Matthew Mansell and Johno Espejo are like most American parents. They juggle work and family, try to keep up with household chores, and spend weekends with their two children, Wyatt, 8, and Elyse, 7.
Saturday nights are a special occasion. Mansell’s mother, who lives with the family in their Placentia, California home, treats everyone to dinner at a local restaurant. They come home, pile on the couch, and watch a movie selected by one of the kids. Most recently, Elyse chose the animated children’s movie ParaNorman .
It would all be rather ordinary — except for the fact that Mansell and Espejo are plaintiffs in Tanco v. Haslam , which has been consolidated with four other lawsuits under Obergefell v. Hodges , a landmark case before the Supreme Court challenging same-sex marriage bans in Michigan, Tennessee, Ohio and Kentucky. (The couple lived in Tennessee when they filed the original suit.)
While the case disputes the constitutionality of gay marriage bans, it also raises emotional questions about whether children of such couples are somehow worse off than the offspring of straight couples. An estimated 122,000 same-sex couples in the U.S. are raising more than 200,000 children, according to the Williams Institute, a think tank at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Though decades of research show no emotional or psychological harm, opponents of same-sex marriage argue the possibility of such a thing is a compelling reason to prohibit gay unions. This line of reasoning is central to the defense of Michigan’s ban.
When the Supreme Court rules on the case in the coming weeks, its opinion could very well render that argument irrelevant. Mansell would welcome such a decision, but doesn’t need the Supreme Court to say what he already knows.
“The fact that my children have two same-sex parents, I don't find it to be detrimental to them,” Mansell told Mashable . ” Our children are just like regular children — they go to school, they have the same worries, the same friends and families. They have people who love them — just as any other child would.”
Justice Anthony Kennedy, viewed as the decisive vote in this case, has indicated he too is worried for the children of same-sex couples.
“He's long been concerned with providing stable families, and this has not just been limited to cases involving gay people,” says Joan Heifetz Hollinger, a retired faculty member at UC Berkeley Law School. Hollinger, who focuses on family law, parentage, adoption and child welfare. “He's always wringing his judicial hands about the children.”
Kennedy has previously suggested that by banning gay marriage, children of same-sex parents are unfairly stigmatized. Should he write the majority opinion in favor of the plaintiffs, Hollinger says, it’s likely he will acknowledge that burden — and perhaps pen a few definitive sentences on the damage bans inflict on children. He may also point out that research shows same-sex unions aren’t harmful to children.
“The question has been lurking in one way or another for a long time,” says Hollinger, who filed an amicus brief with more than 70 family law scholars in state and federal courts as well as to the Supreme Court. “Our aim was primarily to shatter the notion that children need married biological parents in order to thrive.”
For the past 30-plus years, researchers have sought to confirm or disprove this claim. There are upwards of 150 peer-reviewed studies that consider some aspect of this question by evaluating the well-being of children of same-sex parents compared to children of heterosexual parents. They look at indicators like gender role behavior, peer relationships, and academic success. They include families who adopted, and those who conceived children using methods like in vitro and surrogacy.
David Brodzinsky, a therapist who works extensively with gay and lesbian and adoptive families and an expert witness in the Michigan case, DeBoer v. Snyder , testified in 2014 that the research is unequivocal — there is no “discernible difference” between the two groups of children. Children also do not require biological parents of each gender to ensure their long-term happiness, according to studies.
The exceptions to this consensus are rare, Brodzinsky tells Mashable , and often reflect poor analysis of data or a conflation of cause and effect.
For example, if children adopted from foster care by gay parents are not well-adjusted, that could be related to traumatic childhood experiences that occurred prior to their adoption. Family instability, which is affected by socioeconomic circumstances, is also a strong indicator of a child’s well-being.
Marriage has been shown to improve family security, and would arguably help all children, including those of same-sex couples, says Brodzinsky.
Opponents argue that this research is flawed, and often draw on religious arguments to make their case. The Family Research Council, a Christian public policy organization, indicated in its brief for DeBoer v. Snyder that marriage should be reserved for heterosexual couples, for the purpose of procreation, and that same-sex unions would be “detrimental” to children. (FRC did not respond to a request for comment.)
— FRCAction (@FRCAction) June 4, 2015
Yet, several professional organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics , the American Psychiatric Association, and the American Sociological Association, publicly support same-sex parenting and state that it does no harm to children.
The evidence continues to mount. This week a study published in Social Science Research affirmed this finding after analyzing hundreds of studies conducted since 1970.
A decisive opinion from the Supreme Court could signal to opponents that it’s time to let go of an outdated argument — but Mansell is not hopeful. “It's hard to say that the ruling of nine people in D.C. would change the mind of somebody in Tennessee if they have the deeply-held belief that we're bad parents or would be bad parents,” he says.
What might be more convincing for opponents: Meeting same-sex couples and their children.
“Social science data can be very persuasive in court cases,” says Brodzinsky, but not convincing to a skeptical individual. “There is data showing that one of the things that does change people's minds is when they have the opportunity to have contact with people who are gay and lesbian, particularly those who raise children and see that they're like them.”
For now, Mansell is countering the judgment of his family by trying to be a good role model for his children. “They know that papa and daddy are trying to do something to stand up for us as a family — that's one thing we wanted to teach them,” he says.
“It's fine to live in society, but it's also to good to stand up for yourself and not let society run roughshod over you.”
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