According to the findings of the 2010 U.S. Census, one-quarter of all lesbian and gay couples throughout the United States are raising children. The Williams Institute of UCLA is releasing summaries for each state, showing the percentage of lesbian and gay couples with children who live there. Data has thus far been released for Hawaii, Alabama, Wyoming, Delaware, Kansas, Pennsylvania, California and New York. This is the first time the census has counted lesbian and gay couples and their children, providing a more accurate picture of gay parents and their families.
The census findings bring a new perspective to the movement towards marriage equality. Data from Hawaii and Alabama clearly discredits the claim by marriage equality opponents that marriage for straight couples is primarily about starting a family. In both states, 42% of straight couples – less than half – are raising children. In New York, where a marriage equality bill is pending in the Senate, the numbers have particular relevance. An estimated 14,000 children in New York are being raised by lesbian and gay couples. Stuart Gaffney, a spokesperson for Marriage Equality USA, commented on the census, saying, “This is the first time it accurately reflects families that have always been there. It’s something we find out when they are lobbying in legislatures like Albany right now and reps say they don’t have someone in their district who it matters to.”
Lesbian and gay couples who are raising children while being denied the opportunity to marry can face unique challenges. State laws around adoption and surrogacy often create barriers for gay couples who are not married but hope to become parents. One partner in a couple may also be prevented from becoming a legal parent to their child, depending on whether local laws allow unmarried partners to jointly adopt.
Just as significant, without the ability to marry, families headed by lesbian and gay parents face emotional hardships as well. In an article recently published by the Huffington Post, Sarah Kate Ellis of New York wrote honestly about her concern for her family’s well-being without marriage equality, saying, “My children will come to realize the state and country they live in does not consider their moms as equal, and that, I fear, will damage their self-esteem. That they will, without their young minds even knowing it, feel less important. As they move through their daily lives they will subversively learn that they are second to the boys and girls in their classroom, at their swim club, and on their little league fields.”
Currently five states – Vermont, Iowa, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire, as well as the District of Columbia – have enacted marriage equality. Without the protections afforded by marriage, lesbian and gay parents are vulnerable to a number of legal obstacles. This census data highlights the depth of their struggles. As Steven Gaffney asserts, “That’s why it’s so critical to show we are in every state, every county in the United States. There are constituents and they need to know we are here.” Speaking specifically in anticipation of the possible vote by the New York Senate, Sarah Kate Ellis remarked, “It is a mother's instinct to protect her children, and without the Marriage Equality Act, my children, and the thousands of children of gay and lesbian parents, will effectively be tossed into the deep end of the pool without life jackets. We need to validate and protect them.”