Conservatives and Gay Marriage: A Guide for the Perplexed

Dear Belladonna Rogers,

My step-son, Tom, is a dedicated physician who spends his vacations providing free medical services to the poor, and is a devoted son and step-son. He’s planning to marry his same-sex partner in a ceremony in New York City in September.  I want to accept his invitation, but my 71-year-old husband, his father, is opposed to gay marriage and refuses to attend.  “Jim” is all riled up over this.  He says that gay marriage is contrary to the teachings of all religions (we’re Protestants) and that it’s part of a gay political agenda. Although like Jim, I’m a conservative Republican, I disagree with him on gay marriage and disagree with his desire to boycott Tom’s wedding, where Tom’s younger sisters will be bridesmaids.

What can I do?

Conflicted in Kansas

Dear Conflicted,

Your letter raises three questions: (1) Why are Jim’s feelings so powerful that they’re overpowering his ability to show his love for his son by attending his wedding? (2) What are Jim’s arguments against gay marriage and what are some rebuttals? and (3) How can you get Jim to the wedding?

(1) Why is Jim so emotionally wrought up over homosexuality and gay marriage?  You provided part of the answer by mentioning that Tom is Jim’s only son.  When a son is born, his father often hopes that he will grow up to be, if not an exact replica of, then at least something like his father.  It’s not for nothing that men enjoy hearing a son described as a “chip off the old block,” or that men name their sons “Jr.” “III,” and so on, all the way to Louis XVI.

Jim harbors powerful feelings toward his son because Tom performs sexual acts of which Jim disapproves.  Jim’s reactions may be partly generational: his age cohort was raised to believe  — as the American Psychiatric Association no longer does — that homosexuality was a psychiatric disorder and, for many, a sin against God and nature. Jim also belongs to two of the groups with the lowest levels of support for gay marriage.  A Gallup Poll in May, 2011 found only 28 percent of Republicans favor it, compared with 69% of Democrats and 59% of independents.  And while a 53% majority of all Americans approve of same-sex marriages, among 18-to-34-year-olds, support is 70%: that is, the older people are, the less they tend to support gay marriage.  But as Texas Governor Rick Perry saw last week, even major Republican donors applauded when he said that gay marriage should be left up to each state to decide.

Another source of the intensity of Jim’s feelings is that for most people there is nothing more fraught with emotion than sexuality.  This is highly emotional terrain for everyone.  It is the part of our lives addressed by two of the Ten Commandments — a whopping 20 percent.

Although heterosexual marriages that take place in any of the 50 states and the District of Columbia are recognized by all other states under Article IV, Section 1 of the Constitution, the “Full Faith And Credit Clause,” gay marriages are exempt from this because of the 1996 bill signed into law by President Bill Clinton, the Defense of Marriage Act. Six states permit gay marriage: New York, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Iowa, as well as the District of Columbia and the Coquille Indian Tribe of Oregon.

States that have legalized gay marriage tend to have strong public support for it. A good discussion of the impact of opinion polling on gay marriage policy is here, in a 2009 article in the American Political Science Review, “Gay Rights: Public Opinion and Policy Responsiveness” by Jeffrey A. Lax and Justin H. Phillips.

(2)  What are the conservative arguments against and in favor of gay marriage?

Opponents advance three major arguments:

(a) Tradition: Throughout history, most societies and religions stigmatized homosexuality and none has sanctioned marriage between members of the same sex.

While appeals to traditional wisdom are valid, they rarely settle an argument.  After all, slavery has been a traditional part of all major civilizations. Yet this hardly amounts to a persuasive case for a return to slave-holding.  Why, then, should “tradition” alone prevail with respect to homosexuality?

(b) It shouldn’t, which is why opponents then evoke the “slippery slope:”  “If gay marriage is acceptable, why can’t I marry my dog?” they ask, “Or my sister, my daughter, or under legalized polygamy, all three?”

The libertarian UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, who has extensively analyzed the slippery slope argument, discussed its workings in a 2003 article he wrote with David Newman, describing it vividly: “A frog that’s dropped into boiling water will jump out, but a frog that’s put into cold water which is gradually warmed supposedly won’t notice the temperature change — and will get cooked.”

