How Children Could Help Win The Fight For Gay Marriage

How Kids Could Help Win The Fight For Gay Marriage

Braiden Neubecker was sitting on the bed and her dad was shaving at the sink as the president made his historic remarks about gay marriage during his second inaugural address.

President Barack Obama talked about "our gay brothers and sisters," and declared "if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well."

In the kitchen after the address with her dads, David and Lee Neubecker, Braiden, who is 10, had a question.

"Aren't you guys married?" she asked, confused.

Her dads, in fact, were married -- in a service in California, but the marriage was nullified in 2004 after the state's Supreme Court declared all marriages performed from February to March that year invalid. "I don't think she realized before that gays and lesbians couldn't marry," David Neubecker recalled in a recent phone interview with his daughter and The Huffington Post.

"I got upset," she agreed, singing into the phone, "everybody should be treated equally."

Plus, she continued to her father, "it's safer to be married because when you guys aren't married it's easier to break up and split apart."

Braiden is now one of a number of children, many of them raised by gay or lesbian parents, who have stepped into the spotlight to directly address the courts and public as part of a debate in which they have long been central figures, but have rarely taken part.

A week after Obama's address the Neubeckers started talking again about the speech and the laws that prevented Braiden's dads, who live in a suburb of Chicago, from getting married. Braiden had so much to say that David encouraged her to get out her journal and write it down.

A couple of drafts later, a letter written by Braiden was included in an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in time for the court's two landmark cases on gay marriage in March. The amicus brief was from Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), meant to show how the families of same-sex parents are affected when they are not allowed to marry.

For decades, those opposed to legalizing same-sex marriage have argued that they might somehow harm the children same-sex couples raise or adopt. In court in March, Justice Antonin Scalia, arguably the court member most staunchly opposed to gay rights, offered "one concrete thing" about legalizing same-sex marriage that could harm society.

"If you redefine marriage to include same-sex couples … you must permit adoption by same-sex couples," he said in the hearing to determine whether Proposition 8, California's law banning same-sex marriage, was constitutional. "And there's considerable disagreement among … sociologists as to what the consequences of raising a child in a … single-sex family, whether that is harmful to the child or not."

But Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg pointed out that California gay couples already can legally adopt children. Sociologists, child welfare experts and pediatricians have argued that those raised by same-sex couples do just as well as their counterparts raised in heterosexual households.

"Its very surprising in many ways how uniform the results of the research have been," said Charlotte J. Patterson, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, who has been researching child development in same-sex households for more than 20 years. "What we've found is that what's important is not the sexual orientation of the parents but rather the resources the parents can offer the kids and the quality of relationships with their children, and of course that's true for gay and straight parents."

Before the Neubeckers adopted them, Braiden and her younger brother were in the foster care system, living with five different families by the time Braiden was 4. The most difficult part of writing the letter, she said, was going over her life before the Neubeckers.

"Before I lived with my two dads, my life was horrible," she wrote to the court. "My old family never treated me well. They wouldn't stand up for me. If my foster sister fought with me, my old mom would just sit there and watch me get hurt, so I would have to fight back. Each time I was at foster home, the foster parents promised me they would keep me safe and treat my brother and I equally. But they always broke their promise."

"Would there be any purpose to ban the marriage of two men or two women when they can treat children the same or even better than other couples."

Over the past few years, many others with gay parents have posted their stories on YouTube, testified before legislatures and sent letters to the Supreme Court, hoping to make the same case. One of the first -- and most famous, after his testimony went viral with more than 2 million views on YouTube -- was sixth-generation Iowan and engineering student Zach Wahls. In February 2011, Wahls spoke before the Iowa House of Representatives, which was debating legislation that would ban gay marriage in the state.

"Over the next two hours I'm sure we're going to hear plenty of testimony about how damaging having gay parents is on kids, but in my 19 years not once have I been confronted by an individual who realized independently that I was raised by a gay couple. And you know why? Because the sexual orientation of my parents has had zero effect on the content of my character," he said.

Longtime activists and legal experts say testimony like Wahl's can be effective in legislative battles and in shifting public opinion. But whether the Supreme Court will be swayed by testimony like Wahl's is difficult to assess.

"Its hard to speculate about what role it would play in the Supreme Court, which tends to be more moved by careful argumentation by reputable groups than by something they see on the news," said Paul Smith, an attorney who argued Lawrence v. Texas, another landmark gay-rights suit, before the Supreme Court in 2003.

But Justice Anthony Kennedy indicated to Charles Cooper, Prop 8’s defender before the court, that those with gay parents did play a role. “There are some 40,000 children in California ... that live with same-sex parents. They want their parents to have full recognition and full status. The voice of these children is important, don’t you think?”

Whatever the court decides, Smith said, there are already millions of American children living with same-sex parents. "The creation of families of gay couples is growing very fast," Smith said. "So, even if you thought that there was some basis that they were worse off than the kids next door with the mom and the dad, what is it the law is doing by not making things as good as possible for both?"

Not all of the children who participate in the debate are in favor of same-sex marriage. “Since every child needs a mom and a dad to be born, I don’t think we can change that children need a mom and a dad," Grace Evans, 11, told the Minnesota House Committee on Civil Law late last month. "I believe God made it that way. I know some disagree, but I want to ask you this question: Which parent do I not need, my mom or my dad?”

But like many children who speak before legislators or the media against gay marriage, she doesn't have gay parents. Her father declined The Huffington Post's request to interview Evans. A spokesperson for the National Organization for Marriage said it did not have any "connections to the children who testified for traditional marriage."

"Libby Anne," a 26-year-old blogger for faith website Patheos, who uses a pseudonym so that her parents do not read her work and retaliate by cutting off contact with her younger siblings, recently wrote a post that said she spoke out against gay marriage as a child and now regrets it.

"I never spoke before a House committee, sure, but when I was that age, my father was quick to push me forward to speak to reporters in support of 'traditional marriage,'" she wrote, after watching Evans' testimony. "I did grow up in a subculture that considered using children as political theater props was a good tactical move."

Libby Anne was homeschooled and started campaigning with her parents when she was 4, attending traditional marriage rallies and pro-life banquets, and giving interviews to local reporters espousing her father's religious views. But when she turned 18, she chose a secular university, promising her parents that she would try to convert the atheists she met. Instead, she discovered that one of the central tenets of her parents' belief system -- young earth creationism -- was, scientifically, "bullshit," as she puts it now.

"That shook my world. I was raised with this idea that I was going to be a cultural warrior," said Libby Anne, who now writes a blog titled "Love, Joy, Feminism," continued. "Some days it really comes back to bite me."

Clarification: Details have been changed regarding the circumstances when the Neubeckers heard the president's second inaugural address.

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