answering the most sympathetic and reasonable arguments against same-sex marriage
I found the Marriage Conservation Facebook page when one of my FB friends linked to something “hateful” posted there. And it’s true, you don’t have to read very far to find nasty comments cloaked in self-righteousness.
But that’s not what I found interesting.
In general, I try to discourage my friends from winding themselves up by seeking out other people’s bile. Once in a while I run into some blessedly innocent person who doesn’t understand the depth of irrational hatred in the world, and who (sadly) needs to be disillusioned a little. But I believe that for most of us, the idea that there are crazy, nasty, ugly people on the other side comes to mind far too easily.
What’s harder to hold in mind is all the good, decent, well-meaning people who are trying their best to do the right thing, but happen to believe something different than I do or you do.
There always are such people, and they often form the majority of the opposition. This is true even if you are 100% right. Human beings are fallible, we’re loath to discard familiar attitudes, and the opportunities for rationalization to derail clear thinking are innumerable. (That’s true for me and the people who agree with me, too.) So recognizing the fundamental humanity of your opponents doesn’t mean you have to compromise with them or pretend that their points have more validity than you think they really do.
Failing to see the well-intentioned people on the other side is also counter-productive. Because the more an argument becomes dominated by hate and angry condemnations of hate, the more convinced the well-meaning people will be that they must be right. After all, if the points they find convincing were answerable, surely people would be answering them, rather than tarring them by association with the bigots or the self-righteous types whose best argument is something like “I just talked to God and He agrees with me.”
So let’s consider some of the points that the more reasonable folks who post to Marriage Conservation find compelling. There are basically two types: testimonies and statistics.
Testimony. One kind of article that has been showing up more and more often lately is the testimony of a young adult raised by same-sex parents. Marriage-equality advocates been using such testimonies effectively for some time, and Justice Kennedy (who is likely to be the deciding vote when the Supreme Court rules on this issue later this year) has said:
There are some 40,000 children in California, according to the Red Brief, 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?
So naturally, the other side has found its own testimonies: Not every child raised by a same-sex couple believes in marriage equality. A good example is Katy Faust’s “Dear Justice Kennedy: An Open Letter from the Child of a Loving Gay Parent“.
I write because I am one of many children with gay parents who believe we should protect marriage. … I’d like to explain why I think redefining marriage would actually serve to strip these children of their most fundamental rights.
Faust goes on to say that she loves her mother and her mother’s partner, but the debate about marriage shouldn’t hinge on “lessening emotional suffering within the homosexual community”
This debate, at its core, is about one thing. It’s about children.
“There is no difference between the value and worth of heterosexual and homosexual persons,” Faust writes.
However, when it comes to procreation and child-rearing, same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples are wholly unequal and should be treated differently for the sake of the children.
When two adults who cannot procreate want to raise children together, where do those babies come from? Each child is conceived by a mother and a father to whom that child has a natural right.
She then talks about “the missing parent”. In her case she was raised by two mothers, but her parents’ divorce distanced her from her father. The authenticity of that yearning is what gives her testimony its emotional punch. I’m sure that when same-sex-marriage opponents read her article, they come away with a strong desire to protect children like Katy.
But … what does her testimony have to do with same-sex marriage? The problem here is divorce, not gay or lesbian relationships. Children of divorce often miss their non-custodial parent. It’s a sad situation, whether the custodial parent stays single or re-marries someone of either gender.
If you follow Faust’s argument where it logically goes, rather than just to the place that’s politically expedient, you’ll pay no attention to same-sex marriage and instead work to make it much harder for parents to divorce, and to force men to marry women they get pregnant. That would really enforce a child’s “natural right” to both biological parents.
But no one is pushing either of those proposals, probably because you couldn’t even get support for them in religious-right churches (where divorce rates are higher than among, say, atheists) or in Bible-belt states like Louisiana and Mississippi (which have the highest birth-out-of-wedlock rates in the country).
