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The Defeat of DOMA Can Help Us Rethink Other Family Policies Too

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Queer families aren't the only ones waiting for more child-supportive policies in America.

My son didn't feel comfortable discussing his queer parents in school because kids can be mean. And who knows whether the adults will hold difference against you too. Because I was legally married to my son's gay dad and we made family in many of the same ways that heterosexual couples do, we received many of the privileges of marriage granted by law. That helped normalize our family, but my son is not stupid. Even in elementary school, he didn't say too much about our family. Social progress is slower, but legal marriage will help our kids assert their right to live openly. What good news.

But we weren't the only ones waiting for more child-supportive policies in America. Kids with parents who are incarcerated don't always talk about the long days they spend trying to visit a loved one who may be locked up far from home. Kids with parents who don't live or work in the U.S. legally learn early not to share too much. Sometimes grandparents or aunts and uncles raise children who don't speak freely about their families. Queer families know the challenges that our children have faced, and now that our rights and abilities are shifting, we can use what we know to help other people's kids too.

The rights and benefits associated with marriage and child raising have changed numerous times over the course of American history. In 1967, for instance, interracial marriage became legal throughout the United States for the first time. Children born to interracial couples benefited both materially and socially. States have different incentives and disincentives for certain family structures, in addition to federal child tax credits. Our laws and policies related to relationships and child raising change along with public opinion, and some kids have unequal opportunities as a result.

The reality is that the government supports some family structures and not others, despite the fact that children are produced and nurtured in diverse situations. Some involve marriage; others don't. Some are gay, and some are straight. Some are intergenerational. Some have single or multiple adult incomes. The diversity of the American family is almost limitless. Nevertheless, we often forget that family policies are a human creation, not extensions of a natural or religious order. In a nation committed to a theoretical separation between church and state, we can consciously move toward that actual separation rather than simply applying Judeo-Christian values to public policies affecting children. With attention, we can attend to the needs of all children instead of privileging some based on the acceptability of their parents' relationships. The defeat of DOMA is an opportunity to examine how a government either supports or thwarts the well-being of specific citizens.

The United States is still in recovery from a history in which our government explicitly did not support the fair opportunities of all citizens. We've done well to abolish slavery and extend the vote to all adults (though voting rights remain in question). Women's rights continue to affect children's well-being. Thankfully, American women can now hold and control property, and recent steps such as the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 are moving us closer to gender pay equity. Some Americans are celebrating marriage equality, and others are lamenting the change. Every change was met with opposition, however. We enjoy a nation that values a theoretical commitment to equal rights for all citizens. We can take this historical opportunity, the defeat of DOMA, to look seriously at how public policies create or withhold fair chances for all children in America. Yes, the children of queer parents deserve to live open, well-supported lives. And we're not the only ones.

If we broaden our discussions about how American family policies support children, we will find ourselves in dialogue about family leave, sick leave and vacation time. That dialogue will be more focused on how policies affect real kids than on conflicting ideologies. We'll examine the adequacy of minimum wage in America, along with how families manage the costs of health care and child care. We'll also have realistic discussions about public welfare programs, hunger and homelessness among children and their parents. We'll apply clear thinking and future planning to policies affecting the children of immigrants who will grow up to contribute to American life and culture. We'll examine how unequal public allocations for public schools are creating unequal opportunities for future success.

We are a nation of extremely talented social creators, and we're capable of crafting a more reliable platform from which everyone's children can build a brighter future for the United States. We're capable of encouraging greater civic participation from all Americans. The defeat of DOMA is a good start in ensuring that everyone's children are well supported and have a strong foundation for success. Now we have an opportunity to expand our discussions of family support and social policies toward fairness for all.