By John Corvino
“To the extent that marriage is good for children, it is good for ALL children, not just those who live with biological parents. Adopted children deserve stable homes too.”
One of the most persistent arguments against gay rights is that homosexuality threatens children. Past versions of the argument often played on the insidious stereotype of gays as child molesters. While such stereotypes have by no means disappeared, modern-day attacks are usually more subtle, accusing gays who seek marriage as “deliberately creating motherless and fatherless families,” thereby undermining child welfare.
It is curious that the gay-marriage debate so readily transforms into a debate over gay parenting, since parenting is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for marriage. The state has long recognized marriages for heterosexual couples who cannot have children, who intend not to have children, or who should not have children (for example, incarcerated felons). Besides, to the extent that marriage is good for children, it is good for ALL children, not just those who live with biological parents. Adopted children deserve stable homes too.
That would seem to settle matters, but it doesn’t, because our opponents insist that recognizing gay marriage would encourage arrangements that are inferior for children. Yes, they acknowledge, there are adopted children and stepchildren and even children in gay or lesbian households. Yes, many of those households are loving and nurturing and so on. But in general, social-science research shows that the best environment for children is with a married biological mother and father. Therefore, (the argument concludes), same-sex marriage should be rejected.
Some arguments go wrong because they rely on false premises. (Saddam has weapons of mass destruction; therefore, we should invade Iraq.) Other arguments go wrong because, even though they rely on true premises, they proceed to conclusions that don’t follow. (The President lives in the White House. Therefore, Laura Bush is President.)
The above argument against same-sex marriage is the worst kind of argument: it proceeds from what is not true to what does not follow.
The argument depends on the premise that same-sex households are inferior for children.
That premise is simply false.
It is true that, all else being equal, research shows that homes with married biological parents tend to be better for children than either single-parent homes or broken homes, generally speaking. But it is often the case that all else is not equal: people usually divorce for a reason, and sometimes that reason involves the best interests of children.
More important, single-parent homes and broken homes are quite different from same-sex homes, and you can’t extrapolate from the former to determine the effects of the latter. The claim that same-sex parent households are inferior is groundless.
However, let’s suppose, PURELY for the sake of argument, that opposite-sex households were in general better for children than same-sex households. It would still not follow that same-sex households are BAD for children, which is what our opponents’ position requires.
Consider an analogy: it is probably better for children, all else being equal, that their parents are financially well-off than poor, but it does not follow that the state should forbid poor people to marry. It is probably better for children – again, all else being equal – that their parents are educated than uneducated, but the state does not require presentation of a diploma or degree before granting a marriage license. And so on.
So EVEN IF research showed that same-sex households were inferior to opposite-sex households as environments for children, it would not follow that they were bad for children or that gays should be prohibited from marrying. Fortunately (for the many children growing up in same-sex households), the research shows no such thing.
More generally, there’s a problem with isolating one factor (the presence of both sexes) to trump all others in deciding who should be parents or who should marry. There may be some factors that should function that way (Do you love children? Can you care for them?), but gender complementarity doesn’t seem to belong among them.
By conservative estimates, there are currently over a million children in the United States being raised by same-sex parents. Many of these children are adopted and would have otherwise spent their childhoods in orphanages or foster care. Their lives are better because of their parents’ love and sacrifice.
To describe these parents as “deliberately creating motherless and fatherless families” distorts their intentions, dishonors their commitment, and ultimately makes life more difficult for their families – including the children our opponents are aiming to protect.
The latter effect is probably the saddest aspect of the “gays threaten children” myth. It’s bad enough that the myth slanders innocent adults. Yet it also harms children, by directing our attention away from the real threats that face them. Shame on those who perpetuate it.