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."

Yes, I would marry...for the benefits

Four female participants, all of whom had been raised with two mothers and had seen their parents break up in the absence of marriage, endorsed the institution for pragmatic reasons. Unlike those who spoke of romantic love or commitment, these women were sensitive to the legal protection marriage and divorce provides. Hailey, a 19-year-old white heterosexual woman whose parents has separated when she was young, said:

I will probably get married for the health care benefits and for the benefit of my future children, but I don't believe that marriage is a sacred institution or declaration of love...I just understand the practicality of marriage financially and for the sake of the children. Not that children do better with married parents, per se, but that child support, alimony, etcetera is easier to work out if you've been married.

Like Hailey, the other three participants knew their parents had been unable to get married, and this shaped their understanding of marriage as a useful legal tool, particularly when the couple has children.

I want to marry, but...

Six participants (five women, one man) voiced a desire to get married, but felt guilty because their parents could not. Robin, a 19-year-old white heterosexual woman, explained her ambivalence, which is grounded in a sense of injustice:

For legal purposes, I would probably want to be married. But I know no matter how much I love a man, I would have a sense of guilt taking part in my wedding surrounded by family and friends, many of whom have been with their significant others for longer than I have been alive yet are not able to enjoy the same privileges as me and my partner simply because they happen to be two people of the same gender. So I am uncomfortable with the idea that the family I will someday create could be seen as more "real" than the one that I come from...I could out on the street right now, pick some guy I want to marry, we could be married by the end of the day, and society would accept that. Then the many same sex couples I know who have been in committed relationships for decades would instantly be considered less of a family than me and a stranger. I don't know how to reconcile that and part of me feels that, no matter how much I love somebody, marriage between us would be irrelevant to me until it isn't a privilege granted only to heterosexual couples.

It seems Robin's ambivalence will continue until marriage inequality is resolved. Half of the participants in this group went a step further, pointing out the patriarchal history of the institution of marriage, but did so with resolution, vowing to make up their own definitions of marriage.

No, I won't marry...for now

A conditional rejection of marriage was expressed by four participants; they would not marry until marriage equality was a reality everywhere in the U.S. One participant's parents had married in California, only to have the legality contested with Proposition 8, was quick to point out the importance of federal marriage equality.

No, I won't marry

Only seven participants (six female, one male) stated they absolutely would not marry, and this rejection stemmed from a critical perspective of the institution of marriage. Paul, a 20-year-old white heterosexual man whose two mothers had split and repartnered with women he considers stepparents, explained:

Even if I were to be in a primarily monogamous relationship for the majority of my life...I feel like it's unhealthy to prop it up with some sort of binding contract. I also feel like there are expectations for married couples I'm not sure I want to held to.

Like other participants, Paul's parents had married, but Goldberg suspects that "their rejection of marriage may stem in part from their experiences growing up with LGB parents who could not marry." Four out of the seven specifically described their parents' inability to marry, including Sarah, a 20-year-old white heterosexual woman whose two mothers are still together.

I was raised to be very skeptical of the institution of marriage since my parents were not allowed to marry and they thus felt disenfranchised from the institution. I've seen positive ways in which not being married affected my parents' relationship. Since they are not married, they have not been held to the same expectations as married couples that they will stay together forever until the end. Instead they have been able to negotiate challenges an decide at each new stage of their relationship what is working, what needs to change, and whether they are ultimately a good fit for each other. I think has been extremely positive in their relationship and I have adopted this method in my own relationship.

Sara, like all of the participants who alleged they would not marry, are proponents of healthy and enduring relationships. Because their parents were not allowed to marry, they have socialized into the belief that marriage is not the only way to achieve that goal.

How young adults with LGB parents feel about getting married: It's complicated

Goldberg's study constitutes a substantial contribution to the modest body of literature on the LGB community's decision-making process, but she cannot predict how the young adults' perspectives and desires will mean in the future. Hopefully, Goldberg will both revisit these participants in a few years and expand her studies to include a greater balance of LGB families, specifically more households in which both parents are male.

What we can learn from the reactions of these young adults, however, is that the LGB community serves as an influential body in forming their opinions on marriage—but their perspectives are also shaped by opponents to same-sex marriage. To varying degrees, all participants displayed sensitivity towards their parents' inability to be married. At one end of the spectrum, participants felt guilty, and at the other, they developed highly critical attitudes toward an institution unwilling to accept their families.

Andrew P. Pugno, general counsel for the anti-marriage equality group, told the New York Times in 2010, "Society is not forcing same-sex couples to raise children." That may be true, many citizens want to have kids, and sometimes, those citizens belong to the LGB community. And their children are trying to figure out where they fit in on a local and national level. As Zach Wahls—small business owner, Eagle scout, college student, and heterosexual child of two lesbians—said during a public forumon House Joint Resolution 6 in the Iowa House of Representatives:

So, will this vote affect my family? Would it affect yours? 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 nineteen 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 affect on the content of my character.