Children Speak for Same-Sex Marriage in New Jersey

21 Jan 2010

Children Speak for Same-Sex Marriage

LAST month, advocates and opponents of same-sex marriage packed the New Jersey State House in Trenton, supporters in blue, opponents in red. Near the end of the day, Kasey Nicholson-McFadden took the microphone. "It doesn't bother me to tell kids my parents are gay," he said in a clear voice. "It does bother me to say they aren't married. It makes me feel that our family is less than their family."

Kasey is 10 years old. When the New Jersey State Senate voted against same-sex marriage on Jan. 7, he was devastated. "We tried to buoy him and say, 'It's another step in the process and it's not over yet,' " said Karen Nicholson-McFadden, one of Kasey's mothers.

In fact, Garden State Equality, the New Jersey gay-rights organization that invited Kasey to speak, quickly told reporters they would pursue the issue through the judiciary system. It will be familiar territory for the Nicholson-McFaddens, who vow to press on -- be it through rallies or lawsuits.

For as long as Kasey can remember, Marcye and Karen Nicholson-McFadden have been petitioning the State of New Jersey for the right to marry. So while much of Kasey's free time is spent on typical preteen activities -- in-line skating, swim team and soccer practice -- some of it is spent appearing in advertising campaigns and events organized by Garden State Equality. So many of that organization's 64,000 members have children that the group provides day care and activities for teenagers during its events.

In 2008 about 116,000 same-sex couples across the country were raising a total of about 250,000 children under age 18, according to an analysis of Census data by Gary J. Gates, a demographer of the gay and lesbian population at the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, law school.

While opponents of same-sex marriage worry that schools will teach that gay and straight relationships are equal, many supporters focus on a different, but still child-centered, issue: What about the children now being raised in families headed by gay men and lesbians? How does the lack of marriage benefits for their parents affect them?

In recent years, an increasing number of these children -- ranging in age from 10 to nearly 40 -- have taken active roles in campaigns organized by Colage (formerly known as Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere), and civil rights groups like Lambda Legal and Glad (Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders). Their involvement is helping to change the narrative of same-sex marriage to a story about families from one about couples.

With 31 states having rejected same-sex marriage -- most recently in Maine, New Jersey and New York -- strategies used by supporters now include projecting a mainstream family image in public opinion campaigns surrounding court battles like the challenge to Proposition 8, the ballot measure that reversed marriage rights for same-sex couples in California. Many gay rights activists think that hearing articulate children of same-sex parents ask why their families should have fewer rights than their neighbors goes a long way toward turning the family values argument on its head. Last week, Chiah Connolly-Ingram, 21, the daughter of a lesbian couple, helped close the rally outside the Federal Courthouse in San Francisco, where Proposition 8 is being challenged. "As the daughter of lesbian moms, I know that children are affected by this decision," said Ms. Connolly-Ingram, a student at City College of San Francisco and an intern at Colage.

Zach Wahls, a freshman at the University of Iowa whose mothers married this summer in Iowa, one of the few states where same-sex marriage is legal, said in a recent interview: "At the end of the day, it's really about separate but equal. This isn't just about lesbian and gay, it's about tolerance and acceptance."

Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry, a New York-based organization that advocates for legalized same-sex marriage, said: "There is no good reason to punish children raised by gay parents by denying parents marriage and its protections. It harms kids rather than helping them."

Opponents of same-sex marriage are unswayed. "It doesn't make any sense that a small segment of society can leverage major social change simply by putting children into these situations purposefully," said Andrew P. Pugno, general counsel for, the California organization that sponsored Proposition 8. "Society is not forcing same-sex couples to raise children. If they are going to exercise their choice, it remains their choice and not become something that society has to realign itself to accept."

Mr. Pugno's position is shared by others. "The real question is whether same-sex relationships benefit children to the same extent that living with a married mother and father does, and we believe they do not," said Peter S. Sprigg, senior fellow for policy studies at the Family Research Council, the conservative Christian organization. "Children do best when raised by their own biological mother and father who are committed to one another in a lifelong marriage."

Gay rights activists challenge that claim, citing support from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Association, among other organizations.

The debate over same-sex parenting was central in Iowa, where the State Supreme Court ruled last April that a state law limiting marriage to a man and a woman was unconstitutional, in a suit filed by same-sex couples against the Polk County recorder. "The defendant made children the center of its argument," said Camilla Taylor, the lead lawyer for Lambda Legal, which argued the case. "There are many reasons why the purpose of the marriage ban has nothing to do with child welfare," Ms. Taylor said. "But since the defendant was claiming that the purpose of marriage law was to protect the children of heterosexual parents, we wanted the defendant to have to answer why the children of same-sex parents are any less deserving of protection and support."

Lambda Legal approached each of the plaintiffs with children and asked the families if the children themselves would sign on as co-plaintiffs. The move appears to have shifted both public and court opinion. "What I did, it wasn't just for my family, it was for a ton of families," said McKinley BarbouRoske, now 12, who, along with her sister, Breeanna, was a co-plaintiff in the suit filed by her mothers, Jen and Dawn BarbouRoske.

Observers of the movement away from failed ballot initiatives and toward courtrooms say child welfare and parenting will again be central to court battles because the argument over same-sex marriage often swirls around questions of whether changing the definition of marriage has an impact on children. In California, the legal team challenging Proposition 8 has called upon psychologists, historians and social scientists to testify on their behalf, a tactic that worked well for supporters of same-sex marriage in Iowa. Meredith Fenton, 33, the daughter of a lesbian and, until recently, the program director at Colage, said that when marriage equality entered into the public debate, "those of us who have lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered parents realized that, at root, one of the things debated is us." Many organizers, including Ms. Fenton, say the absence of children's voices during statewide ballot initiatives and court fights was a mistake.

That's not to say that there is a uniformity of opinion among children of same-sex parents. Some question the funneling of money and resources into the marriage battle.

"We grew up recognizing our families as families whether or not the government did, and we're frustrated by the suggestion that we should have to make our families look like straight ones in order to be considered a valid family by the government," Martha Jane Kaufman, a playwright and teacher in New York, and Katie Miles, a graduate student at Columbia University, wrote in an e-mail response to questions about their blog, Queer Kids of Queer Parents Against Gay Marriage! "From our point of view, marriage is an institution that contributes to the privatization of social services like health-care and immigration rights that actually should be guaranteed basic rights for all human beings," they wrote.

Since Ms. Kaufman and Ms. Miles put up their blog, a number of other children from gay and lesbian homes have come forward saying that marriage would not have helped their families. "From a legal standpoint I totally understand why the marriage equality debate has taken center stage for families," said Danielle Silber, the volunteer coordinator for Colage in New York City. "It seems like an easy quick way to gain legal recognition and social validation for the normalcy and legitimacy of our families.

"That said, for so many of our families, marriage equality doesn't really apply and wouldn't open rights or protections."

Ms. Silber's own family, with two mothers and two fathers who broke up and repartnered or remained single, would not have benefited, she said.

Abigail Garner, 37, whose blog, Families Like Mine and 2004 book of the same title addressed the voices of children from same-sex families, is also wary. "If we are seeing marriage as a way to access health care, where does that leave people who are currently unemployed or who are single?" she asked. "We need to look at things marriage gives people and ask why that is conditional on being a couple."

Article taken from The New York Times.