It has become the refuge of advocates on both sides of the same-sex marriage debate to use children as conduits for presenting arguments for or against the controversial practice. As much as I hate to see children thrust into the public sphere to speak about any topic that they might not necessarily understand themselves, I find it less harmless when they are least prompted to speak positively and honestly about a healthy experience they had with same-sex parents.
However, when 11-year-old Grace Evans took the stand before the Minnesota House Committee on Civil Law this month, I was downright disturbed—not only because she, like many opponents of same-sex marriage, implied that its legality would somehow take away from the marriage between her own heterosexual parents, but because the testimony was as disrespectful of Evans herself as it was of gay and lesbian couples.
Evans’ rationale against same-sex marriage also reaffirmed restrictive stereotypes about what women and girls like her can and cannot do. The centerpiece of her argument was that same-sex marriage would deny certain children the chance “to have a mom and a dad,” as every child deserves. Evans explained how her mother and father each served different, but essential, roles in her life and were themselves strengthened by their partnership with the other parent.
Indeed, it would be nice if every child could have two loving parents, who complemented each other nicely. Provided, of course, that both of those parents were actually committed to raising the child and to treating each other with respect, a reality which, I’m sorry to say, Evans may one day learn the hard way is not a given with heterosexual couples.
It would also be nice if more children had that opportunity through adoption by same-sex couples.
But Evans holds that there are certain things necessary for a child that only a mother and only a father could provide. Evans’ claims she needs her father to provide protection and give her confidence, while her mother teaches her “how to be a girl.” Her mom is “kind, thoughtful, gentle and beautiful,” while her dad is “strong” and “wise.”
In other words, Evans’ parents stick pretty close to traditional gender roles in their attitudes toward child-rearing.
Now, these roles are their own choice. The Evans family can choose to conform to the traditional gendered model and maybe, just maybe, they avoid creating an unequal power structure between husband and wife.
I have my doubts though. One, because Evans casts her father as “the protector,” which is probably a euphemism for boss.
Two, and more importantly, the fact that Evans presents these roles as an argument against same-sex marriage demonstrates that neither she, nor her family, believes that they can be served in any other fashion. The mother has to be kind and pretty to look it. The father has to be smart and strong and make all of the big decisions.
This is also evident in the fact that Evans believes a female child needs her mother to teach her “how to be a girl.” This implies that there’s a right way and a wrong way to be female and that young women must essentially look to older women in order to know how to behave.
The young Evans is thus encouraged to model her dreams, aspirations and passions only off of the women who come before her. But we live in a time when women hold only 18% of seats in Congress and make up just 4% of Fortune 500 CEOs. If we continue to push young women and girls only towards the positions women have occupied in the past, we will never achieve gender parity, in the workforce or beyond.
Evans tells us that her mother is teaching her to be a “good woman, wife, and mother,” which are fine things to aspire to—but there is no evidence to suggest her parents have given her any other option. Evans seems locked into a very particular, gendered fate, and her projection of this fate onto others forms the basis for her skepticism about same-sex marriage.
Same sex marriage won’t hurt you, Grace. But your underestimation of your ability to be the woman that you and only you want to be just might. It is my hope that you, and girls like you, find a different voice — whether inside or outside of the same-sex marriage debate — and that this voice affirms that our gender does not have to define who we are, what we do or how much respect we are given. It does not have to determine who our partner is or how we raise our children. Let us not limit ourselves in order to limit others, but instead take the stand in the name of equality for all.