First published at 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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First published at on March 26, 2010

Recent reports about students in Mississippi and Georgia seeking to bring same-sex dates to prom stirred memories of my own prom experience.

The year was 1987. I was “straight” then—or so I convinced myself. I knew I had “gay feelings” (as I put it), I knew I had no straight feelings, and I knew that people with gay feelings but no straight feelings are gay. And yet, by not letting these various ideas “touch,” I avoided drawing the obvious conclusion. (This, from someone who would later teach elementary logic.)

I had never been on a date with a woman before, or even kissed one. Sure, there was that time in fifth grade when I played spin-the-bottle, but as soon as I figured out what the game was, I ran from the room.

By the time I reached junior high and high school and noticed my “gay feelings,” it was easy to find excuses:

“I go to an all-boys Catholic school; I don’t know any girls,” I told myself and anyone in earshot. “Besides, I’m planning on becoming a priest” (which was true, starting around sophomore year). Pressure’s off!

Except that it wasn’t. Because my “normal” friends, even the ones who planned on priesthood, sought and found girls. I wasn’t feeling what I was “supposed” to feel, and it frightened me.

Patty Anne was someone with whom I served on the parish council. She went to an all-girls Catholic school. I called to invite her to my prom, she accepted, and minutes later she called back to invite me to hers. They were on consecutive nights, so I got a deal on the tux rental.

My prom went smoothly, and at the end of the evening, I gave her a prim kiss on the cheek.

Her prom was a little more involved. One of her friends with whom we were sharing the limo hosted a small pre-event party. Upon arriving, I had two very gay thoughts in rapid succession:

(1) [Upon seeing Patty:] That dress is hideous compared to last night’s.

(2) [Upon seeing her friends’ dates, all of whom were from a local military academy and looked stunningly handsome in their dress whites:] Uhhhhhh….HELLO!

I laugh about this now, but at the time, (2) was terrifying. Not-noticing girls was one thing, but noticing guys was quite another. And these guys, all dressed up and nicely groomed to impress their girlfriends, were hard for me not to notice.

These were the sorts of things spinning through my head on the post-prom limo ride to a club in Manhattan. Patty and I had the backwards-facing seats on either side of a small television; the remaining couples shared a large bench-seat facing forward.

Suddenly, the other couples started making out.

“Thank god for this little television separating us,” I thought.

But the television couldn’t protect me. Before I knew it, Patty was sitting on my lap.

We made out. It felt wrong—and that frightened me further.

When the limo dropped me home later that morning, I needed to “process,” so I hopped into my car and drove over to my best friend Michael’s house.

It was 6 a.m., and I stood in his backyard in my disheveled tux, throwing clothespins at his window to rouse him without waking his parents. (When his mother finally entered the kitchen, she glanced at me and asked, “Oh John—would you like an English muffin?” as if there were nothing unusual about daybreak guests in black tie.)

I think that conversation with Michael was the first time I told anyone other than a priest or a psychologist that I had “gay feelings.”—all the while continuing to insist that I was basically straight. Baby steps.

A year later, when I moved from “gay feelings” to just plain “gay,” Michael was among the first people I came out to. It would take another year beyond that before he mustered the courage to come out to me.

Which brings us back to Constance McMillen in Mississippi and Derrick Martin in Georgia, two brave young souls.

Constance’s prom has been canceled. A private prom is being held instead, and many of her classmates claim to hate her for “ruining” their regular prom.

Derrick, by contrast, will be allowed to attend prom with his boyfriend. The bad news is that his parents have kicked him out of the house over the incident.

How many more children must suffer because of these perverted values? How many more must live in silence and in fear, forced to choose between pretense and rejection, all while being denied the simple joys their peers take for granted?

For that matter, how many more adults must suffer?

That last question became especially poignant after I received comments from Michael on a draft of this column.

You see, Patty Anne, Constance, and Derrick are all their real names. “Michael” is not. He asked me to change it because, as he put it, “I am still pretty covert in my professional life.”

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First published at on March 19, 2010

It is sometimes said, “Once a Catholic, always a Catholic.” Which may be why the recent Colorado story about Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish School, which expelled two pre-schoolers because their parents are lesbians, saddens me.

Although I’m now an atheist, I was raised Catholic and attended Catholic schools for a good chunk of my life. There’s much about that experience that I still value. Thus (unlike many commentators on this story) I “get” why lesbians would want to send their children to a Catholic school in the first place. The rich intellectual and moral tradition, the emphasis on fundamentals—these are valuable things, and they’re often hard to find in public schools.

