According to her dads, life is good for Carrigan Starling-Littlefield, a spunky 5-year-old being raised by two gay men in South Carolina, which doesn't recognize their out-of-state marriage.
"We've found that being a family has created a lot of common ground with other families. We've not had many issues at all," said Tommy Starling, a partner in a food brokerage.
Yet he and his husband, Jeff Littlefield, who became parents through a California-based surrogacy program, remain wary as they contemplate Carrigan growing older and confronting challenges beyond their supportive community in Pawley's Island, S.C.
"We're cautious about where we go, because we don't want our daughter to see any negativity," said Starling, 39. "We have some longer-term apprehensions that she'll face issues as she gets older, and we're trying to prepare her for that ... I feel she's the type of person who will stand up for her family."
Carrigan is among a growing multitude of American children — possibly more than 1.2 million of them — being raised by gay and lesbian parents, often without all the legal protections afforded to mom-and-dad households.
Increasingly, the welfare of these children will be a core part of gay-rights strategies, as evidenced by a comprehensive report being released Tuesday. Compiled by an alliance of advocacy and child-welfare groups, it summarizes how laws and social stigma create distinctive challenges for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender families.
"There are myriad ways that our families are discounted by government at all levels, and children are hurt the most," said Jennifer Chrisler of the Family Equality Council, one of the three groups authoring the report.
The other groups are the liberal Center for American Progress and the Movement Advancement Project, a gay-rights think tank. Among other participants in the project were the National Association of Social Workers and the Child Welfare League of America.
The U.S. census does not attempt to count the number of children being raised by gays and lesbians. Demographer Gary Gates of the UCLA School of Law's Williams Institute, who has been a consultant to the Census Bureau, estimates the number at 1.2 million, while the new report uses the figure of 2 million, including children with bisexual and transgender parents.
Whatever their numbers, the families are striking for their diversity — encompassing many low-income and minority households, and spread across about 96 percent of America's counties, according to data compiled by Gates and others.
Among the barriers and inequities they face, as detailed in the report:
—Many government safety net programs use definitions of family tied to marital status which may exclude same-sex partners.
—Because of lack of legal recognition for their unions, gay and lesbian parents can face heavier tax burdens, higher costs for health insurance, and diminished financial protections in the event of death or disability.
—When same-sex parents separate, one parent may lose custody or visitation rights, even in cases where he or she had been a child's primary caregiver.
Overshadowing all these problems is pervasive social stigma, according to the report.
"Many of the challenges LGBT families face stem from a society that assumes that everyone is heterosexual and comes from a family with two married heterosexual parents," it says.
For opponents of same-sex marriage, the issue of children can prompt nuanced responses.
"Certainly children in any household arrangement need to be protected — need full support and love," said Mary Ellen Russell, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Maryland. But she said such protections should be provided without redefining the traditional concept of marriage as between a man and woman.
Many of the obstacles and inequities outlined in the new report would be addressed if same-sex marriage — now legal in six states and Washington, D.C. — were legalized nationwide and recognized by the federal government. However, the report includes numerous recommendations for less sweeping changes that would benefit children with gay parents, such as:
—Broadening the definition of "family" to allow LGBT families to benefit fully from government safety-net programs, and revise the tax code to provide equitable treatment for these families. At present, even legally married same-sex couples who can file joint state tax returns must file separate federal returns.
—Enacting state-level parental recognition laws that would allow joint adoption by LGBT parents. Even with about 110,000 children in foster care who are eligible for adoption, some states and agencies refuse to place children with same-sex couples.
—Ensuring that LGBT families have access to health insurance on equal terms with heterosexual families, and eliminate inequitable taxation of these benefits.
—Ensuring that hospital visitation and medical decision-making policies are inclusive of LGBT families.
—Expanding education and training about LGBT families for social workers, health care providers and other professionals.
Jeff Krehely, director of the Center for American Progress's LGBT research and communications project, said the report is part of an effort to counter arguments that same-sex marriage is a threat to children.
"People who oppose marriage equality have used and exploited children in a very scare-mongering way," said Krehely, who hopes the report will increase public understanding and empathy.
The report, titled "All Children Matter: How Legal and Social Inequalities Hurt LGBT Families," is being presented Tuesday at event in Washington drawing some high-level government officials.
Bryan Samuels, commissioner of the federal Administration on Children, Youth and Families, is scheduled to be part of a panel discussion, and the opening speech will be given by Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler, a staunch gay-rights supporter in a state where lawmakers will be considering a bill to legalize same-sex marriage next year.
"Same-sex marriage is a pro-family measure," Gansler said in a telephone interview.
Lisa Polyak, chair of the statewide gay-rights group Equality Maryland, says there will be a concerted effort during the legislative debate to highlight the challenges facing children of gays and lesbians.
"If you care about children, you should care that the parents don't have the legal tools to take the best care of them," she said.
Polyak and her partner of 30 years, Gita Deane, were married earlier this year in Washington. They have two daughters, Devi, 12, and Maya, 15, who testified before lawmakers last year in support of same-sex marriage in Maryland.
"The root of my activism is denial of equal treatment of my children," said Polyak, citing instances where her daughters had been hurt by other people's comments.
"One child told my daughter she was not allowed to come over to our house because we weren't really a family," Polyak said. "For them, it's a constant source of sadness and hurtfulness."