“Love makes a family,” the saying goes—but for a host of rights and protections, legal ties between parents and children are what matter. For many LGBTQ parents, however, paths to obtaining or securing these parentage ties are unclear, expensive, humiliating, and lengthy, leaving their children vulnerable, as a new report describes.
“Relationships at Risk: Why We Need to Update State Parentage Laws to Protect Children and Families,” from the Movement Advancement Project (MAP), in partnership with COLAGE, Family Equality, GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), and the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), notes that among the 18 million LGBTQ adults in the United States, nearly one in three are raising children under the age of 18. A legal parent-child relationship, or “parentage,” is critical for access to a variety of rights, protections, and regular responsibilities, such as picking up a child at school, getting them medical care, planning for their education, custody, and inheritance. It also helps protect against abrupt, potentially damaging separation from one parent if the other dies or the parents divorce.
Hundreds of thousands of children are born each year via assisted reproduction, however, and many of their families must navigate “complicated, costly, and time-consuming processes” to be recognized as legal families, the report says. For LGBTQ families, too, not all pathways to parentage are available in all states. This can leave children without legal ties to one or more of their parents.
Naomi Goldberg, deputy director of MAP and the report’s lead author, told me in an interview, “Even as a lesbian mom who moved from one state to another in the past few years and a policy researcher who has tracked LGBTQ laws for 15 years, I was surprised by the confusing and complicated patchwork that exists for LGBTQ families.”
She observed, “I think many people assume that with marriage equality nationwide, LGBTQ parents no longer face challenges in family recognition. Unfortunately, as this report shows, it is not the case.”
Even married LGBTQ parents’ rights are being challenged, the report relates, as in a recent Oklahoma case where a judge ruled that a married, nongenetic mom who was on her son’s birth certificate had no parental rights to the child she and her wife created and were raising together, but their sperm donor did.
And marriage equality itself is under threat. “This report became far more urgent following the Dobbs decision a year ago, in which the security of marriage equality was questioned by several U.S. Supreme Court justices,” Goldberg added. “Having pathways to secure legal parentage for LGBTQ parents that are independent of the marital status between parents is vital for ensuring all children, regardless of who their parents or the circumstances of their birth, have legal, stable, and secure ties to the parents who love and care for them.”
Some states, such as Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Colorado, have recently modernized their laws to clarify and simplify paths to parentage for all families today. “This is really important and exciting work that has real, positive, tangible impacts on families,” Goldberg said.
Most states, however, are playing catch-up. Goldberg observed, “Many policymakers are concerned with the wellbeing of children in our country. For those lawmakers, I hope the report, plus conversations with LGBTQ parents in their communities, will grow their understanding of how many families, including and especially LGBTQ families, are utilizing assisted reproduction and that for these families, in many states, securing legal ties between parents and children remains difficult.”
States, however, “don’t need to recreate the wheel or start from scratch,” she said. She pointed to the 2017 Uniform Parentage Act, a model law developed by the bipartisan Uniform Law Commission, as “best practice law that can be adapted to individual state needs to provide legal security for all children and families.”
Among other things, this version of the UPA ensures that state parentage laws remain constitutional by providing equality and paths to parentage for LGBTQ families.
“Seven states have already adopted it, while others have adopted significant portions,” Goldberg noted (California, Colorado, Connecticut, Maine, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington). Five more (Hawaii, Kansas, Massachusetts, Nevada, and Pennsylvania) have introduced bills to do so.
For LGBTQ parents, Goldberg hopes the report offers a reminder of “how critical it is for all parents to secure parentage to their children, even if they’ve been parenting them since birth and/or for years!”
As the report explains, “Being listed on a birth certificate alone does not conclusively establish parentage.” This is why “many families obtain a court judgment confirming parentage, which must be given full faith and credit and recognized across state lines.” One resource that the report recommends is “LGBTQ+ Paths to Parentage Security” (lgbtqparentage.org) a brief guide that GLAD and I recently developed to help LGBTQ parents navigate their options.
Goldberg also wants LGBTQ parents to help drive broader change. “It is surprising to many people to know how expensive, time consuming, and invasive it can be for many LGBTQ families to secure legal ties,” she said. “I hope that more LGBTQ parents will talk openly with their elected officials about the process they undertook to establish parentage in hopes that we can update parentage laws across the country to ensure that all children have the security they need to thrive.”
Read the MAP report at: mapresearch.org/. (Full disclosure: I offered some feedback on an early draft of this report.)
Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian (mombian.com), a two-time GLAAD Media Award-winning blog and resource directory, plus a searchable database of 1300+ LGBTQ family books.