In some areas this may be true, but not with gay marriage. The public will scarcely fail to notice, and to respond forcefully against, new proposals to change marriage laws even more dramatically than permitting gay marriages.  The public, unlike the frog, will notice when the temperature is turned up.  If human-animal, polygamous and bigamous marriages are proposed as the logical steps to follow the precedent of gay marriage, people will pay attention.  They won’t “get cooked,” a self-serving New York Times op-ed on Sunday to the contrary notwithstanding.

All legislative enactments, public referenda, and judicial rulings that produce even minor changes are open to the criticism that each additional step could make later changes easier to enact.  A law permitting gay marriage will not ipso facto lead to the passage of all imaginable laws permitting marriages between human beings and every conceivable other person or with animals, vegetables, or minerals. The way to avoid sliding down the slippery slope is to go no further: to draw the line where it has been drawn and to move the goal posts no further.  This is not only possible, it is overwhelmingly likely. Changes in the law, as in life, are inevitable.  Were they not, we’d be living under the laws and customs of 1776, complete with slave-owning, putting criminals in pillories, and corporal punishment in our public schools.

Another concern of opponents of gay marriage is that it’s only one part of an entire “gay agenda.” A recent example occurred on July 5, 2011, when, voting along party lines, the California legislature sent the governor a bill to make the state the first to require public schools to include the contributions of gays and lesbians [and the transgendered and people with disabilities] in social studies textbooks. On July 14, 2011, Governor Jerry Brown signed it into law. This is a perfect example of dysnomy (a great word, rarely used but frequently needed, meaning a bad law, from “dys”— Greek for “bad”— and “nomos,” Greek for law.)

There have been many more developments at the intersection of primary education and the gay agenda.  As early as 1992, the New York Times reported, of New York City schools, “It was to be simply a guide to teaching first graders tolerance and respect for all. Instead, the Board of Education’s ‘Children of the Rainbow’ curriculum, with its teaching of respect and appreciation for gay and lesbian families, has become the latest battleground for liberals and conservatives in the city’s cultural wars.”

Here’s what I think: the purpose of teaching tolerance for gays and lesbians and their families in public schools should be just one element of teaching children not to bully or be mean to any other children because they appear, or are, different from the majority of children.  Instead of teaching five- and six-year-olds about the intricacies of sexual orientation, wouldn’t it make more sense to teach children not to be mean or cruel to anyone else on any grounds, ever?  That would cover not being mean to Ellen because she has two mommies, or to Tommy because he has two daddies, to Bruce because he prefers playing with dolls to playing ball, and not teasing Janet because her face is covered with freckles.

This needn’t be part of any one group’s agenda.  It should be part of the entire society’s agenda to prevent harmful prejudice against all other children and all adults.  Such a national agenda would benefit everyone.

(c) Opponents of gay marriage see it as an attack on the sanctity of the union between a man and a woman that, when legalized, will subvert marriage as we know it.  If the law recognizes same-sex marriage as the legal equivalent of opposite-sex marriage, they say, then opposite-sex marriage will lose its unique place in the social and legal order.  In this view, marriage is the bond that unites a man and a woman for the purpose of legal procreation.

This view stems, in turn,  from the belief that the most sacred purpose of human life, and indeed the basic purpose of love, is the expression and perpetuation of that love through the act of procreation. The legally-sanctioned heterosexual marriage and the family that flows from it is thus the crucial building block of a civil society, the institution through which the mores and beliefs of the civilization are transmitted from one generation to the next.  Absent a female mother and a male father, those who hold this view fear, the family itself will disintegrate and the transmission of all that is sacred and good in our families, in our communities, in our religions, and in our culture will die out.

Opponents of gay marriage also oppose gay couples raising children out of a concern for the example they set by their own behavior.  They believe gay marriage will further harm an  already weak institution: only 43 percent of American children are now being raised by two parents.  At a time when the erosion of traditional child-rearing and family structure has placed intact two-parent families in a minority, a national tolerance for legal non-procreative unions sanctioned by the state is all the more unacceptable to foes of gay marriage.

Without the availability of gay marriage, the men or women who seek to benefit from gay marriage would not be married to a member of the opposite sex.  A closeted existence for gays was the norm in recent centuries, including the 20th, and it didn’t have positive effects. By permitting gays and lesbians to marry, they, like their heterosexual counterparts, would be anchored in stable relationships.  This would not only benefit them, but society at large.

The family structure in America is in trouble.  There is, however, no evidence that gay marriage is a cause of, or indeed has anything whatsoever to do with the erosion of two-parent families.

