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Concord with Which Other Families?: Marriage Equality, Family Demographics, and Race

Lesbian and gay parents figured prominently in two decades of litigation concerning marriage equality, and Obergefell v. Hodges was no exception. Although only 16‐18% of same‐sex couples are raising children, about 69% of the plaintiff couples in the combined cases that made up Obergefell were parents. This disproportionate number was the culmination of an extraordinary transformation. For most of the past twenty years, opponents brandished the wellbeing of children as a weapon against marriage equality. But in recent years, and especially after the Supreme Court’s ruling in United States v. Windsor, marriage equality advocates claimed the offensive, using the wellbeing of children as an argument against same‐sex marriage bans. This essay explores that transformation and its underacknowledged racial dimension.

Support for a wide diversity of family forms and relationships was a tenet of the LGBT rights movement for four decades. During this same period, conservatives began blaming the decline of lifelong heterosexual marriage for a vast array of social problems. They explicitly targeted women raising children outside of marriage, a group that is disproportionately populated by women of color, for the greatest disapproval. They posited marriage, rather than a shift in public priorities, as the solution to poverty, violence, homelessness, illiteracy, crime, and other problems.

Initially, opposition to same‐sex marriage was part of the conservative canon. But over time, some conservatives revised their position to encompass support for same‐sex marriage precisely because it was marriage. To capture or solidify this support, LGBT advocates often either adopted or acquiesced in positions preferring childrearing by married parents—as long as same‐sex couples could marry.

Attributing greater social welfare to married families is the corollary to blaming unmarried women of color and their male partners for social ills. Any such stance is bound to alienate same‐sex couples of color, who raise children in much greater proportion than their same‐sex White counterparts, endure significantly greater economic disadvantages, and overwhelmingly live in the same neighborhoods as stigmatized unmarried parents of color. The wellbeing of those children is indelibly bound up with issues of racial and economic justice, which marriage equality cannot bring.