First published, in a slightly different form, in Between the Lines, August 24, 2006

Princeton natural-law theorist Robert George wrote recently at the First Things website that

For years, critics of the idea of same-sex ‘marriage’ have made the point that accepting the proposition that two persons of the same sex can marry each other entails abandoning any principled basis for understanding marriage as the union of two and only two persons. So far as I am aware, our opponents have made no serious effort to answer or rebut this point.

I found this last claim irritating, mainly because I’m one of the people who has answered the point—not only in several columns, but also in the academic journal Ethics, with which George (a professor of jurisprudence) is surely acquainted. Indeed, when I was working on that article, I corresponded with George about it, since it discusses his work at some length.

Fellow gay-rights advocate Jonathan Rauch quickly challenged George’s absurd claim at the online Independent Gay Forum, prompting a rejoinder from George:

But the point that is most relevant here is that Rauch’s arguments [against polygamy] are about social consequences and costs, they are not about the principles that constitute marriage as such. Rauch and the authors he cites (John Corvino, Dale Carpenter, and Paul Varnell) do not make a serious effort to show that, as a matter of principle, marriage is an exclusive union of the sort that is incompatible with polygamy (much less polyamory). Corvino doesn’t even join Rauch in asserting that there is anything wrong with polygamy—much less that polygamy is incompatible in principle with true marriage. Putting it in the hypothetical, he says, “If there’s a good argument against polygamy, it’s likely to be a fairly complex public-policy argument having to do with marriage patterns, sexism, economics, and the like.”

Time for some clarification.

First, George is right that I am agnostic on the question of whether polygamy is always and everywhere a bad idea. While I find Rauch’s arguments on the typical social costs of polygamy persuasive, I remain open to the possibility that it could be structured in such a way to avoid those costs.

But the issue is not what I (or any other gay-rights advocate) happens to believe. The issue is whether being a gay-rights advocate inherently “entails abandoning any principled basis for understanding marriage as the union of two and only two persons,” as George puts it. And the answer to that question is obviously “no.” Rauch is a clear counterexample: he’s a gay-rights advocate who adduces general moral principles to oppose polygamy.

Why does George claim otherwise? The answer has to do with his confusion about what it means to have a “principled” objection to something. More specifically, he confuses having “a principled objection” with having “an objection in principle.” The difference is subtle but important. To have a principled objection is to base one’s opposition on principles (rather than simply to assert it arbitrarily). Rauch surely does this.

By contrast, to have an “objection in principle” is to object to a thing in itself, not on the basis of any extrinsic reason. Rauch doesn’t object to polygamy “in principle”; he objects to it for being harmful, and if it weren’t harmful he presumably wouldn’t object to it.

It’s worth noting that relatively few things are wrong “in principle.” Throwing knives at people isn’t wrong “in principle”: it’s wrong because it’s harmful, and if it weren’t harmful (say, because humans had metal exoskeletons), it wouldn’t be wrong. Of course, the world would have to be quite different than it is for that to be the case. Similarly, the world would have to be quite different than it is for polygamy not to have serious social costs. But public-policy arguments are quite rightly based on the actual world, not on bizarre hypotheticals.

This distinction is important, because once one moves from “no objection in principle” to “no principled objection,” it’s a short slide to “no serious objection”—and thus a bad misrepresentation of the position of mainstream gay-rights advocates.

So, to be clear: Rauch, Carpenter, Varnell, and others have a principled objection to polygamy, but not an objection in principle. But here’s the kicker: neither does George. For George’s natural-law position is based on the requirement that sex be “of the procreative kind.” And polygamy is very much of the procreative kind. Even if one accepts George’s nebulous “two-in-one-flesh union” requirement—which somehow allows permits sterile heterosexual couples to have sex but prohibits homosexual couples from doing so—nothing in that requirement precludes multiple iterations (and thus polygamy). If George wants to argue that polygamy is wrong, he’s going to have to appeal to the same sort of extrinsic principles that Rauch invokes. Either that, or he’s going to have to just baldly assert that marriage is two-person, period. If such ad hoc assertions don’t count as abandoning “principled” argument, I’m not sure what does.

George has claimed before that “the intrinsic value of (opposite sex) marriage…has to be grasped in noninferential acts of understanding.” In other words, you can’t argue for it: you either get it or you don’t. My guess is that he’d say the same thing about the two-person requirement. But two can play at that game. For there’s nothing to prevent Rauch (or Carpenter or Varnell or me) from saying, “Hey—I don’t get the opposite sex part, but I do get the two-person part. There’s my principled reason for opposing polygamy.”

