April 2010

First published at 365gay.com on April 30, 2010

If I’ve asked it once I’ve asked it a hundred times: how does marriage equality hurt heterosexuals?

Recently I posed the question yet again to Maggie Gallagher, outgoing president of the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), as she visited my ethics class at Wayne State University via audio conference.

I “get” that Gallagher wants children to have mothers and fathers, and ideally, their own biological mothers and fathers. What I’ve never quite gotten is why extending marriage to gays and lesbians undermines that goal. One can be married without having children, one can have children without being married; and (most important) same-sex marriage is not about gay couples’ snatching children away from their loving heterosexual parents. No sane person thinks otherwise.

Maggie Gallagher is a sane person. (Wrong, but sane.) For the record, she is not worried that marriage equality would give gays license to kidnap children. Nor does she oppose adoption by gay individuals or couples, although she thinks heterosexual married couples should be preferred. So what’s the problem?

At the risk of oversimplifying, one could describe her concern—which she graciously explained to my class—as The Message Argument. The idea is this. The core reason society promotes marriage is to bind mothers and fathers together for the long-term welfare of their offspring. In doing so we send a message: “Children need their mothers and fathers.”

But on Gallagher’s view, extending marriage to gays and lesbians makes it virtually impossible to sustain that message. The central premise of the marriage-equality movement is that Jack and Bob’s marriage is just as valid, qua marriage, as Jack and Jill’s. (That’s the whole point of calling it “marriage equality.”) And if we make that equivalence, we cannot also say that children—some of whom Jack and Bob may be raising—need their mothers and fathers. Indeed, the latter claim would now seem offensive, even bigoted.

So Gallagher’s argument poses a dilemma: either maintain the message that children need their mothers and fathers, and thus oppose marriage equality; or else embrace marriage equality, and thus relinquish the message. You can’t have both.

Whatever else you want to say about this argument, it’s not crazy. It’s about how to maintain a message that seems well motivated, at least on the surface: children need their mothers and fathers.

Elsewhere I’ve argued that the claim “Children need their mothers and fathers” is ambiguous. On one reading it’s obviously false. On another, it’s more plausible, but it doesn’t support the conclusion against marriage equality. For even if we were to grant for the sake of argument that the “ideal” situation for children is, on average, with their own biological mother and father, we ought not to discourage—and deny marriage to—other arrangements: stepfamilies, adoptive families, and same-sex households. It’s a non-sequitur.

But that (familiar and ongoing) argument is somewhat beside the point. The Message Argument does not say that promoting children’s welfare logically entails denying marriage to gays and lesbians. It says that, in practice, it is virtually impossible to maintain the message “Children need their mothers and fathers” while also promoting the message that “Gay families are just as good as straight ones.” And given a choice between the two messages, Gallagher favors the former.

I think urging parents—especially fathers—to stick around for their offspring is an admirable and important goal. It’s also one that has personal resonance for Gallagher, who has spoken candidly of her experience as a young single mother left behind by her child’s father.

I also think that there are 1001 better ways to achieve this goal than fighting marriage equality. The fact that NOM targets gays and gays alone makes it hard to believe that we are merely collateral damage in their battle to promote children’s welfare.

That said, I want to thank Gallagher for clarifying her position. I want to assure her that I’ll take The Message dilemma seriously. I plan to grapple with it in future columns (and our forthcoming book).

But I also want to pose for her a counter-dilemma, which I hope she’ll take equally seriously.

For it seems to me that, in practice, it is impossible to tell gay couples and families that they are full-fledged members of our society, deserving of equal respect and dignity, while also denying them the legal and social status of marriage.

Yes, marriage sends messages, but “children need their mothers and fathers” is scarcely the only one. Marriage sends the message that it’s good for people to have someone special to take care of them, and vice-versa—to have and to hold, for better or worse, ‘til death do they part.

Marriage sends a message about the importance of forming family, even when those families don’t include children; about making the transition from being a child in one’s family of origin to being an adult in one’s family of choice.

Gallagher claims that she loves and respects gay people, and I want to believe her. But how can she sustain that message while also opposing marriage equality? How does her own preferred message not tell gay families—not to mention stepfamilies, adoptive families, and single-parent households—that “Your family isn’t real”?

Yes, marriage sends messages. So does its denial.

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First published at 365gay.com on April 23, 2010

Maggie Gallagher has announced that she is stepping down as president of the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), adding that she will remain on NOM’s executive board while pursuing future projects, including a book with me, “Debating Same-Sex Marriage,” for Oxford University Press.

