Family values redefined: Children of same-sex parents enter the battle for marriage equality

A new voice has crept into the same-sex marriage debate.

Across the country and in California, an increasing number of children of gay and lesbian parents are finding their voices in courtrooms, newspapers and public demonstrations.

A 10-year-old took the stand in a December court case in New Jersey; an 11-year-old signed on as a co-plaintiff in the Iowa Supreme Court case that ultimately legalized marriage in that state.

“The only experts about what it’s like to have LGBTQ parents are those who have them,” said Meredith Fenton, a Jewish resident of Oakland and the daughter of two lesbians.

“Our stories are important for bringing the real face to the debate,” she added. “It helps people understand that the issue is bigger than the gay couple.”

This perspective — from the children of same-sex parents — is turning the marriage equality movement on its head, reshaping the narrative landscape from one about couples to one about families.

“Children of LGBT parents have a sense of authority you can’t get elsewhere,” said Margee Churchon, whose two mothers live in Sacramento, where she grew up.

Churchon, 22, and Fenton, 33, are two of the many young Jewish adults and teenagers in the Bay Area who have become active and visible advocates in the gay marriage debate and the campaign for gay rights.

Shira Kogan (clockwise from left) with her brother Yonatan Kogan, mothers Suzanne Ezrre and Daphne Haas-Kogan, and sister Maetal Kogan.

The inclusion of the children of same-sex partners is a new tactic in a burgeoning fight to wrest the phrase “family values” out of the control of conservatives. For years, opponents of same-sex marriages have argued — among other things — that children in more traditional nuclear families would be harmed if schools taught that gay and straight relationships were equal.

For example, as part of the Proposition 8 campaign in 2008, supporters of the ballot proposition aired commercials that suggested families with one mom plus one dad were more legitimate and moral than same-sex parents — and that legalizing gay marriage would require public schools to teach young children about gay and lesbian relationships.

The commercials were effective. Proposition 8 passed 52 to 48 percent, restricting California’s definition of marriage to heterosexual couples.

The children of these couples were devastated.

“As hard as I tried to ignore it, I could not help feeling that the measure was an attack on my family,” said Shira Kogan, a Jewish 17-year-old from San Francisco and a budding activist for marriage equality and LGBT rights.

Kogan’s parents divorced in 2004 when Shira’s mom realized she was a lesbian. Kogan’s father has since remarried.

“My dad can marry the woman he loves, and my mom wants to do the exact same thing, but she [legally] can’t,” Kogan said. “It doesn’t even make sense. It’s unfair. It’s unjust.”

There are 90,000 same-sex couples living in California, more than in any other state, according to an analysis of census data published by the Williams Institute at UCLA.

Ruby Cymrot-Wu, with her mothers Dafna Wu (left) and Barbara Cymrot (right) and sister Amalia Cymrot-Wu) at the San Francisco Pride Parade in 2007.

They are raising 70,000 children, including 50,000 of their own offspring.

Though the voices of these children are being heard today, their perspectives were not only absent from the Proposition 8 debate in 2008, they were “very explicitly excluded,” according to Judy Appel of Berkeley.

A Berkeley Jewish woman who, with her wife, has two children, Appel is the executive director of the Our Family Coalition, an advocacy and resource group for Bay Area families headed by LGBTQ parents.

In the past two years, Appel said, “the LGBT community has started to recognize the importance of our families as part of a broader equality movement.”

This shift is in the beginning stages, Appel added. But she’s optimistic that the increasing awareness of gay and lesbian families bodes well for full equality (not just marriage equality) for LGBTQ individuals.

“Like other people, we want our kids to grow up in a world where they’re not being questioned or judged based on their family,” Appel said.

Appel and others are awaiting the outcome of the legal challenge to Proposition 8; a ruling is expected soon, after closing arguments are scheduled.

Aaron Sachs as a child (clockwise from left) with his mothers Nikki Sachs and Jean Dickinson, and brother Jesse Sachs.