That’s not to say that Catholic schools are perfect, or that I’d send my own (entirely hypothetical) children there. But “perfect” is not usually an option when choosing schools—one chooses between better and worse.

Besides, these parents are (unlike me) practicing Catholics. They don’t accept everything the Church teaches, but then neither do most Catholics: the U.S. Bishops themselves estimate that 96% of married Catholics use artificial contraception, for example.

So while the parents’ choice is not one I would have made, it makes sense to me given their overall belief set and the available options.

So, too, does the decision of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish School to expel the children.

Before you conclude that The Gay Moralist has gone mad, hear me out.

To say that the decision “makes sense” is not to say that it was the morally correct decision. It wasn’t—not by a long shot.

Nor is it to say that the decision was logically consistent with other stances the Church has taken. Quite the contrary.

Indeed, if you’ve got a few minutes, check out Fox News heavyweight Bill O’Reilly pressing Father Jonathan Morris on this point. O’Reilly, to his credit, sides against the school, while Father Morris flails about and dodges the consistency question.

So does Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput. In his column he writes:

“Many of our schools also accept students of other faiths and no faith, and from single parent and divorced parent families. These students are always welcome so long as their parents support the Catholic mission of the school and do not offer a serious counter-witness to that mission in their actions.”

Key question that Morris and Chaput and the rest keep avoiding: How is it that lesbian parents offer counter-witness in the way that Muslim parents, or Jewish parents, or divorced parents do not?

(Note that by all accounts the lesbians were not what one would call “activists”—the story actually broke because outraged school faculty reported it to news outlets.)

The Church’s official teaching on divorce is the same as that of Jesus—namely, that those who divorce and remarry are engaging in an ongoing adulterous affair. And Muslims and Jews both deny the divinity of Christ, which is a pretty damn important part of the Catholic faith. So much for consistency.

So if the decision was immoral and inconsistent, in what possible way does it “make sense”?

For an answer, go back to the issues commonly raised to press the consistency point: interfaith marriage, contraception, and divorce. Look at the history of the Church and society on these issues.

There was a time, not very long ago, when the Roman Catholic Church quite vocally proclaimed its identity at the One True Faith. That’s still the official position, though you’d never know it by the Church’s ecumenical tone.

The reason for the shift is simple: the more Catholics got to know and love non-Catholics, the less palatable they found the doctrine that their friends were all going to hell. So the Church softened its tone.

Or take contraception, once scandalous, now used by the vast majority of Catholics, who understand it for what it is—a tool for responsible family planning. The more Catholics realized this, the less palatable they found the Church’s anti-contraception teaching. So the Church softened its tone.

And then there’s divorce, not a desirable thing generally, but sometimes the best available option. Can we really treat the nice couple next-door, one of whom was previously married, as flagrant adulterers? Of course we can’t. So the Church softened its tone—and stepped up the issuing of annulments, yet another tactic for preserving the appearance of consistency.

You can see where I’m going with this. The more a practice becomes normalized, the harder it is for the Church to maintain its condemnation without looking hopelessly archaic. It’s already lost on interfaith marriage, contraception, and divorce. It is desperately trying to stem the inevitable tide on homosexuality.

Then along comes a nice lesbian couple, loved by the parish community, who do what nice Catholic parents do—enroll their children in the local parish school. So nice! So normal! So…threatening. Threatening, that is, to make the Church look as archaic on this issue as it already does on the others. So Church officials draw a line in the sand.

Given their overall belief system, it makes sense. But it was still the wrong thing to do.

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First published at on March 12, 2010

The border guard didn’t even look up when she asked the question: “Citizenship?”


“And why are you in Canada?”

I paused. She looked up.

I was going to Canada to give a lecture, which would be easy enough to say. But then there would be the inevitable follow-up question: “A lecture on what?”

Instantly I thought back to a story once told to me by Glenn Stanton, my frequent debate-opponent from Focus on the Family. Just prior to Canada’s legalization of marriage for gays and lesbians, Glenn went there for a right-wing conference. When the border guard asked him, “Why are you in Canada?” he responded with “For a same-sex marriage conference.”

His border guard shot back, “We don’t need that shit here.”

After relaying the story to me Glenn added, “I thought to myself, what if it had been you, John?”

To which I responded, “Welcome to my world, Glenn.”

