Children with LGB parents: youthful perspectives on marriage

Abbie Goldberg

A first-ever study of how teens and young adults with LGB parents feel about marriage equality was published this month in the peer-reviewed Journal of Marriage and Family. And while it is a study of only a small number of young people, it found that such young people see their parents’ ability or inability to marry affects the children in a wide variety of ways—from college aid applications to their perceptions of feeling “different” from their peers.

The article, “Marriage (In)equality: The Perspectives of Adolescents and Emerging Adults With Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Parents,” was authored by Dr. Abbie Goldberg, assistant professor of psychology at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., and Katherine Kuvalanka, assistant professor of family studies at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and appears in the February 2012 issue.

Not surprisingly, 34 of the 49 participants—nearly 70 percent—expressed “unequivocal support” for marriage equality. And most of those felt civil unions and domestic partnerships were not sufficient replacements.

But the remaining participants expressed support for marriage equality in more qualified ways. For instance, 12 of the participants were more critical of marriage as an institution or of marriage equality as the “lead issue” for LGBT activism. But they still said that, short of overhauling the entire institution, marriage equality is “worth supporting.”

Three participants expressed more tentative support for marriage equality, but these three also had parents who came out only after the participants were teenagers. The three indicated they were still struggling with “complex feelings” about their parents’ divorce and subsequent relationships.

Goldberg and Kuvalanka said their findings should caution us “against thinking of or referring to young adults with LGB parents as a monolithic group.”

The researchers conducted the study through written questionnaires and one-hour phone interviews of the individuals, aged 14 to 29, who have LGB parents and responded to calls for participation.

Of the 49 participants, 22 had been born to heterosexual parents, one or both of whom later came out as LGB; 20 had been born to two mothers who used donor insemination; and, seven had been either adopted, born to single mothers, or co-parented by LGB parents. Ten of the 49 had parents who were able to obtain civil marriages.

Eighty percent of the participating young people self-identified as heterosexual, and the remainder as LGB or “queer.”

Although some previous studies had asked LGB parents and prospective parents how they felt marriage equality would impact their children, no study had, prior to this one, asked the children themselves.

Goldberg and Kuvalanka wrote that such young people may have “a unique vantage point” because marriage equality has implications for their well-being.

“Defining and asserting their family relationships in the absence of societal or legal recognition (e.g., marriage),” noted the article, “may require a certain amount of work that, over time, can be stressful.”

Additionally, they said, teens and young adults with LGB parents today may be a “unique” group, because “the marriage equality debate grew in intensity during their formative years.”

The participants as a whole identified benefits of marriage in three areas: legal, symbolic, and as a stabilizing influence.

Many spoke of legal benefits such as inheritance, insurance, and hospital visitation rights. Marriage equality would also make second-parent adoptions by a (currently) non-legal parent unnecessary, they said, and could help protect the relationship between children and non-legal parents in custody cases. And full marriage equality would resolve dilemmas such as those created by college financial aid applications, which often require students to indicate only their legal parents.

Participants who had grown up with LGB parents often spoke emotionally about their personal experiences with the lack of these benefits. They indicated that marriage would “eliminate many of the emotional and financial strains” their parents faced, and would thus reduce the stress upon their families, noted the article.

More than half the participants also spoke of symbolic benefits. To them, the researchers explained, “marriage marks relationships as intelligible and legitimate and would thus encourage other people to recognize their parents’ relationships, and their families, as “real.’”

Many also said their parents’ marriage helped them feel “less different” and “more secure and validated.”

And many saw marriage equality as a stabilizing influence, “by fostering greater commitment and investment.” That sentiment, the researchers said, “speaks to the vulnerability that these individuals may feel in the absence of marriage.”

At the same time, over one quarter of participants who were most strongly in favor of marriage equality expressed that their parents did not “need” marriage to show their love and commitment.

The researchers acknowledged that their research was based on a small, self-selected sample and is not representative of all individuals with LGB parents. All but six of the participants identified as white. They grew up in 17 different states, but 18 of the 49 (more than a third) were living in California. Most were middle-class.

Goldberg told Keen News Service that she and Kuvalanka nevertheless believe their findings are “fairly illustrative” of the “everyday stresses and anxieties” that legal inequities create for children of LGB parents. She explained that if even participants in California, a fairly progressive state that offers some legal protections for LGB families, feel stress from marriage inequality, then marriage inequality is likely to be causing at least that much stress, if not more, in other, less progressive regions.

She noted, however, that the degree of marriage-related stress on people with LGB parents is likely affected by many factors, including “geographic location; educational and financial resources; relative support from friends, family, and immediate community; community and neighborhood climate.”

While their work begins to explore some of these factors, Goldberg and Kuvalanka urge future research that is more inclusive of racial/ethnic minorities, low-income families, and individuals with transgender parents.

Their current study, they said, “provides a springboard for future studies on this topic,” and also “highlight[s] the resourcefulness and resilience of these individuals, who construct their family relationships as meaningful in spite of legal nonrecognition.”

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