The proceedings, which began Jan. 11 in federal district court in San Francisco, brought forth psychologists, historians and social scientists to testify about how the ballot initiative impacts not only gay couples but also the welfare of their children.

“The impact of Proposition 8 on our children was tremendous,” Appel said. “A lot didn’t know what this meant for their own families. Young children wondered if it meant their [previously legally married same-sex] parents would get divorced. And at the school level, in some ways it gave permission for increased anti-gay bullying.”

In Iowa, young voices were central to the Iowa Supreme Court case last year that looked at the state law limiting marriage to a man and a woman. The judge in that case determined it was unconstitutional, thereby paving the way for legal gay marriage.

Lambda Legal, representing the same-sex couples that filed the suit, encouraged the parents to have their children sign on as co-plaintiffs. McKinley BarbouRoske, now 12, told the New York Times that “what I did, it wasn’t just for my family, it was for a ton of families.”

In Massachusetts, hockey player Peter Hams spoke in a 2007 TV ad about his two mothers and their wedding, and how the family would be devastated if those rights were taken away from them. MassEquality produced the commercial as part of a multimedia campaign that discouraged state representatives and voters from approving an amendment that would have banned gay marriage in the state. (It was legalized in 2004.)

“The commercial really swayed people,” said Fenton, who worked for COLAGE during the Proposition 8 campaign.

A national network of children with same-sex parents, COLAGE seeks to empower young people, and Fenton worked with the network for eight years. Now she works at a human rights nonprofit in Oakland, continuing the type of work she was drawn to after 12 years at a Jewish summer camp in Wisconsin as both a camper and counselor.

Churchon is the Jewish community liaison for Marriage Equality USA, and also works for the Jewish Community Relations Council as a program associate for legislative affairs and inter-group relations.

“I connect the secular with the religious,” Churchon said. “I try to engage the Jewish community in marriage equality and make sure the [marriage equality] movement is inclusive of faith groups.”

She emerged onto the political landscape more than a decade ago, as an 11-year-old lobbying her state representatives and attending gay rights rallies.

“I did it because people talked about this as a political issue, but really they were talking about my family,” Churchon said. “They weren’t talking about a wedge issue — they were talking about me. They were talking about my mothers.”

Churchon’s parents divorced when she was 6 years old. When she was 10, her mother came out as a lesbian. Churchon’s mother and her mother’s partner married in Victoria, British Columbia (where gay marriage is legal), when Churchon was 12. Each wore a big white dress.

“It was the most memorable experience of my life,” Churchon recalled.

As a child and teenager, she wrote letters to newspapers, magazines and government officials, went to the state capital on lobbying days and started a Gay-Straight Alliance chapter at her school.

“Always being unequal is overwhelming, especially when you know that your family is equal, loving and amazing,” Churchon said.

Her family belonged to Sacramento’s Conservative synagogue, Mosaic Law Congregation.

“Ultimately there’s a Jewish sense of justice that compels me to make the world better,” Churchon said.

Growing up, her Conservative Jewish community was usually supportive of her family, but “it was hard for my rabbi,” Churchon recalled. “My stepmother was not allowed on the bimah for my bat mitzvah, partly because she is not Jewish and partly because she’s my mother’s partner.”

Six years passed. It was her younger brother’s turn to become a bar mitzvah. During that ceremony, Churchon’s stepmother was invited on the bimah — at the same Conservative synagogue.

“That’s huge progress,” she said.

Ruby Cymrot-Wu, 25, grew up in San Francisco, the daughter of lesbian mothers and a donor dad. Like Churchon, Cymrot-Wu also works in the Jewish community, as an employment specialist with a transgender empowerment program at Jewish Vocational Service, and she used to be the policy outreach coordinator at Progressive Jewish Alliance during the Proposition 8 campaign. She, too, founded a Gay-Straight Alliance chapter at her high school, Lick-Wilmerding in San Francisco.