I live in Detroit, just next to Windsor, Ontario. I go there occasionally for dinner with friends, and most times the crossing is smooth. But if you happen to catch a border guard who’s having a bad day, or who’s on a power trip, or who’s just congenitally an asshole, be prepared for an unpleasant delay. I generally aim to give border guards all and only the information they absolutely need.

And yet a frequent theme in my advocacy work is the importance of coming out. Not just on National Coming Out Day, or at pride parades, or when writing columns for the gay press, but at any time when reference to one’s (actual or desired) significant other—or more generally, one’s life—would be appropriate. Coming out is an opportunity to teach diversity, and to be a role model for those around us and those who come after us.

More than that, it’s a chance for simple honesty: there’s something profoundly dehumanizing about treating one’s sexual orientation as a dirty little secret. I don’t want to be complicit in that.

So (for instance), last Valentine’s Day, when a Trader Joe’s employee presenting roses to female customers offered me one, saying, “Maybe you have a special girl at home to give this to?” I responded, “I’ll give it to my special GUY at home, thanks!”

Giving a diversity lesson to a Trader Joe’s employee is one thing; giving one to grumpy border guards is another. Military uniforms intimidate me more than Hawaiian shirts do. In the past, I’ve been harassed by Texas State troopers for kissing (yes, kissing) another man, and it wasn’t fun.

After that Texas incident, I filed a formal complaint, which resulted in the trooper’s being put on probation and having to take classes on Texas state law. I’m not afraid to stand up for my rights, but like most people, on some days I just don’t want to be bothered.

I admit I’m embarrassed to share these thoughts. It’s not just because of the great figures who have stood up for our rights even when it’s been inconvenient or dangerous: luminaries like Frank Kameny, Harvey Milk, Del Martin, Phyllis Lyon and Harry Hay. I’m sure even they had days when prudence trumped other virtues.

It’s because I was facing a CANADIAN BORDER GUARD, for goodness sake. They’re not exactly the SS.

So I’m embarrassed that the question gave me pause. But I share the story anyway, because it speaks to the tremendous power of the closet.

“Why are you in Canada?” She repeated the question, startling me from my deliberations.

“I’m giving a lecture at the University of Lethbridge.”

“A lecture regarding…?”

“Gay rights.”

Now she paused.

“Have you ever been to Lethbridge?” she finally asked.


“Well, good luck with your talk.” Then, as she stamped my declarations form, she leaned forward and whispered conspiratorially, “Really, good luck. It’s redneck country, you know.”

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First published at on March 5, 2010

This past week I had a new experience: debating Glenn Stanton, Focus on the Family employee and frequent opponent of mine, before an audience of people who mostly sided with him.

This has happened perhaps only once before: at a marriage debate at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, voted by the Princeton Review as the number #1 university “where ‘alternative lifestyles’ are NOT an alternative.”

But this past week’s experience was different, because we weren’t debating same-sex marriage. We were debating the existence of God.

I’ve been a non-believer for the past fifteen years or so. I’m not a fanatic about it. I don’t hand out tracts in airports or burn big question-marks on people’s lawns. But I don’t believe in God.

Frankly, there’s a part of me that feels a bit impolite even bringing up the subject. I’m trying to get over that feeling, since I believe this nation could use a healthy dose of religious skepticism. A great deal of mischief gets licensed in the name of faith, giving people “infallible” backing for their prejudices.

So when my speaking agent phoned and asked if I’d be interested in doing a debate on God’s existence, I jumped at the chance. Glenn seemed a natural foil: over the years, we’ve spent countless hours on the road discussing our contrasting worldviews, and that conversation was worth sharing. In my religious days I would have called it “witnessing,” and the term is still apt: it’s talking openly about things I find important, regardless of how (un)popular.

Make no mistake about it: atheism is unpopular. Polls regularly show in excess of 90% of Americans professing belief in God. Our debate was in Missouri, and even with efforts by the atheist, agnostic, and humanist student groups to rally the troops, I’d say that no more than 25% of audience members raised their hands when Glenn asked how many either didn’t believe in God or weren’t sure.

(Again, I thought such a direct question was impolite. With such reticence, you would think I had been raised Episcopalian.)

Here’s my position in a nutshell. I think there’s something deeply mysterious about the fact that human life—or for that matter, anything at all—exists. But I don’t see the point in trying to explain that mystery by appealing to something even more mysterious, and I don’t think that belief in God is supported by the evidence.

