This has been a big week for gay marriage – two Supreme Court cases, commentary all over, the cover of Time magazine. I thought I might add to the clutter.
This is a very difficult and complex issue for me, and for many others, I think. We would do well to acknowledge that many people of good will struggle with it, and try to debate the issue as dispassionately as possible.
On the one hand, I think there are very strong arguments In favor of promoting stable, committed relationships among a segment of our population that has a history of lamentable promiscuity. To the extent that monogamy and commitment are validated as norms in our society, we all benefit.
I also think that same-sex couples should have access to the same sorts of benefits that accrue to conventional couples, such as inheritance, hospital visitation, and so forth. I don’t see how one can deny those treatments without being invidiously discriminatory.
But that doesn’t mean I endorse gay marriage.
I believe there is a reason why the traditional nuclear family – man, woman, child – has survived for millennia as the stable unit of society. Of course, there is the obvious biological reason: you need a man and a woman to create the next generation. Our modern science has figured out ways of replicating or abstracting the old-fashioned methods, but until cloning becomes fact, it still comes down to males and females performing their traditional roles.
Traditional families also have the merit of extending the genetics of the parents, which I think we should not dismiss lightly. The attractions that bring a man and a woman together have at some level an element of this progeniture, which is part of the mystery of life. Certainly, again, one can create a family using a surrogate, sperm donation or adoption, but that doesn’t invalidate to me the importance of the genetic imperative for the broader society.
Even more important to me is the fact that families with mixed-gender parents are in many ways the best environment for the socialization and upbringing of the next generation. Children need role models for both male and female behavior, and for the relationships between them. Men and women are different in many significant ways . I believe that to raise a child without having the opportunity to see healthy heterosexual behavior every day in the home is to cheat them of something very important.
Now, I’ll be honest – I love Modern Family. I don’t think I’ve missed a single episode. The characters are well-drawn and believable, and just enough over-the-top to be very funny. But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the one thoroughly unpleasant, charmless character in the whole ensemble is the adopted daughter of the gay couple. Cheap shot? Perhaps. But maybe she’s written that way because it strikes a chord of plausibility. There’s a saying in Spanish: “Entre broma y broma sale la verdad.” Between one joke and the next, the truth comes out.
Now, let me stipulate that there are without question same-sex couples that can and do make splendid parents. By the same token, and with zillions more examples, there are countless families where the dysfunction between the parents is crippling. From Pol Pot to Dylan Klebold, we have seen psychopaths emerge from traditional families. But nothing is absolute in the infinite variety that is the human condition, and the existence of some – or even millions – of bad examples does not outweigh the larger experience.
The phenomenon of gay parenting is simply too new to have much if any good data on long-term outcomes. The one study that surveyed a large randomized sample and studied grown children rather than the parents themselves found significant disadvantages among those raised in gay households in such measures as depression, educational attainment, and criminal behavior. This report has been attacked on methodological grounds, and I certainly can’t judge its veracity. But I think it’s delusional to blithely assume that two men or two women can provide the same upbringing as a traditional couple. We just don’t know. It could be the case, but it would be perilous to tinker with an institution so fundamental.
At the end of the day, the question revolves around what marriage is, and what is society’s interest in fostering it. If, as the “marriage equality” folks would have it, marriage is about public approbation and the express commitment of two people in love, then it’s hard to make an argument against extending it to all comers. Of course, that makes it harder to limit it to two people as well. Once you’ve redefined marriage to suit one group of complainants you have swept away any principled argument against any social arrangement being blessed as a marriage.
And if marriage is really about the adults, then what is society’s interest in making it a privileged state? Apart from the value in discouraging promiscuity mentioned above (and, really, shouldn’t responsible adults be capable of that on their own?), what is it about lovers making a commitment that should attract the interest of the state? As Joni Mitchell sang, “We don’t need no piece of paper from the city hall…”
But if marriage is thought of as the beginning stage of a family, then the state has a large interest in promoting its formation and well-being, for it is the foundation of succeeding generations, without which a society will fail. Strong families lead to strong societies, and the state has every right to pass rules that favor those who will contribute to that outcome. As I’ve tried to make the case above, if it is about families, then at the very least we should be cautious about opening that door, and not rush headlong into something that will undoubtedly have unanticipated long-term consequences.
I believe the Roberts court will heed the mess that followed Roe v Wade forty years ago. That decision shut down debate on an issue on which consensus was far from being achieved, and had the effect of putting a lid on a boiling pot. Far better for the question to be worked out through the messy but ultimately legitimate political process.
It’s the same with gay marriage. There seems to be a rapid movement toward acceptance, and four referenda in the last election came out in favor. If so, and we gradually adopt gay marriage nationwide, then at least it is an outcome we are all a party to. That’s much better than having the Supreme Court decide for us.
And if in our haste we enshrine a practice that, two or three generations hence, contributes to negative consequences for our society, well, it won’t be the first time.
I don’t have the answer to how we include gay couples in our society in a way that recognizes their commitment and treats them fairly, while at the same time preserving what I think is the innate “specialness” of a traditional marriage. I only hope we take it slowly; as Justice Alito said, this whole subject is newer than cell phones.