Column | March 9

Outside the Bubble: Questioning the case against marriage equality

Every possible sign points toward the inevitability of gay marriage’s nationwide legalization. A new Washington Post/ABC poll found that 59 percent of Americans support same sex marriage, a new record and a complete reversal from a decade earlier. The federal government alone provides 1,138 protections and benefits for married couples. Beyond the law, marriage is a stabilizing force for families. Gay marriage advocates are fighting with increasing success to extend those benefits to same-sex couples.

A slew of challenges to state bans on same-sex marriage have the potential to reach the Supreme Court. Collectively, the legal challenges may spur the Supreme Court to declare a federal right to same-sex marriage as early as June 2015. I will address the constitutional case for marriage equality in a follow-up column to come. But first it’s important to address the philosophical and social science claims that underlie the legal arguments against same-sex marriage.

Princeton politics professor Robert George, regarded as the most formidable defender of what he terms “traditional marriage,” justifies limiting marriage to between one man and one woman because of their capacity to reproduce, even if the couple is infertile. Encouraging exclusively conjugal sex, according to his argument, preserves marriage’s integrity because intercourse is not treated as a good in itself. The biological capacity to reproduce is the higher good that makes heterosexual, monogamous marriage a unique and vital institution.

George presumably holds this view because he wishes to foster a society in which the couples who marry also become excellent parents. I’d tend to agree with the goal, but not the method. Limiting marriage to between a man and a woman in order to promote child rearing presupposes that the biological capacity to conceive a child — or to behave in a way to do so — is necessary to parent well. In this day and age, the ability to have children — or, again, to act as if you can — is in itself neither sufficient nor necessary to create and maintain a loving family.

It would seem that a legitimate marriage would be one that encourages sexual conduct that generally affirms more profound ends. George repeatedly argues that love — along with the procreative element — is the greater good. However, limiting truly meaningful sex to vaginal intercourse debases the very institution of marriage that George intends to protect. The singular fixation on legitimate sex as a potentially procreative act reduces it to a purely physical exercise.

Lawyers defending gay marriage bans across the country repeatedly argue that states have a compelling interest in limiting the institution so that it is conducive to child rearing, which means excluding same-sex couples. Mark Regnerus, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, conducted the most recent and widely-cited study that purports to prove that gays and lesbians are inferior parents. In fact, he recently testified in a court challenge to Michigan’s gay marriage ban. Regnerus’ prominence implies that his work is the standard by which accusations against same-sex parenting capabilities should be assessed.

The study itself, the New Family Structures Study, alleges that the children of gay couples lead significantly worse lives than kids brought up by heterosexual parents. As it turns out, the study is sloppily structured and misleading in its results: The study categorizes a child as having grown up in a same sex household if either parent has ever had a same-sex relationship during that child’s first 18 years of life. But an even deeper structural flaw yielded the work’s extreme conclusions.

Among the children who reported living with what the study would term a “gay father,” less than half reported also living with the father’s male partner for longer than four months. Less than 2 percent of the same subset of children said they lived with both partners for at least three years. These percentages are mirrored by the sample of children raised by lesbian parents. Only a handful of the children who are supposedly products of same-sex families actually spent their entire childhoods with two specific parents of the same gender.

The study’s structure and those who cite its results perpetuate a circular, pernicious logic. Regnerus’ work only reaffirms the grave social and economic costs of unstable households on children, not the inherent deficiencies of same-sex parents. William Saletan of Slate writes that “the study doesn’t document the failure of same-sex marriage. It documents the failure of the closeted, broken, and unstable households that preceded same-sex marriage.” If those who cite the study are sincerely troubled by its results, then they shouldn’t withhold the solution — marriage — from those whom they blame for the problem in the first place.

Actual evidence of gay and lesbian parental ineptitude remains illusive, yet dire warnings of harms to children are invoked in courts of law to prevent same-sex marriage. Time is on the side of those who believe that parental rights should accompany marriage equality. Gay marriage’s expansion across the country means that the number of alternative households will also increase. As same-sex couples settle down and start families, they will shatter prejudice with dignity, simply by loving their children.

David Will is a religion major from Chevy Chase, Md. He can be reached at dwill@princeton.edu.

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