How Do Children of Gay Parents Feel About Getting Married?

Ambivalent, according to a new study

flickr J Mark Dodds a shadow of my future self.jpg
J Mark Dodds/flickr

On my wedding day in 2009, I reflected on all my good luck, from finding a wonderful man to the clear, blue sky above. Everything I was grateful for amplified the day, except for one thing, which left me feeling pretty guilty: I was grateful to be allowed to marry this wonderful man.

I'm not the only person to feel ambivalent about getting married when so many others cannot. The long list of celebrities vowing to abstain until same-sex marriage is legalized includes Girls' Lena Dunham and expectant actress Kristen Bell and partner Dax Shephard. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are engaged, but won't go any further; the two have donated large sums of money to the effort, including $100,000 to the Human Rights Campaign's marriage equality initiative.

But the group of people with perhaps the greatest potential to have mixed feelings about marriage are the children of gay, lesbian, and bisexual children. How does growing up with parents who are excluded from the institution affect a child's perspective on whether he or she wants to get married some day? Thus far, it has been subject to little empirical research, but that is changing, and Abbie Goldberg, an associate professor of psychology at Clark University, is at the forefront of this investigation

In the paper, "Will I Marry if My Parents Can't?," Goldberg looked at a group directly affected by outlawing same-sex marriage: young adults with lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB) parents. Children form much of their understanding of marriage based on their parents, and opponents to same-sex marriage have accused children of LGB couples of having less regard for marriage. With this in mind, Goldberg set out to understand how young adults with LGB parents really view the institution of marriage, which, at least at a federal level, excludes their own parents.

Goldberg queried 35 individuals,15 to 28 years of age, from California, Ohio, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, New York, Oregon, Virginia, and Washington. Thirty were female, and five were male. Three identified as queer, one as lesbian, and one as bisexual. Most were white, two were Asian, and one Hispanic. One participant was married, and another engaged to be married.

Less than half of the young adults were born to opposite-sex parents who later came out as LGB, and 17 were born to lesbian partners via donor insemination. Half of the participants experienced the dissolution of their parents' marriages. Seven participants' parents had been able to procure civil marriages; in two cases, the parents/stepparents had married in another state, and their marriage was not legally recognized in their state. Only one of the participants' parents' marriages was considered "legal and binding."

(The list of participants indicates the inherent limitations of the study. The sample was made up of mostly women, and gender attitudes towards marriage differ. Many participants had lesbian mothers, and most were white. Goldberg looked at perspectives and desires, and cannot predict how that translates into reality.)

The study focused on four core questions:

1. Are you married or have you ever been married?

2. If not, do you want to get married some day?

3. If you identify as heterosexual, is your desire to get married, or comfort with the idea of getting married, contingent on whether or not your LGB parent(s), or LGB people as a whole, can get married? Explain.

4. What are your feelings and opinions concerning marriage equality for same-sex couples? (What has informed your opinions? Do your opinions differ from you parents?)

Participants, who originally responded to several listerv announcements, were asked additional questions based on their particular situation.

Yes, I want to get married

Fourteen young adults (12 women and 2 men) were absolutely sure they would marry in the future, even though the LGB community as a whole could not.

Darlene, a 25-year-old white, heterosexual woman, had witnessed her heterosexual parents' divorce at the age of 10. Her father later repartnered with a man, and she applied the same constructs she associated with marriage—love and commitment—to his relationship:

Being somewhat traditional, I want to be married before having children. I feel marriage is the ultimate testament of love and your commitment to a person....I view my dad as married even though he isn't legally. He and his partner wear wedding rings, so I see that as a commitment to each other and their love.

Most of the participants saw marriage as the ultimate commitment, which indicates that they internalized the dominant societal narrative about marriage. But they were also informed by their LGB community and their own parents' relationships. Nicole, a 25-year-old white heterosexual woman born to two mothers who separated when she was younger, felt the LGB community had provided her with plenty of models to emulate.

The kind of marriage partnership I see for myself is the same in terms of commitment and lifestyle that I see among life partners I know in the LGB community: committed, faithful, cohabitating.

These 14 young adults did not discriminate between the committed, nonmarital LGB relationship they had observed and the committed marital relationships they hoped to form.

Five participants noted that, first and foremost, their parents wanted them to be happy, and abstaining from marriage because they could not would upset them. Tessa, a 26-year-old white heterosexual woman engaged to be married, spoke to this point:

It bothers me that I can legally be married while my parents can't but I know that my parents would not want me to hold off getting married until they could as well.

A sense of guilt was not uncommon, but as Goldberg noted, "these individuals cushioned such assertions by stating that they would continue to support marriage equality efforts, even if they married."

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Alexis Coe is a writer in San Francisco and a columnist for SF Weekly.

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