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Once and for All: Gay Marriage Is Not Bad for Kids

• June 26, 2013 • 12:29 PM

Rally for same-sex marriage in San Francisco, California. (PHOTO: STAFFORDVAUGHAN/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

This morning’s landmark Supreme Court decisions put an end to a flawed argument DOMA supporters have been making for 16 years.

When the Supreme Court struck down the 16-year-old Defense of Marriage Act on Wednesday morning as part of a pair of decisions that amount to a major victory for the gay rights movement, they also killed the argument that gay marriage is bad for children.

DOMA supporters have long claimed that kids are far better off when they have both a mother and a father at home. (They even go so far as to quote from a 2008 speech by President Obama, who supports same-sex marriage, in which he emphasized the role of fathers; “Of all the rocks upon which we build our lives, we are reminded today that family is the most important. And we are called to recognize and honor how critical every father is to that foundation,” he said.) Just last week, Representative Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.), the leading Republican candidate for a Senate seat in Georgia, told House colleagues on the floor that children would be better off is they were required to take classes on traditional gender roles.

“The children of same-sex parents are as emotionally healthy, and as educationally and socially successful, as children raised by heterosexual parents.”

“You know, maybe part of the problem is we need to go back into the schools at a very early age, maybe at the grade school level, and have a class for the young girls and have a class for the young boys and say, you know, this is what’s important,” he said. Speaking in defense of DOMA ahead of the Supreme Court decisions, Gingrey noted that, while he understands that the “father knows best” adage is dated, he still believes in it.

But Gingrey is not alone in subscribing to ideas from “back in the old days of television,” as he puts it. The argument that the children of same-sex couples are negatively influenced by the family structures in which they are raised came up multiple times during the oral arguments for this case. This, from an amicus brief of “social science professors” submitted to the Supreme Court: “With so many significant outstanding questions about whether children develop as well in same-sex households as in opposite-sex households, it remains prudent for government to continue to recognize marriage as a union of a man and a woman, thereby promoting what is known to be an ideal environment for raising children.”

As noted in a piece for The Atlantic by Philip N. Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland-College Park (and sometimes contributor to Pacific Standard partner site Sociological Images), Justice Antonin Scalia returned to the 40-plus-page brief later: “[T]here’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,” he said. Scalia would go on, along with Justice Samuel Alito, to write a dissent to today’s court ruling, and even read it from the bench, “a step justices take in a small share of cases, typically to show that they have especially strong views,” the New York Times reported.

Scalia might have especially strong views, but that doesn’t mean they’re right. Or even that they have support.

The problem? That brief was found to be based on severely flawed studies. Over at his Family Inequality blog, Cohen runs through all of the evidence. It’s a fascinating story, as Cohen puts it, “of how Christian conservatives used big private money to produce knowledge in service of their political goals.”

In fact, there isn’t considerable disagreement among sociologists. As we note in the Five Studies column from our current July/August issue, this one on how we have thought about homosexuality over the past 150 years, “by now virtually all of the major psychiatric, psychological, sociological, and pediatric professional organizations have officially declared that ‘being gay is just as healthy as being straight,’ as the American Psychological Association puts it. That goes for the children of same-sex parents too.”

Also cited in amicus briefs put before the Supreme Court earlier this year was a meta-analysis by Cambridge University psychologist Michael Lamb of more than 100 studies over the last three decades. Lamb’s research concluded that “the children and adolescents of same-sex parents are as emotionally healthy, and as educationally and socially successful, as children and adolescents raised by heterosexual parents.” It was likely this research to which Kennedy was referring when he wrote, in today’s majority opinion (5-4), that DOMA “places same-sex couples in an unstable position of being in a second tier marriage. The differentiation demeans the couple, whose moral and sexual choices the Constitution protects, and whose relationship the state has sought to dignify. And it humiliates tens of thousands of children now being raised by same-sex couples.”

If it wasn’t those briefs, then perhaps Kennedy is familiar with the latest sociological research on the subject. While not as comprehensive as Lamb’s meta-analysis, a look at 500 children between the ages of one and 17 as part of the Australian Study of Child Health in Same-Sex Familiar found that children with same-sex parents are actually healthier than those with opposite-sex parents. “Because of the situation that same-sex familiar find themselves in, they are generally more willing to communicate and approach the issues that any child may face at school, like teasing or bullying,” lead researcher Dr. Simon Crouch, a public health doctor and researcher at the University of Melbourne’s McCaughey VicHealth Centre, told The Sydney Morning Herald. “This fosters openness and means children tend to be more resilient. That would be our hypothesis.”

Father knows some things, certainly. But he’s not the only one who knows how to raise happy, healthy children.

Nicholas Jackson
Nicholas Jackson is the digital director of Pacific Standard. The former digital editorial director at Outside, he has also worked for The Atlantic, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Texas Monthly, Slate, and other publications, both online and in print. Reach him at njackson@psmag.com. Follow him on Twitter @nbj914.

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