A Family Of Our Own: Why Family Is The Key To Winning LGBT Equality
In September, the LGBT community cheered when a Florida appellate court found unconstitutional the state’s law banning gay and lesbian couples from adopting children. The 33-year old law had been the most draconian of its kind in the country, but was finally struck down as unconstitutional. The ruling became final after October 22, when Florida’s Attorney General elected not to appeal the decision to the state’s Supreme Court. This is a big win for the LGBT movement not for just the legal impact. It also advances a key to winning truly equal rights: the ability for LGBT persons to create families of our own.
In its ruling, the Florida appeals court made two important observations. First, it rejected supposedly “scientific” evidence that gay parents were less effective; it instead concluded emphatically that “gay people and heterosexuals make equally good parents.” Second, the judicial panel noted the inconsistency between Florida allowing gays and lesbians to become foster parents or legal guardians, but not to adopt children. In reaching these two conclusions, the Florida appellate judges reinforced the fundamental principal that LGBT persons, just like our heterosexual counterparts, can create strong families.
Why are families, particularly those with children, so important to the LGBT movement? As LGBT persons grow up and come to grips with our sexual orientation, many of us feel isolated from our families. As kids, we often yearn (as I did) for the idyllic life of families depicted on TV shows. (Though one day, I realized that no family is perennially perky like the Brady Bunch, and no good can come of spending a lifetime being envious of Marcia, Marcia, Marcia.) As adults, LGBT persons can often feel a strong desire to create a better family life for ourselves than we had as children.
Family is also important to disprove a core message of anti-LGBT forces, which try to paint same-sex couples as undermining family values. If same-sex couples have our relationships legally recognized and raise children in our everyday communities, we prove that we too put the “family” in “family values.” To advance attitudes supporting gay equality, there’s nothing like having gay and lesbian couples with children attending the same schools, playing in the same parks, and living in the same communities with everyone else.
But historically, there was no social or legal precedent for same-sex partners to create legally-recognized families. It has only been in recent years that domestic partnership and civil unions laws became more routine, and same-sex marriage equality remains in relative infancy. Throwing children into the mix is also a more recent phenomenon. The wave of same-sex couples publicly adopting and birthing children did not take off with greater force until the last decade. Before the legal, social and media evolution of the past 10-20 years, generations of LGBT people had to create families of their own – without legal protection or social expectation. Indeed, when I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, moms were probably not asking their gay or lesbian adult children “When you are going to settle down, get married and have kids?”
That is certainly not a question my own parents would have thought to ask. I came out to my parents later in life. My parents had already been clued in by my sister and a cousin, so they were not surprised. My father took it remarkably well, and said: “Daddy, he ok with it but Mommy sad because you not have children.” (And yes, when your older Vietnamese immigrant parents speak in English, they often refer to themselves in the third person). Because my parents considered me the golden child who excelled at everything, my mother than bemoaned ruefully “You have best seed in house” and then explained how sad it would be for that seed to not perpetuate to another generation. At this point, I am utterly mortified. My sister then tries to help the situation by explaining that I could have children using a surrogate, just like the Chinese surrogate mom on “Desperate Housewives.” This does not help the situation. But my father saves the day by simply saying: “Mommy and Daddy old… we just want you be happy.”
The conversation made me realize that my parents had no clue that gay couples increasingly could formalize their relationships, or even have children. And more importantly, I did not grow up dreaming of getting married, or having children to create a family of my own.
That is why legal developments such as the Florida gay adoption case will resonate far beyond the courtroom. Law can change our daily world. Legal progress will help foster a brave new world where legally-recognized gay families, complete with babies and Baby Gap outfits, become visible in their communities. It will create a new day where LGBT youth grow up dreaming of getting married and maybe even raising children – precisely because they now see other people doing it.
And that is why it is so vital for the LGBT movement to keep fighting for the full panoply of family-related rights – marriage equality, adoption and child custody, health care power of attorney and visitation, insurance, property transfer, estate and probate. Of course, not all same-sex couples need to have children in order to create a family. But there is something universally human about raising children that makes it easier for the LGBT community to show the rest of the world that we too are human.
So kudos to the Florida appeals court for recognizing that gays and lesbians can be good parents. Ultimately, legal developments such as this court ruling will create the social environment needed to fully win the LGBT civil rights movement. True equality, in both law and society, will be won because same-sex couples live proudly in our communities, in legally-recognized relationships, and if we so choose, raising very loved children. It will be won as we collectively create families of our own.