Journal Issue: Marriage and Child Wellbeing Volume 15 Number 2 Fall 2005
Will Kids Benefit When Same-Sex Parents Marry?
We turn, finally, to a group of children to whom same-sex marriage, per se, is directly and immediately relevant-—the children we mentioned early on and then set aside. These are children who are being raised, or who would be raised, by same-sex couples even without same-sex marriage. For them, the advent of legal same-sex marriage would mean that their parents could get married. Whether or not same-sex marriage would expand the scope of same-sex parenting, it clearly would expand the scope of same-sex married parenting. Marriage would also affect family dynamics. Some gay and lesbian cohabitants with children would become spouses; others might find that the prospect of marriage deepened their bond; still others might break up in disagreement over whether to tie the knot.
We know of no reputable scholar who believes that their parents' getting married would harm these children on average (though particular marriages may be bad for children). The pertinent question is: to what extent, and in what ways, might children benefit from the marriage of their lesbian and gay parents? This question turns out to be somewhat more difficult to answer than it may appear.
There is a vast literature on how marriage benefits children, and this is not the place to rehash it. Admirable discussions may be found in the articles by Paul Amato and by Adam Thomas and Isabel Sawhill elsewhere in this volume.27 Of necessity, however, the literature pertains to heterosexual couples, not homosexual ones. Moreover, most such studies look at what happens when children's two biological parents marry. In same-sex families, of course, at least one parent is not the child's biological parent. Research on whether children of heterosexual couples do better in married than in cohabiting stepfamilies (where only one parent is the child's biological parent) is sparse and inconclusive.28 Whether that research is pertinent to same-sex couples—who may be more likely than cohabiting straight couples to bring children into the home as a carefully considered joint decision-—is at best unclear.
In other words, virtually no empirical evidence exists on how same-sex parents' marriage might affect their children. Nonetheless, we can do some theoretical probing, if only to understand how the introduction of marriage might affect the dynamics of same-sex families.
One benefit of traditional marriage-—some would argue the central benefit-—is that it helps tie fathers and mothers to their biological children. Obviously, that would not be the case with same-sex marriage, where one or both parents are, by definition, nonbiological. There are three other broad areas, however, where benefits to children of opposite-sex marriage might carry over to same-sex families.
The first is material well-being. In general, heterosexual marriage increases the economic capital available to children. Marriage conveys such public and private economic benefits as family leave from work and spousal health insurance eligibility (though it can also raise tax burdens; see the article by Adam Carasso and Eugene Steuerle in this volume). Marriage also entails a host of provisions that help ensure financial continuity if a spouse dies or is disabled. As Evan Wolfson notes in Why Marriage Matters, “If one of the parents in a marriage dies, the law provides financial security not only for the surviving spouse, but for the children as well, by ensuring eligibility for all appropriate entitlements, such as Social Security survivor benefits, and inheritance rights.”29
The family dynamics of marriage also seem to bring material benefits, partly because married couples are more likely to pool their resources, and partly because they engage in economic specialization, with one partner focusing primarily on work outside the home and the other primarily on work inside the home.
No doubt some of these advantages would carry over to homosexual marriages. Certainly the availability of various forms of spousal survivors' benefits, such as Social Security and tax-free inheritance of a home, would benefit the child of a surviving same-sex spouse. The same would be true of disability and medical benefits, which cushion families-—and thus children-—from economic shocks. Resource pooling may also increase somewhat. On the other hand, to whatever extent same-sex couples have already compensated for the unavailability of marriage by arranging their affairs to mimic marriage, the transition from cohabitation to marriage may bring them less of an economic “bonus.” Specialization gains might also be smaller for same-sex couples, to whatever extent the inside-outside division of labor is a function of gender roles rather than marriage as such.30
The second area where same-sex marriage might benefit children is in the durability and stability of the parental relationship. In the heterosexual world, a substantial body of research shows that, other things held equal, marriages are more durable and stable than cohabitation; and stability is, most scholars agree, of vital importance to children. To some extent, marriage may owe its greater durability to the simple fact that it is legally much harder to get out of than cohabitation. That may give couples an incentive to work out their problems. Yet there is reason to believe that the act of marriage, in particular its status as a solemn commitment in the eyes of the couple and their community (and, for many, their God), fortifies as well as deepens couples' bonds.