Funny how it’s no more convincing when we do it than when George does.

Read more

First published in Between the Lines on Thursday July 13, 2006.

By now you’ve probably heard about the New York Court of Appeals’ deciding that their state constitution does not require equal marriage rights for same-sex couples. Problem is, much of what you’ve heard is misleading.

Yes, the Court declared that “The New York Constitution does not compel recognition of marriages between members of the same sex.” But no, they did not declare such marriages unconstitutional, nor did they “vote to prohibit” such marriages. Rather, they decided that “Whether such marriages should be recognized is a question to be addressed by the Legislature.” Indeed, they explicitly encouraged the legislature to take up the issue.

Courts are not supposed to decide whether policies are good; they’re supposed to decide whether policies pass constitutional muster. What the Court did here was to ask whether the current policy of limiting marriage to heterosexuals violates the Due Process or Equal Protection clauses of the New York State Constitution.

To answer this question, the Court considered whether New York could have a “rational basis” for restricting marriage to heterosexuals. The Court concluded that it could, and it thus ruled that the restriction is constitutional–which again, is not the same as ruling that it’s smart or sensible.

The rational-basis test is easily misunderstood. It does not ask whether a law is rational in the sense of being wise or compelling. It simply asks whether some non-arbitrary reason can be offered to justify it, which is a pretty easy hurdle to clear. And the Court suggests an interesting one on the Legislature’s behalf:

[T]he Legislature could rationally decide that, for the welfare of children, it is more important to promote stability, and to avoid instability, in opposite-sex than in same-sex relationships. Heterosexual intercourse has a natural tendency to lead to the birth of children; homosexual intercourse does not. Despite the advances of science, it remains true that the vast majority of children are born as a result of a sexual relationship between a man and a woman, and the Legislature could find that this willcontinue to be true. The Legislature could also find that such relationships are all too often casual or hitemporary. It could find that an important function of marriage is to create more stability and permanence in the relationships that cause children to be born. It thus could choose to offer an inducement–in the form of marriage and its attendant benefits–to opposite-sex couples who make a solemn, long-term commitment to each other.

Generally speaking, heterosexuals but not homosexuals say “Whoops, we’re pregnant.” Essentially, the Court is saying that that fact is a potential justification for restricting marriage to heterosexual couples.

As I said, a justification doesn’t have to be a good one to pass the rational-basis test. Nonetheless, as arguments against same-sex marriage go, this one is better than most. Indeed, if I were back on my high school debate team and forced to argue the “con” side in a same-sex marriage debate, I’m not sure I could do much better.

Which is sad, because the argument is pretty poor. It falsely presupposes that the primary function of marriage is to protect children accidentally produced by heterosexual sex. What an impoverished view of that great institution.

Moreover, the argument ignores the difference between having a reason to endorse heterosexual marriage and having a reason to prohibit gay marriage. One can support marriage for heterosexuals (I do) without thinking that it should be restricted to them. One might just as well argue that because there’s a reason for giving a bus discount to the elderly, there must be a reason for denying one to minors, or vice-versa.

But it’s important to keep in mind that the Court is not endorsing the argument quoted above. Notice its frequent use of the subjunctive (“the legislature could decide,” “the legislature could find”). Not “did decide.” Not “should decide.” Essentially, the Court is throwing this hot potato back in the legislature’s court.

And therein lies the silver lining. In an election year, when right-wingers eagerly point to “activist judges” trying to “redefine marriage” and then use that threat to rally voters to pass reactionary amendments, the New York Court has declined to become their next poster child. Whether this was the correct decision legally is a subject for another day. But politically, it makes a point: when judges in “liberal New York” refuse to mandate same-sex marriage, right-wingers in places like Virginia and South Dakota are deprived of a key scare tactic.

Meanwhile, New Yorkers who advocate marriage equality can urge their legislature to do the job the court has ceded to it. Note that when the California legislature tried to enact marriage equality, the governor vetoed it, stating that it was a matter for the courts. Here the governor can’t do that (at least not with a straight face). While George Pataki, New York’s outgoing Republican governor, has promised to veto any such legislation, Democratic candidate Eliot Spitzer supports marriage equality.