This prompted some surprised e-mails from friends who hadn’t heard about the book: “You’re doing WHAT with WHOM?” You would think she had announced that we were planning on spending the next few months braiding each other’s hair and painting our toenails.

Here’s the deal: Maggie and I will each write a long essay aiming to give the most powerful possible statement of our respective positions; we will then each write a rebuttal to the other’s essay. We will exchange drafts with each other (and no doubt, with various colleagues); the book will contain the finished versions of our two essays and rebuttals.

Why do a book debating Maggie Gallagher? The main reason is that I think she’s wrong—badly wrong, wrong in ways that hurt real individuals and real families—and I want to refute her.

Why “dignify” Maggie Gallagher with a platform for her pernicious views? Because, like it or not, those views are still shared by the majority of voters, in every single state in which marriage equality has been put to the ballot. You may call Maggie Gallagher a right-wing fringe lunatic all you like, but her side is winning plenty of battles, even while it is slowly losing the war.

I’m doing this book because I’d like to speed up that loss, not because I’m trying “to justify profiting from the suffering of others,” as one blog commenter put it. (Incidentally, academic-press books seldom turn a profit for their authors.) Yes, Maggie’s popularity on the right will sell books, but that also lets me make the case for equality before people I wouldn’t otherwise reach. Some of those people will have gay sons and daughters.

I don’t debate Maggie or other professional gay-rights opponents mainly to win them over. I do it to win over the moveable middle. I aim to give them, in the words of John Stuart Mill, “the clearer perception and livelier perception of truth, produced by its collision with error.” There’s something valuable about forcing people to defend their views in writing in a sustained way.

In the process, I aim to build relationships with people, including our opponents. Sure, I’m a philosopher, and I believe in the power of ideas. But opposition to our lives is not ultimately based in logic, and it’s not ultimately going to be won on logic (even while logic plays an essential role). It’s going to be won as our adversaries get to know us and thus find it increasingly difficult to turn a blind eye to our fundamental needs and interests.

Meanwhile, both sides need to stop pretending that we’ve got the other completely figured out. We don’t.

I’ve known Maggie by e-mail for years, but we’ve only met in-person twice. The first time was for a marriage forum in New York. The second was for a debate in Oregon. Unexpectedly we encountered each other on a connecting flight in Salt Lake City, and we sat together on the plane. At one point I showed her a picture of my partner Mark, displaying the broad, welcoming smile that is his trademark.

“I can see why you call him home,” she said.

At first I misunderstood her. “I don’t need to call home,” I answered. “I just talked to him.”

“No—I can see why you call HIM home. He’s ‘home’ for you,” Maggie replied.

You might wonder how someone who “gets” that Mark is “home” for me can spend her life fighting my right to marry him. You might conclude she’s just being a hypocrite, “profiting from the suffering of others.” As I’ve said many times (and will continue saying), Maggie’s work harms real individuals and real families.

But you could also—at least, if you knew Maggie as I do—keep the conversation going, pressing her directly on some of these points. And that’s what intend to do.

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First published at 365gay.com on April 16, 2010

Comments earlier this week by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone linking homosexuality to pedophilia have drawn almost universal condemnation from medical experts, gay-rights organizations, and government officials.

Speaking at a news conference in Chile, the cardinal stated,

“Many psychologists, many psychiatrists have demonstrated that there is no relationship between celibacy and pedophilia but many others have demonstrated, I was told recently, that there is a relationship between homosexuality and pedophilia. That is true. I have the documents of the psychologists. That is the problem.”

He’s nearly half-right.

But first, let’s underscore where he’s wrong. He’s wrong to connect homosexuality with pedophilia, and especially wrong in citing psychologists’ support for this link. (It is telling, but not at all surprising, that Cardinal Bertone has yet to release these alleged documents he cites.) Every mainstream health and welfare organization that has commented on the issue has stated the opposite.

Even Church leaders have distanced themselves from Bertone, one of Roman Catholicism’s highest-ranking prelates. Rev. Marcus Stock, General Secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, stated in the wake of the cardinal’s comments,

“To the best of my knowledge, there is no empirical data which concludes that sexual orientation is connected to child sexual abuse….In the sexual abuse of children, the issue is the sexual fixation of the abusers and not their sexual orientation.”

But Bertone’s statement is not just factually wrong, it’s morally irresponsible. It slanders gay people—including many decent gay priests—and directs our attention away from the real threats to children.

Which brings us to where he’s nearly half-right. He’s right to claim that the problem is not celibacy.