To what extent this would be true of same-sex couples is not as yet known in any rigorous way, but anecdotal evidence suggests that a similar dynamic may apply. Gay couples who have been formally married in Massachusetts, Canada, and San Francisco (the city briefly allowed such marriages, subsequently ruled invalid) have attested that the act of marriage has deepened their relationship—-often to no one's surprise more than their own.31 Some people have predicted that married same-sex couples (especially male ones) will be less stable than married opposite-sex couples, but few if any have questioned that married same-sex couples will likely be more stable than unmarried same-sex couples.32
Finally, same-sex marriage might benefit children through social investment. Heterosexual marriage benefits children by bringing with it a host of social resources, some as tangible as legal and regulatory protections (spouses do not have to testify in court against each other, for example, and can permanently reside together in the United States even if one is not a citizen), others as intangible as social prestige and unquestioned parental authority. Explaining why she wished she could marry her lesbian partner, one woman said, “We're tired of having to explain our relationship. When you say you're married, everyone understands that.”33 The very fact that people routinely ask their friends and co-workers “How's your husband?” or “How's your wife?” tells couples—- and their children—-that they are perceived and treated as a family unit, with the autonomy and clear responsibility that this implies. Marriage also brings closer and more formal relationships with in-laws and grandparents, who are more likely to relate to a nonbiological child as a full-fledged grandchild or niece or nephew if the parents' union is formalized (and children who have more contact with grandparents tend to be better adjusted).34 Though less stigma attaches to cohabitation today than in the past, married families still benefit from stronger community support and kinship networks, easing the burden on parents and children alike.
Some of these benefits would no doubt carry over to same-sex married couples. For instance, it seems reasonable to imagine that the formal, socially recognized bond of marriage may strengthen the emotional attachments between children and their nonbiological same-sex parents and grandparents. Marriage might also induce more jurisdictions to permit second-parent adoptions by gay and lesbian families. Such adoptions can be very meaningful, bringing the nonbiological parent closer to the child. As one parent put it, “I really didn't feel Jon was my son until I got that stupid piece of paper.” Another couple felt that formal adoption put a “seal of legitimacy” on the parent-child relationship.35
Beyond the circle of kin, however, the social dynamics of same-sex marriage may be rather complicated. In communities that embrace the notion of same-sex marriage, marriage might bring added support and investment from neighbors, teachers, employers, peers, and others on whom children and parents rely. Indeed, the very existence of same-sex marriage may reduce the stigmatization or perceived peculiarity of same-sex families, which would presumably reduce the social pressure on the children. On the other hand, social acceptance of same-sex marriages as “real” marriages—- marriages viewed as authentic by family, friends, and such institutions as churches and neighborhood groups-—cannot be forced. In Massachusetts, for example, a labor union declared that its members' same-sex spouses would not be eligible for health and pension benefits.36 If imposed legally over the resistance of a community, same-sex marriage might bring little additional social investment; indeed, it might become a new source of backlash against same-sex couples and their children. For children, same-sex marriage might in some places bring closer and warmer relationships with extended families and communities, but in other places it might relieve one form of stigma or hostility only to replace it with another.
Our own belief, on balance, is that society's time-honored preference for marriage over nonmarriage as a context for raising children would prove as justified for same-sex couples as for opposite-sex couples, for many of the same reasons. One piece of evidence is that many same-sex couples who are raising children say they need marriage. If it is true that parents are generally competent judges of what is good for their children, then their opinion deserves some weight.