(You know, any reader who isn’t interested in the same-sex marriage debate is probably going to be driven off my blog this week. Sorry, folks.)
(Please note, as you read this post, that I am not accusing Elizabeth of being personally homophobic. For all I know, Elizabeth is gay herself and genuinely loves all gay people – but even if that were so, it wouldn’t change how harmful her preferred policies are).
Part One: A quick note about stigma.
Two things caught my attention. First, Elizabeth is putting words into Eve’s mouth – Eve’s post didn’t say anything about not stigmatizing families.
Secondly, and more importantly, Elizabeth in fact favors stigmatizing gay and lesbian families (although she wisely avoids using the “s” word herself). Maintaining that stigma is her primary reason for opposing same-sex marriage. In Elizabeth’s view, it is essential – and worth paying a considerable price in inequality – that the symbolic difference between “the norm” and same-sex partnerships be maintained, and that same-sex families be understood to be less ideal than the norm.
To try and dodge this rather obvious aspect of her case, Elizabeth distinguishes between “good” and “bad” norms, and implies that only the “bad” norms involve stigmas. But this is nonsense. Elizabeth wants to maintain the “legal and cultural idea” that families with a biological mother and father are superior to those with two mothers or two fathers. How could that not be stigmatizing? Norms which point to a class of people and say “your families and your lives are inferior to the norm” stigmatize; that’s what a stigma is.
Part Two: What Elizabeth has to prove to justify her proposals.
Of course, just because Elizabeth favors stigmatizing gay families – and denying them equal rights under the law – doesn’t prove she’s wrong. Stigmatizing gay families might be worth it, if the result is to greatly improve the lives of American children.
To my mind, however, justifying stigma and inequality under the law would require a very substantial benefit. First of all, we already know that stigmatizing gays does tremendous harm, most especially to gay teens, who suffer from mockery, self-esteem problems and high suicide rates. Furthermore, denying same-sex families the security of legal recognition does enormous harm to those families – and especially to the children of those families (for more on that harm, read the two posts previous to this one). Anything at all that maintains that harmful stigma needs to do an awful lot of good to be justifiable.
Secondly, I assume Elizabeth would agree with me that equality between heterosexuals and homosexuals is “a legal and cultural ideal” worth striving for. To deprive a person of equal protection and rights merely because of their sex – or their sexual preference – is a terrible, immoral thing. It should never be approached lightly.
Now, that doesn’t mean that the desire for legal equality must necessarily overturn all other considerations. But to overcome the value of legal equality, Elizabeth needs to provide proof of a very large and substantial harm that would be prevented by favoring legal inequality (in this case, unequal access to marriage) instead.
Elizabeth is asking us to embrace the harms to gays – and to their families and children – of maintaining a stigma against same-sex families. She’s also asking us to oppose the enormous good of legal equality. What is she offering us in return?
Part Three: Elizabeth’s proposed solutions won’t actually solve the problems
Here’s where Elizabeth – like most opponents of same-sex marriage – gets vague. In order to justify her anti-gay stigma, and to justify opposing equal rights, Elizabeth has to prove that children will suffer some colossal harm if gays are permitted to marry. But what, exactly, is the mechanism of that harm – and, more importantly, the mechanism by which Elizabeth’s policy will solve the problem? She’s long on rhetoric but short on specifics:
Yes, lesbians and gays are already raising children and they need legal protections. Civil unions are a good idea. But if the family form cannot even attempt to secure for children their mother and father, it shouldn’t be called marriage.
Pignatello emphasizes this is a civil rights question. It’s fine if you want to look at it from a rights point of view, but admit there are competing rights in question – the rights of adults to form relationships however they please, and the rights of children to have what they need. Children of straights and gays have a right to live in a society that firmly recognizes their fundamental need for their mother and father. I’m trying to consider both groups.
It all sounds great – but trying to parse some sense out of it is like trying to knit mittens out of water. Elizabeth writes that “many children will be affected, not just the children of gays and lesbians. I write about children of divorce.”