It’s tempting to point out that people who have sex with children are not celibate—they’re people who have sex with children. But that response misses the point of the objection, which is that enforced celibacy, even when undertaken voluntarily, is unhealthy. Doesn’t the strict avoidance of sex make it more likely that people will act out sexually in unfortunate, and occasionally tragic, ways? Doesn’t the exclusion of married men (and women) from the Roman Catholic priesthood make it a less healthy institution overall than it might otherwise be?

These are reasonable questions, but they’re not ones that we can answer from our armchairs. They involve, among other things, empirical claims about the incidence of sexual abuse among those living under a rule of celibacy—and such claims are notoriously difficult to verify given the Church’s culture of secrecy.

That culture of secrecy is where the real problem lies.

The trouble with Bertone’s statement is not merely that it’s scientifically unfounded and false—although it is surely both of those things.

It’s that, by focusing on the causes of pedophilia, Bertone distracts us from the other great crime in the story: the Church’s ongoing cover-up.

Church officials, up to and including the current pope, have repeatedly ignored, downplayed, and concealed the rape of children. Worse yet, they enabled its ongoing occurrence by reassigning priests guilty of abuse to posts where they could continue youth ministry.

This is not a homosexual problem. This is not a celibacy problem. It is a complicity problem.

Bertone—like Catholic League president Bill Donahue and other recent defenders of the hierarchy—have done their best to distract us from this complicity problem. In doing so, they perpetuate a grave evil. Shame on them.

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First published in Between The Lines News on April 15, 2010

Those who argue that same-sex parenting “deprives” a child of its mother or father sometimes ask, “How would you feel if your mother or father were taken away?”

My answer to that question is, of course, “I’d feel terrible.” But that fact scarcely settles the matter.

I’d feel terrible if anyone close to me were taken away. But that presupposes that the person “taken away” is already a part of my life. It doesn’t follow that their not being present in the first place would “deprive” me.

My grandparents were all an important part of my life, but suppose they had all died before I was born. Would anyone have accused my parents of “depriving” me of grandparents, simply by bringing me into existence? Of course not.

I grant that the cases are not exactly parallel. If my grandparents had died before I was born, my parents could hardly be held responsible for their absence (barring matricide or patricide).

By contrast, the lesbian who visits a sperm bank—just like straight women who visit sperm banks—may consciously intend to raise a child in its biological father’s absence, and thus has some responsibility for that absence (as does the father).

It is this fact that bothers our opponents. In their view, the lesbian and others in this (hypothetical but common) case are conspiring to deprive the child of its biological father. If we care to answer their concerns, we need to address this case.

Before doing so, however, it is worth pointing out several things. First, the objection doesn’t touch those who become parents by adoption. In such cases, opponents might still object that the lesbian is depriving the child of SOME father. But they can’t coherently claim that she is depriving it of ITS OWN father—and that is the objection I wish to focus on here. (Presumably, its own father is no longer in the picture—hence the adoption.)

Second, the objection applies equally to heterosexual women who seek anonymous sperm donors. Most people who use sperm banks are heterosexual, and most gays and lesbians never use sperm banks. So this is not an objection to gay parenting or gay marriage per se.

Third, and related, when applied to same-sex marriage the objection involves a blatant non-sequitur. It is one thing to argue against anonymous sperm donation. It is quite another to use that argument to oppose marriage for gays and lesbians. For even if one accepts the “no sperm banks” argument, it seems unfair to punish those gays and lesbians who do not use them. It is also unfair to punish those children whose parents did use them: such children exist, after all, and forbidding marriage to their parents (i.e. the ones that care for them) makes their lives less stable.

With these caveats in mind, we can return to the question at hand: is the lesbian (or for that matter, the straight woman) who uses an anonymous sperm donor “depriving” the child of its biological father?

The problem with answering this question is that the word “depriving” is so loaded that any response is likely to have unintended (and unpalatable) side effects. Answer “yes,” and you insult the many good mothers who have used anonymous sperm donors and have provided wonderful lives for their resulting children. You also potentially hurt the children, by suggesting to them that they lead “deprived” lives.

Answer “no,” and you seem to ignore the research that says that children do better, on average, with their own biological parents than in other family forms. You also suggest that there’s nothing special about growing up with one’s own biological father.

I for one wouldn’t want to make the latter claim. That’s partly because I am moved by the firsthand stories of people who have grown up not knowing one or more of their biological parents and feel a genuine sense of loss as a result. Their longing is real and should not be lightly dismissed.