All of which is to say: in the spirit of summer, when the Court hands you lemons, make some lemonade.

Read more

First published in Between the Lines, June 15, 2006

“A vote for this amendment is a vote for bigotry, pure and simple.” So said Senator Ted Kennedy in response to the so-called “Marriage Protection Amendment,” which defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman and preempts the right of states to interpret their own constitutions regarding marriage and civil unions. (The amendment failed on a procedural vote.)

Reaction to Kennedy’s remarks was swift and predictable. “Does he really want to suggest that over half of the United States Senate is a crew of bigots?” griped Senator Orrin Hatch. Columnist Maggie Gallagher scolded, “Conducting this debate in a spirit of mutual respect and civility would be a lot easier if gay marriage advocates stopped pretending that only fear, hatred or bigotry is at the root of these disagreements.”

It’s tempting to respond, “But’cha ARE, Blanche. Ya ARE a bigot.” Please resist the temptation for just a moment.

What is bigotry? As is often the case on controversial terms, the dictionary is of limited help here. The American Heritage Dictionary defines a bigot as “one who is strongly partial to one’s own group, religion, race, or politics and is intolerant of those who differ.” Webster’s definition is similar: “a person obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices.”

Now there must be a difference between merely disagreeing with those who differ and being “intolerant” of them. By definition, everyone disagrees with “those who differ”–that’s just what it means to “differ.” And everyone is presumably “devoted” to his own opinions in some sense (otherwise, why hold them?).

So it’s not bigotry merely to disagree with someone: one must also be “intolerant” of those who differ. But what does that mean? That one wishes to silence them? Surely, that applies to many gay-rights opponents, who would like very much to push us back into the closet. That one is willing to use force to silence them? Surely, that’s too strong a criterion. Those who believe (for example) that the races should be separated are bigots even if they stop short of advocating using police power to achieve the separation.

It seems, rather, that to call someone a bigot is at least in part to express a value judgment. It is to suggest that the bigot’s views are beyond the pale. So the dictionary definition only gets half of the picture: it’s not merely that the bigot doesn’t tolerate those who differ, it is also that we ought not tolerate him. In a free society we should not silence him, but we should certainly shun him. Thus, to call someone a bigot is not just to say something about the bigot’s views, it’s to say something about your own.

Where does this leave us with respect to the marriage debate? Some opponents of marriage equality do indeed hold views worthy of the utmost contempt. Take for example the view that the government may imprison gays and lesbians for private, consensual acts of affection–a view held publicly by our own president, who endorsed anti-sodomy laws before the U.S. Supreme Court struck them down in 2003.

Or consider the view that gay partners should not be permitted to enter contracts allowing them to make health care and funeral decisions for each other–a view that will likely become part of Virginia’s constitution as voters decide this November on an amendment that, among other things, prohibits recognition of “a legal status for relationships of unmarried individuals that intends to approximate the design, qualities, significance, or effects of marriage.” (Intolerant? Who are you calling intolerant?)

Certainly, not everyone who supports the federal marriage amendment deserves the epithet of “bigot.” Many are decent folk. Some endorse civil unions while opposing full-fledged marriage. A good number base their views on sincere religious convictions. But let’s also recognize that basing a view on religion doesn’t exempt it from critical moral scrutiny. (Slaveholders quoted the bible too.)

Let’s grant that calling people names–even ones that accurately express our convictions–is no substitute for reasoned argument. But let’s also grant that, in politics, leaders often influence citizens by drawing strong rhetorical lines. Think of George W. Bush’s frequent references to those who “hate freedom” in the 2004 presidential race. A fair and balanced assessment of the motives of the terrorists? Not really. Rhetorically powerful? You betcha.

Now, Kennedy didn’t exactly call supporters of the amendment bigots. Rather, he called the amendment “bigotry.” (It’s a fine line, not unlike “love the sinner/hate the sin.”) It’s certainly possible for a political maneuver to be unacceptably intolerant even though some of its supporters fail to realize as much.

But in calling the amendment “bigotry,” Kennedy was not merely describing it. He was also exhorting others to oppose it, in the strongest rhetorical terms. Amen to that.

Read more

First published in Between the Lines on June 1, 2006.

