Before I name all the reasons I think same-sex marriage is not necessarily as progressive as some people think it is, let me begin by confessing something that even some of my friends don’t know: I am gay-married (it’s the married, not the gay part, that I’m partially in the closet about). So I am on some level glad that President Obama came out in favor of same-sex marriage, but, like Lauren Taylor at the Washington Post, I’m not exactly doing a happy dance.
While I was delighted to have and be a “domestic partner,” I got married reluctantly. Getting gay-married was the only way I could figure out to get benefits for my partner and to adopt my youngest child. One of the things we don’t say often enough is that most of the laws and amendments preventing gay marriage also stand in the way of second-parent adoption.
While I think making marriage the foundation for distributing health care benefits and adult protection is reprehensible, I was certainly going to do everything in my power to ensure that my family got what I believe everyone deserves–access to reliable, high-quality health care and enforceable rights to interact with public institutions on behalf of the child I am raising. And that meant marriage.
I found it fascinating that Obama said that one of the things that affected his take on this issue is that he knows gay people who are raising children, and so do his daughters. To a significant extent, I think, the question of gay marriage is centrally about the raising of children, for its supporters among LGBTQ folk, for its Christian Right opponents, and even for the judges writing decisions about it. (Many conservative evangelicals claimed initially that gay adoption–which Obama supported–was going to be the wedge issue of 2008, just as gay marriage had in 2004. But Bristol Palin and her out-of-wedlock pregnancy made the whole adoption thing very complicated, and they started tripping all over themselves.)
LGBT folks who are not bio-parents seek second parent adoption because they need to be able to:
–register children for school, register them for sports, pick them up from daycare, meet with teachers and guidance counselors, develop IEPs for children with disabilities
–take their children to the pediatrician, therapist, or other professional appointment without being questioned or challenged
–visit their children in hospitals, rehab centers, juvenile detention centers, and all the dreadful places children can wind up
–cross national and state borders with their children, and take them on airplanes without running the risk of facing kidnapping charges
–obtain birth certificates, court orders, vaccination records
–be treated as parents in custody procedings or dependencies
Adoption confers these rights, and marriage makes adoption easier–or, in many cases, possible. One of the side effects of the various anti-gay marriage amendments and statutes is that most make second-parent adoption impossible. But non-biological LGBT parents in states without access to legal adoption have the same problems that a lot of other people who are raising children do, people like:
–grandparents raising children
–adults raising siblings, cousins, and lots of similar configurations
–stepparents who don’t or can’t afford to adopt step-children
And so on. Since no state allows a child to have more than two legal parents, most children would have to be legally severed from a bio-parent for folks situated like these to adopt. Many anthropologists and sociologists talk about how common the informal circulation of children is in the Black community, or Latin America. But few notice how white and middle-class and US the practice also is–but we call these multi-parent arrangements “blended families.”
Gay marriage, and gay adoption, helps these folks not at all.
Furthermore, gay marriage and gay adoption, by bringing some (particularly white or wealthy folks) into the “marriage and family” fold, sometimes does work to further marginalize all the people who don’t have a legal relationship to the children they raise. Even more, to the extent that adoption provides a “safety valve” for the finances of state foster care systems–which are hugely expensive to maintain–it allows states and case workers to sometimes take children from their welfare moms, the single moms struggling with addiction or mental health issues that they might otherwise leave in their families. State foster care systems are surprisingly stable in size. When they begin to get too big, policy makers begin to talk about “family preservation.” Gay adoption is a way to make foster care systems smaller and more sustainable.
In debates over gay adoption, this has been fairly explicit: there has been an emphasis on the role of gay people in taking “hard-to-place” children–the children of impoverished single mothers, usually–who would otherwise “languish” in foster care, where they would be a burden on the public purse. In Massachusetts in 2006, for example, Catholic Charities, which had actually been placing children for adoption with gay people for nearly two decades, announced its intention to seek an exemption from state anti-discrimination statute in order to begin banning gay people from adopting. In the firestorm that ensued, Catholic Charities ended its role as an adoption agency,and proponents of gay adoption reminded everyone of the crucial role of gay people in taking “hard-to-place” children, telling stories like this one about a lesbian couple who took in “Jesse” at the age of 10: he had “been to six schools, could barely read and was in special education. He’d lived in a homeless shelter with his drug-addicted birth mother and in eight foster homes.”Even as impious and un-earnest a commentator as Dan Savage (author of the weekly syndicated column “Savage Love”), wrote in the New York Times about a white gay plaintiff in a Florida case to legalize gay adoption in that state and his three African-American kids, two of them HIV-positive. “Gay and lesbian couples in New York, New Jersey, Oregon, Illinois and other states that allow them to adopt are not snapping up all the available babies or even the ”best” babies. It is an open secret among social workers that gay and lesbian couples are often willing to adopt children whom most heterosexual couples won’t touch: H.I.V.-positive children, mixed-race children, disabled children and children who have been abused or neglected.” Although Savage has the good grace to put the cringe-worthy ‘best” babies in quotes, there is no escaping the social calculus to which he points us—second-class parents, second-class children, and an argument for gay adoption that relies on the ways that “good gays” will relieve the state of a burden.
The gay marriage cases, too, have been fairly explicit in making the argument that the goal of gay marriage is help states, although the argument is usually that it keeps children out of foster care or other state institutions. In the opening lines of Goodridge, the Massachusetts gay marriage ruling, the court began by affirming that the decision is as much about children as it is about couples: “For those who choose to marry, and for their children, marriage provides an abundance of legal, financial, and social benefits.” A few pages later, it affirms the interest that the state has in organizing people into married couples, arguing, “Civil marriage anchors an ordered society by encouraging stable relationships over transient ones. It is central to the way the Commonwealth identifies individuals, provides for the orderly distribution of property, ensures that children and adults are cared for and supported whenever possible from private rather than public funds.” From the point of view of the state, the function of the family is to privatize dependency.
The 2008 California Supreme Court case that affirmed the legality of gay marriage (before the ballot initiative reversed it), In re marriage cases, positioned gay marriage quite similarly (although less succinctly):
Society is served by the institution of civil marriage in many ways. Society, of course, has an overriding interest in the welfare of children, and the role marriage plays in facilitating a stable family setting in which children may be raised by two loving parents unquestionably furthers the welfare of children and society. In addition, the role of the family in educating and socializing children serves society’s interest by perpetuating the social and political culture and providing continuing support for society over generations. Furthermore, the legal obligations of support that are an integral part of marital and family relationships relieve society of the obligation of caring for individuals who may become incapacitated or who are otherwise unable to support themselves.
And in a footnote here, it makes the argument for the privatization of dependency even more explicit:
Although the legal system has shifted its focus from families to individuals, society still relies on families to play a crucial role in caring for the young, the aged, the sick, the severely disabled, and the needy. Even in advanced welfare states, families at all levels are a major resource for government, sharing the burdens of dependency with public agencies in various ways and to greater and lesser degrees.
And this critique was the heart and soul of the Beyond Same-Sex Marriage statement of 2006, and of Nancy Polikoff’s Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage book and blog. LGBT activists and intellectuals have put forth a sustained argument for not making gay marriage the center and focus of queer activism. Marriage, they suggested, was a poor substitute for a social safety net.
Couples and children need access to state institutions and public benefits. But I’m less than convinced that marriage is the way to do it.