know we exist still don’t understand the discrimination we face.
We’ve had snippets of mainstream media recognition in the past decade, but gay and lesbian parents are still the least visible segment of the gay community. Media is understandably more excited by gender-bending, AIDS, and sexual explicitness. I have seen reporters’ eyes glaze over when, hoping for the inside dope on our families, they hear, “Well, homework. Laundry. Struggles over eating vegetables.” It doesn’t make vivid copy.
Even the gay and lesbian movement has historically ignored us, buying into the idea that family issues are heterosexual issues. It is just now catching on that the freedom to define one’s family is at the heart of the fight against gender-based discrimination.
And in the heterosexually-dominated parenting world, gay and lesbian parents are barely detectable. Homophobia is still an acceptable hatred in the school systems. Teachers who would immediately step in to educate when a child uses racist or sexist epithets will allow kids in grade school to call each other “faggot” without saying a word. Millions of children are not yet safe enough to be able to say they are raised by two female or two male parents. Their non-biological parents are often kept out of view — not brought to teacher conferences, not reported on family contact sheets, not mentioned except perhaps as Uncle Steve, or Mom’s friend.
Legal marriage would not solve all the problems of homophobia for these families, but it would grant them sufficient safety to risk visibility. It would be far easier for a mother to say, “This is my wife and we are Alyssa’s parents” than it is now for her to say, “This is my lesbian lover who lives with us.” If parents can come out to teachers, pediatricians, school administrators, religious leaders, then those institutions will be empowered to protect children from homophobic assaults as well.
Same-sex marriage, at least for our era and culture, is change. It is the kind of change that remedies prior ignorance, and reflects a society’s ability to mature and progress. As humans, we are generally inclined to greet change with anxiety. But those of us who are openly raising children as lesbian and gay parents probably know better than most that the cure for irrational fear is time and exposure.
When our children first went to school, the other kindergarten parents eyed us nervously. If you’d taken a poll that first week, they would have said “Oh, no” to the question of letting their children sleep at the house of lesbians. Our kids are adolescents now, and school friends with sleeping bags have been trooping through our kitchen for years. Some of those very same parents who once looked askance have become dear and trusted friends.
Times change, people learn, and love is ultimately understood by all who care to listen. It is, after all, what makes a family.
© 1996, Dr. April Martin,
psychologist and former Executive Vice President,
Gay Lesbian Parents Coalition International
(now Family Pride Coalition)
Ms Martin is also the author of The Lesbian and Gay Parenting Handbook.