There’s a post by Mombian up at the Washington Post this morning that’s made me think again about the connections drawn between parenthood and marriage. It’s worth a read and worth some thought.
The post is essentially an argument about the importance of marriage rights for children of lesbian and gay couples. It’s an equation that troubles me a little for a couple of reasons. I’ve written frequently about the ways in which the question of access to marriage for same-sex couples has become interwoven with the well-being of children. It is still, however, momentarily startling to me to see the power people grant to law in their lives.
I don’t mean to sound like a total skeptic about the importance of law. It should be clear, for example, that I believe legal recognition of a person’s status as a parent is absolutely critical. But once a child has two legally recognized parents, why is it so important that the state also validate the relationship between the parents? What is added by legal recognition of the parents relationship with each other.
It’s quite clear that the legal recognition of the relationship between the parents doesn’t guarantee anything about the permanence or health of that relationship. Consider Governor Sanford or Senator Ensign. Both are married–their marriages recognized in every state in the country. Neither of those marriages has the attributes most aspire to in long-term committed relationships.
At the same time, there are countless admirable long-term relationships that have no legal recognition. While having the substantive legal rights marriage brings is doubtless valuable, I resist equating marriage with legitimacy. Human relationships are valuable and should be valued because of their nature, not because of the label placed upon them. That’s the whole point, to my mind, of doctrines like de facto or functional parent. We should try to see things for what they are, not for what the law calls them.
I see the problem of being treated as a second-class citizen, of course. Slaves were not permitted to marry and the message there was clear–the relationships were not entitled to any respect. But I am reluctant to say that the only response should be to seek the right to invoke “marriage” as the name we use. On some level, I’d prefer to teach my children that what matters is the essence of things and not the legal labels.
I worry, too, about setting the two-married-parent family as the gold standard for child-rearing. Where does that leave single parents, whether single by choice or by happenstance?
No child should be stigmatized or traumatized because his or her family is treated as a second-class family. But there are two fundamental ways around that problem. One is to allow lesbian and gay couples to marry. This will allow more families into the first-class enclosure, but it will leave any number of non-conforming families (some of the lesbian and gay families, too) out. Alternatively, one could insist that the definition of first-class families be delinked from marriage. I’m far more inclined to go this latter course, even if it seems much more difficult.