Do I think that it’s POSSIBLE that some kind of deity is out there? Sure—just like it’s possible that there’s life elsewhere in the universe. (It’s a pretty damn big universe.) So if your notion of God is vague enough, you could classify me as an agnostic.

But when it comes to the God of traditional theism—an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent creator who loves and cares deeply about us and reveals himself in scripture—I’m a flat-out atheist.

I don’t think the traditional picture of God is coherent, for two main reasons. One is the familiar Problem of Evil. The other, sometimes known as The Argument from Silence, is the tension between the claim that God wants us to know and love him, and the fact that he—though allegedly omnipotent—fails to make himself manifest to many people. That’s just not compatible with the image of God as a Loving Parent.

I don’t intend to establish any of these points in a short column. For that matter, I didn’t intend to establish them, in any final way, with most members of my audience this past week.

Instead, I aimed to do something akin to what I did when I started my public speaking career—in Texas, in the early 1990’s, often with hostile audiences. Back then, a big part of my mission was to provide an example of a thoughtful, real-life openly gay person to people who had never knowingly interacted with one. Replace “openly gay person” with “open atheist,” and you’ve got what I’m doing now.

Even after an hour of Q&A, I had dozens of Christians lining up to ask me personal questions. (I invited them to, so it wasn’t impolite.)

Question: “What do you think happens to you after you die?”
Answer: “The same thing that happened to me before I was born—nothing.”

Question: “What do you say to people who claim to have direct experience of God?”
Answer: “Are they actually hearing voices? Then they should see a doctor. Are they just having a ‘deep-down feeling’? Then how do they know it’s God?”

And so on.

Do I worry that my being outspokenly atheist will undermine my efforts as a gay-rights advocate (perhaps by feeding an image of gays as amoral heathens)?

I used to, but I don’t anymore. As I said, I think society needs a healthy dose of religious skepticism. And while I no longer believe in God, I still very much believe in truth, and courage, and integrity.

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First published at on February 26, 2010

Okay—so I promise that this is my last column for a while on the definition of marriage. Four out of five in a row is enough.

But I’ve learned a lot from writing these, especially because of comments from various marriage-equality opponents. Three points stick out.

First, the definitional argument is deeply important to them. Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise anyone. But it does surprise me that even those who explicitly acknowledge that marriage is an evolving institution place great weight on what marriage has been, as if that would settle the question once and for all of what marriage can or should be. It doesn’t.

Second, marriage does not lend itself to a pithy definition. Whatever marriage is, its definition won’t be like, “A triangle is a three-sided plane figure.”

That’s because marriage is both evolving and multifaceted. Marriage is, among other things, a social institution, a personal commitment, a religious sacrament, and a legal status. It looks different from the spouses’ perspective than it does from the outside; it looks different respectively to anthropologists, philosophers, theologians, lawyers, and so on.

Each of these perspectives can tell us something about what marriage is; none of them is complete or final. Any definition they provide, however useful, will be partial.

Third, those who emphasize the definitional argument, when they’re not simply begging the question against marriage-equality advocates, often invoke a false dichotomy: Either marriage is a social institution for binding parents (and especially fathers) to their biological offspring, or else it is an adult expression of love—an expression that these opponents variously dismiss as selfish, empty, or “fluttery”.

Contrast this with the actual view of most marriage-equality advocates, which is that marriage is both of these things, and then some.

Yes, marriage is the cross-cultural institution that has provided for the needs of children. But how? What makes marriage so suited to this purpose?

I’ll hazard a guess: it does so because it is also an abiding commitment between the spouses. It binds them together “for keeps,” thus creating a stable environment for any children who arrive.

So the view that marriage consists in abiding love between adults is not merely COMPATIBLE with the view that marriage serves children’s welfare; the former actually helps explain the latter.

There’s nothing “fluttery” about this. The abiding love of marriage is not just a vague feeling or promise—it’s an ongoing activity. I’m reminded of the words of St. Augustine, “Dilige, et quod vis fac”: “Love, and do what you want.” Augustine knew that true love is challenging; it takes work.

After one of my recent columns, a prominent same-sex marriage opponent wrote:

“I invite you to look back at the entire world history of anthropological thought on the topic of what is marriage, and point out to me even ONE example of ONE scholar who has, based on ethnographic data, said, actually or in effect, since recorded history began, that marriage in human groups is properly defined as the promise of abiding love. If you can identify even one reputable scholar in the history of the world who has made such a statement or implied such a thing, I will grovel before you in abject intellectual humility and gladly buy you the lunch of your choice…”

Well, I couldn’t find an anthropologist who said that. Actually, I didn’t bother looking. Anthropologists define marriage by its cultural function, and “abiding love” isn’t really their angle. But I did find this:

“The inner and essential raison d’etre of marriage is not simply eventual transformation into a family but above all the creation of a lasting personal union between a man and a woman based on love.”

