Family Matters

How the Gay-Marriage Victories Are (Slowly) Transforming the Notion of Family

Newly passed laws allowing gay marriage mean more children will have a broader view of what it means to be a family

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Rob Melnychuk / Digital Vision / Getty Images

On Wednesday, Colleen Ozolitis, and her wife, Lee Ann Martinson, drove together to their son’s Seattle preschool to share their family’s good news.

“We’re going to tell him we won and that all this work we’ve done means that in Washington, his moms can get married,” says Ozolitis, who served as the statewide volunteer coordinator for Washington United for Marriage, which led this state’s effort to get same-sex marriage approved. “I think he’ll understand.”

(MORE: New Study: Gay Parents = Great Kids)

With Maine and Maryland becoming the first states to approve gay marriage by popular vote on Tuesday and Washington poised to join them — as of Wednesday night, campaigners had declared victory though officials had yet to certify the vote — the nuclear-family stereotype of mom and dad and their brood may soon be outdated.

The victory in those three states mean nine states and the District of Columbia now allow same sex couples to legally wed; a sign, those couples hope, that attitudes toward what constitutes a family are evolving. Since 1998, initiatives to recognize gay marriage had failed in 32 states. But increasingly, there’s a sense that there isn’t one right way to go about living and loving.

(MORE: My Two Moms‘ Zach Wahls: Teen Advocate for Gay Marriage Goes from YouTube Sensation to Author)

Callum Martinson, who is 5, has never seemed to mind being the only kid in his class with gay parents. “We’ve always taught our son that there are lots of different ways to make families,” says Ozolitis. “One mom, two moms, one dad, two dads, one mom and one dad…families can look different ways and have different-colored skin.”

When Callum would spot signs supporting the gay-marriage campaign around town, he’d say, “Look, Mom, those people understand.” Says Ozolitis: “This victory means more and more people do understand that this is about love and family. The polls show that this is definitely the direction we’re heading.”

On Nov. 1, five days before the election, President Obama underscored that sentiment. He wrote a letter to 10-year-old Sophia Bailey Klugh, who’d sent him a handwritten note of appreciation for his support of gay marriage. Sophia told the President:

I am so glad that you agree two men can love each other because I have two dads and they love each other, but at school kids think that it’s gross and weird, but it really hurts my heart and feelings.

He responded:

In America, no two families look the same. We celebrate this diversity. And we recognize that whether you have two dads or one mom what matters above all is the love we show one another.

As gay marriage becomes more institutionalized, the concept is bound to raise fewer eyebrows. “These families have a new visibility,” says Dr. Nanette Gartrell, a visiting scholar at the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law. It wasn’t like that 26 years ago when Gartrell launched what is now the longest-running study of lesbian families.

(MORENew Volleys in the Gay Parenting Wars)

“At that time in 1986 there was much more discrimination,” she says. “We wanted to inform people in a scientific and rigorous way about this particular kind of family experience and how the kids do.” Last week, she released her latest report, which tracks the teenage children of lesbian mothers and asks them to assess their upbringing in their own words. The research, published in the Journal of Homosexuality, found that the teens had grades averaging between A to B+ and most planned to attend college. When asked “has your mother been a good role model?” 93% said yes. “That is a really phenomenal rate of admiration,” says Gartrell.

In Washington, where I live, the gay-marriage law is expected to go into effect Dec. 6, effectively making the terms “husband” and “wife” gender-neutral. Those revamped definitions will take a little getting used to, but as I tell my kids, if we all looked/acted/dressed the same, life would be pretty boring.

On Election Day, my daughter came home from school and told me with a 5-year-old’s incredulousness what she’d learned in school: once upon a time, women and black people couldn’t vote.

In the future, kids may be just as surprised to learn that once upon a time, government regulated who could marry and live happily ever after.