As the spotlight focusing on same-sex marriage in the United States continues to brighten, the issue is affecting more than the gay and lesbian couples desiring to obtain marriage licenses.
“The rapid progress we are seeing on this issue is changing how some gay and lesbian youth are envisioning their own futures,” says Diane Elze, Ph.D., an assistant professor of social work at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis.
“They are beginning to see marriage as an option for themselves — not just traveling to Vermont for a civil union, or having a commitment ceremony, or acquiring domestic partnership benefits from their employer, but some of them can now imagine themselves as future married persons,” says Elze, who conducts research with and provides counseling and other services to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth.
Legal prohibitions on same-sex marriage deny same-sex couples access to benefits and protections granted on the basis of marital status in hundreds of state and federal laws. These laws govern such areas as medical decision-making and hospital visitation, security for children, employee benefits for families, income and estate tax benefits, Social Security and disability benefits, inheritance, and immigration.
Elze considers the decisions of San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and Sandoval County Clerk Victoria Dunlap to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and the recent rulings of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in support of same-sex marriage to be “courageous actions and tremendous victories toward the goal of securing equal protection under the law for gay and lesbian people.”
Elze notes that many gay, lesbian and bisexual youth have disclosed their orientation to their parents, and their parents are often accepting. In one of Elze’s studies, over three-quarters (77.4 percent) had disclosed their sexual orientation to at least one biological or adoptive parent, and a majority of the disclosed youths perceived their mothers (77 percent) and fathers (66 percent) as supportive.
This study offers similar results to other studies conducted since the early ’90s, when research on gay, lesbian and bisexual youth began.
“Many of these parents can now dream about some day walking their child down the aisle,” says Elze. “They want what most parents want for their kids — to have them be healthy, happy and productive human beings. And if marriage is what their kids want, then they want marriage for their kids.”
Beyond parental support, a major issue for gay and lesbian youth is public support.
“Just this week, I was involved in a discussion with a group of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth, and it was very interesting to hear their differences of opinion about the current state of same-sex marriage,” says Elze. “Some questioned the strategy of pushing for marriage, fearing that we might lose even the right to civil unions and domestic partnership benefits. Others viewed civil unions as a separate and unequal system, and a ban on marriage as a violation of equal protection under the law.
“I was surprised that some were less than exuberant about the current steps forward in San Francisco and around the country. They expressed real concern about the backlash and how the backlash may affect them. They are affected by the public discourse and public policy.”
Elze notes that one positive outcome from the backlash is the growing vocal support.
“The backlash will be met with more visible support for same-sex marriage,” Elze says. “We need to be sure that gay and lesbian youth, many of whom are very vulnerable, know that there is much support for us out there. People will rise to the occasion. Already there have been powerful and supportive editorials and letters to the editor from self-identified heterosexuals.”
Elze says the movement for a federal constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage is worrisome, and looks to be an issue in the upcoming presidential election.
“The American people must decide if we want to debase our Constitution,” Elze says. “Until now, we have revised that document to expand rights, not to restrict rights. To now write blatant discrimination into our Constitution would truly be a national tragedy. What a shameful legacy to leave future generations.”