Hot Button Issues, No. 1: Gay Marriage

This, for me, seems like a no-brainer.  Of course gay and lesbian couples should be able to get married, have their unions recognized by civil society, adopt children, and enjoy all of the rights and privileges that straight couples do under the law.  Gay marriage is not the greatest threat facing marriage in our culture.  No, the greatest threat facing marriage in our culture is...wait for it...divorce.  And the greatest threat to the family?  Yes, that's right, the divorce of couples with children.*  It doesn't matter if those couples are straight or gay.  What matters is that parents stay together for the lifetime of their children.**

Is that not straightforward enough?  I know, there are other arguments that opponents of gay marriage put forward, most notably (and well-principled, as far as I have read) Dennis Prager.  Prager argues that while it is most definitely unfair to same-sex couples that they not be allowed to get married, such marriages if recognized would not be good for society.  In his words:
Whether a policy is fair to every individual can never be the only question society asks in establishing social policy...  Wherever there are standards, there will be unfairness to individuals.  So, the question is whether redefining marriage in the most radical way ever conceived--indeed completely changing its intended meaning--is good for society.  It isn't.  The major reason is this: Gender increasingly no longer matters.  There is a fierce battle taking place to render meaningless the man-woman distinction, the most important distinction regarding human beings' personal identity.  Nothing would accomplish this as much as same-sex marriage.  The whole premise of same-sex marriage is that gender is insignificant: It doesn't matter whether you marry a man or a woman.  Love, not gender, matters.
He goes on to give some examples of this (as he sees it) "war on gender."  But I think that here he is chasing a red herring, arguing that we will be throwing out "motherhood and fatherhood as values" if as a society we accept marriages between members of the same sex.  I admit, this thought does alarm me; I think gender differences actually matter (there, fodder for another post!) and I share with Prager the concern about what our refusal to recognize men as men and women as women is doing to our culture.  But I do not see this loss of gender identity as a consequence of recognizing same-sex marriages, quite the reverse.  Intensifying gender identities, possibly; but not eradicating them.

As a recent episode of Modern Family suggested, gay men see themselves as men, while lesbians see themselves as women; otherwise, their sexual orientation makes no sense (i.e. they wouldn't be gay; by definition, you can't be attracted to a member of the "same" sex if sexual difference doesn't exist).  In fact (as the episode explores), the only thing that gay men share with lesbians is, you guessed it, their concern for their children as parents.  How same-sex couples talk about themselves as parents (fathers, mothers) has nothing to do with eradicating gender identity as such; it could even reinforce it, for all "society" knows.  "Gender" is different from "sexual preference."  What we are talking about here is parenthood.  And what children need are parents that stay together; they also need two of them.

Anything that strengthens marriage as a foundation for the family is, therefore, to my mind a good thing.  So, yes, let's let gay couples get married.  And then make it harder for all couples with children to get divorced.***

*Or parents never getting married in the first place; as study after study has shown, an even graver threat to the family, not to mention the welfare of the children.  For references, see Ann Coulter, Guilty: Liberal "Victims" and Their Assault on America (New York: Crown Forum, 2008), chapter 2.
**Try searching for books on adult children of divorce if you don't believe me on this.
***Now, now, don't start giving me corner cases involving domestic violence and child abuse.  Think first about all your friends who got divorces because one of the members of the couple fell in love with somebody else.  Now think about the children.


  1. The plural of anecdote is NOT data. But with that caveat: I am frankly quite glad that my parents divorced in 1979, when I was eleven years old. Despite their attempts to hide their conflict from their children, we knew that things were not right, and it was an incredible relief to end that phase of things, and to watch my parents rebuild satisfying lives apart from one another.

    Research on the effects of divorce, and popularizations of that research by writers like Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, indicates that children of divorced parents tend to do worse in a number of areas than children from intact families. But if you restrict the comparison to children of divorced parents and children whose parents stayed together for the sake of the children, things get murkier: some studies suggest that the former were less happy as adults than the latter, but *both* groups were less happy and well-adjusted than children from happy families.

    I may well be a statistical outlier, but I wonder whether I would now be in a stable relationship that has lasted more than two decades (including grad school together) if my parents had stayed together in a failed marriage just for the sake of the kinds.

  2. Always a pleasure to have you disagree with me. My point, if it wasn't clear, was about the threat that some perceive to marriage in gay marriage. As for the anecdotes that we all have about how much better off we are thanks to our parents' divorce, that is survivors talking.

  3. By the by, you never answered my question about why you find it worthwhile to spend so much time arguing with me. Can I assume that when you don't comment, you are enjoying what I write about here? Otherwise, it seems a cruel torture to put yourself through bothering so much with what I say.

  4. Dear professor, which item(s) on the summer reading list is this lecture connected to?

  5. Actually, none, except tangentially one of Prager's. I wanted to clear the air on this issue because it affects so many of my friends, particularly those who belong to the same church that I do. But I have lots of books I could recommend on the medieval development of marriage as a sacrament, as well as on the use of nuptial imagery to talk about God. The thing that matters to me is that we take marriage seriously as the foundation for families, not how we decide who gets to marry whom.

  6. It seems to me that Mr. Prager is exactly wrong about the impact of widespread gay marriage. Instead of rendering the man-woman distinction insignificant, it potentially makes it enormously (and even dangerously) more significant. Men and women are, and will be despite all efforts of social engineers to the contrary, very different--in outlook, in interest and (dare I say it) in ability. As a result, there exists an important natural fault line in any human society that includes them both. One of the most effective factors mitigating this divide has been life-long, heterosexual marriage, which creates alliance across the gender barrier. If one is engaged in a lifelong partnership with a person of the opposite sex, one's interests can never diverge too broadly from his. Not so if one's most important life-long alliance is with a member of the same sex. What personal stake, after all, do a lesbian couple have in curing prostate cancer? Or a pair of gay men in safeguarding women's rights? If you doubt that trend, just consider some of the ideas raised in pieces like this one: |

    As a society, we've made the (correct, IMHO) determination that integration of our public institutions across racial lines is important--important enough to deny state funding and subsidies to those who refuse to so integrate. It seems to me that the recognition that the state confers to a marriage can reasonably, and with the same justification for racial integration of other institutions, be conditioned on that marriage being "integrated" across gender lines. - B.A.J.


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