Laws governing same-sex marriage and parenting are anything but consistent across the United States. Simply crossing state lines can mean a family loses their rights. Adding to the confusion and uncertainty is a legal landscape in the midst of a revolution.
A new study by UNL sociologist Emily Kazyak delves into how same-sex couples tackle questions regarding parental rights — and shows that the quality of resources and accuracy of information available is often dictated by income levels.
Kazyak interviewed lesbian women from Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri to research what methods are used by same-sex couples to obtain legal information regarding parental rights, such as second-parent adoption.
The study identified four primary methods of gathering this legal information: doing independent research, relying on friends, relying on LGBT organizations and hiring an attorney. Those methods were not surprising, but Kazyak said but she was struck by how income levels correlated with the types of methods used and the quality of the information.
“People from higher-class backgrounds — people who had more money — were much more likely to use all the methods available,” Kazyak said. “They were also much more likely to have people in their social networks – for example, friends who were attorneys - who were able to either give them information or put them in touch with people who could help them.”
Income levels also directly affected the accuracy of the information they received.
“Unlike families with higher incomes, those with lower incomes often were not able to hire an attorney,” Kazyak said. “A family who reported one of the lowest incomes reached out to an attorney to ask questions but never actually worked with one. They received inaccurate legal advice around this issue. In stark contrast, a family who reported one of the highest incomes worked with an attorney who was able to be in direct contact with the Attorney General’s Office.”
Kazyak said the laws for same-sex parents are murky — even in states like Iowa, where gay marriage is legal. It’s important, she said, to explore the laws’ effects.
“We assume that once the law changes, everyone knows about it, but do they?” she asked. “The law is not necessarily a straightforward, set thing, because it must be translated down to society. How does that happen with same-sex couples raising kids?
The study puts a focus on inequities in the laws as well as their effects on the emotional health of same-sex couples. Questions surrounding the laws often bring fear and stress into a usually joyous time.
“A lot of (participants) said, ‘We were expecting a child. This was supposed to be a happy moment for us. In a lot of ways, it was, but gosh it was really horrible to have to deal with this,’” Kazyak said. “And there was a lot of anger that they felt they were targeted because of their sexuality. Their heterosexual friends did not have to go through this.”
The study, “’The Law’s the Law, Right?’ Sexual Minority Mothers Navigating Legal Inequities and Inconsistencies,” was published in the February issue of Sexuality Research and Social Policy.