Last week’s Massachusetts decision protecting same-sex marriage is a great victory for gay rights, but there’s no time to pop open the champagne and clear the calendar for weddings. Opponents of same-sex marriage there are pushing for a state constitutional amendment to overturn Goodridge v. Department of Public Health. In California, a ballot initiative threatens to repeal gay couples’ domestic-partner status. And by virtue of “Defense of Marriage Acts,” enacted by 37 states and the federal government, in most places a gay couple’s Massachusetts marriage license won’t be worth the paper it’s written on—absent a protracted legal battle. As these developments suggest, and the experience of other civil rights movements confirms, victory ultimately must be won in the highest court—the court of public opinion—or it will prove short-lived.
Gay rights advocates must win the hearts and minds of the American public, and reaction to the Massachusetts decision suggests that won’t be easy. Opponents’ loudest rallying cry can be summarized in three words: Save the children. With more passion than logic, they insist that affording gay couples the right to marry endangers kids.
Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby warned that the Massachusetts decision imperils “unique sex roles in family life.” In the Los Angeles Times, Professor Douglas Kmiec echoed this theme: Children of gay parents miss “the benefits of child rearing by the distinct attributes of both father and mother.” Syndicated columnist Cal Thomas assailed the Massachusetts decision because “children need a mother and a father in the home.”
The notion that gay parents endanger children is an old one, but its precise nature has evolved. It used to be argued that gay parents would produce gay children. Today, few people find this idea persuasive, but the notion persists that gay couples make poor parents because they are inadequate role models. The new variation of the argument is suggested by the quotes above from the conservative pundits: Children need a parent of each gender to model appropriate behavior. In Goodridge, the state advanced this argument in opposition to same-sex marriage. Kristi Hamrick of the Family Research Council puts the point bluntly: “A child needs a male role model and a female role model. These are not interchangeable puzzle pieces.”
We will hear this argument frequently in the days ahead, because children are the last refuge of same-sex marriage opponents. Their other arguments are increasingly seen as pure prejudice, attempts to codify religious beliefs, or circular logic. In its recent decision striking down sodomy laws, the U.S. Supreme Court clarified that moral disapproval alone is an insufficient basis for discriminatory laws.
Opponents also invoke the role model argument because of its intuitive appeal. To challenge the notion that children need both a male and female role model seems sacrilegious. It puts one in the position of literally attacking Mom, Pop, and apple pie. Yet, to win public acceptance of same-sex marriage, gay rights advocates must tackle head-on the notion that children need a mother and father.
There’s no need to shy away from this debate. Wholesome though it sounds, the idea that children need a parent of each gender is curiously outdated. What is the male supposed to model? Aggression? Sports? Trucks? What should the female model? Nurturing? Femininity? Pink clothing? Insisting on gender-based role modeling makes sense only if there are viable models of gender to begin with. Yet psychologists and thinking laypeople increasingly conclude the opposite, that the idea of a model of maleness or femaleness is misleading and constraining.
Human personality is deeply malleable. Women can be ferociously competitive athletes and hawkish prime ministers; men can be nurses and stay-at-home dads. We’re gradually moving beyond the equation of tough woman with “bitch” and nurturing man with “sissy.” We want all parents to model compassion, responsibility, independence, and good citizenship. These virtues are androgynous.
Yes, there are gender-specific items that every child must learn, especially pertaining to sex and reproduction. These have little to do with “modeling,” and tend to be taught in health class. There’s little a boy or girl can learn solely from a mother or solely from a father. In an era when even the sport of wrestling has become gender integrated and men take postpartum leave from work, it’s strange to consider a child deprived unless she has one parent of each gender.
While children don’t need one mom and one dad, they undeniably benefit from having two parents. Numerous studies confirm that children of single parents fare less well than children in two-parent homes in almost every respect—they are more likely to end up poor, addicted to drugs, uneducated, unemployed, and incarcerated.
This suggests the irony of opposition to same-sex marriage. Conservatives have long lamented damage to our society from the proliferation of single-parent homes. William Bennett’s “Index of Cultural Indicators” includes both divorce and illegitimacy as symptoms of decline. By these measures, America’s slide has been staggering. Out-of-wedlock births increased more than 500 percent from 1960 to 2000. Add in soaring divorce rates, and close to 50 percent of children spend at least part of their childhood in a single-parent home.
Given this, shouldn’t conservatives embrace same-sex marriage, which leads to more children raised in stable two-parent homes? You might expect them to applaud the court’s reasoning in Goodridge. “Civil marriage anchors an ordered society by encouraging stable relationships over transient ones,” the majority wrote. “It is central to the way the Commonwealth . . . ensures that children and adults are cared for and supported whenever possible from private rather than public funds.” This is a ringing affirmation of conservative values: marriage, social stability, and privatization. (A few conservative commentators, most notably William Safire and David Brooks, acknowledge the value of gay marriage.)
Married or not, gay couples raise children. Today, census figures show, roughly 600,000 same-sex couples are raising more than a million children. But they do so at a serious disadvantage. The debate over same-sex marriage often revolves around abstract questions of religion or morality, overlooking the painfully concrete consequences. Over 1,000 federal and state laws (according to the General Accounting Office) make marriage the prerequisite for rights and benefits pertaining to taxes, health insurance, hospital visitation, property sharing, and much more.
As the Goodridge court recognized, prohibiting same-sex marriage creates a “caste-like” system in which gay couples are denied legal protections and financial benefits that help provide a stable family structure. Marriage laws give children legally recognized relationships with both parents, enhanced household income, and security in the event their parents divorce or die—all told, a comprehensive system of support and protection.
Americans need to understand that gays do not seek marriage rights simply to proclaim their equality or celebrate a symbolic victory. The public can relate to bread-and-butter issues and must be made to realize that many gay couples struggle to provide a decent quality of life for their children solely because of unequal laws. Those who fret about the children of gay couples should worry about whether those children have health insurance, rather than about the chromosome mix of their parents.
Opponents of same-sex marriage try to scare people by invoking the image of children without a mom or dad. The gay rights movement should welcome the focus on children, and make sure the public appreciates a powerful truth: Same-sex marriage increases the number of children raised in loving, stable, economically secure two-parent homes.
Here’s a proposed bumper sticker for the fight ahead: “Care about children? Support same-sex marriage.”
Brad Sears is director of the UCLA School of Law’s Williams Project on Sexual Orientation Law, and Alan Hirsch is senior consultant to the project.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 25, 2003