I am writing this column at my desk at the Xianlin Hotel at Nanjing Normal University in China, where I am delivering a two-week series of lectures on business ethics. Prior to arriving here I visited Beijing, and in a week I will visit Hong Kong, where I will lecture on homosexuality. Thankfully, Hong Kong is far more receptive to the topic than the mainland: when my hosts in Nanjing proposed that I deliver a lecture on homosexuality, the university administration deemed it “too controversial.”

While homosexual conduct is not technically against the law in China, nor is it legally protected, and gay people are somewhat subject to the whims of local officials. Until 1997 Chinese gays could be prosecuted for “hooliganism,” a somewhat vague charge that was easily open to abuse. Until 2001 China’s psychiatric association classified homosexuality as a mental disorder, and the perception that gays are sick remains common.

But the main problem facing gay Chinese comes not from police or doctors but from family. Pressure to marry is strong, and most gays choose to remain closeted rather than disappoint their parents. As one student explained to me during a dinner conversation, “One of my friends is homosexy…”

“Homosexual,” I corrected, although I quite like the idea of being homosexy…

“…and it made his mother very sad.”

Another student piped in, “The only thing they can do is move far away. Some of them change their names to avoid disgracing family.”

Mind you, these same students told me that it’s not so bad to be gay in China anymore. “Most people think it’s nobody’s business,” they said, unwittingly touching upon a key aspect of the problem: gay invisibility. The issue is just not on people’s radar here.

Hence the puzzled look I received when I checked into an upscale Western hotel in Beijing and reassured the desk clerk–twice–that my partner and I only wanted one bed in the room.

Hence the fact that my students – whom I intend to come out to before leaving – have absolutely no clue that I’m gay. Despite the fact that I arrived with my partner. Despite the fact that I was introduced at my first lecture (with generous hyperbole) as a “great American expert on homosexuality.” Despite the fact that I keep asking them questions about being gay here.

More generally, I am struck by these students lack of maturity on sexual issues. Most of them are graduate students, with an average age of about 25. Yet they giggled through much of my lecture on sexual harassment.

At times I’ve just wanted to blurt out “I’m gay!” During one dinner one of my female students grinned when she saw me use my chopsticks. “Chinese say, when you hold chopsticks at far end you marry girl far away; when you hold chopsticks at near end you marry girl close by. You hold chopsticks in center – is good!”

I thought about switching my chopsticks to my left hand, but I’m quite certain that the point would have been much too subtle, even coming from the great American expert on homosexuality.

There are some slow signs of progress: the declassification of homosexuality as a mental disorder in 2001, China’s first undergraduate gay-studies course at the prestigious Fudan University in Shanghai in 2005, and a gay cultural festival organized in Beijing last December. The festival, sadly, was shut down by police, a sign that the country still has a long way to go. It is also worth noting that my research on this column was hampered by limited access to certain Web sites. This is not yet a free country in the sense most Americans understand the term.

A couple of other striking things about China: it is not at all uncommon to see young men walking together with their arms draped around each other, in a manner typical of heterosexual lovebirds in the U.S. Here it’s considered a sign of “brotherhood.” It’s hard for me not to stare when they do this, although they stare at me for being white, so I guess we’re even. (Remember that for decades China was largely closed to foreigners.)

Nor is it uncommon, apparently, for heterosexual males to remark on other males’ good looks. One taxi driver told our student interpreters several times that he thought my partner Mark was handsome. (Can you imagine this from an American cab driver?) Several male students have said the same to me.

“I’m not handsome,” I want to respond. “I’m homosexy!”

Read more

First published in Between the Lines, May 18, 2006.

Last week Pope Benedict spoke out against gay marriage and civil unions. “Only the rock of total and irrevocable love between a man and a woman is capable of being the foundation of building a society that becomes a home for all mankind,” the pope declared, speaking at a conference on marriage and the family on May 11. He added that marriage was between a man and a woman “who are open to the transmission of life and thus cooperate with God in the generation of new human beings.”

The Catholic Church’s opposition to homosexuality has never been mainly about the bible. This fact is to its credit: taken literally and as a whole, the bible is an unreliable moral guide; taken critically, it fails to provide good grounds for a blanket condemnation of homosexuality.

Instead, the Church’s main arguments against homosexuality have been rooted in “natural law,” and specifically the premise that sex must be open to procreation. Thus, all deliberately non-procreative sex is sin.

Consider for a moment the implications of this premise. Contraception is an obvious no-no, given the Church’s position. So is masturbation. These facts are enough to make hypocrites of many Catholics who condemn homosexuality “because the Church says it’s wrong.”

