“Words matter. Names matter.”(1)
This is how Therese Stewart and her team of lawyers began their oral arguments defending San Fransisco’s issuing of marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Their argument was that applying any label other than “marriage” to same-sex couples sent a message, though an implicit one, that same-sex couples were different and inferior to opposite sex couples. The supreme court of California ultimately agreed and ruled that the California Constitution guaranteed same-sex couples the right to marry, though that ruling was ultimately overturned by a majority of California voters via Proposition 8. In the mind of many gay-rights advocates, however, it seems that their argument can’t possibly apply to other words and names.
When the state department announced it would be removing the terms “mother” and “father” on passport forms to be replaced by “gender neutral” terminology, gay rights groups applauded the decision. (2) I think I understand where they are coming from. From their point of view, “parent 1 and parent 2” more accurately describes their situation. However, it is a two-edged sword. Removing “mother” and “father” not only less accurately describes most families, it sends a message, though an implicit one, that there is nothing special about mothers and fathers—any combination of “parents” will do.
This highlights one of the most sweeping effects of accepting same-sex “marriage,” one that I do not believe a lot of people pay sufficient attention to. Namely, that holding up same-sex couples as equivalent to heterosexual couples means, again, perhaps only implicitly, that we believe as a nation that men and women are fungible. Most supporters of same-sex “marriage” that I know base their opinion on what I believe to be absolutely noble reasons: they deplore the mistreatment or marginalization of any human being, no matter how different. What I wish they would recognize is that the way we view marriage and family affects more than one marginalized group. It affects a myriad of social questions, including the way we view men and women, and what we mean by “best interests” of children. Are we really ready to insist, as a matter of policy, that when it comes to parenting, there aren’t any differences between men and women?
Unfortunately, many that are truly serious about their advocacy for gay rights are prepared to say precisely that and more. In one discussion I was involved in, I asked my friend if he truly believed that gender is completely irrelevant in parenting. He not only responded in the affirmative, but went on to say that both he and I were only attached to our biological parents at all because we had grown up with them. He stated flatly that if he had never known his biological mother or father, he would not have loved his adopted parents any differently nor would he suffer any psychological harm (as long as his arrangement had a stable income). He said that my thinking that having a biological connection to a caregiver made a difference in our well being was merely a product of social construction and tradition. Sadly, it seems our conversation was not entirely unique. (3)
In a way, he has a very valid point. Single, step, and otherwise non-traditional family structures provide children with love and support for which those children, rightly, love and appreciate them. They go on to lead to lead lives that positively contribute to society for which society, too, owes them. What I do not think is valid, is the idea that these alternative arrangements are just as preferable as being raised by one’s biological parents. All things being equal, I hope that most reasonable people still agree that, in an ideal world, every child would be raised by his or her biological parents in a committed, stable union.(4) These alternative arrangements become necessary when the ideal doesn’t work out. But what same-sex marriage means, directly this time, is that there is no ideal—alternative structures are equally desirable as any other family form. There isn’t anything wrong with a child being introduced to these structures by default, in fact, they should be celebrated!
I don’t know about you, but I can appreciate alternative family forms for what they often are: arrangements that are the best thing for the child, given that things couldn’t work out with his or her parents (which is why I can also appreciate adoption). But what I cannot bring myself to do is celebrate upon seeing more and more of these arrangements. What a step-family or single-parent, or any other household headed by anything other than one’s biological parents means, at least in part, is the disintegration of another family—which is associated with a whole host of problems.(5)
Fortunately, the state department has retained some sense. Hilary Clinton stepped in and insisted that passport forms (at least for now) retain the words “mother” and “father,” except now it will ask for something akin to “mother or parent 1” and “father or parent 2” (6)—a conspicuous relegation that sends another strong implicit message about fathers.(7) Then again, I suppose it is unreasonable to expect a compromise to be completely flawless.
And that is my final point. I sympathize with what gay activists are trying to do. We all want dignity and to feel like we are being treated equally. Interestingly, many of those who are uncompromising in their support of traditional marriage genuinely want the same thing for those who feel attraction to their same sex.(8) But equality should mean treating all people fairly, not treating a gender-based and child-centered institution as a means to accommodate sexual preferences that are genuinely outside what the institution was designed for.(9)
Special Thanks to Kendel. Kendel Christensen was a founding member of Stand for the Family at BYU, and a Student Fellow with the Love and Fidelity Network. He graduated from BYU in August 2010.
(1) Commonwealth Club of California, “Marriage Equality: Panel Discussion on Proposition 8,” “http://fora.tv/2008/09/02/Marriage_Equality_Panel_Discussion_on_Proposition_8”
(4) As David Popenoe states, summing up the scholarly consensus: “Social science research is almost never conclusive . . . yet in three decades of work as a social scientist, I know of few other bodies of data in which the weight of the evidence is decisively on one side of the issue: on the whole, for children, two-parent families are preferable to single parent families or stepfamilies.” (Life Without Father, New York, NY: Mark Kessler Books/The Free Press, 1996, 8).
(5) See “Why Marriage Matters, Second Edition: Twenty-Six Conclusions from the Social Sciences,” WB Wilcox, W Doherty, N Glenn, L Waite – New York: Institute for American Values, 2005. pp 8-10, 14,15,17. See Also Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, “Dan Quayle Was Right,” The Atlantic, April 1993, at 47 The author also recognizes the difference in willful dissolution of marriages and situations that are genuinely outside anyone’s control, such as the death of a spouse.
(7) Jennifer Roback Morse, “New Improved Disposable Father,” 8/21/2008, “http://www.ruthinstitute.org/articles/disposableFather.html”
(8) “[Mormon] Church Supports Nondiscrimination Ordinances,” November 10, 2009, ”http://beta-newsroom.lds.org/article/church-supports-nondiscrimination-ordinances”
(9) Jennifer Roback Morse, “The Institution Formerly Known As Marriage,” April 24, 2009. “http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2009/04/234“