Wednesday, I attended two meetings with experts on the anti-gay marriage side of the debate here in Washington DC. I had hoped to be intellectually stimulated. I had hoped that the meetings would reveal arguments with more depth and nuance than what I have read on the internet. After all, they are the experts and I would be hearing from them directly, rather than be filtered via a reporter or blogger.
To be frank, I was disappointed. In two hours of discussions, all I heard was a rehash of the same arguments, with no more refinement than what had been reported in recent years.
Helen Alvare is an associate professor of law at George Mason University, and a specialist in family law. In a nutshell, she believes that gay people should never be discriminated against, but nonetheless stands firmly against legalising same-sex marriage.
How does she arrive at such an awkward position, I wondered?
As it turned out, her starting point was that raising children well was an essential public good. This being the case, it is entirely justifiable for law to be framed in ways that promote such an objective. I found nothing wrong with this starting point, though she put it in a manner I thought was a little too black and white: “Adult rights in the context of family,” she insisted, “are always in the service of children.”
Alas, the next layer of her arguments I found to be flawed. She linked the raising of children with opposite-sex marriage, making the vague claim that social and legal changes that devalue this kind of marriage undermines the public good. “The last thing we need in US society is another statement that marriage is unimportant.”
She considered the legalisation of same-sex marriage as yet another such statement. This ignores the argument that the very fact that gay people want to get married, and want to raise families too, are really endorsements of the value of marriage, not contempt for it.
However, in her view, same-sex marriage is only the latest assault on traditional marriage. “In the 1970s and 1980s, there was a whirlwind of changes to family law,” she said. First came no-fault divorce that made it easier for unhappy marriages to break up (you mean, it is better for unhappy spouses to stay on?), and then society and the law began to approve of cohabitation, followed by new reproductive technologies and finally making birth control available to single persons as a constitutional right.
It’s quite a list, and it’s really hard to imagine what society would be like if we rolled back all these changes now.
Nonetheless, she said data showed that families suffered as a result of these trends, particularly among those from the lower socio-economic strata. All the bad data, e.g. divorce, single-parenthood, began increasing as the above changes kicked in.
These effects didn’t show up much among well-off families (e.g. their divorce rates remained largely the same as previously) but mainly among poorer families. This may increase and perpetuate poverty. “About two-thirds of poverty in the US is due to family structure.”
Added Alvare: “There is no divide in America that is as deep as the divide between families who have a father and those that do not.” In education and economic wellbeing, this counts more than any other factor.
She emphasised that her primary concern was that her work should “benefit minorities”. Thus her great skepticism about all these changes and trends that undermined traditional marriage.
“The stability of the male-female relationhip,” she said, played an important role in “passing on values, education and economic stability from one generation to another.” And since “the stability of the family is the stability of state and society,” it was of concern to her that society underlines its appreciation of the male-female relationship through laws. “Marriage is the birthplace of society. Marriage produces good citizens.”
First of all, her assertions are based on questionable data. While she herself did not say exactly which study she relied upon, others using the same agruments as she did have been criticised for using data that compared single-parent with two-parent families, which misses the point.
While there aren’t many studies comparing child-raising by same-sex parents with opposite-sex parents, where there are, they have shown that “educational and employment outcomes for their children are just the same, if not better” as children from opposite sex marriages, said Jeff Krehely (pic at right) of the think tank, the Center for American progress, whom I had met the day before.
It stands to reason, he said. “Same-sex couples cannot accidentally conceive.” This fact alone skews the average upwards for same-sex couples. Those that have children have made a deliberate decision to do so. Consequently, they are “more focussed, more mindful to be parents.”
This demolishes Alvare’s argument that it would serve society to create a bias in favour of opposite-sex coupling and refuse legal status to same-sex couples.
I asked her a question: If society should have an interest in promoting good parenting – which I agree with – why do so by regulating something so indirect as marriage? Why not regulate parenting directly? In other words, the state should get out of the marriage business, and instead of giving out marriage licences, give out child raising licences.
Her reply was that doing what I suggested would violate the US constitution’s privacy rights clause. How can the state intrude into the bedroom?
I was not convinced. My suggestion does not call upon the state to enquire into sexual lives. But it can penalise people for producing or adopting children when they do not have the wherewithal to raise them properly, which is no different from the state not issuing a driving licence until one has passed a driving test. Just as one would not say that licensing driving violates the right to freedom of movement, child-raising licences do not violate privacy rights.
No doubt I was being provocative, but I aimed to show how poor the connection was between opposite-sex marriage and the starting point that society had an interest in good parenting.
Yet, she believed in equal rights for gay people. “We shouldn’t discriminate in housing, in employment,” she said by way of example.
In her view, gay people are now wanting the right to marriage because they want the state and society so see them as equal citizens. “They think that the test that their sexuality is acceptable is marriage,” she said. Equal treatment is a legitimate desire, one that she was ready to support, “but let’s take care of this [demand] by passing anti-discrimination legislation.”
Too glib, I thought. What about gay people’s desire to have their loving relationships recognised in the same way as heterosexual persons? What about their desire to have children of their own?
The meeting with Alvare was followed by one with Brian Brown, president of the National Organisation of Marriage, which I will report on in the next article. He and his organisation have been at the frontlines of the battle against marriage equality. What were his arguments? How did he frame his case?