Okay, let’s bring this down to Earth: In what concrete way are children of divorce helped by denying gays equal rights? Does banning gay marriage prevent divorce, for instance? No, it doesn’t. Will gays who enter opposite-sex marriages and find it makes them so miserable they seek divorce, be inexplicably made less miserable (or more heterosexual) if we prevent equal rights for gays? No.
In short, Elizabeth brings up a problem – “divorce harms children.” But her proposed solution to the problem – stigmatizing same-sex families and opposing equal rights – does not solve the problem in any way. But why should we embrace stigma and inequality, if they won’t actually solve the problems she’s talking about?
Elizabeth worries about a time when she could be asked “Why does it matter if a kid’s parents are divorced, or never married at all? After all, same sex couples don’t have the child’s mother and father in the same home. Are you saying there’s something wrong with them?” But she can be asked that exact question right now - nothing about the question presupposes legal gay marriage. We already live in the time Elizabeth fears (and is it really so terrible?) And opposing equal rights for gays will not magically transport us to a world in which Elizabeth couldn’t be asked that question. Once again, Elizabeth’s proposed solution does not solve the problem she brings up.
(To digress a moment, may we consider how unimportant the problem Elizabeth brings up here really is? Elizabeth wants us to oppose equal rights because she doesn’t want to live in a world in which her belief that marriage is important can be questioned. I can sympathize with Elizabeth’s distress – it sometimes distresses me that I live in a world in which my own fundamental values [such as the right of all humans to decent food and shelter - or, for that matter, the rights of gays to full legal equality] are often questioned. Like Elizabeth, I’d prefer to live in a world in which my fundamental values were so widely acknowledged as to be beyond question.
(Nevertheless, if we compare Elizabeth’s understandable anxiety with real-life problems same-sex families face – problems like needing false I.D. just to take care of your helpless child in the hospital – it becomes obvious that the harm Elizabeth discusses here is not remotely as serious as the harms caused same-sex families by their extra-legal status.)
Finally, Elizabeth calls on us to “admit there are competing rights in question – the rights of adults to form relationships however they please, and the rights of children to have what they need.”
But what about the rights of children of same-sex families to have secure, legally acknowledged families? What about the rights of lesbian and gay children of straight marriages, who would be better off growing up in a world in which they could look forward to equal legal rights?
(Please don’t talk to me about civil unions. Civil unions aren’t equality, any more than separate water fountains are equality.)
Returning to my main theme, Elizabeth claims that “children of straights and gays have a right to live in a society that firmly recognizes their fundamental need for their mother and father.” But how will denying gays equal rights give children that right? The fact is, children don’t have that right in today’s society (if they did, adoption, sperm banks, and divorce wouldn’t exist). Whether or not gay marriage is legalized, children will not have that right, because the problems Elizabeth refers to are much larger than the question of gay marriage. Once again, Elizabeth’s proposed solution won’t solve the problem she brings up.
(Another digression, regarding Elizabeth’s claim that children of gays would be harmed by equality: Please recall that virtually no peer-reviewed study of children raised by same-sex parents supports Elizabeth’s claim.)
Part Four: I speculate wildly on Elizabeth’s possible replies
Of course, Elizabeth might reply to all this (and here I’m putting hypothetical words into her mouth), I admit that banning gay marriage won’t solve all these problems in and of itself. Equal rights for gays is only a small part of the problem, so banning gay marriage will only have a small, incremental beneficial effect. But just because it doesn’t solve the problems completely doesn’t mean that it doesn’t address the problems at all. Maybe opposing equality will only do a little bit of good, but isn’t that better than nothing?
But if she did say that – or something along those lines – I’d have to remind her that her plan causes substantial harms. Maintaining a stigma against same-sex families hurts lesbians and gays everywhere, and hurts their children as well. Opposing equality not only harms gays and their families, it’s positively un-American.
Balanced against those harms, doing a little bit of good isn’t nearly good enough. Elizabeth must offer enough good to more than cancel out the harm her proposals will cause. If the best Elizabeth can offer is a vague, unsubstantial, small good done – rather than really solving the problems she’s talking about – then Elizabeth’s policy does far more harm than good, and doesn’t deserve any support.
