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?

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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.”

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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.

Research commissioned by the Third Way, a moderate think tank in Washington, illustrates how this might look. A team of research psychologists conducted in-depth interviews with members of the “moveable middle,” or those considered open to supporting gay equality but not yet fully there. They used psychological tools to identify their subjects’ emotional states and concerns around issues of gay equality. What their research revealed were subconscious anxieties around what they perceive to be a world spinning out of control, a feeling exacerbated by a sense that new understandings of old institutions are being forced upon them. Some may oppose same-sex marriage in an effort to seize control and bolster values they see as besieged.

Third Way recommends reassuring opponents of same-sex marriage that gay people wish to reinforce, not undercut, the responsibilities of marriage. Responsibility is a value conservatives hold dear. It’s certainly something that’s important to Gallagher, who has spoken recently about the very personal basis of her concern with marriage culture, as a college student who was left single and pregnant by the man she loved 30 years ago. (In her forthcoming book, she writes that, under the false sway of feminism, “whole generations of formerly young women of my age grew up shocked, shocked to discover they are pregnant, and the men who impregnate them feel minimal responsibility.”) And Santorum’s beef with contraception seems to revolve around the idea that it gives people a “license to do things in the sexual realm” without any of the responsibility that conjugal procreation represents. The value of responsibility is clearly important to opponents of the freedom to marry. The Defense of Marriage Act, the 1996 law that bans federal recognition of same-sex marriages, states as its rationale for restricting marriage to heterosexuals that society has an “abiding interest in encouraging responsible procreation and child-rearing.”

Liberals also value responsibility, in their belief that society is obligated to care for the poor, the old and the sick, and protect the Earth's natural resources. Suppose we grant that teaching responsibility, as such, is important to society. There’s no reason we can’t teach “procreative responsibility” and the importance of marital norms, while also supporting equality for gay people, including their freedom to marry. In other words, there's no reason we can't make a change to marriage laws that’s congruent with the stated values of conservatives and moderates.

In fact it's already happening. Equality Maryland, the state’s major LGBT equality group, recently helped secure the freedom to marry with a message that gay people, like straight people, seek to “make a public promise of love and responsibility for each other and ask our friends and family to hold us accountable.” The values that would be more likely to appeal to liberals who already endorse same-sex marriage—those of individual rights and entitlements—were not the message. In her forthcoming book, Supreme Court lawyer Linda Hirshman argues that a rhetoric of moral values, which itself strikes many as conservative, was the gay movement’s “surprise weapon” in beginning to win the freedom to marry. Telling the stories of heroic caretaking throughout the AIDS crisis and of committed relationships through thick and thin, advocates stopped relying on feeble appeals to tolerance, and showed naysayers that gay people shared their moral values and deserved equal treatment.

This doesn't mean that liberal equality advocates must turn more conservative in order to advocate to the middle. What it means is recognizing the common ground that already exists, in the form of what I’d call “sub-values” (responsibility, fairness, respect for tradition, sanctity) within the larger values debate around homosexuality.

This was convincing to Ted Olsen, former solicitor general under President George W. Bush, who explained that he joined a constitutional challenge to California’s gay marriage ban to protect conservative values: “We believe that a conservative value is stable relationships and stable community and loving individuals coming together and forming a basis that is a building block of our society, which includes marriage.” Along the same lines, after discovering in their research that some moderates were offended by seeing same-sex couples throwing weddings in jeans or during parades, Third Way recommended that gay and lesbian couples find a way to signal they took marriage seriously, appreciating the sanctity of such a solemn commitment.

Truth be told, many liberals and gay people are also alarmed about rising out-of-wedlock birth rates. Some are even concerned about a society where personal liberty seems to have trounced social responsibility. We care about people honoring their commitments to each other, about relationships having security and about children having permanence.

Could pointing this out help temper Maggie Gallagher’s rhetoric about the threat that gay equality poses to the nation? It’s not likely. But what has become for her a crusade against the freedom to marry, likely reflects the real anxieties of millions of others, reachable people who want to do what’s right, but just need an olive branch to help them get there.

Nathaniel Frank, author of Unfriendly Fire, is the director of the What We Know Project at Columbia Law School.

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