What radical, “fluttery” activist wrote these words?

Actually, it was Pope John Paul II.

Of course the late pope defines marriage as “between a man and a woman.” No shock there. But the interesting thing is that he writes that marriage is “above all…a lasting personal union…based on love.”

Perhaps he was distracted when he wrote this. Perhaps the Radical Gay Agenda had begun to infiltrate the Vatican.

Or perhaps the pope realized what most people know. Marriage is fundamentally a lasting personal union based on love—which is not to say that it is ONLY that.

As I said above—and it bears repeating—any neat definition of marriage will be partial and imperfect. There are counterexamples to this characterization, ways in which it is both too broad and too narrow.

But “marriage” is not definable in the way “triangle” or “bachelor” is.

And when marriage-equality opponents feel compelled to repudiate characterizations of marriage that The Gay Moralist, the previous pope, and most married couples all find obvious, you know they’re in trouble.

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First published at on February 19, 2010

An opponent writes, “What’s YOUR definition of marriage? If you’re going to use a word, you need a definition of the word.”

I doubt that.

After all, most English speakers can competently use the word “yellow,” but ask them to define the term (without merely pointing to examples) and watch them stammer.

And then try words like “law,” “opinion,” and “game” just for fun. It’s quite possible to have functional knowledge of how to use a term without being able to articulate the boundaries of the relevant concept.

Alright, you say, but as someone deeply involved in the marriage debate, surely the Gay Moralist has a definition to offer?

Yes and no. I have definitions to offer, not a definition.

The word “marriage” can refer to many different things: a personal commitment, a religious sacrament, a social institution, a legal status.

And even if we focus on one of those—say, the social institution—there are other challenges. As David Blankenhorn puts it: “There is no single, universally accepted definition of marriage—partly because the institution is constantly evolving, and partly because many of its features vary across groups and cultures.”

Blankenhorn makes this point in his book _The Future of Marriage_. It’s an interesting concession, since he spends much of the rest of the chapter railing against marriage-equality advocates for offering “insubstantial” and “fluttery” definitions that emphasize personal commitment over marriage’s social meaning.

Not surprisingly, his own definition emphasizes children:

“In all or nearly all human societies, marriage is socially approved sexual intercourse between a woman and a man, conceived as both a personal relationship and an institution, primarily such that any children resulting from the union are—and are understood by the society to be—emotionally, morally, practically, and legally affiliated with both of the parents.”

Putting aside the odd claim that “marriage is…sexual intercourse” (rather than, say, a context for such intercourse), this is actually a pretty good description of what marriage typically is.

But the “typically” is key. On the very next page, Blankenhorn acknowledges a counterexample (raised by Christian theologians, no less): Marriage can’t be essentially sexual, since if it were, the Virgin Mary’s “marriage” to Joseph would not be a marriage. (And one could point to plenty of contemporary sexless marriages that are nevertheless marriages.)

Moreover, Blankenhorn’s own definition includes the hedge-word “primarily,” acknowledging that marriage has goals beyond providing for children’s needs.

My fellow philosophers are often enamored of analyses that provide “necessary and sufficient conditions” for concepts: definitions that capture all, and only, the members of a class. But I have yet to see anyone on either side of this debate do that for marriage, and I doubt that it’s possible.

The definition would have to be broad enough to include unions as disparate as King Solomon’s polygamous household; Elizabeth Taylor’s marriages to her various husbands; my maternal grandparents’ arranged marriage; Bill’s marriage to Hillary; Barack’s marriage to Michelle. It would have to make sense of metaphors such as the claim that nuns are “married” to Christ (traditional profession ceremonies even involved wedding dresses). And yet it couldn’t be so broad as to include just any committed relationship.

Are there necessary conditions for a union’s being a marriage? Sure. For instance, there must be at least two persons. (I say “at least” because polygamous marriages are still marriages, whatever other objections we might have to them.)

Beyond the “at least two persons” requirement, we find a host of features that are typical: mutual care and concern, romantic and sexual involvement, a profession of lifelong commitment, the begetting and rearing of children.

