Same-sex marriage, barely on the political radar a decade ago, is a reality in America. How will it affect the well-being of children? Some observers worry that legalizing same-sex marriage would send the message that same-sex parenting and opposite-sex parenting are interchangeable, when in fact they may lead to different outcomes for children.
To evaluate that concern, William Meezan and Jonathan Rauch review the growing body of research on how same-sex parenting affects children. After considering the methodological problems inherent in studying small, hard-to-locate populations--problems that have bedeviled this literature--the authors find that the children who have been studied are doing about as well as children normally do. What the research does not yet show is whether the children studied are typical of the general population of children raised by gay and lesbian couples.
A second important question is how same-sex marriage might affect children who are already being raised by same-sex couples. Meezan and Rauch observe that marriage confers on children three types of benefits that seem likely to carry over to children in same-sex families. First, marriage may increase children's material well-being through such benefits as family leave from work and spousal health insurance eligibility. It may also help ensure financial continuity, should a spouse die or be disabled. Second, same-sex marriage may benefit children by increasing the durability and stability of their parents' relationship. Finally, marriage may bring increased social acceptance of and support for same-sex families, although those benefits might not materialize in communities that meet same-sex marriage with rejection or hostility.
The authors note that the best way to ascertain the costs and benefits of the effects of same-sex marriage on children is to compare it with the alternatives. Massachusetts is marrying same-sex couples, Vermont and Connecticut are offering civil unions, and several states offer partner-benefit programs. Studying the effect of these various forms of unions on children could inform the debate over gay marriage to the benefit of all sides of the argument.
Although Americans are deeply divided over same-sex marriage, on one point most would agree: the issue has moved from the obscure fringes to the roiling center of the family-policy debate in a startlingly brief time. In May of 1970, Jack Baker and Mike McConnell applied for a marriage license in Hennepin County, Minnesota. They were turned down. For a generation, subsequent efforts in other venues met the same fate. In the 1990s, Hawaii's state supreme court seemed, for a time, likely to order same-sex marriage, but a state constitutional amendment preemptively overruled the court. Vermont's civil-union program, adopted in 2000 by order of Vermont's high court, offered state (though not federal) benefits to same-sex couples. That program, however, was seen as a substitute for full-fledged marriage. No state, it seemed, was prepared to grant legal matrimony to same-sex couples.
Last year, that taboo broke. Under order of its state supreme court, Massachusetts began offering marriage licenses to same-sex couples. More than forty states, by contrast, have enacted laws or, in some cases, constitutional amendments declaring they would not recognize same-sex marriage--a trend that escalated in 2004 when thirteen states passed constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage. (1) The issue pits left against right and, perhaps more significant, old against young: Americans over age forty-four oppose same-sex marriage by a decisive majority, but a plurality of Americans under age thirty support it. (2) Today, across generations and geography, the country is divided over the meaning of marriage as it has not been since the days when states were at odds over interracial marriages and no-fault divorces --if then.
For many of its advocates, same-sex marriage is a civil rights issue, plain and simple. …