Children at heart of marriage amendment debate, partisans say

Uniting All Families family picnic
Mary Gustafson holds up a letter that her 9-year-old son Carter Gustafson, right, wrote urging Minnesotans to vote no on the proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012 during an event, Uniting All Families, at Lynnhurst Park in Minneapolis. Joining Gustafson at the podium was her partner Jenny Simmonds and their younger son Charlie Gustafson, 6.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

How children do growing up in gay or lesbian families is one question at the heart of Minnesota's debate over the proposed marriage amendment.

Citing research they say backs their claims, amendment proponents say children raised by same-sex couples don't fare as well as those raised by their married mothers and fathers. Opponents of the measure, citing competing research, dispute those claims.

Zach Wahls, an Iowa man who was raised by two mothers, and an Internet celebrity for his speech to the Iowa Legislature last year, is making a statewide tour with Minnesotans United for All Families this week, the main group working to defeat the amendment. He's also speaking at the Democratic National Convention this evening.

At the playground at Lynnhurst Park in Minneapolis, Wahls, 21, joined mothers and children to talk about how the amendment would hurt families.

"I know what it's like to grow up in a state that tells you that your parents' relationship isn't a real relationship. That your family isn't a real family," Wahls said. "That's why I'm in Minnesota, to share that experience. To help Minnesotans understand that at the end of the day... it's love that makes a family."

Wahls delivered that message to the Iowa House of Representatives in 2011 in a three-minute speech that has now been viewed more than two million times on YouTube. His mothers wed in 2009 when Iowa legalized same-sex marriage.

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Last week the Minnesota Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics joined the Minnesotans United coalition. The board, which represents more than 900 pediatricians, said the amendment would demean same-gender parents, expose gay teens to more bullying, and goes against decades of research.

A day later, Minnesota for Marriage, the main group working to pass the amendment, released a new "Marriage Minute" video on its website. The video, narrated by former KSTP news anchor Kalley Yanta, took direct aim at the claim that children raised in gay and lesbian families do just as well.

In the video, Yanta says, "A major theme of our campaign is that children do best when raised by their married mother and father. Today we'll look at important new research that shows that children raised by a parent who has had a same-sex relationship are significantly worse off than those raised by their traditionally married parents."

Yanta ticked off the negative outcomes cited in the University of Texas study:

"They are ten-times more likely to have been touched sexually by an adult. Four-times more likely to have been forced to have sex against their will. Thirty percent less likely to identify themselves as being heterosexual."

The list continued with negative outcomes ranging from more reliance on public assistance to more thoughts of suicide.

The Texas study has been criticized for its methodology and backing from a conservative funder. Most children in the study raised by a parent who had a same-sex relationship also experienced the divorce of their biological parents, had a parent come out as gay, and paired up with a new partner — they had more upheaval than the kids they were compared to who grew up in married, intact families.

The study's author, Mark Regnerus, declined to be interviewed for this story.

University of Minnesota Family Social Science professor Bill Doherty has tracked the literature on kids growing up in gay and lesbian families for 15 years. He said the Regnerus study has limitations, as do many studies in this relatively new area of research.

"The study is not in any way definitive enough to be used in a public policy forum to say we should ban same-sex marriage," Doherty said. "Nor, do I believe that the other literature that has not found differences is powerful enough to conclude that denying marriage will be bad for kids."

Doherty says the science isn't conclusive when it comes to the welfare of kids and the marriage amendment. Quality research and careful comparisons of children born into families, gay, straight, married or unmarried will take time, and that's something voters don't have much of before election day.