A few decades ago, openly gay and lesbian Americans did not have the legal right to raise their own biological children, much less adopt. Today, more states recognize same-sex parenting rights than same-sex marriage. Yet while we’ve had a contentious, two-decade-long national debate about same sex marriage, we’ve allowed same-sex couples to adopt and co-parent children with hardly any national discussion at all. Why the difference?
The answer, explains political scientist Alison Gash in a sneak preview from the upcoming May/June Washington Monthly, is that same-sex parenting rights have successfully advanced precisely because the legal wrangling over them has remained largely below the radar—a fact highlighted by Justice Scalia’s confusion about whether California even permits same-sex adoption during Supreme Court hearings on that state’s Proposition 8. Where marriage equality advocates have engaged in open political battles and brought high profile constitutional court cases, the fight for same-sex parental rights has mostly played out in obscure family courts, with few reporters present, and with advocates consciously delaying or avoiding high court review. This below-the-radar strategy created a foundation of “facts on the ground”—tens of thousands of intact gay and lesbian-headed families with children–well before most conservative activists were even aware the phenomenon existed, making their subsequent efforts to block same-sex parenting an uphill fight.