Lying behind Faust’s argument (and many others like it) is an idealistic view of sex and child-bearing that is beautiful in its way: In the ideal world, there would be no unwanted pregnancies. Every conception would result from an act of love between two people committed to each other and to the life they might bring into the world. The parents would be mature enough and self-aware enough to make that commitment and see it through, and Life or God or Fate would cooperate by letting them live long enough to do it.
Unfortunately, though, that vision is disconnected from the world where we actually live — disconnected, in fact, from any world where anyone has ever lived. Selectively imposing pieces of that vision on gay and lesbian couples because they are an unpopular minority is unfair.
It also would be ineffective; there is no reason to believe that banning same-sex marriage would move the children of America closer to that vision in any way. In a world where no one had ever heard of same-sex marriage, Katy Faust’s parents would still get divorced and she would still grow up without her “natural right” to live with her father. And nothing Justice Kennedy does or avoids doing will fix that for future Katy Fausts.
Who redefined marriage? I keep going back to what Dan Savage told Chris Hayes a few years ago: It isn’t that gay people want to redefine marriage, it’s that straight people have already redefined marriage in such a way that there’s no longer any coherent argument for keeping gay couples on the outside.
I am one of those straight people. My wife and I have been married for 30 years, but (though we dearly love some of our friends’ children), we decided not to have a child of our own. For us, as for many childless-by-choice couples, marriage has been about forming a life-long partnership. A strong marriage partnership is indeed a good setting to raise children; but these days, whether a married couple will raise children or not is a separate decision.
Among straights, child-raising has not been the defining characteristic of marriage for at least a generation. To make it the defining characteristic again only when we consider same-sex couples is unfair.
Maybe you want to roll marriage back to the 1960s, before Governor Reagan signed California’s no-fault divorce law (or even to the 1800s, when wives couldn’t own property). If so, be honest about it and go after the people who are really responsible for the changing expectations about marriage: divorced or never-married straights with children, and married straights without children. Try using the law to impose your will on them. See for yourself how popular that would be.
Statistics. Just in time for the Supreme Court’s consideration comes a statistical study comparing children raised by same-sex and opposite-sex parents: “Emotional Problems among Children with Same-Sex Parents: Difference by Definition” by Donald Paul Sullins, a Catholic priest and a sociology professor at the Catholic University of America (the same institution from which he received his masters and doctorate).
Sullins looks at data collected by the National Health Interview Study between 1997 and 2013. His sample includes 207,007 children, of whom 512 came from households where the adults in the household were same-sex couples. (The study has no data on whether the couples were married. Given the legal situation during most of the period in question, the vast majority of them probably weren’t.) He finds that
Emotional problems were over twice as prevalent … for children with same-sex parents than for children with opposite-sex parents.
Mark Regnerus — author of a similar study a few years ago — interprets Sullins’ results to say “Kids do best with Mom and Dad.” In other words, “biology matters”; the more biological parents a child lives with, the better (on average). And since a same-sex couple at best contains only one of a child’s biological parents, it starts out at a disadvantage.
There are, of course, a number of studies that say the opposite: that all other things being equal, children raised by same-sex couples on average do as well or better than those raised by opposite-sex couples.
What the debate ultimately comes down to is what it means for all other things to be equal, because they seldom are in any literal sense. We live in a society where biological parents get the first shot at raising a child. If they are a committed couple who are willing and able to do the job, no one can stop them or even wants to stop them. So when you study children being raised by someone other than both biological parents, you are often looking at a child for whom something has gone wrong. There may have been a divorce, a death, a desertion, a parent in prison, abuse, a series of foster homes, or an involved custody battle — maybe several of those things.
If you are looking at the emotional well-being of those children as a measure of the the quality of the parenting they are receiving in their current homes, you need to compare them to similar children in other homes. If, say, my wife and I were to adopt a six-year-old from an orphanage in Indonesia, a few years later it might be fair to compare our child to other children adopted at a similar age from similar orphanages — but not to children raised from birth by American parents.
