Gay Families Raising Kids in Southeast Michigan
Same-sex marriage – and parenting – can be a controversial civil rights topic. But what's the experience really like, in reality? Here, local families share how it's gotten better – and worse.
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"It is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married."
And with that simple sentence, President Obama made history, becoming the first sitting president to state his support of gay marriage and, by extension, gay families. In fact, it was his experience knowing gay parents who are raising friends of his daughters that inspired his "evolution" on the topic, he said.
"Malia and Sasha, it wouldn't dawn on them that somehow their friends' parents would be treated differently," Obama said in a televised interview last month. "It wouldn't make sense to them. And frankly, that's the kind of thinking that prompts a change in perspective."
A 2011 Gallup poll showed 53 percent of Americans in favor of gay marriage and 45 percent opposed. And while that's a pretty even split, the shift has been significant. Just 15 years before, in 1996, the poll found 27 percent in favor and 68 percent opposed. Approval for gay marriage has increased at least 1 percent a year up through 2009.
In 2010, support started increasing at a rate of 5 percent per year. Experts say that knowing gay families and gay people as neighbors, friends and co-workers – just like President Obama – has been a huge contributor to a growing acceptance of same-sex couples and gay parents. And yet gay parents still struggle – for legal recognition and parental rights and to gain acceptance in their communities.
Living without legal safety nets
Imagine that you're married with kids, but your spouse isn't the legal parent of the children you raise together – and, if you die, your kids could be taken from your home and put into foster care.
That's exactly the situation faced by many families headed by gays and lesbians. According to 2010 census data, 4,884 same-sex couples are raising children in Michigan; however, few legal protections exist for these families – protections heterosexual couples take for granted, such as having access to their partner's work-provided health benefits, the right to be considered their children's legal parent in the event of an emergency, or even a divorce.
"If something happens to the one legal parent, the kids are legally orphans," says Kathleen LaTosch, who is raising two boys with her partner, Jennifer, and is a consultant to nonprofits on diversity, inclusion and cultural competency.
"We're also seeing same-sex couples who split up, and if the couple is without a legal adoption the other parent won't be able to see their kids, and there is no child support involved, and no legal contract between the couple – sometimes the legal parent will terminate any relationship those parents have with their children."
Michigan has a law banning adoption by unmarried couples – gay or straight. Only single people and married couples can legally adopt in Michigan. As such, in unmarried unions, only one person is legally recognized as the child's parent, leaving the "other" parent's role and responsibility to the child unsettled in the event of death or break-up.
That deeply affects families like Jenny Stanczyk and her wife, Cheryl. They have been together for eight years and Jenny helped raise Cheryl's two daughters from a previous relationship. A few years ago, they decided they were not done being parents and became foster parents to two girls, now 8 and 10 years old, who they have since adopted.
Their agency reassured them that they would be able to adopt the girls if they wanted to. However, when it came time to adopt, only Jenny could do so, a decision they made because Jenny had health insurance through her job that would cover the girls.
"We had to let the kids know only I was going to be able to adopt them, and they wanted to know why can't Cheryl adopt them, too," Stanczyk says. "We had to tell them that that's the way the laws are."