But “typical” does not mean “strictly necessary,” and for any one of these features, it takes very little imagination to think of a genuine marriage that lacks it. A “marriage of convenience” is still a marriage, legally speaking. A childless marriage is still a marriage. A marriage on the brink of divorce is still, for the time being, a marriage.

I am not suggesting that any of these scenarios is ideal. But our opponents’ objection isn’t that same-sex unions aren’t “ideal” marriages. It’s that they’re not marriages AT ALL. And that objection is much harder to sustain when one surveys the various overlapping arrangements—some with children, some without; some intensely romantic; some not—that we call “marriage.”

So what is marriage? For me, the standard vow captures it nicely, though of course not perfectly or completely. These are the words my parents used, and the same words I used with my partner Mark:

Marriage is a commitment “to have and to hold; from this day forward; for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; to love and to cherish; ‘til death do us part.”

“Fluttery?” Maybe. But real, and important, and good.

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First published at on February 12, 2010

Since my recent column [] discussing the “definitional argument” against marriage equality, I’ve learned something unsurprising:

There is no single, standard “definitional argument.” There are, rather, various definitional arguments, and part of the problem is pinning down which one our opponents intend.

In the hope of advancing the debate—or at least of showing that the moving target is indeed moving—I’d like to distinguish, and briefly respond to, four versions. I’ll give them names for convenience:

1. The “Logical Impossibility” Version:

This, in some ways, is the purest definitional argument against same-sex marriage. It is also the silliest. Here’s Alliance Defense Fund attorney Jeffery Ventrella:

“[T]o advocate same-sex ‘marriage’ is logically equivalent to seeking to draw a ‘square circle’: One may passionately and sincerely persist in pining about square circles, but the fact of the matter is, one will never be able to actually draw one.”

And again,

“The public square has no room for square circles, because like the Tooth Fairy, they do not really exist.”

Notice that people don’t normally bother arguing against square circles or passing constitutional amendments banning them, precisely because they do not—and cannot—exist.

Are same-sex marriages similar? Surely SOMETHING exists that people refer to as “same-sex marriage,” and the question at hand is whether they should persist in doing so. Ventrella’s “square circles” argument doesn’t answer that question: it begs it.

In other words, Ventrella is assuming what he’s supposed to be proving.

2. The “Obscuring Differences” Version:

This version, which is related to the first, states that same-sex relationships and opposite-sex relationships are so different that using the word “marriage” to apply to both would obscure a fundamental distinction in nature. As Maggie Gallagher puts it, “Politicians can pass a bill saying a chicken is a duck and that doesn’t make it true. Truth matters.”

Note that the objection is not that using terms this way would have bad consequences—confusing the butcher, for example—but that it would fail to divide up the world correctly. Even if nobody noticed or cared, such usage would blur a real boundary in nature.

The problem (as I argued previously []) is that marriage is a human institution, the boundaries of which are drawn and redrawn for human purposes.

3. The “Bad Consequences” Version:

But what if such redrawing had bad consequences? This, I think, is the real concern driving the definitional arguments. Gallagher, for example, thinks that defining “marriage” to include gays and lesbians would ultimately erode the institution.

David Blankenhorn has similar concerns. Indeed, his own version of the argument makes the consequentialist undercurrent apparent: instead of square circles or duck-chickens, Blankenhorn asks us to imagine what would happen if the word “ballet” were used to refer to all forms of dance.

Of course redefining “ballet” that way would be bad. But that’s because doing so would frustrate human aims. If you go to the theater to see ballet and end up getting Riverdance instead, you’ll likely be upset or disappointed.

Would extending marriage to gays and lesbians frustrate human aims in a similar way? Marriage-equality opponents like Blankenhorn and Gallagher certainly think so. Specifically, they think it would sever marriage from its core function of binding children to their mothers and fathers.

But now it seems that the definitional point is no longer doing any argumentative work. The real objection here is that same-sex marriage harms society. If that’s the objection, let’s focus on it directly.

4. The Constitutional-Law Version:

There is, however, a fourth version of the definitional argument, one specifically related to the constitutional debate.

Legal advocates for marriage equality—such as Ted Olson and David Boies, who are challenging California’s Prop. 8—often argue that gays and lesbians deserve the freedom to marry because of the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal-protection and due-process guarantees. But if same-sex marriage involves CHANGING the definition of marriage, opponents contend, the Fourteenth-Amendment argument falters.