But it’s also because I myself feel that there’s something special about the biological bond I have with my parents. The fact that I am literally flesh of their flesh moves me, for reasons that go beyond sentimentality.

The question is whether we can acknowledge this significance without casting aspersions on those whose parent-child bonds are non-biological.

I think we can. To say that the biological bond is special is not to say that it’s the only significant bond, or that those who lack it are deprived of something necessary (much less sufficient) for a strong and healthy parent-child relationship.

More to the point, to say that the biological bond is special is hardly justification for “depriving” an entire group of people of the opportunity to marry.

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First published at 365gay.com on April 6, 2010

They don’t drive Subarus, wear comfortable shoes, or listen to folk music. But are the female pair-bonding albatross discussed in this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine lesbians?

Despite its provocative title, the essay “Can Animals Be Gay?” is one of the more thoughtful and nuanced treatments to have appeared in a while. It achieves this largely by ignoring the title-question and instead focusing on what scientific research into animal behavior does—and more to the point, doesn’t—tell us about humans.

These are the facts: Lindsay C. Young, a biologist studying a Laysan albatross colony in Kaena Point, Hawaii, discovered in the course of her doctoral research that a third of the nesting pairs there were actually female-female. Albatross typically pair off monogamously, copulate, and then collaboratively incubate the resulting single egg each year. Scientists who have observed nesting pairs generally assume—falsely, it turns out—that they are all male-female. (Albatross are difficult to sex by sight.) So Young and two colleagues published a paper explaining their surprising findings. From the Times essay:

“It turned out that many of the female-female pairs, at Kaena Point and at a colony that Young’s colleague studied on Kauai, had been together for 4, 8 or even 19 years — as far back as the biologists’ data went, in some cases. The female-female pairs had been incubating eggs together, rearing chicks and just generally passing under everybody’s nose for what you might call ‘straight’ couples.”

Like most scientists, Young and her colleagues were careful merely to share their observations, rather than to draw moral or political conclusions. But that didn’t stop folks from both sides of the gay-rights debate from drawing foolish inferences and alternately either praising or attacking her research.

Gay-rights opponents derided the work as agenda-driven propaganda. Gay-rights advocates, by contrast, saw it as new evidence for the “naturalness” of homosexuality and even as providing a justification for marriage equality.

The simple truth that both sides overlook is this: Research about animals tells us what other animals’ behavior is; it does not tell us what human behavior morally ought to be.

Notice the two key distinctions here. First, although humans are animals, they are not the same as other animals. That doesn’t mean that studying other animals can’t help us learn more about humans, often by suggesting hypotheses worth testing in humans. But species behave differently, and what’s true of albatross, or bonobos, or fruit flies frequently isn’t true of humans.

Second, there’s the distinction between the descriptive and the normative; between what is and what ought to be. The fact that animals (including human animals) do something does not entail that we morally SHOULD do it.

Which means that all of the empirical research in the world, as interesting and important and valuable as it is, won’t settle any moral disputes for us—at least not by itself.

I say “at least not by itself” because there are indirect ways in which this research may be relevant. Young’s findings, for example, provide a nice illustration of heterosexist bias among previous scientists, and there are more general moral lessons to be gleaned when we uncover bias.

Moreover, such research can undermine the premises of bad arguments used by the other side. (“Animals don’t even do that, therefore it’s obviously wrong.”) However, it’s worth noting that the arguments would be bad even if they were not based on false premises, since they still involve invalid inferences. (“Animals don’t cook their food either. What follows?”)

There’s also the undeniable fact that, whatever their logical flaws, these arguments have emotional resonance. As the Times essay notes:

“What animals do — what’s perceived to be ‘natural’ — seems to carry a strange moral potency: it’s out there, irrefutably, as either a validation or a denunciation of our own behavior, depending on how you happen to feel about homosexuality and about nature.”

But that’s just the point: the conclusion depends on “how you happen to feel.” The feelings are doing the work, not the logic.

When bad arguments are used in the service of good aims, what should we do?

Suppose Young’s study makes a parent less inclined to kick a gay child out of the house, because the parent (illogically) reads the study as proof that human homosexuality is “natural.” This sort of thing happens all the time, and I’m hardly inclined to call up the parent and point out his or her logical lapse.

There are, however, long-range consequences to such laxity. The same logical sloppiness that motivates this particular parent to do the right thing helps others to rationalize discrimination. Repeat after me: what other animals do is one thing; what humans morally ought to do is another. Only when we distinguish those questions can we make a sound case for equality.

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