How Utah’s Lawyers Have Tried To Sugarcoat The Myth That Gay People Harm Children


Kim and Ruth Hackford-Peer got married at the Salt Lake County Clerk's Office in December with their children Riley and Casey present.

The myth that gay people are a threat to children has long been propagated by opponents of LGBT equality, from those who have claim that gay people are more likely to be pedophiles (false), to those who claim that gay people recruit children to be gay (false), to those concerned that children in schools will learn that gay people exist (not actually that scary). The state of Utah has filed its opening brief in its appeal to defend the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, and the arguments are rife with dog whistles supporting this same hackneyed misconception.

The latest mutation of the “threat to children” meme challenges same-sex parenting, but Utah’s lawyers suggest that there are consequences for the children of straight couples as well. Indeed, Utah argues that banning same-sex marriage “gently encourages” opposite-sex couples to “routinely sacrifice their own interests” to support their children. Conversely, the brief claims that marriage equality would place “at serious risk the welfare of children who will be raised in other arrangements.”

Later in the brief, Utah argues that even though “other parents” (i.e., same-sex couples) can make the same sacrifices for their children, allowing them to marry is “more about the interests of adults than the needs of children, and it would thereby undermine the self-sacrificing, child-centric model of marriage that Utah seeks to foster.” In other words, the state is arguing that even if same-sex couples make the same kind of commitment to raising their kids, recognizing that would dissuade straight parents from doing the same.

The brief goes on to outline seven consequences of allowing same-sex couples to marry:

  1. Children will fare worse because having same-sex parents is just like only having one parent or the other.
  2. Straight couples will be more likely to have children before they’re ready to support them.
  3. Straight couples won’t sacrifice as much to support their children.
  4. Straight couples will have more children out of wedlock.
  5. More same-sex couples will raise children, who will suffer because same-sex couples make inferior parents.
  6. Marriage equality will lead down a slippery slope to group marriage.
  7. Fewer people will feel like marriage is important and marriage rates will drop.

Like in Utah’s previous briefs that focus on same-sex parenting, this brief relies on debunked studies like Mark Regnerus’s, and a number of other studies about “fatherless” parenting that have nothing to do with same-sex couples. The rest of the claims are rhetorical supposition. All of these points, it should be noted, are arguably moot, because as was noted in the lower court decision, this case is about marriage — not adoption, surrogacy, or parenting otherwise.

Limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples accomplishes only one thing: it prevents same-sex couples from marrying. Given that same-sex couples are already raising children in Utah, this actually hurts their children because those families cannot access the same legal and financial protections. In contrast, there’s no evidence to support the claim that allowing same-sex couples to marry will have any impact on the sex lives of straight couples or their parenting abilities.

The Utah brief does eventually acknowledge that these same-sex families exist:

That is not to say that the State lacks compassion for the children of single parents or couples in same-sex relationships. State officials and community leaders remain concerned with their welfare, just as they are concerned with the welfare of every child. A panoply of public and private welfare programs, from subsidized healthcare to childhood education, reflects that concern. But the demand that marriage be redefined to include same-sex couples forces a difficult choice between mutually exclusive conceptions of marriage — one aimed at affirming adult-chosen relationships or one that is child-centric, binding a mother, a father, and their child in a legal institution. Each conception carries unavoidable and unintended costs. Yet in the considered judgment of the State and its people, the costs and risks — especially to children generally — of redefining marriage in genderless terms vastly outweigh the costs of preserving the traditional definition.

Such difficult and often painful decisions are at the heart of the State’s authority over domestic -relations matters. Utah’s citizens and legislators have weighed the competing interests — including the compelling interest in the welfare of all the State’s children — and have chosen the policy they believe to be sound. That choice should be respected.

In other words, Utah is acknowledging that marriage would benefit same-sex families, but it believes it would in turn hurt all of the other children in the state. This is just the latest iteration of the myth that the gay community somehow presents inherent harm to children. Like its previous incarnations, it relies on fear, dismisses evidence to the contrary, and erases the lives that people in the gay community are already living.