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Serena Yuan Volpp, M.D.

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Marriage Equality: Not Just For Today's Adults

Posted: 11/27/09 10:06 AM ET

The other day, my friend Sandra and her daughter Maya were talking about growing up. Sandra told her daughter, "Honey, when you grow up, I know you'll find a nice boy to marry who will love you." Maya, who is eight years old, replied, "But Mom, I could marry a girl."

Sandra stood corrected. They live in Massachusetts. Same-sex marriage has been legal in Massachusetts for over five years now, and the law has begun to affect the way children and adolescents are able to envision their domestic futures. Of course, Maya is not old enough to understand what the concepts of heterosexuality and homosexuality really mean. Whether or not she herself grows up to be gay, she already has a wider view of the world's possibilities than do many of the grown-ups around her.

When do kids become aware that they are gay or lesbian? Kids who grow up to be gay don't wake up one day at age 12 or 13 and say, "Hey, I'm gay!" Recognizing one's own sexuality is a long and often challenging process. When kids grow up in a world that assumes everyone will grow up to be heterosexual, those kids who grow up to be gay, lesbian, or bisexual face extra developmental challenges. Kids taunt each other on the playground with the word "faggot" without fully understanding or thinking about what that word means. That affects a kid's self esteem when -- sometimes years later -- he connects that word, and the pain of being teased, with sexual or romantic feelings he or she has for someone of the same sex.

That point is underscored by a study published earlier this year in the medical journal Pediatrics, which helped to illustrate the relationship between lack of acceptance and harm to mental health. The research showed that lesbian, gay and bisexual adolescents growing up in families who did not accept them as gay were nine times more likely to feel suicidal, five and a half times more likely to be depressed, and three and a half times more likely to use illegal drugs compared to kids whose families were more accepting.

Marriage equality can change society so that peers -- and parents -- can, if not embrace, accept homosexuality as part of the world in which we live. Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, Iowa, and New Hampshire now allow same-sex marriage. Same-sex marriage laws are on the table in New Jersey, New York, and the District of Columbia. Despite the recent loss in Maine, the issue continues to move forward.

To be sure, some people may cringe at the thought of kids growing up more accepting of homosexuality. Might this tolerance lead to more gay and lesbian adults in the future? Research does not support such ideas.

Numerous studies of children growing up with same-sex parents have concluded that these children are no more likely to grow up to be gay or lesbian than are children raised by heterosexual parents. What they are more likely to be is open and accepting of the possibility of homosexuality or bisexuality in themselves or others. And the recent study in Pediatrics suggests that this tolerance will be good for the mental health of the gay, lesbian, and bisexual friends and family members that these children will surely encounter.

Same-sex marriage laws will benefit not only adults in committed relationships today, but also kids who don't yet know what being gay, lesbian, or bisexual means. Kids who grow up to be gay adults will have the chance to grow up in a world that accepts them as full members, and their straight friends, family members, co-workers, and neighbors will be more prepared to live in an ever-more diverse world.