July 2008

First published at 365gay.com on July 21, 2008

Here’s the latest for the “politicians trying to have it both ways” file: John McCain on gay adoption.

Asked about the subject by the New York Times, McCain made clear that he opposes it. Here’s the relevant portion of the interview in full:

Q: “President Bush believes that gay couples should not be permitted to adopt children. Do you agree with that?”

McCain: “I think that we’ve proven that both parents are important in the success of a family so, no I don’t believe in gay adoption.”

Q: “Even if the alternative is the kid staying in an orphanage, or not having parents?”

McCain: “I encourage adoption and I encourage the opportunities for people to adopt children; I encourage the process being less complicated so they can adopt as quickly as possible. And Cindy and I are proud of being adoptive parents.”

Q: “But your concern would be that the couple should be a traditional couple?”

McCain: “Yes.”

A few days later, after considerable criticism, McCain’s director of communications issued the following “clarification.”

“McCain expressed his personal preference for children to be raised by a mother and a father wherever possible. However, as an adoptive father himself, McCain believes children deserve loving and caring home environments, and he recognizes that there are many abandoned children who have yet to find homes. McCain believes that in those situations that caring parental figures are better for the child than the alternative.”

Let’s start by making something clear: nobody gives a flying wallenda what McCain’s (or any other candidate’s) “personal preferences” are. My personal preference is that children be raised by parents who dress them in tasteful Ralph Lauren sweater sets, but I’m not about to translate that into public policy.

Second, the follow-up question in the initial interview could not have been clearer — “Even if the alternative is the kid staying in an orphanage?” — and, at best, McCain punted on that question. Given the thousands of children in need of good homes — often due to heterosexual irresponsibility — and the number of gay couples selflessly stepping up to the plate to provide for them, McCain’s response was nothing short of shameful.

McCain’s “clarification” just added insult to injury. Through an aide, he went out on a major limb and said — are you ready? — that having “caring parental figures” is better for children than abandonment. Now there’s some bold leadership for you. (Notice that the campaign couldn’t even bring itself to mention gay parents— just “caring parental figures.”)

Everyone knows what’s really going on here. McCain is trying to impress the religious right by being against gay stuff. But in the year 2008, insulting gay parents isn’t cool in the eyes of moderate voters. So he flip-flopped — but in a vague enough way that he can pretend he didn’t.

Let’s suppose one believes, as McCain apparently does, that all else being equal it is better for children to be raised by both a mother and a father. I think this is a defensible position, although the best available research on gay parents suggests that their children turn out just as well as those of straight parents. But let’s grant the premise for the sake of argument.

What follows with respect to gay adoption? In practice, virtually nothing. That’s because even if — all else being equal, which it seldom is — straight couples make better parents, gay couples clearly make very good parents, and adoption is one arena where we cannot afford to make the best the enemy of the good.

Indeed, parenting in general is such an arena. Otherwise no one would be fit to have children.

In general, children do better with more-educated parents than with less educated ones, but we don’t conclude that all prospective parents must have college degrees. In general, children do better with comfortable financial resources than with meager ones, but we don’t insist that prospective parents must have higher-than-average incomes. In general, children do better with grandparents around, but we don’t tell orphans that they themselves should never become parents. And so on.

Here’s another thing that research and common sense tell us: in general, children who are planned do better than children who are “accidental.” And unlike straight couples, gay couples never say “Oops, we’re pregnant.” So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that children of gay parents do as well as they do.

I’m not suggesting that children of gay parents don’t face unique challenges. But the main one happens to be other people’s ignorance. When such ignorance comes from an adoptive father, it’s surprising. When it comes from a potential president, it’s downright unacceptable.

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First published at 365gay.com on July 7, 2008

Barack Obama believes that marriage should be between a man and a woman. Yet he opposes the California ballot initiative that would write that view into the state constitution, calling it “divisive and discriminatory.” What gives?

Obama’s not alone in this apparent contradiction: Arnold Schwarzenegger, the state’s Republican governor, holds a similar juxtaposition of beliefs: that marriage should be between a man and a woman, and that the state’s supreme court did the right thing by declaring California’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. (Thanks to the court’s decision, California began marrying same-sex couples on June 16—an activity the ballot initiative aims to stop.)

Meanwhile, presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain disapproves of the court’s decision and supports the initiative to overturn it. Yet McCain, Schwarzenegger and Obama all agree that decisions about marriage should be left to the states.

Confused yet?

For simplicity’s sake, let’s focus on Obama, and let’s start with the last issue first: marriage should be left to the states. There’s no contradiction in holding that states (as opposed to the federal government) should set marriage policy, while also holding an opinion about which policy they ought to favor.

But that still leaves the question: according to Obama, which policy should they favor? Heterosexual-only marriage, or marriage equality?

The answer depends upon what Obama means by “I personally believe that marriage is between a man and a woman.” Does he mean it as a matter of personal preference, as when I say, “I personally believe that martinis should be made with gin (but by all means, have a vodka martini if you want one)”? Or does he mean it as a matter of public policy?

At first glance, Obama seems to be skating the line between the two. His endorsement of robust federal civil unions—but not marriage—for same-sex couples suggests a public-policy stance against full marriage equality. (By “full marriage equality,” I mean extending marriage to gays, not creating a “separate but equal” institution under a different name.) By contrast, his remarks on California suggest a mere personal preference that he doesn’t feel compelled to write into law.

There’s a third option as well. Perhaps Obama’s belief that “marriage is between a man and a woman” is stronger than personal preference (as in my gin martini example) but still not something he wants to codify legally. Perhaps he holds a religious or moral objection to same-sex marriage—not merely in the sense of “I don’t want this for myself” but in the sense of “No one ought morally to choose this.” Would he then be inconsistent for supporting the California decision?

Not necessarily. In a pluralistic free society, not every moral conviction can be—or should be—enshrined in law.

That’s not just because doing so would be unwieldy and impractical. And it’s not just because some laws have unintended and undesirable consequences. As important as those reasons are, they miss the key point.

That point is that securing our freedom sometimes requires giving others the freedom to behave in ways of which we disapprove. As former New York Governor Mario Cuomo once put it, discussing the relationship between his Catholic faith and his policy positions:

“The Catholic public official lives the political truth … that to assure our freedom we must allow others the same freedom, even if occasionally it produces conduct by them which we would hold to be sinful…. We know that the price of seeking to force our beliefs on others is that they might some day force theirs on us.”

I’m not suggesting that Obama thinks same-sex marriage is sinful—I frankly doubt that he does. I am suggesting that there’s a way to believe, consistently, that marriage should be heterosexual and that it would be a mistake to stand in the way of those who hold otherwise.

Obama might also—quite reasonably—worry that the amendment would do more than stop same-sex marriage. It could also strip away domestic partnership benefits, including health care, as amendments in other states have done. That might help explain his “divisive and discriminatory” charge.

Of course, to say that these reasons would render Obama’s positions consistent is not to say that they’re motivating him. More likely, his positions are motivated by political reality. He can’t afford to alienate gay-supportive Democrats by opposing same-sex marriage, and he can’t afford to alienate mainstream voters by endorsing it. So he does both, and neither.

Obama isn’t unique in trying to have it both ways. It’s not about logic—it’s about politics.

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