How Inequality Harms Children of LGBT Parents

6 years ago

Children with LGBT parents face numerous legal and social inequalities, according to a major new report from several leading LGBT, children’s welfare, and social service organizations. Even for those who support LGBT equality, the facts may surprise you.

First, an estimated two million children are being raised by LGBT parents. Same-sex couples with children live almost everywhere, in 96% of U.S. counties. (Not all LGBT parents are part of a same-sex couple, of course, but researchers don’t yet have full demographic data on every type of LGBT family.) And they don’t all cluster in gay meccas like New York and San Francisco -- same-sex couples living in the South are most likely to be raising children. In fact, Mississippi has the largest percentage of same-sex couples raising children -- even though Mississippi is the only state with an explicit prohibition on joint adoption by same-sex couples. LGBT families are also more racially and ethnically diverse than the population as a whole.

Photo by Jason Rogers.

LGBT families are twice as likely to be living in poverty as married, opposite-sex parents with children – while children’s access to federal and state safety net programs (including child care and early childhood education assistance) is tied to family structure, rather than need. For example, the report says, if only one member of a same-sex couple is able to establish a legal relationship with their child, most safety-net programs would see the family as a two-person household, not a three-person one. If the non-legal parent has a very low income, the family might not receive needed assistance, or would not receive the amount that a three-person family otherwise would. (Benefits increase with family size.)

Alternatively, of course, if the non-legal parent has much more income than the legal parent, but isn’t counted in the calculations, the legal parent and child might qualify for benefits that they wouldn’t otherwise qualify for – which is not only unfair to others, but means the family must sometimes choose between the economic benefit and establishing legal ties.

And a lack of legal ties to one parent can affect whether the parent is able to make emergency medical decisions for the child, can separate children from a loving parent in cases of divorce or death, and can deny children Social Security survivor benefits or inheritance when a parent dies. Even when one state recognizes a non-biological/non-adoptive parent’s ties to her or his children, that recognition may be in jeopardy if the family crosses state lines for vacation, visiting relatives, or for a job relocation.

Only 17 states plus the District of Columbia permit joint adoptions by same-sex couples statewide. Five states have laws prohibiting it (Louisiana, Michigan, Mississipi, North Carolina, and Utah). In other states, the law is unclear, and different jurisdictions within the state may act in different ways. With 115,000 children awaiting adoption across the country, and an estimated two million LGB people interested in adoption, these laws only serve to deny children access to permanent homes.

The report notes, too, that “Decades of social science research show that children of gay and lesbian parents grow up to be as healthy, happy and well-adjusted as their peers. All major child health and welfare organizations support parenting and adoption by gay and lesbian parents.”

More compelling than the bare facts of the report, however, are the sidebar stories of actual LGBT families who have faced inequalities – children being taken from one parent after another parent's death, or being denied visitation with one parent after divorce; families torn apart by immigration laws.

What can we do about this? Marriage equality is part of the solution – and the one that makes the most headlines – but it is not the full answer. The report recommends:

  • Legally recognize LGBT families via parental recognition laws at the state level, marriage for gay and lesbian couples, and pathways to immigration and citizenship for binational LGBT families.
  • Provide equal access to government-based economic protections such as safety net programs.
  • Provide LGBT families and their children with equal access to health care and health insurance, as well as medical decision-making ability.
  • Protect LGBT families with non-discrimination laws and anti-bullying policies.
  • Expand research and data collection on LGBT families.

Read more about the “All Children Matter: How Legal and Social Inequalities Hurt LGBT Families” report at (Report prepared by the Center for American Progress, the Family Equality Council, and the Movement Advancement Project, in partnership with COLAGE, The Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, and the National Association of Social Workers, with a foreword by the Child Welfare League of America.)

In the meantime, I’m off to put the finishing touches on our son’s Halloween costume. Yup – costume making, trick-or-treating, worrying about how he’ll get to sleep after the sugar high tonight. That’s how different my “lifestyle” is from most non-LGBT families – in other words, not much. Now if only our son could grow up knowing that his family has the same rights and responsibilities as others. If we want to teach children to value our country's tradition of democracy and equality, we must ensure it is equal for all families. There is work left to do, and the “All Children Matter” report helps show the way.

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