Also, forbidden, though far less often discussed, is orgasmic non-coital sex between married heterosexual partners, such as oral sex, masturbation of one’s spouse, or anal sex. (Such acts are permitted as foreplay, but never on their own.) Official Catholic doctrine permits no exceptions here. Imagine the case of a man injured in such a way that he can no longer pursue coital sex, but still enjoys performing oral sex on his wife for the intimacy it achieves between them. It would seem permissible (perhaps even selfless and admirable) for him to engage in such sex, but the Church says no.

Thus far, at least the Church is consistent in its views. (Stubborn, perhaps–even foolish–but consistent.) But there’s one implication of the “openness to procreation” premise that the Church refuses to acknowledge. If sex must be open to procreation, then it should be wrong for sterile (or postmenopausal) heterosexual married partners to have sex. Imagine a woman whose ovaries and uterus have been removed for medical reasons. Clearly, her sexual acts will never be “open to the transmission of life” in any morally meaningful way. But the Church declines to condemn such acts.

Why the apparent inconsistency? Catholic natural law theorists answer that such acts can still be of “the reproductive kind.” But it is difficult to make sense of this claim, except as a lame attempt to deny unpalatable conclusions that clearly follow from the Church’s position. If a sexual act cannot result in procreation and the couple knows it, then how is the act “of the reproductive kind”? Political scientist Andrew Koppelman expresses the problem well. In his book The Gay Rights Question in Contemporary American Law, he writes:

“A sterile person’s genitals are no more suitable for generation than an unloaded gun is suitable for shooting….Contingencies of deception and fright aside, all objects that are not loaded guns are morally equivalent in this context: it is not more wrong, and certainly not closer to homicide, to point a gun known to be unloaded at someone and pull the trigger than it is to point one’s finger and say ‘bang!’ And if the two acts have the same moral character in this context, why is the same not equally true of, on the one hand, vaginal intercourse between a heterosexual couple who know they cannot reproduce, and on the other, oral or anal sex between any couple? Just as, in the case of the gun, neither act is more homicidal than the other, so in the sexual cases, neither act is more reproductive than the other” (pp. 87-88).

I once presented this argument before a university audience, and one conservative Catholic student told me that I was ignoring the possibility of miracles. I told him that if he’s going to invoke miracles, then why can’t I get pregnant? He responded–I’m not making this up–“But that’s impossible!” Apparently, God’s miraculous power is limited by conservative comfort-levels.

Italy is clearly on the brink of recognizing same-sex unions. Anticipating this, the pope declared that “it has become urgent to avoid confusion between [marriage] and other types of unions which are based on a love that is weak.” If only the pope could see the weakness of his own stance.

Read more

First published in Between the Lines, May 4, 2006

My Grandma Rose stood at just under 5 feet–in recent years, even less than that, as osteoporosis took its toll on her small frame. But she will always be a towering figure in my mind.

She was born on May 8, 1921, in the town of Licodia Eubea, in the Sicilian province of Catania. A few years later her father immigrated to the United States, and he would not see her again until she was twelve, when he finally sent for her and the rest of the family. I often wonder what it must have been like for her, to meet this virtual stranger who was her father. He was a harsh man, even violent, but she loved him nevertheless.

Her family embodied the “American dream,” coming to the new world, trying to take advantage of a land of opportunity. When she was nineteen her parents introduced her to my grandfather, Joseph, in what today would be called an arranged marriage. Joseph was born in the same town as Rose, and like her he immigrated as a child. Eventually he became a successful carpenter. Their marriage lasted for sixty-five years, “till death do us part” indeed.

Together Rose and Joseph had two children, my Uncle Tom and my mother Annette. (Their real names: Gaitano and Antoinette. Don’t ask me how “Gaitano” became “Tom”: somehow it makes sense to our Italian-American ears.) But they also presided over a large extended family. While the terms “matriarch” and “patriarch” seem old-fashioned, my grandparents epitomized the best aspects of those roles: commitment, dependability, generosity, dignity.

To them, family was paramount. It shaped their identity, it guided their choices, it gave them their purpose. The result was that those of us who were part of their family had a strong sense of place: we belonged and we mattered. “Nobody’s better than you,” my grandmother would tell us grandchildren, and when she said it, she meant it, and we felt it. She didn’t mean that other people were bad–indeed, despite her provincial background, she had a deep respect for other cultures–she meant that we were good. And in that way she taught us not only to respect, but also to be respected, and to carry ourselves with dignity.