According to this version of the definitional argument, gays and lesbians are not being denied equal access to an existing institution, they are asking for an existing institution to be re-defined. There may well be good reasons for redefining it. But that is a matter for legislatures to decide, not courts.

This version is more subtle than the others, and addressing it fully requires more space than I have here. But my quick response would be that marriage caselaw over the last four decades suggests that male-female isn’t a defining element in the way this argument requires.

Consider for example Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), which affirmed the right of married couples to purchase contraceptives, and Turner v. Safley (1987), which affirmed the right of prisoners to marry. Marriage is defined by its core purposes, and those purposes do not necessarily require (actual or potential) procreation.

The fact is that same-sex couples fall in love and commit their lives to each other for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, until death do they part.

And if it looks like a duck and walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then legally speaking it ought to be treated like a duck.

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First published at on February 5, 2010

Brian Brown throws around the term “irrational” quite a bit.

Brown is the Executive Director of the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), an anti-gay-marriage organization (Maggie Gallagher is its president). I first came across his name last summer when the Washington Post profiled him, describing him as “pleasantly, ruthlessly sane” and “rational.”

From the profile, it appears that “irrational” is Brown’s favorite term of abuse.

For example, he claims it’s irrational when polls indicate that most young people support equal marriage rights for gays and lesbians. Or when people argue that marriage equality is ultimately inevitable. Or when they describe his position as bigotry:

“I think it’s irrational that up until 10 years ago, all of these societies agreed with my position [and yet now they’re changing]” he tells the Post.

However, the term “irrational” was given new meaning in Brown’s most recent fundraising letter, in which he uses a new Department of Health and Human Services study, the “Fourth National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect (NIS-4),” to argue against same-sex marriage.

Brown cites the HHS study as stating that

“Children living with two married biological parents had the lowest rate of overall Harm Standard maltreatment, at 6.8 per 1,000 children. This rate differs significantly from the rates for all other family structure and living arrangement circumstances.”

Brown goes on to argue,

“All parents working hard to raise good kids…deserve our respect and help. But there is no call to wipe out the ideal itself, rooted in Nature and Nature’s God, and replace it with a man-made fantasy that same-sex unions are just the same as the one kind of union that best protects children.”

Got that? Children do best with a married biological mother and father. Therefore, we ought to oppose same-sex marriage.

I felt like I was missing some steps—maybe I was being “irrational”—so I went and read the study Brown cites. And I learned a few interesting things.

First, the 455-page study says not a word about gay and lesbian parents. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Which makes it essentially useless for anyone wanting to do a three-way comparison between children of married straight parents, married gay parents, and unmarried gay parents.

The study does indeed find that, on average, children living with married biological parents are at substantially lower risk of maltreatment than children in other family structures studied: namely, those with “other married parents” (not both biological but both having a legal relationship to the child), unmarried parents (biological or other), single parents with an unmarried partner, unpartnered single parents, and no parents.

What follows from this finding is quite simple. My fellow gays and lesbians should stop snatching children away from married biological parents who are raising them. As the Gay Moralist, I hereby call for an immediate cessation of this horrible practice. It’s bad for the kids. Stop it. Thank you.

Back on Planet Earth, where gay and lesbian people are generally not kidnapping children from their married biological parents, the relevant conclusion is rather different.

To the extent that the study teaches us about gay and lesbian families at all, it is to suggest that children in them would do far better IF THEIR PARENTS COULD GET MARRIED.

Are you listening, Mr. Rational? The study actually shows the OPPOSITE of what you’re using it for.

But wait—there’s more. Everything I’ve said thus far (and indeed, everything in the HHS report) assumes an “all else being equal” clause. But of course, all else is often not equal.
Which is why the report looks at factors beyond family structure, and notes that, for example

• Children of the unemployed are at a 2-3 times higher risk for maltreatment.

• Children in large households (four or more children) had more than twice the incidence of maltreatment than those in two-child families.

• Children in families of low socio-economic status were 5 times more likely to be victims of maltreatment than other children.

Somehow, however, I don’t expect Brown to oppose marriage for the poor, or for his fellow conservative Catholics (who tend to have large families).

Or maybe to ask wealthy lesbians (Ellen and Portia?) to revive that imaginary kidnapping trend.

The general problem here is familiar: making the best the enemy of the good. Brown’s argument presupposes that the only people who should be allowed to marry are those whose marriages would create ideal scenarios for children.

