What a year. It’s tempting, in a year-end wrap-up, to put a big bow on what we put a ring on and call it a day. While marriage brought us many advances, however, it also highlighted other issues that we still need to tackle in order to bring full equality and inclusion to LGBTQ parents and our children.
Marriage equality is, of course, a big deal.
The win in Obergefell v. Hodges not only brought marriage to same-sex couples, but put same-sex parents and our children front and center in the case and in the public eye. Most of the plaintiffs were parents. And Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion, showed he understood the importance of marriage for our children, saying, “Without the recognition, stability, and predictability marriage offers, children suffer the stigma of knowing their families are somehow lesser. They also suffer the significant material costs of being raised by unmarried parents, relegated to a more difficult and uncertain family life. The marriage laws at issue thus harm and humiliate the children of same-sex couples.”
He wisely cautioned, though, that marriage is also meaningful even for those who cannot or choose not to procreate—thus addressing one of the leading arguments against marriage equality, that marriage is entirely about procreation.
Marriage equality expanded parental rights in some states. Twelve states (Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Texas) did not permit same-sex couples to adopt children jointly before Obergefell, according to a report from the Pew Charitable Trusts, citing the Human Rights Campaign.
After Obergefell, however, that restriction has crumbled in all but Mississippi. Four couples are now challenging the Mississippi ban in federal court with the help of attorney Roberta Kaplan (a lesbian mom herself), who successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 to bring down part of the Defense of Marriage Act.
Our equal access to adoption and fostering is threatened, however, by “religious freedom” laws in North Dakota, Michigan, and Virginia (and under discussion in several other states). These laws permit child welfare agencies receiving state money to refuse to place children with same-sex couples or other LGBTQ people if doing so conflicts with their religious beliefs.
And Kansas State Rep. Jim Ward (D-Wichita) has requested that legislative auditors investigate the state’s Department of Children and Families over what he calls “systemic” discrimination against LGBT people in adoption and foster care.
Same-sex couples have also had to file lawsuits in several states in order to have both parents’ names put on their children’s birth certificates. In October, a couple in Utah was awarded $24,000 in legal fees after they won their case, but cases from couples in Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, North Carolina, and Wisconsin are still pending or being appealed.
A note of caution: While accurate birth certificates are necessary for enrolling a child in school, getting a passport, and applying for various other benefits, they are still not sufficient for someone to be recognized as a parent in all jurisdictions and circumstances, many LGBTQ legal organizations have said (and the judge in the Arkansas case himself indicated). Second-parent adoptions or court judgments of parentage are still recommended.
Even adoptions, however, are under attack (though I have great hope the threat will fail). The Alabama Supreme Court in September refused to recognize three second-parent adoptions done in Georgia by a lesbian mom living in Alabama. The U.S. Supreme Court on December 14 granted an emergency stay of the order, giving the woman visitation with her children until the U.S. Supreme Court either rules on the case or refuses to take it. The whole situation is ugly, with one mom trying to deny her ex-partner any parental status and calling into question the validity of adoptions from state to state.
A similar case of parental breakup shows that we still are not equal when it comes to recognizing unmarried parents. In September, a Maryland court upheld a ruling denying parental standing (and thus visitation rights) to a non-biological mom because she and the biological mom were not married at the time of their child’s birth—even though they had planned and were raising the child together, and eventually married. The judge indicated that in the same circumstances, the father in a different-sex unmarried couple would likely have been recognized, but current law did not allow recognition of a non-biological mother.
We also lack full equality in other areas. Lack of non-discrimination protections means that people can still be fired or denied housing in many states for being LGBTQ. Transgender people, married or not, are still in much earlier stages of legal recognition and social acceptance. These inequalities negatively impact children of LGBTQ parents as well.
Additionally, respect does not necessarily follow legality. There are still places in this country where I would be afraid to hold hands with my spouse. Kids still get bullied for being LGBTQ or having LGBTQ parents. LGBTQ families of color remain at a disadvantage because of the systemic racism in our society. And despite advances, we need even more representation in books and other media of LGBTQ families in all our diversity—of family structure, race, religion, socioeconomic class, and more.
This year will stand as a watershed year, however. Our work towards LGBTQ equality is not done, nor is the work of social justice in other arenas done — but 2015 gave us one shining example of what progress looks like.
Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian (mombian.com), a GLAAD Media Award-winning blog and resource directory for LGBTQ parents.