That strong sense of family could be comforting–indeed, invaluably so–but it could also be intimidating. To screw up was not merely to disgrace yourself, it was to disgrace the Family. Capital F. Whenever my grandmother would talk about her family, she would punctuate her sentences with “Right or wrong?” You knew that it wasn’t really a multiple-choice question.

It was against that background that, when I was about 25 years old, I decided to come out to my grandparents. I had been building a wall between us for years, trying to hide an important aspect of myself, and that felt wrong. (I can hear my grandmother now saying, “If you don’t trust your family, who can you trust? You gotta trust your family. Right or wrong?”)

So I went to their house and…I couldn’t do it. I hemmed and hawed and skated around the issue and finally went home. Discouraged but not deterred, I went back the next day. Finally I looked at my grandmother (my conversations were always primarily with her; my grandfather taking a largely silent but crucial background role) and I said, trembling, “Grandma, I’m gay.”

“Yes, we know,” she replied, with a loving look that I’ll never forget. “You’re our grandson, and we love you, and we’re proud of you.” Then she hit my taciturn grandfather in the arm and said, “Joe, say something,” and he repeated the same sentiment. And that was that.

When people ask me how my family took my coming out, I often quip that they handled it the way Italian-Americans handle anything perceived to be a crisis: we yell, we scream, we cry–and then we all sit down and eat. At the end of the day, we’re family. In the case of my grandparents, there was no yelling, screaming and crying. There was just the powerful sense that I was family, and that was all that mattered. That sense eventually extended to my partner, whom they immediately embraced as one of their own.

Grandma Rose died peacefully on April 23, 2006. I was at her side, along with my parents, my uncle, my grandfather, and some cousins.

In a world of so-called “culture wars,” there are those who talk about family values and there are those who live them. Grandma Rose lived them, and for that, I will forever be grateful. Rest in peace, Grandma.

Read more

First published in Between the Lines on March 23, 2006.

In his nationally syndicated column of March 17, Charles Krauthammer uses the HBO series “Big Love” (about a modern-day polygamist family in Utah) as a springboard to telling gay-rights advocates “I told you so.”

Krauthammer writes:

In an essay 10 years ago, I pointed out that it is utterly logical for polygamy rights to follow gay rights. After all, if traditional marriage is defined as the union of (1) two people of (2) opposite gender, and if, as advocates of gay marriage insist, the gender requirement is nothing but prejudice, exclusion and an arbitrary denial of one’s autonomous choices in love, then the first requirement—the number restriction (two and only two)—is a similarly arbitrary, discriminatory and indefensible denial of individual choice.

This is what we philosophy professors call a “non-sequitur,” which is a very fancy way of saying that the conclusion doesn’t follow, which is a moderately fancy way of saying “Not!”

To see why, suppose I were to define marriage as the union of (1) two people of (2) opposite gender of (3) the landowning upper class. And suppose you were to argue (correctly) that the third requirement is arbitrary. It would not follow that either of the other two requirements is similarly arbitrary. The moral of the story: each element of the legal definition of marriage must be judged on its own merits.

That fact hasn’t stopped otherwise intelligent people—including Krauthammer—from invoking the slippery-slope argument from gay marriage to polygamous marriage. If you advocate any change to our understanding of marriage, they warn, then there’s no principled reason for barring any other change.

This is nonsense of the first order. What’s worse, it’s old nonsense. The same argument has been trotted out every time the legal parameters of marriage have been changed: for example, when married women were finally allowed to own property, or when the ban on interracial marriage was lifted. Make any change, and soon the sky will fall.

Of course, the fact that the old arguments were needlessly panicky doesn’t entail that the current one is. After all, each change should be evaluated on its own merits.

Precisely. (Now write it down and memorize it, please. It’s going to be on the test.)

The trouble with the slippery-slope argument from gay marriage to polygamy is that it’s a nice sound-bite argument that doesn’t lend itself to a nice sound-bite response. “Show us why polygamy is wrong,” our opponents insist, as if that’s easy to do in 20 words or less. (Try it sometime.)

