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.