Gauging America on Gay Marriage: A fine idea in principle, but what about the kids?
By Elizabeth Marquardt. As appeared in The Chicago Tribune, Sunday, December 7, 2003
The gay marriage debate is already exploding into another battle in our nation's culture war. On one side are advocates for same-sex marriage who believe gays and lesbians will never be accorded full
respect if they are kept out of society's bedrock social institution.
On the other side are critics who fear that gay marriage will further undermine marriage itself. Some of
these critics think homosexuality is wrong, and some of them are hateful in their rhetoric. Others, like me, think homosexuality is fine but question whether experimenting with the legal definition of marriage
could lead to unintended consequences, especially for children.
Those who want gay marriage have good reasons. In addition to lacking the legal benefits of
marriage, they speak of the pain of loving someone you know you can never marry and of relationships sometimes warped because they must take place in the margins of society. Most
powerfully, they point out that gay and lesbian couples are already raising children, and those children need legal and social protections.
Their points are convincing.
At the same time, we may be witnessing a situation of goods in conflict. The principle of equal human dignity guides us toward full equality for gays and lesbians, including access to marriage. Yet, the
same principle also guides us to listen to children, who are often the most voiceless and vulnerable in our society.
I grew up as a child of divorce and am completing a major national study that compares young adults
from divorced and intact families. As someone who has spent years living in and studying this alternative family form, I believe we should listen to what children say about growing up in a home
lacking at least one of the biological parents.
Today, growing numbers of people are convinced by the accumulated data that growing up in a
divorced family is much harder for kids than growing up with married parents. But this has not always been the consensus.
In the 1970s, as the no-fault divorce revolution gathered steam and took off, the rhetoric of adult freedom was in the air. Advocates insisted that no-fault divorce would free unhappy adults from
troubled marriages and have no effect on anyone else.
They argued that states must support adults' rights to liberation and happiness. When critics
questioned how divorce would affect children, they were assured that the children would be fine. If adults got happier, their children would too, the advocates said. The theory of trickle-down happiness
Years passed, the first generation to come of age in the divorce revolution grew up, and now the story is different. Divorce is complicated, sometimes making adults happier but just as often exposing them to new anxieties.
Divorce rescues children of high-conflict marriages, but the majority of divorces end low-conflict marriages, and those children do much worse after divorce.
Moreover, no-fault divorce has weakened the idea of marital permanence for everyone. Young adults today fear getting married because they know that almost half of first marriages end in divorce.
What could possibly be the comparison between divorce and gay marriage? After all, one ends a relationship, the other solidifies it. The comparison is this: In both family forms, the child grows up
lacking at least one biological parent in the home.
Gay marriage is new, but in every other alternative family form we've tried so far, children tell us that
lacking a close relationship, or any relationship at all, with their father or mother causes serious emotional pain.
Just ask the fatherless children who write plaintive songs and poetry agonizing over their father's
abandonment. Ask children of sperm donors who now organize on the Web to find other kin sired by the same man--a hundred children all feeling connected because they came from one man's sperm.
Ask children of divorce who grew up traveling between their parents' homes, lacking a feeling of wholeness because they were always missing a parent no matter where they were.
Gay and lesbian parents love their children, and those children without question love their parents. Love is not in doubt here. But I wonder whether the children of gays and lesbians could be all that
different from the children who have grown up in every other alternative family form we've tried?
Like the others, might those children say, "Yes, absolutely, I love the parents who raised me. But I
always wondered about that father or mother out there who could conceive me but didn't seem to want me. Or, I always wondered what in me--my expressions, my gestures, my emotions--came
from that parent I barely knew, or never even met."
Moreover, it is reasonable to ask whether changing the definition of marriage to accommodate gay
marriage--as the Massachusetts high court did in the Goodridge decision--could have unintended consequences. In that state, the English common-law definition that marriage is "the voluntary union
for life of one man and one woman" is now reinterpreted for residents as "the voluntary union of two persons as spouses."
Thus, the court's remedy, well-intended to extend full legal rights to gay and lesbian couples, is to change the language used to talk about all of us. In the eyes of the law in that state, no longer are we
men and women, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers. We are persons, spouses and
The problem is this: In recent decades, the courts and our culture have at various times construed all
kinds of people to be children's "parents," including stepparents, adoptive parents, surrogate mothers, sperm donors, and mother's and father's boyfriends and girlfriends.
In varying instances, children accept, reject, question or are deeply confused by these formulations. The fact is, to children's ears, the two words that mean the same thing, all the time, and that mean
everything, are "mother" and "father." In Massachusetts, gay marriage has made the law unable to
affirm that children need mothers and fathers, not just "parents," and if children say otherwise, the law will be silent.
Does an abundance of love from two mommies or two daddies make children of gays and lesbians feel any differently than other children? I don't think we have the answers yet. The early studies of
children of gays and lesbians are small and, so far, contradictory. It will be years before the long-term
studies are done, before this first generation grows up and tells us about the experience.
Gay and lesbian couples are already raising children, and those children need legal and social protections. Civil unions will achieve that goal. In the meantime, I wonder: Before we continue
experiments with marriage--which so far have been led by heterosexuals and too often resulted in children's pain--could we try to have a serious, calm discussion about what gay marriage might mean?
And let's promise ourselves that our whole society will listen, really listen, to what children have to say.
Copyright (c) 2003, Chicago Tribune
Elizabeth Marquardt is an affiliate scholar at the Institute for American Values in New York City. She lives in Lake Forest.