By that logic, NOM’s own president wouldn’t have been allowed her current marriage, since that marriage created a stepfamily. Logician, heal thyself.

Meanwhile, there are several million American children being raised by gay parents. What (if anything) can the HHS study tell us about them?

According to the study, children living with “other married parents” (at least one non-biological) are at LESS THAN HALF the risk of maltreatment compared to children living with a single parent and an unmarried partner.

So if we really care about these children’s welfare, we should let their parents marry. It’s only rational.

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First published at on January 29, 2010

Opponents of marriage equality have recently been shifting somewhat away from the “bad for children” argument in favor of what we might call the “definitional” argument: same-sex “marriage” is not really marriage, and thus legalizing it would amount to a kind of lie or counterfeit.

As National Organization for Marriage (NOM) president Maggie Gallagher puts it: “Politicians can pass a bill saying a chicken is a duck and that doesn’t make it true. Truth matters.”

The definitional argument isn’t new, although its resurgence is telling. Unlike the “bad for children” argument, it’s immune from empirical testing: it’s a conceptual point, not an empirical one.

Suppose we grant for argument’s sake that marriage has been male-female pretty much forever. (For now, I’m putting aside anthropological evidence of same-sex unions in history, as well as the great diversity of marriage forms even within the male-female paradigm.) All that would follow is that this is how marriage HAS BEEN. It would not follow that marriage cannot become something else.

At this point opponents are likely to retort that changing marriage in this way would be bad because [insert parade of horrible consequences here]. But if they do, they’ve in effect conceded the impotence of the definitional argument. The definitional argument is supposed to be IN ADDITION TO the consequentialist arguments, not a proxy for them. Otherwise, we could just stay focused on the consequentialist arguments.

What Gallagher and her cohorts are contending is that EVEN IF we were to take the consequentialist arguments off the table, there will still be the problem that same-sex marriage promotes a lie, much like calling a chicken a duck.

Let’s pause to consider a seemingly silly question: apart from consequences, what’s the problem with calling a chicken a duck—or more precisely, with using the word “chicken” to refer to both chickens and ducks?

If I go to the grocer and ask for a chicken and unwittingly come home with a (fattier and less healthful) duck, that’s a problem. But (1) same-sex marriage poses no similar problem: no one worries about walking his bride down the aisle, lifting her veil, and discovering “Damn! You’re a dude!” And (2) such problems are still in the realm of consequences.

If there’s an inherent problem with using the word “chicken” to refer to both chickens and ducks, it’s that doing so would obscure a real difference in nature. Whatever we call them—indeed, whether we name them at all—chickens and ducks are distinct creatures.

Something similar would occur if we used the word “silver” to refer to both silver and platinum. Even if no one noticed and no one cared, the underlying realities would be different.

That might begin to get at what marriage-equality opponents mean when they claim that same sex marriage involves “a lie about human nature” (Gallagher’s words). But if it does, then their argument is weak on at least two counts.

First, one can acknowledge a difference between two things while still adopting a blanket term that covers them both. Both chickens and ducks are fowl; both silver and platinum are precious metals.

So even if same-sex and opposite-sex relationships differ in some fundamental way, there’s nothing to prevent us from using the term “marriage” to cover relationships of both sorts—especially if we have compelling reasons for doing so (for example, that marriage equality would make life better for millions of gay people and wouldn’t take anything away from straight people).

The second and deeper problem is that both the chicken/duck example and the silver/platinum example involve what philosophers call “natural kinds”—categories that “carve nature at the joints,” as it were. By contrast, marriage is quintessentially a social, or artifactual, kind: it’s something that humans create.

(One might retort that God created marriage. That rejoinder won’t help marriage-equality opponents attempting to provide a constitutionally valid reason against secular marriage equality. But it might help explain why they sometimes treat marriage as if it were a fixed object in nature.)

Like “baseball,” “art,” “war,” and “government”—to take a random list—and unlike “chicken” or “silver,” the word “marriage” refers to something that humans arrange and can rearrange. Indeed, they HAVE rearranged it. Polygamy was once the norm; wives were the legal property of their husbands; mutual romantic interest was the exception rather than the rule.

Of course it doesn’t follow that any and all rearrangements are advisable.

We could change baseball so that it has four outs per inning. Doing so might or might not improve the game. But saying “that’s not really baseball!” is hardly a compelling argument against the change (any more than it was against changing the designated-hitter rule).

So too with the claim “that’s not really marriage.” Maybe that’s not what marriage WAS. But should it be now?

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