Most studies of same-sex parenting do some similar kind of data-normalization, so that, say, children of divorce are compared to other children of divorce, and so on. But Regnerus argues explicitly for not adjusting the raw data to make apples-to-apples comparisons.
You can make the children of same-sex households appear to fare fine (if not better), on average, if you control for a series of documented factors more apt to plague same-sex relationships and households: relationship instability, residential instability, health and emotional challenges, greater economic struggle (among female couples), and—perhaps most significantly—the lack of two biological connections to the child. If you control for these, you will indeed find “no differences” left over. Doing this gives the impression that “the kids are fine” at a time when it is politically expedient to do so.
This analytic tendency reflects a common pattern in social science research to search for ‘‘independent’’ effects of variables, thereby overlooking—or perhaps ignoring—the pathways that explain how social phenomena actually operate in the real world.
What he is arguing, in other words, is that same-sex couples who are raising children ought to be held responsible for how their children got into this situation, whether they had anything to do with it or not.
For example, suppose a husband deserts his wife and children for another woman, and the wife later finds a committed partner who is female. Regnerus and Sullins would assign the emotional baggage of the desertion to the wife who stayed and the woman who took on the challenge of helping her, not to the opposite-sex household of the man who actually deserted. The impact of bigotry on the same-sex household (which might have something to do with why lesbian couples on average make less money than couples that include a man) is also their responsibility, not the responsibility of those who discriminate against them.
I suspect it wouldn’t be hard to do a Sullins-type study about the emotional problems and developmental difficulties faced by children raised by black parents. Blacks parents, on average, are poorer than white parents. They have lower academic achievement, are more likely to live in neighborhoods with bad schools, and so on. Maybe those factors shouldn’t be normalized out of the statistics by which we judge black parents, because they are “the pathways that explain how social phenomena actually operate in the real world.” Maybe they should instead be arguments for not letting blacks raise children at all, or not letting them get married. Maybe solidly middle-class black couples with good educations should be considered suspect because of the statistics associated with their race.
Or not. Maybe if two men find a willing surrogate mother to bear a child for them, and then raise that child from birth to adulthood in a loving household, they shouldn’t have to answer for statistics shaped by divorce and desertion — as Regnerus and Sullins would have them do.
Magic. Lying behind the Sullins and Regnerus studies is the same kind of magical thinking that Katy Faust demonstrates: If only we made same-sex relationships more arduous, then opposite-sex relationships would miraculously improve. Through some benevolent act of God, there wouldn’t be any more unwed mothers or divorces or households so toxic that the state had to intervene. Those things are all the fault of homosexuals, so of course we shouldn’t factor them out of the statistics when we judge the children they are raising.
I’ve never met Sullins or Regnerus or talked to anybody who has, so I have no idea what motivates a person to devote his career to constructing such studies. But the people who are impressed with those studies and quote them to others, I suspect, are mostly well-intentioned folks. And if Faust is some kind of hater, she hides it really well. I can easily sympathize with her wish that her mother and father had done a better job with their marriage, so that Faust need never have gone through the disruption of their divorce.
But the problems of opposite-sex relationships belong to opposite-sex couples. Making life harder for gay people won’t solve them.
And whether it would happen in your ideal world or not, same-sex couples are raising children. Some are adopting children whose biological parents can’t or won’t raise them. Some are working with doctors and friends to conceive children that they will raise from birth. And some are keeping faith with the children they had in a previous opposite-sex relationship that failed.
In the vast majority of those cases, if they gave those children up something worse would happen to them. And if you make life harder for those couples, you can’t avoid making life harder for their children. Who would that benefit?
If you think someone would benefit, I don’t automatically see you as a hate-filled bigot. But I can’t figure out who you’re picturing. It can’t be Katy Faust, or any of the other victims of failed opposite-sex relationships. And if not them, then who?