Strength in numbers

Laws and policies protecting sexual and gender minorities are changing so quickly, it’s enough to make my head spin. This past April, the California Department of Managed Health Care ordered California’s health plans to remove blanket exclusions of coverage based on gender identity or gender expression – a health and insurance disparity that transgender people have battled for decades. In mid-August, Gov. Jerry Brown signed the School Success and Opportunity Act (AB 1266) into law – and if you read last week’s blog post, you know how much reactivity there’s been in response to that law. In late August, the courts upheld a California law that was passed back in April of 2012 and then immediately challenged. That law, SB 1172, bans the practice of sexual orientation change therapy with minors.

And that’s just in California. On October 21st, New Jersey became the 14th state to legally recognize same-sex marriage. On Monday, the U. S. Senate is scheduled to vote on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which, if signed into law, would prohibit discrimination in hiring and employment on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. This is BIG STUFF. And that’s not even including the Supreme Court decisions that took place this past June.

These are the policy decisions that have made screaming headlines. They involve basic human rights – access to education, health care, jobs, and relationship recognition. Because of that, conservative and evangelical groups are fighting back HARD against these policies. They see where this is all going, and they desperately want to stop the train.

And yet, a “sleeper law,” if you will, was passed a few weeks ago in California. On October 4, Gov. Brown signed SB 274, an amendment to the California Family Code that allows children to have more than two legal parents.

More than two legal parents!!!

According to Sen. Mark Leno, who authored the bill, the law enables people in non-traditional families to share custody and financial responsibilities in raising their children. It clearly benefits parents who have divorced and remarried, regardless of the sexual orientation of the people involved. But it also benefits those who are polyamorous – relationships that openly and intentionally involve more than two people. And even though there have been a few negative reactions to this law (for example, the title of one conservatively-slanted article referred to Jerry Brown as “Governor Moonbeam”), there just hasn’t been a lot of buzz about it. Which surprises me. A LOT. 

If you think about it, the anti-LGBTQ contingent’s worst fears are being realized. Back in 2004, the Family Research Council (a conservative Christian organization) published a booklet titled The Slippery Slope of Same-Sex Marriage, which lays out the argument I’m sure you’re all familiar with. If you allow same-sex couples to get married, the argument goes, what’ll happen next? Will someone want to marry their horse? (This is the example given in the pamphlet.) Will families become like frat houses with revolving bedroom doors? Will people actually think that polyamory is okay? Where will we draw the line?

Well, from their standpoint, we’ve crossed that line. But there’s no Chicken Little running around, screaming that the world is coming to an end. Surprising, particularly since their whole argument against same-sex marriage hinged on the “slippery slope” concept.

I’ve been musing on this ever since I heard about this law. Why is everyone so quiet about this?  Ironically, I think it’s because the traditionalists have hung themselves with their own argument.

Consider this: Who do conservative groups consider to be a threat to the traditional family – besides “the homosexuals” and the “gender variants”?

Single mothers. 

In July 2012, the New York Times published a controversial article titled, “Two Classes, Divided by ‘I Do’,” which compares the experiences of two women, one of whom is married with children and financially stable, the other of whom is a single mother struggling to get by. Over 1,000 comments were logged in response to this article, including the following:

Marriage builds a strong foundation financially, spiritually, psychologically and physically. Getting married is one of the most important, life-changing, and powerful steps a person can take. It’s a powerful thing to build a family.

The family is the foundation of any society and these stats painfully demonstrate that the American family is crumbling upon the quicksand of birth without marriage.

I thought that the portraits of the families were very intriguing and basically confirmed what has been known for millennia: raising children without the assistance of a partner or extended family is extraordinarily difficult. 

Whether these commenters knew it or not (and I’m very aware that readers of the New York Times tend to lean liberal), they were echoing the “traditional marriage and families” argument, and reinforcing the idea that single mothers are a threat to society. In fact, a large body of research lends credibility to that argument as well. For example, the Fragile Families and Child Well-Being Study, a longitudinal study of single parents and their children conducted jointly through Princeton University and Columbia University, reveals a dizzying array of disturbing findings. According to findings from this data set, single parents tend to have less reliable social support networks. Single fathers who drink and who experience parenting stress are at risk for neglecting their children. Single mothers who work nights tend to have children with higher levels of aggressive behavior, as well as symptoms of anxiety and depression. If single mothers are depressed (which is not uncommon), their children are at risk for long-term impaired cognitive, behavioral, and health outcomes. Single parenting coupled with economic stress is associated with a higher frequency of spanking – and a greater likelihood of being contacted by Child Protective Services.

These findings are not pretty. Contrary to what the “traditional family values” people say, the researchers are clear that it’s not because single parents are bad parents. In fact, many single parents are excellent parents, but they lack the individual and institutional support that married couples take for granted. But traditionalists take this data and use it as a weapon, marking their singledom as a weakness.

The New York Times article made a telling statement, in reference to the financially stable married couple who was profiled: “The secret to their success resides in part in old-fashioned math: strength in numbers.”

Strength in numbers. If you’re a traditionalist who believes that single parents are the bane of society, and you also believe that healthy and successful families are a team effort, then how do you argue with SB 274?

You don’t. I think that’s why this law has been such a sleeper.

A new book is coming out later this month titled The Polyamorists Next Door: Inside Multiple Partner Relationships and Families. The author, Elisabeth Sheff, is a researcher who has conducted a longitudinal study of polyamorous families and their children for over a decade. For those families who live in California, SB 274 validates and gives leverage to their strength in numbers.

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Filed under children, gender nonconformity, health, homophobia, human rights, LGBT families, polyamory, psychological research, relationships, religion, same-sex marriage, transgender

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