Of course, Elizabeth might claim the opposite – that maintaining the stigma and opposing equality will in fact do a huge amount of good, more than enough to justify the harms caused by her policies. But if that’s the case – if gay marriage alone makes a large difference – then she should put her money where her mouth is. If she or any other opponent of equal rights claims that gay marriage alone will cause tragic results, then let them answer this question: in what specific, measurable ways will Canada and Massachusetts have gone downhill a few years from now?
If gay marriage alone is such a destructive thing that it’s worth the stigma and inequality to block it, then it must have an effect large enough to be measurable. In a few years time, we should see civilization collapse – or at least, a huge, measurable increase in the rates of divorce and one-parent families – in both Canada and Massachusetts. Is Elizabeth willing to make a prediction on paper – a prediction of real, measurable harm to children in Massachusetts that we won’t see in (say) New York or Connecticut? And if it fails to come true in the time period she specifies, will she then admit she was wrong to oppose gay marriage?
Part Five: How Elizabeth’s solution could make things worse, even from Elizabeth’s point of view
It’s obvious, of course, that maintaining a stigma against same-sex families is a bad thing. And opposing equality is bad, too.
But those are my measures – what about Elizabeth’s? Well, even by Elizabeth’s preferred measures, Elizabeth’s solutions may make things worse.
First of all, Elizabeth’s proposals could increase divorce. Why? Because the longer the stigma against gays and lesbians is maintained, the more likely it is that young queers will grow up “closeted,” and the more of them will therefore wind up in heterosexual marriages that they will come to regret.
The more our society accepts same-sex couples and families, on the other hand, the fewer people will ever be closeted in the first place. If we want to reduce divorce caused by lesbians and gays “coming out,” then we should do everything possible to decrease stigma and increase equality and acceptance.
Secondly, because Elizabeth – to her credit – is too nice a person to offer same-sex couples nothing at all, she favors civil unions. Personally, I oppose civil unions, except as a transitory step on the way to marriage; like separate water fountains, they’re about maintaining stigma, not about equal rights.
But even by Elizabeth’s standards, civil unions are a bad idea. Why? Because once they’re established in law, civil unions will sooner or later become available to straights. And once heterosexuals have that option, many young couples will choose to be civil-unionized rather than married. After all, it’s the perfect chance to get most (albeit not all) of the legal benefits of marriage – but without accepting a connection to the cultural traditions that Elizabeth so badly wants to uphold.
Personally, I’m not convinced that would be entirely bad (the harm of reduced traditionalism might be outweighed by the good of increased options for individual couples). But, given Elizabeth’s concerns, I don’t understand how supporting civil unions can be justified, since they will harm the institution she wants to protect.
Part Six: I summarize like a mad thing
Elizabeth is correct when she says that the goods and bads of both sides need to be weighed against each other. She’s mistaken, however, to imagine that doing so supports her case.
Elizabeth wants us to oppose equal legal rights for gays, in order to maintain a society in which same-sex families are understood to be inferior to “the norm.” Both of these things – opposing equality and maintaining an anti-gay stigma – are very harmful, and also opposed to bedrock American ideals of equality and fairness. They would be particularly harmful, in my opinion, to gay children and to children of same-sex families.
Elizabeth must demonstrate that her policies would do so much good that they’d completely outweigh those harms. To date, she hasn’t even come close to doing so (and nor have the other equality opponents I’ve read). Instead, she brings up a lot of problems – divorce, lack of commitment to kids – that, while serious, will in no way be solved by her proposed solution of opposing equal legal rights for gays and maintaining a stigma against same-sex families.
Alternatively, if her proposal actually would do an enormous amount of good, then she should be able to prove it by pointing to measurable ways equality in Massachusetts will make life worse in Massachusetts, compared to relatively unequal places like Connecticut. That she and other opponents of equality have been unwilling to back up their opinions by making concrete, measurable predictions suggests that they don’t really expect gay marriage to cause substantial, measurable harm.
Given the weakness of her arguments so far, the irrelevance of the problems she cites to the solutions she proposes, and the substantial harms her policies would bring about, I see no reason for any logical person to support Elizabeth’s views on gay marriage.