The public policy argument in favor of same-sex marriage is the same as that in favor of opposite-sex marriage.  It acts as a force for stability and monogamy against the biological impulses that lead to unproductive, time-wasting, and dangerous liaisons  that end in mutual frustration, dissatisfaction, and, since the 1980s, the transmission of a life-threatening disease.

Marriage provides the same stability and grounding in a loving relationship for two men or two women that it offers a man and a woman.  And to criticize the physical act of homosexual love as less purposeful than heterosexual marital sex because it can’t produce children ignores one major fact:  the majority of sexual relations in Western heterosexual marriages don’t lead to procreation, either, because of the use of birth control.

To argue, further, that a child adopted by two loving, educated, productive members of society is not at least as fortunate as one placed for adoption in foster care without educated and loving parents is to disregard the realities of modern adoption.

Moreover, there’s no evidence that either adoptees raised by same-sex couples or in-vitro-fertilized babies born to gay couples turn out to be gay with any greater frequency than do children of heterosexual married couples.  As anyone who has felt heterosexual impulses will readily attest, the power of heterosexuality will not be compromised when a heterosexual child is raised or taught by homosexuals. All children ultimately go their own ways.  A little boy who likes little girls will like big girls when he’s a big boy, even if he was raised by two women or by two men. All the scientific evidence we have shows that people (and other mammals) do not choose their sexual orientation: between seven and 10 percent are born with a genetic predisposition to be homosexual.  They are, in short, born that way.  It is not a “lifestyle choice.”

If the sexual orientation of parents made any difference whatsoever in affecting the sexual proclivities of their offspring, then heterosexual parents would never have homosexual children.

Gay marriage will lead, and has already led where legal, to societal behavior similar to stable, law-abiding, community-supporting heterosexual life experiences — attendance at PTA meetings, service on community boards pertaining to child welfare in residential neighborhoods, and all the panoply of communal sources of anchoring and commitment open to heterosexual parents.

In terms of public policy, gay marriage, like heterosexual marriage and the mortgage deduction, is a legislative means by which desirable social goals are encouraged while simultaneously discouraging less socially-favored activities.

Although I am no fan of MSNBC, there is nothing I recommend more highly to an opponent of gay marriage than the following video from that network — from the beginning, if possible, but if not in its entirety, then beginning at 3.30 minutes: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=626wvUV3osE

A final point: no amount of head-shaking disapproval is going to make gays and lesbians disappear from our midst as a society, from our colleagues at work, our circles of friends, or from within our own families.

(3) Getting Jim to Tom’s wedding:

If Jim holds to the arguments opposing gay marriage as strongly as you believe he does, I’d say the chances that you’ll have any luck persuading him to think otherwise are close to zero. You could, however, urge him to stand by the sinner even as he declines to condone what he deems to be the sin.

It’s often better to do that which is difficult now than to live with the remorse one feels later — and forever — after an act of omission.  This wedding will take place only once.  If Jim misses it, there’ll never be another chance for him to attend.

If you know a member of the clergy whom Jim trusts, I’d certainly try to enlist his or her pastoral aid.

If you find this topic too explosive to discuss with Jim — and why wouldn’t you? — you could write him a letter, saying why you plan to attend the wedding (if you do plan to go without Jim) and why you believe it’s important for him to be there, too.  A letter can be a more peaceable means of communicating about a contentious issue than a tense conversation that can easily escalate into a shouting match.

I also urge Tom to write his father a letter, by which I mean a letter and not an email, expressing his love and admiration for his father, if true;  he could also say what an inspiration his father has been in his life and give examples of  Jim’s positive impact  on him.  In that context he could also write how important it is for him for his father to join him on this solemn and joyous occasion. He could also write that he will not construe his father’s presence as conferring his blessing on the marriage but rather as a show of solidarity and support for his son.

The Gospel According to Luke has some  excellent advice, so I’ll close with it.  The bolded portions may have particular relevance for Jim, and Tom might quote it if he decides to write to his father.  If he does, his tone should be reasonable and, if possible, loving, rather than indignant, outraged, nagging, or whining. His letter would be an attempt to bridge a gap of one disagreement in the far greater interests of filial, paternal, and familial love.

1 Judge not, that ye be not judged.
2 For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.
3 And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
4 Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?
5 Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.
6 Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.
7 Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you:
8 for every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.
9 Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will give him a stone?
10 Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent?
11 If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?
12 Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.

—- Belladonna Rogers


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