Baby Steps

Rear view of a boy walking with two men in a park
Rear view of a boy walking with two men in a park

Written by Ellen Lewin

It's a paradox, perhaps, but children seem to be saving same-sex marriage. When the Supreme Court took up questions of marriage equality recently, lesbian and gay parents and their children found themselves taking center stage. During arguments over the constitutionality of California's Proposition 8, Justice Anthony Kennedy raised the question of whether California's gay marriage ban causes "immediate legal injury" to children of same-sex parents. "There is an immediate legal injury and that's the voice of these children," he said. "There's some 40,000 children in California... that live with same-sex parents, and they want their parents to have full recognition and full status. The voice of those children is important in this case, don't you think?"

When I started doing anthropological research on lesbian mothers in 1977, homosexuality and parenthood were assumed to be oxymoronic, and many of my colleagues questioned my understanding of the "facts of life." Didn't I know how babies were made? Beyond this simple biological lesson, nearly everyone, including lots of gay and lesbian people, thought of parenthood as requiring a level of altruism and caring that was surely antithetical to homosexuality, widely imagined as consisting in never-ending hedonism. If homosexuality was all about sex, and parenthood, especially motherhood, was all about whatever was imagined to be the opposite of sex, then there was no clear way that gays and lesbians could be or even want to be parents. Indeed, one of the ways that those hostile to homosexuality made their point about the immorality of such practices was to point to what they assumed to be gay people's distance from the fundamental human capacity to reproduce. Since we couldn't reproduce "naturally," surely everyone needed to be on the alert for homosexuals seeking to "recruit."

What a difference thirty-five years has made. First, lesbian mothers became visible, beginning with those who had children during pre-coming-out heterosexual marriages. These women emerged from the shadows through increasingly public custody battles with ex-husbands, with some of these battles having enough dramatic value to inspire major media coverage. Then, assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs) moved into the limelight, and while not all providers were willing to use these methods to impregnate lesbians, there were enough who were to transform these seemingly science-fiction technologies into the stuff of daily life for many lesbians. Less costly do-it-yourself insemination still exists, but fears about disease transmission (especially HIV) and legal complications have made using conventional and high-tech medical intervention a more attractive, and seemingly "natural" option.

In the wake of the AIDS epidemic, gay men other than those who had children from earlier marriages, began to seek out parenthood, a more arduous task than that facing lesbians. Without the ability to reproduce directly, gay men took advantage of a variety of adoption and technological options, adopting kids from the foster-care system, negotiating private adoptions, going overseas to find their children (à la Modern Family), and using surrogacy and related technologies to have children linked to them genetically. They joined other Americans who faced fertility challenges in insisting upon their right to be parents, surveying the possibilities available for the one that would yield a child that most closely resembled the one they dreamed of. Like others in this marketplace, they juggled financial exigencies with cultural preferences and ethical priorities, and now constitute an increasingly visible segment of U.S. families.

Justice Kennedy's observation about children stood in marked contrast to those who defended Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Their arguments rested on claims about marriage as an institution rooted in reproduction, narrowly defined as the kind of reproduction enabled by the biology of heterosexual relationships. Despite the fact that many heterosexual couples also depend on adoption and ARTs to reproduce, and compelling evidence showing that not all marriages have reproduction as their goal, these advocates clung to the notion that marriage is all about a simple, linear tale of reproduction. Please see the American Anthropological Association's recent compilation of selected articles from its publishing portfolio for evidence of a variety of changing arrangements. But if marriages protect children by stabilizing families and providing for children's support in case of family disruption -- death, separation, disability -- then it's difficult to exclude the children of same-sex parents from these safeguards. Seeing those who seek marriage as entitled to it not only as a general matter of civil rights, or as a marker of full citizenship, but rather as a form of protection for children, may bring us to marriage equality, even if we get there by taking very small baby steps.

Ellen Lewin is Professor of Gender, Women's & Sexuality Studies and Anthropology at the University of Iowa.