Jurisprudence

Our Parents Are Gay. Are Our Families Good Enough for the Supreme Court?

Man wearing a black mask and shirt with sunglasses on his head drapes holds a rainbow flag above his head in front of the Supreme Court.
Jim Watson/Getty Images

We grew up in a world that was not ready for families like the ones in which we were raised. On Wednesday, the justices of the Supreme Court will consider whether that’s still true.

We are among the first generation of children raised by two gay dads or two lesbian moms. Before we had learned to read, we learned our families were different—even despised by some. But the gay slurs, hostile glares, and bullying paled in comparison with the realization that our government did not stand behind us and our families—forbidding marriage and curbing parental rights, passing state constitutional amendments expressly denying our parents equal protection, and even criminalizing their sexual relationships.

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Over the past two decades, the Supreme Court struck down these discriminatory laws and policies. But the question of whether our families fully belong is again before the court. On Wednesday, the court will hear arguments in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, a case testing whether discrimination against LGBTQ would-be adopters can be justified on religious grounds. Catholic Social Services, a religiously affiliated child placing agency that refuses to work with same-sex couples, is asking the court to require Philadelphia to work with and fund it—even though Philadelphia otherwise requires that city-sponsored foster agencies deal with prospective families on a nondiscriminatory basis.

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If the court rules in favor of Catholic Social Services, it will send a clear message to people like us: that our parents are not good enough and our families are not worthy of the respect other families receive. Anyone is free to hold that view, but no appeal to religion should allow—much less require—our government to endorse it.

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We fear that this case could become the first salvo in a series of reactionary decisions from a newly reinforced conservative majority that would undermine the LGBTQ community’s hard-fought victories. Just five years ago, these victories culminated in Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges, which declared that same-sex couples had a constitutional right to marriage. But two of the justices in the majority in Obergefell, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Kennedy himself, have been replaced by Trump appointees: Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.

Obergefell was a watershed moment not only for LGBTQ people but also for their children. In sweeping language, Kennedy declared that our parents were as deserving as anyone of “love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and marriage.” Kennedy acknowledged that without the expressive legitimacy marriage provides to a family, children of same-sex parents frequently “suffer the stigma of knowing their families are somehow lesser.”

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Obergefell represents more than the right to marriage: Kennedy’s language seemed to promise full acceptance of same-sex families into society on equal terms. Now, as the court tilts to the right and sitting justices urge the court to overturn Obergefell, this promise is imperiled, starting with this case.

Fulton represents more than a potential legal asterisk to Obergefell. At stake is the recognition that our parents are as fit to have a family, as capable of parenting, and as entitled to the law’s equal protection as anyone else. More than that, a holding for Fulton would make it much harder for families like the ones in which we grew up to form in the first place.

For many LGBTQ people (particularly those of fewer means), adoption and foster agencies are the gatekeepers who decide whether they get to form a family at all. Barrett’s first opinion could be deciding this case by articulating broad religious exemptions to nondiscrimination policies and resurrecting barriers to same-sex couples who wish to have a family.

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The significance of the case is obscured by the narrow legal question before the court: whether the Constitution requires cities and states to provide public funds to foster care agencies that refuse to work with parents like we each have. Though the adoption agency argues this is a matter of its First Amendment right to freedom of speech and religion, the case is really about whether those values outweigh the government’s obligation to treat our families equally. The question is, and has always been, whether our families are worthy of robust legal protection or not.

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While Kennedy has left the bench, a question he posed during the oral arguments of Hollingsworth v. Perry, regarding the children of LGBTQ parents, hangs over Fulton: “the voice of those children is important in this case, don’t you think?”

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We hope the court hears our voices now when we ask them to recognize our families and uphold the right of same-sex couples to create their own. Proponents of the adoption agency do not think our parents are fit to have families. We know they are wrong.

Our parents were just as good as any: They read to us every night, taught us to swim, and tied our shoelaces. They showed us how to be brave when the world was unkind. They supported us so much that now we are lucky enough to study the law and, hopefully, advocate for the next generation of children fortunate enough to have families like ours.

If the nation’s highest court says that religious objections require Philadelphia and other cities and states to authorize discrimination against our families, it does so in spite of our voices and the voices of millions of other children being raised by LGBTQ families. Most shamefully, it would deny countless children the blessing of parents who want more than anything to love them as our parents have loved us.

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