“I have always been incredibly vocal — I remember explaining to my preschool teacher what a donor is,” she recalled.

Cymrot-Wu grew up attending Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, San Francisco’s Reform gay and lesbian congregation, and as a teenager, she had a transformative experience during a trip with her religious school classmates to a youth conference in Washington, D.C.

Frustrated that the schedule for the conference at the Religious Action Center (the social action arm of the Union for Reform Judaism) didn’t include a single program about LGBT issues, Cymrot-Wu and her Sha’ar Zahav peers proposed an impromptu panel about being the children of gay and lesbian parents. The result: Cymrot-Wu spoke to 300 conference attendees about her family.

“It made me feel like it was time to start using my story to make it OK for others to talk about theirs,” she said.

Cymrot-Wu also works part-time as an anti-bias specialist at Temple Sinai in Oakland, which means she helps the congregation ensure its curriculum and marketing materials use inclusive language and images.

“The Jewish community has done well, but we could do better,” she said. She’d like to see more visibility of LGBT families in congregational materials and more inclusive language in Jewish programs and religious services.

“To LGBT families and queer young persons, not all of the Jewish community feels like home,” she said.

In contrast, Aaron Sachs of Berkeley felt entirely at home in his East Bay Jewish communities of the Aquarian Minyan and Kehilla Community Synagogue.

“Both spaces always felt very affirming and LGBTQ friendly,” Sachs said.

Sachs was born in Berkeley, the son of an anonymous sperm donor and two lesbian mothers. They separated when he was 8.

Sachs, who teaches communications, media and cultural studies classes at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, has sharp and painful memories of the pro–Proposition 8 campaign.

The commercials supporting Prop. 8, with the implication that gay marriage hurts children, “felt like a contradiction of my own experience coming from an LGBTQ family,” he said.

He was frustrated that those messages were not swiftly counteracted by the “No on 8” campaign. Young voices, Sachs said, “would have been a powerful answer to the misleading commercials.”

Cymrot-Wu agreed. She said youth voices were not incorporated into the campaign early enough.

But “finally, someone is listening to us and what we have to say,” Cymrot-Wu said.

She first realized this when, in 2008, COLAGE members led a march down Market Street in support of gay rights just after the November 2008 election and the failure of voters to approve legal same-sex marriage.

The young people in the front of the pack shouted out a call and response. “Whose family? Our family! Whose rights? Our rights!”

“We were made to feel invisible for so long, but finally, we were leading, strong and powerful and our voices were being heard,” she said. “We knew someday someone would realize and put us front and center and they did — when it was too late.”

Since then, gay rights activists have tried not to make the same mistake by being more liberal with the youth voices they include in courtrooms and public protests. 

“In California in particular, there was a lot of fear about the impact that having young people speak would have on the larger election,” Fenton said. That fear, she said, was based on seeing “how the opposition uses kids in school as a wedge issue.

“But that was really misplaced fear,” Fenton added. “People now see that it would have been beneficial to see articulate young people talking about how their families don’t have equal rights, and that it impacts them as young people.”

Shira Kogan has made this her mission.

“Having strong convictions is not enough for me,” Kogan wrote in one of her college essays. “Instead, I must share my beliefs with others, and try to spread acceptance and end prejudice.”

And so, in May 2009, the high school senior delivered one of the keynote speeches at a rally in Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco on the day the California Supreme Court announced it would uphold Proposition 8.

It was her opportunity to show that the daughter of a same-sex couple could be happy, loved and supported. She stood in front of the crowd of thousands and hoped her courage would prove to others like her that they are not alone in their struggle for acceptance and equality.

“People say that marriage is a religious idea, or that marriage sanctity would be ruined by allowing same-sex marriage, but I actually completely disagree,” Kogan said months after the rally. “The sanctity of marriage is being ruined by not letting two people who love each other get married. It’s not about religion, it’s about love. And that doesn’t have a gender.”

Stacey Palevsky