Gay marriage, politics, and the ivory tower

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Gay marriage, politics, and the ivory tower

Sociologists research the impact of same-sex marriage on children and families

by Alison Wynn on Thursday, September 26, 2013 - 9:29am

image of protesterThe United States has witnessed a dramatic transformation on the subject of gay marriage over the last decade. The question of whether same-sex couples should be permitted to marry has worked its way through state and federal courts. While same-sex marriage was not legal in any U.S. state 10 years ago, it is now legal in 13 states and Washington, D.C.

On June 26 of this year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which prohibited same-sex marriage, was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court also upheld a lower court’s decision overturning Proposition 8, another law prohibiting same-sex marriage in the state of California. These historic decisions coincide with a wave of state-level enactments: three states have legalized same-sex marriage this year alone.  

As one of the most significant and dynamic civil rights issues of our time, same-sex marriage has also elicited a wide variety of academic studies. Philip Cohen, Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland, spoke at Stanford in spring 2013 about research examining the effects of same-sex marriage on children and families. One such study by Mark Regnerus generated extensive controversy by claiming that same-sex marriage has an adverse effect on children. Other scholars have since discredited this research.

Gender News’ Alison Wynn asked Cohen to comment on current events, such as the recent Supreme Court rulings, and share his perspective on the role of academia in political debates.

Gender News: What role did academic research play in the Supreme Court decisions about DOMA and Prop 8?

Cohen: There was a very active network of people submitting research briefs to the Supreme Court about these decisions. The American Sociological Association submitted an amicus brief clarifying that there is no substantial evidence of harm caused to the children of gay and lesbian couples… On the other side, there were various briefs asserting that children of gay and lesbian couples face greater risks… Such briefs urged the court to hold off on granting legal approval to same-sex marriage rights.

Gender News: Now that the Supreme Court has issued its rulings on DOMA and Prop 8, how have these rulings changed the way we think about same-sex marriage in this country?

...(the) DOMA decision established that taking away the benefits of such marriages—if they are granted by states—does unjustified harm to those couples.

Cohen: I think it is too early to say how the Supreme Court decisions will affect popular discourse or public opinion. However, the court turned the issue upside-down in a very important way, in the decision written by Justice Kennedy. I wrote about this in my essay for the Atlantic the date of the decision.

When it overturned the federal Defense of Marriage Act, the Supreme Court didn’t say gay and lesbian couples have a right to marry. But the decision established that taking away the benefits of such marriages—if they are granted by states—does unjustified harm to those couples. Under DOMA, wrote Kennedy, “same-sex married couples have their lives burdened, by reason of government decree, in visible and public ways,” which he went on to list in detail—from healthcare and bankruptcy protection to the right to be buried in veterans’ cemeteries.

One of the most important aspects of the decision is what it says about the children of same-sex couples. The defenders of DOMA tried to argue that same-sex marriage is bad for children. But the majority accepted Justice Kennedy's argument that denying marriage hurts the children of these couples. DOMA, wrote Kennedy, “humiliates tens of thousands of children now being raised by same-sex couples.”

Image of men in loveGender News: What does the current research say about same-sex marriage, especially its impact on children and families?

Cohen: That is not a simple question. Children and families are affected by economic inequality, political inequality, social stigma, discrimination, and many other factors. Because of the specific demands of the recent cases, researchers engaged the question of whether there was any harm, or even any “difference,” between the children of gay and lesbian parents and the children of straight parents. But as a research agenda, that is not a fruitful general question [because it is only one of many factors that children experience at any given time]. There are other important, related questions, such as assessing the effect of social stigma, gender differences, legal status, and family dynamics on children and adults in different situations. The sexual orientation and living arrangements of parents is one of many factors that may be relevant.

Gender News: As same-sex marriage becomes institutionalized in more states, what kinds of changes can we expect to see in family structure?

The general direction of social change is toward increasing diversity in family form and structure... We need universal principles of protection and equality that can traverse diverse family situations.

Cohen: Again, it is too early to say. The general direction of social change is toward increasing diversity in family form and structure. The law and other institutions are catching up to this…but also will inevitably have to come to grips with the fact that we cannot legislate for every situation in advance. We need universal principles of protection and equality that can traverse diverse family situations, and that is not easily arrived at. My forecast is for continued complication and conflict!

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Facts:

  • While same-sex marriage was not legal in any U.S. state 10 years ago, it is now legal in 13 states and Washington, D.C.
  • Three states have legalized same-sex marriage this year alone. 

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Philip Cohen spoke on "Gay Marriage, the Supreme Court, and the Politics of Sociology," at an event sponsored by the Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research and co-sponsored by the Center for the Study of Poverty and Inequality, the Program in Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, and Queer Events and Services Team (QUEST).

Philip N. Cohen
Philip N. Cohen
Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland

Philip N. Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland at College Park, where he teaches sociology of the family and social inequality, and writes the blog Family Inequality. He has published research in leading sociology and demography journals on family structure and the gender division of labor, children's wellbeing, labor market inequality by race and gender, and demographic measurement. He is completing work on a textbook called The Family: Diversity, Inequality and Social Change.

Alison Wynn
Alison Wynn
Graduate Student, Department of Sociology

Alison Wynn is a Sociology PhD student at Stanford. She is studying the social psychology of gender inequality in organizations. Prior to graduate school, Alison received her BA in English from Duke University and worked as a Human Capital Analyst with Deloitte Consulting for 2 years. She is a member of the Clayman Institute student writing team. Wynn received the 2013 Myra Strober writing prize for her Gender News article "Seeing through the glass ceiling."