But here’s a little secret: they can’t do it either, because their favorite arguments against same-sex marriage are useless against polygamy. “It changes the very definition of marriage!” (No: marriage historically has been polygamous more often than monogamous.) “The Bible condemns it!” (Really? Ever heard of King Solomon?) “It’s not open to procreation!” (Watch “Big Love” and get back to me.)

If there’s a good argument against polygamy, it’s likely to be a fairly complex public-policy argument having to do with marriage patterns, sexism, economics, and the like. Such arguments are as available to gay-marriage advocates as to gay-marriage opponents. So when gay-rights opponents ask me to explain why polygamy is wrong, I say to them, “You first.”

Krauthammer seems to assume that those who advocate any change in the current marriage rules have a burden of proof to explain why we shouldn’t make any other possible change. But this requirement is clearly too strong. One might just as well argue that those who advocate allowing men in dining rooms without neckties have a burden to explain why they must nevertheless wear pants, or that those who advocate banning abortion have a burden to explain why we shouldn’t also ban contraception, interracial dating, and dancing (why not?).

While most of us would love to see our opponents spin their wheels on issues unrelated to the dispute at hand, such diversionary tactics hardly advance a debate.

But heck: what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Many of our opponents (including Krauthammer) have lamented the high rates of divorce in this country, and some have advocated the tightening of divorce laws and even the elimination of “no fault” divorce. Next time they do this, let’s ask them: why not ban interracial marriage? Why not prohibit married women from owning property? After all, those who advocate any change in the current marriage rules have a burden of proof to explain why we shouldn’t make any other possible change in those rules—don’t they? Don’t they?

Don’t hold your breath for a response.

Read more

First published in Between the Lines, March 9, 2006

Question: What’s worse than a dozen or so states contemplating gay marriage bans during an election year?

Answer: A dozen or so states contemplating gay adoption bans during an election year.

Welcome to 2006. At least sixteen states are considering laws or ballot initiatives restricting the ability of gay individuals or couples to adopt. I’m not sure that this is politically worse than what happened in 2004, when a similar number of states banned same-sex marriage. Adoption bans might help to get out the right-wing vote, but they might also make right-wingers look petty and politically dishonest to moderates. We’ve learned some things since 2004, and the issues are different enough to keep things interesting.

But politics aside, the movement to ban gay adoption strikes me as morally and rhetorically worse than the movement to ban gay marriage. One of the most terrible charges you can levy against someone is the accusation that they pose a threat to children. Indeed, the more extreme opponents of gay adoption have referred to it as a form of child abuse. Those are fighting words.

The central argument against gay adoption is the worst kind of argument: it proceeds from what is not true to what does not follow.

What is not true is the claim that same-sex parenting is suboptimal for children. A growing body of research reports no notable differences in well-being between children reared by homosexual parents and those reared by heterosexual parents. In the words of the American Academy of Pediatrics, “a considerable body of professional literature provides evidence that children with parents who are homosexual can have the same advantages and the same expectations for health, adjustment, and development as can children whose parents are heterosexual.” The AAP “supports legislative and legal efforts to provide the possibility of adoption of the child by the second parent or coparent in these families.”

But let’s suppose the American Academy of Pediatrics is wrong. Suppose, purely for the sake of argument, that same-sex parenting is indeed suboptimal. Even so, it wouldn’t follow that it should be banned.

It is probably optimal for parents to have a certain level of education, but it doesn’t follow that those with less make bad parents. It is probably optimal for parents to be financially well off, but it doesn’t follow that those who are less so make bad parents. And so on. So even if it were true (which it isn’t) that same-sex parenting is suboptimal, it would not follow that gays and lesbians make bad parents or that they should be forbidden to adopt–especially when the alternative is for children to be raised by the state, which virtually everyone agrees is a poor option.

Opponents of same-sex parenting often describe it as “deliberately depriving children of a mother or a father.” This is another serious charge, and it’s worth careful attention.

If I kill a child’s mother or father, then I thereby deprive him of his mother or father. If I give a child a home, then I don’t thereby “deprive” him of anything–I give him something. By describing same-sex parenting as “depriving” children, opponents are making it sound as if same-sex couples are snatching children’s birthparents away from them. The implication is not merely false; it is morally irresponsible.

Anything can be described in such a way as to make it sound bad. When parents choose to live in the city, we can describe them as “deliberately depriving their children of the joys of country life” (or vice-versa). When parents with only female children choose not to have any more children, we can describe them as “deliberately depriving their daughters of a brother.” Indeed, we can accuse them of sending a message that “brothers don’t matter,” just as same-sex parenting opponents accuse lesbian parents of sending a message that fathers don’t matter.

