Beyond legal equality for LGBT families

The normative nursery-rhyme sequence of love, marriage, and a baby carriage represents a historically specific social construct, disrupted by heterosexual and LGBT people alike. After marriage equality, the legalities of gay and lesbian family formation remain complicated.

While married gay and lesbian couples may now petition to jointly adopt in almost every state, many states’ adoption statutes retain gendered language that is vulnerable to legal challenges. For example, states like Oklahoma will now have to decide whether the clause that “a husband and wife may jointly adopt,” written before same-sex marriage seemed possible, should now apply to all married couples. Religious exemption laws in states like Michigan also may stop some parents’ journeys to parenthood before they begin. Parents who opt to build families through assisted reproductive technology will find that surrogacy contracts are explicitly illegal in four states and legally precarious in many more. For lesbian couples, assisted conception has its own set of legal challenges, and second-parent adoptions remain necessary in most states for non-biological spouses.

Legal barriers are only part of the story. Over the last four years, I have been conducting ethnographic research with a gay fathers’ group in California. California has some of the most supportive policies in the country for LGBT families regarding foster care, adoption, and reproductive technology. In fact, Los Angeles County began actively recruiting gay and lesbian parents during the course of my research, motivated in part by the disproportionate number of LGBT youth in need of affirming homes. Yet my research has shown a need for support among prospective gay parents in California, beyond the legal issues that parents in other states may face.

Each option available to gay men and lesbians wanting to build a family requires a certain standard-of-living, and each comes with its own emotional risks and benefits. For example, the legal fees, medical costs, and service fees can range between $8,000 and $40,000 for private adoption and between $100,000 and $150,000 for surrogacy. Even public adoption, for which the state provides financial assistance, requires parents to take time-consuming parenting classes and pass invasive home inspections. As a result of these constraints, I’ve spoken to prospective dads who are worried that parenthood will never be a reality for them. Even among those that have achieved parenthood, some have endured incredibly painful separations from children they intended to adopt, while others have spent exorbitant amounts of money just to share the same biological connection to their children that most heterosexual couples take for granted.

Having the space to share information and guide each other through the complex and difficult processes of adoption and surrogacy make gay parenting groups a valuable resource. But the fact that gay parents have overcome financial and social obstacles to build their families is also reflected in the group’s demographics, which are disproportionately white and wealthy. This does not mean that white and wealthy gay men are the only ones with the desire to parent. In fact, the Williams Institute has found that the reality of gay parenting is much more racially diverse and economically disadvantaged than its most visible representations.

Occasionally, someone in the California gay fathers’ group will vocalize their frustration over not being able to conceive a child on their own, but this is usually framed as a product of biology, not financial or social inequality. While biology certainly plays a role in making parenthood more difficult for gay people, there are institutional changes that would make family formation more accessible. Public adoption, for example, remains among the most affordable options for gay and lesbian prospective parents, but its legal status is the most vulnerable to judicial interpretation in the post-marriage equality era. Family policies that openly affirm LGBT adoption and prevent private adoption agencies from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation would provide more children in need with homes, expand parenting options for gay men and lesbians, and save states money in the long run. Surrogacy grants, currently in their infancy, can also help mitigate costs for family formation via reproductive technology. Informational resources like gay parenting groups can also provide enormous help to families overwhelmed by the complexity of parenthood options. These reforms, in conjunction with protections against LGBT employment discrimination, housing protection, health care access, and homelessness, can help LGBT families achieve justice after marriage equality.

Megan Carroll is in the sociology program at the University of Southern California. She can be reached at, or follow her on Twitter at @MCsociology.


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