The Facts on Same-Sex Marriage Don't Seem to Matter

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
March 7 2012 3:47 PM

When the Facts Don't Matter

Same-sex marriage isn't hurting anyone. So why are so many people still afraid of it?

There is no evidence that acceptance of same-sex marriage causes a decline in willingness to marry

Photograph by Digital Vision.

Last month's news that the majority of births to American women under 30 now occur outside of marriage will likely confirm for social conservatives that marriage itself is becoming a relic, with major consequences for society. It’s one of the main reasons they cite for opposing anything that might alter society’s image of the institution, like calling a same-sex union a marriage. If marriage includes the union of two people of the same sex, they worry it will be unrecognizable to many Americans, who will stop taking it seriously enough to tie the knot.

Yet when you look at the new research from Child Trends, the group that released the latest data, you actually find evidence against the suggestion that same-sex marriage undermines the health of marriage more generally.

Here’s why: The conservative argument against the freedom to marry, newly resonant in an election year, is primarily a norms argument. Maggie Gallagher, who many believe has done more than anyone to block the freedom to marry through her writing, fundraising, and founding of activist groups, says she is not anti-gay, just pro-marriage—and concerned about child welfare. “Children need a mom and a dad,” she says whenever she can. To hear her tell it, marriage needs protecting not as some abstract moral principle but because marriage is a fragile but vital institution that society depends on to make adults more responsible to their biological children (and to each other). Government sanctions the institution as a unique, procreative bond in order to reinforce this norm, and those who identify as a “husband” or “wife” are more likely to honor their commitments. “After gay marriage,” she said in a recent interview, “marriage will not be about that anymore. We will not have an institution dedicated to putting together mothers and fathers and children.”


This argument is grossly imprecise at best. After all, infertile couples, post-menopausal women, and those who choose not to procreate can still wed, so long as they’re straight. The only way to make sense of the argument is to assume that it’s really saying this: Most straight people so dislike gay people that they’d choose not to marry rather than share the honor with gays.

But according to the Child Trends research, the only demographic of young mothers who resisted the out-of-wedlock birth trend are college graduates, and this educated demographic is the one most likely to support same-sex marriage. If Gallagher’s assumptions were right—that acceptance of same-sex marriage leads to less marrying—then these supporters of same-sex marriage would be the least likely to marry, not the most.

There has never been any evidence that same-sex marriage, or parenting by lesbians and gays, hurts children—and mountains of data say they don’t. Nor has there ever been any evidence that acceptance of same-sex marriage causes a decline in willingness to marry. The historical timeline works against this argument anyway: marital rates declined, and divorce rates increased, beginning in the 1960s, over three decades before any jurisdiction in the modern world held a legal gay wedding.

Though the “harms” arguments about gay equality have consistently been falsified, many of those who make them cling tenaciously to their anti-gay positions. Is there any hope of reaching these folks in a rational discourse about whether gay people ought to enjoy equal legal—and indeed moral—standing in our society?

New research from Yale’s Cultural Cognition Project offers some promising, if unsurprising, suggestions for gay rights advocates. Using focus groups and national surveys, researchers were able to correlate negative views about gay people with an exaggerated perception of the risks involved in granting them equality. It turned out that people will disbelieve new information—such as the fact that having gay or lesbian parents does not harm kids—unless they’re confident that absorbing it will not threaten their values. (The same goes for cultural liberals, of course, who are also prone to such cognitive bias. The Yale researchers cited a similar unwillingness to absorb factual information among opponents of nuclear energy, for example.) Yale’s team suggests increasing open-mindedness by presenting people with new information in ways that conform with values they already hold dear.


Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore

And schools are getting worried.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

The XX Factor

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.


Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

Why a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Is Stirring Up Controversy

How Worried Should Poland, the Baltic States, and Georgia Be About a Russian Invasion?

Trending News Channel
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 11:33 AM Planned Parenthood Is About to Make It a Lot Easier to Get Birth Control
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
Brow Beat
Sept. 20 2014 3:21 PM “The More You Know (About Black People)” Uses Very Funny PSAs to Condemn Black Stereotypes
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 5:03 PM White House Chief Information Officer Will Run U.S. Ebola Response
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 21 2014 8:00 AM An Astronaut’s Guided Video Tour of Earth
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.