Such claims would be laughable if they were not so hurtful. They do not merely badly mis-describe the situation; they falsely accuse good people of doing awful things. And the people hurt by them are not merely gay and lesbian parents: they are, most of all, children–both those in loving same-sex families and those who would be deprived of them by these terrible bans. Here the term “deprive” is apt: when children await adoption, those who stand in their way for spurious reasons do indeed deprive them of something.

Opponents of gay adoption claim that this is a battle for our children’s welfare. They’re right about that.

Read more

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.

Read more

First published in Between the Lines on February 9, 2006

As I embark upon a week’s worth of same-sex marriage debates with Glenn Stanton of Focus on the Family, I am bracing myself for his arguments. (There’s a useful summary of his position here.)

In every debate we’ve had, Stanton has brought up Jonathan Yarbrough and Cody Rogahn, the first same-sex couple in Provincetown, Massachusetts to receive a marriageapplication. Yarbrough and Rogahn have an open relationship. “I think it’s possible to love more than one person and have more than one partner,” Yarbrough told a reporter on the eve of their wedding. “In our case…we have an open marriage.”

This admission is bound to generate an “Aha!” from any same-sex marriage opponent within earshot. “See—we told you so!” they sneer.

Told us what?, I wonder. That some gay people have open relationships? Well, duh.

Glenn’s argument seems to be that:

1. Yarbrough and Rogahn are representative of same-sex couples in general, and

2. Allowing such couples to marry will erode respect for monogamy, thereby wreaking havoc on society. Therefore

3. Society should reject same-sex marriage.

Whenever I hear this argument, I think of the first “open” couple I knew—or, to be more precise, the first one of which I was aware. One member was a fellow graduate student; the other, a professor at a different school. At the time I knew them (we’ve since fallen out of touch) they had been together over 15 years.

Their names? Katie and George.

Yes, the first “open” couple I knew was heterosexual—and married. Aha, yourself.

Katie and George were fully legally married, despite always intending to have an open relationship. They were just as legally married as Mr. and Mrs. Stanton, with all the rights, duties, and privileges appertaining.

Interestingly, conservatives never point to people like Katie and George as evidence that heterosexuals should no longer be allowed to marry. Doing so would commit the fallacy of hasty generalization (among others).

By similar logic, we could point to Britney Spears’s 55-hour (pre-Federline) marriage to Jason Allen Alexander and then conclude that celebrities should no longer be allowed to marry (not a bad idea, actually).

Stanton’s elaboration of his argument is revealing. “If we allow Jonathan Yarbrough and Cody Rogahn to marry,” he asks audiences, “what will that say to other married couples? What will it say to the heterosexual couple living next door? The husband might think, ‘Hey, that’s not a bad idea. I should keep my options open.’ How will that affect their marriage?”

Memo to Glenn Stanton: there are already heterosexual couples living next door to Jonathan Yarbrough and Cody Rogahn. (Or so I assume: the couple lives in Glenwood, Minnesota; population 3000—not exactly a gay mecca.) Yet their neighbors are not clamoring to have open relationships any more than they are clamoring to have gay sex.

Nor are Katie and George’s neighbors. Nor, for that matter, are Britney Spears’s neighbors (which is not to equate her stunt with Katie and George’s unconventional but enduring union). The moral of the story? Grownups can think for themselves.

What are conservatives so afraid of? Some homosexual couples, like some heterosexual couples, are what our parents used to call “swingers.” Marriage might or might not change that, but it certainly won’t entail that every other married couple will follow in their footsteps.

Nobody knows exactly how monogamous gays are compared to straights. More to the point, nobody knows how monogamous gays would be in a society that granted them marriage rights. (If you exclude people from major social institutions like marriage, you shouldn’t be surprised if they are less likely to conform to social norms.)

What we do know is that there’s a serious double standard involved in allowing people like Katie and George to marry but forbidding people like Jonathan and Cody to do so (except in Massachusetts). You don’t have to approve of everything a couple does in order to respect their right to marry.

But the most striking thing about Stanton’s position is not its logical gaps, or even its warped view of gay life. The most striking thing is its dim view of heterosexuals, as gullible copycats who can’t make simple moral distinctions. The good people of Glenwood deserve better.

Read more