First published in Between the Lines on February 26, 2006
I have just completed a week’s worth of same-sex marriage debates with Glenn Stanton of Focus on the Family. During the debates, Stanton made an excellent case in favor of traditional heterosexual marriage. I really mean that.
What he did not do—what he utterly failed to do—was to make a case AGAINST same-sex marriage. There’s a difference, and it’s crucial.
As I’ve said repeatedly, extending marriage to gays does not mean taking it away from straights. It’s not as if there are a limited number of marriage licenses, such that once they’re gone, they’re gone.
So I have no problem joining Glenn is saying hooray for heterosexual marriage, an imperfect but extremely valuable institution. I love heterosexuals. My parents were heterosexual (still are). Some of my best friends are heterosexual. I support their marriages and wish them all the best.
All I ask is that they give me the same support. This is not a zero-sum game.
Consider an analogy: most school classrooms have both right-handed desks and left-handed desks. Now imagine a time before left-handed desks. A reformer then might have argued, “Hey, right-handed desks are great. But not everyone is right-handed. Left-handed desks would make life better for left-handed people; their classroom experience would be more productive, and in the long run, their increased productivity would benefit everyone, left-handed and right-handed alike.” Sounds like a strong argument for left-handed desks.
Now, imagine an opponent responding, “But we’ve always had right-handed desks! Right-handed-desks have served society well. We obviously don’t need left-handed desks; we’ve gotten along fine without them thus far. What’s more, introducing them is an untested social experiment, one that could have serious repercussions for our children!”
Before you dismiss this comparison as silly, recall that left-handedness was once considered a sign of moral depravity, witchcraft, or worse. It’s no accident that the word “sinister” matches the Latin word for “left.” But that’s not the point of the analogy.
Many of the arguments against same-sex marriage—including some of those offered by Glenn Stanton—commit the same fallacy as the response above. They rightly point to the many social benefits of heterosexual marriage, but they then wrongly infer that any other marriage arrangement must be bad. This is a non-sequitur.
Let me be clear on what I am not saying here. I am not saying that choosing a spouse is just like choosing a desk, or worse yet, that whether children are raised by mothers or fathers is somehow equivalent to whether they have right-handed desks, left-handed desks, or both. When I used the analogy during a debate last week, Stanton misread me to be saying just that. (In fairness to him, I should note that he was responding off-the-cuff.)
What I am saying is that we can recognize something to be good without inferring that any alternative must therefore be bad. Right-handed desks are good for most people, but they’re not good for everyone. Similarly, heterosexual marriage is good for most people, but it’s not good for everyone.
All analogies are imperfect. However, one of the differences between these two cases actually favors the case for same-sex marriage: any classroom can only have a limited number of desks, so left-handed desks mean less space for right-handed ones. By contrast, there are not a limited number of marriage licenses. Again, this is not a zero-sum game.
But what about the claim that allowing same-sex marriage would “redefine marriage for everyone”?
Nonsense. No one’s wife is going to turn into a man just because we recognize marriage equality for gays. No one’s husband is going to turn into a woman. Heterosexual marriages will go on being just as heterosexual.
What same-sex marriages would do is to acknowledge that society has an interest in supporting stable, committed unions for its non-heterosexual members. Those unions are good for gays and lesbians, but they’re also good for society at large, since people in stable, committed unions are typically happier, more productive, and less likely to place demands on the public purse. It’s a win-win situation.