Still befuddled about my own sexuality, my first awareness that being gay was a matter of public debate came in 1977. That was when orange juice hawker Anita Bryant led a high-profile campaign to overturn a Dade County, Fla., ordinance barring job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation by vote of the people. Highlighting the perceived threats of child molestation and recruitment by gays and lesbians, Bryant's successful effort centered around the rallying cry, "Save Our Children." In a campaign she then took beyond Florida, Bryant argued that the Dade County law "condones immorality and discriminates against my children's rights to grow up in a healthy, decent, community."
With this history in mind, perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Justice Anthony Kennedy's landmark ruling on June 26 striking down the federal definition of marriage in the Defense of Marriage Act was the way in which the jurist turned Bryant's mantra of 36 years ago on its head. Kennedy wrote with most passion in defending the right of the children of gay and lesbian couples to, yes, "grow up in a healthy, decent, community." The key reason for the shift: the emergence of the kids from families with same-sex parents as fuel for the marriage equality movement.
A year following Bryant's successful campaign, the so-called "protection" of children became even more central in the efforts of California legislator John Briggs to bar gays and lesbians from teaching in the public schools of the state (the language of the proposal was so broad as to potentially bar not just gays and lesbians themselves but advocates of their rights). In what many point to as a key turning point for the emerging gay rights movement, the Briggs Initiative was surprisingly defeated at the ballot box. No matter this electoral loss, the notion that gay men and lesbians were a threat to children physically and emotionally remained a go-to meme for the opponents of LGBT rights for decades to come.
Eventually, however, social scientific evidence undermined this "Save Our Children" rhetoric. Moreover, the flurry of litigation from Arkansas created by various efforts to bar adoption and foster parenting by gay individuals and couples was crucial in forcing courts to grapple with and give credence to this research.
Even more important than such findings in sociology journals or courts of law has been the emergence of children of same-sex couples talking about their very real families' lives. It is those voices that have moved the needle on the marriage debate. Some, like YouTube sensation Zach Wahls, the Iowa college student who so eloquently spoke about his life with his two moms in arguing against legislative efforts to overturn the state supreme court's ruling for marriage equality, or Arkansas native Spencer Lucker, whose essay was published the week of the Supreme Court ruling, have been quite public. Just as important have been quieter one-on-one conversations in which those young persons have told their stories about their families' denigration by ongoing bans on marriage.
It's now clear that the most important person in America when it comes to LGBT rights, Justice Kennedy, heard those voices. In the oral argument on the case involving California's Proposition 8, a case ultimately dismissed on standing grounds, Kennedy asked, "There's some 40,000 children in California ... that live with same-sex parents, and they want their parents to have full recognition and full status. The voice of those children is important in this case, don't you think?"
It was in the decision he wrote in the Windsor case, however, where it became most clear that Kennedy deeply understood the travails of the kids of gay couples. While noting the financial costs to such children created by their parents' second-class legal status, Kennedy was most passionate in emphasizing the emotional costs to such young people. Citing DOMA's "humiliating" effect, Kennedy wrote, "The law in question makes it even more difficult for the children to understand the integrity and closeness of their own family and its concord with other families in their community and in their daily lives."
Thus, in speaking for the nation's highest court, Kennedy symbolically returned to Anita Bryant's old slogan. But, for him and the Court majority, "saving our children" now involves moving towards true equality for a previously invisible group of children who are very much part of the American community.