Janson Wu, executive director of GLAD (Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders), is leading one of the several LGBT legal organizations bringing marriage equality before the U.S. Supreme Court this spring. I asked him recently about the interplay among marriage equality, parental rights, and other issues that impact LGBT parents and our children, and about the past, present, and future of our movement.
The early victories of LGBT parents in family courts "have helped us to think big,” Wu said. He cites the right to second-parent adoptions, won in the 1990s, which “made it possible for both parents in a same-sex couple to be legally connected to their child—even though they could not be legally connected to each other. It was a very creative legal solution to a devastating problem. Those early victories helped change the mindset of the public around LGBT families and helped pave the way to marriage equality.”
As important as legal changes, though, he said, are changes in the court of public opinion, which "cannot be underestimated.” He explained, “For many years, the other side has used children as a weapon against our community. What we have learned is that the best way to deflect those blows is by putting forward an affirmative, positive, and loving picture of our families.”
He added, “It always pains me to see children used as a wedge issue. But the reality is that, as Justice Kennedy recognized in his decision overturning the Defense of Marriage Act, tens of thousands of children are being raised by loving, LGBT parents, and the real question is ‘Why should those children be harmed?’ I think that when people recognize that LGBT families are in our schools, that they are our neighbors, and in our families, then they are much less willing to inflict harms to those children, regardless of their views on marriage equality.”
In our present fight for equality, attitudes towards families are key. Wu elaborated, “Families are the building blocks of our society, and for that reason, the promotion of healthy and stable families is at the root of so many of our laws and policies. The challenge has been to expand our understanding of what a family is to include all families—regardless of how those families are formed or what they look like.”
One example of doing this, Wu said, is convincing health insurance plans to recognize “functional families, not just families related by marriage or genetics.” Similarly, immigration laws should “protect the integrity of extended and non-genetic family groups that often exist amongst immigrant and refugee communities.”
How can we spur these changes? “By putting the stories of those families on the forefront of our public education and advocacy efforts,” Wu said, citing the DREAMER movement led by immigrant youth as an example. “And, of course, that kind of advocacy is the foundation of the marriage equality movement,” he added.
Marriage equality is not always a cure-all solution for parental rights, however. Wu asserted, “All parent-child relationships should be legally protected, regardless of marriage. That said, marriage is one powerful way to protect both spouses’ relationships with their children. Yet we still see courts that resist treating same-sex parents the same as different-sex parents, sometimes due to the gendered language that remains in most state’s family laws.”
That problem arose with a New Hampshire family court judge who wrongly refused to read the state’s family laws to apply to a married lesbian couple who had separated. One of the women, GLAD’s client, decided to give up all claims of seeing her son again rather than continue a court battle. GLAD helped to pass legislation clarifying that statutes must be read gender neutral, “but it was too late for this one mother,” Wu said. “What was a terrific legislative victory was also a sad and entirely unnecessary loss.”
As we move into the future, we must view marriage equality and parental rights in conjunction with other issues, Wu said. “The intersection of oppressions hits families just as much, if not more, than they impact individuals.” He gave the example of a bisexual single mother in New Hampshire who, with the help of her grandmother, was raising one child from birth and two adopted from foster care. They were a low income family living on disability. One of the children, assigned male at birth, had cross-gender identification and was attending school as a girl by the time she was seven. The school principal continued to refer to her by her male name on the PA system, however, which led to bullying and ostracism by other students.
GLAD worked out an agreement to arrange a transfer to a new school “for a fresh start” and to ensure the school would treat her as a girl. “That was not an easy accomplishment even with the help of two attorneys,” Wu said. “Imagine if this family were on their own in this situation, like countless families are across the country.”
As important as are the court victories that make the headlines, then, Wu is clear about what the real goal is: "We need to ensure that our legal gains translate from words to making an actual difference in people’s real lives, so that our victories do not become hollow.”
Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian (mombian.com), a GLAAD Media Award-winning blog and resource directory for LGBT parents.