If what I have argued is correct, the question of whether homosexuality is natural or not is really irrelevant to the question of same-sex marriage. For it might be that case that naturalness has no normative force at all, that something being nature’s way doesn’t have normative implications (cf. Hume et. al.). Or it might be the case that naturalness does have normative force, but that homosexuality is natural (cf. Edward O. Wilson). But even if it isn’t, the costs and benefits might favor it anyway; perhaps homosexuals realize more natural value when they channel this, per hypothesis, unnatural quality, than when suppressing it. Notice that I am not endorsing the idea that homosexuality is a defect. I am assessing just how much that matters by assuming, hypothetically, that it is.
At the risk of being misunderstood, I’m going to use the same strategy for today’s topic as well. Opponents of same-sex marriage are often less concerned with what partners do with each other and more concerned with the relationship between marriage and child-rearing. I think this topic is discussed somewhat dishonestly; let’s try to do better.
The dishonest part: marriage is for procreation. Same-sex partners cannot procreate. Therefore there should be no same-sex marriage. Now honestly, no one can be this stupid, and I say that not as an insult but as a suggestive hypothesis. Because no one can be this stupid, per hypothesis, this objection is code for something else. But maybe it is code for a legitimate objection? How can we know if we don’t get it on the table.
The stupid part has been adequately covered by others, so I won’t waste your time on it, other than to remind you that human beings are magnificently well designed to make it extremely likely that people will get pregnant. In this department, most of human ingenuity is focused on preventing this, not making sure it doesn’t stop. Even if marriage collapses as an institution, there is no risk that we will run out of babies. Even if a widespread plague of revulsion at sexual activity as such were to take hold in this country because of heterosexuals’ unhappiness at same-sex marriage, no doubt illegal immigration amnesty could take up the slack! And if there was any concern about the deleterious effects of allowing people who can’t procreate to marry, why are there no arguments in favor of denying marriage licenses to infertile people?
But of course no one is interested in denying marriage licenses to infertile people. The real fears here have to do with child rearing, not baby making. And this is the part that is hard for people to be honest about (well, some people). Just as the real (and as it happens, stated) objection Justice Taney had to regarding African-Americans as citizens was “but that would mean they could have guns!” and the ensuing fantasy about how they would be used, the real objection to gay marriage is not that gays would uselessly fail to raise children but that, on the contrary, they would raise children.
So what’s the ensuing fantasies? I believe (we must be somewhat speculative here) there are three:
(1) Children of gay couples will be molested by their parents;
(2) Children of gay couples will be traumatized by the knowledge that disgusting and unnatural sexual practices are going on under their roof, performed by, of all people, their own parents; and
(3) Children of gay parents will be influenced by their parents as role models, and become gay as a result.
Now the first thing we have to acknowledge and honor here is that these fantasies are rooted in beliefs which could be true or false, combined with a sincere concern for the welfare of children. The fact that the beliefs are, to those whom they are about, what we call bigotry should not distract us just yet from the fact that the issue is the welfare of children, and that this is something we all care about. But as it happens, all these fantasies are red herrings.
First, same-sex orientation and prepubescent orientation are two different things, and cut across the same-sex/opposite-sex distinction. Here are two examples to illustrate. Some straight men are very attracted to women with large breasts. There is no need to worry about what their typical proclivities might result in if they are placed in close quarters with little girls. Some gay men are very attracted to men with lots of body hair (“bears”). There is no need to worry about what their typical proclivities might result in if they are placed in close quarters with little boys. And there is no evidence that prepubescent orientation is more common among homosexuals. To assume that is just to assume that all forms of deviation from the norm tend to cluster. It makes no sense to worry about this possibility, unless, of course, one thinks we should abolish private families altogether, because some percentage of the population has the prepubescent orientation. As in the infertility argument, if we are serious about the worry, opposite sex marriages raise the worry too, yet no one proposes we abolish marriage to prevent child abuse.
The second objection is probably more entrenched and less openly articulated even by the strongest opponents. But really, it is not a very plausible objection, and represents, I suppose, a failure of the imagination. How so? Look, heterosexual parents engage in “unnatural and disgusting” sexual practices all the time! Everyone knows this! What’s more, everyone knows that this is something people in general are not altogether comfortable with. And because they aren’t, they tend to block it out of their minds. Of course, small children are too ignorant of what goes on among the adults to need to block it out. So between ignorance and vigorous denial, we all manage to avoid any vivid impressions of our parents getting it on. What reason do we have to think that children of same-sex parents would be any less ignorant, or any less adept at denial? Because homosexuality is more icky? C’mon. The thought of parental sex is already icky enough. “I had this vivid image of them [no, you’re out of luck, I’m not going to write up a pornographic description here] but that was OK. But the vivid image of them instead [even kinkier description deleted] totally freaked me out.” Really?
“Recruitment.” There are various theories of what causes sexual orientation: psychoanalytic (these have fallen on hard times lately), genetic, and in utero endocrinological. I don’t know anyone who thinks that but for parental modeling, heterosexuals wouldn’t be heterosexuals. Young man: “I had no interest in girls before puberty, but then after puberty, I asked myself–what would Dad be interested in? And being especially interested in modeling myself after my Dad now that I’m a teenager I decided that if girls were good enough for Dad, they were good enough for me.” However, the lead hypotheses supra can occur just as easily in the presence of opposite sex partner parenting.
So is there anything here at all? I think there probably is, but a proper accounting for it is not, as we lawyers like to say, dispositive.
I suspect that children have a psychological need to be raised by their biological parents, and when this does not occur, it causes a lack, a yearning. That’s bad. Gay marriage with child-rearing would involve that, if I am correct. “At last! He concedes that gay marriage is bad for kids.” Well, here’s a hard truth: no matter how much we are prone to value children and their welfare, there are limits to this beyond which at least our society is not willing to go. Because consider what it would mean if we regarded the psychological welfare of children in connection with this issue so overwhelmingly important that we were willing to block the happiness of adults by preventing them from doing something that would cause it: giving up for adoption would prohibited. Divorce would be prohibited.
But we allow adoption, and not just in cases where the biological parents are dead. We allow people to give up their children for adoption. We already know that this will impose some psychological costs on the children, but we calculate that this is an acceptable burden, and that the burden of being raised by a parent who is unable or unwilling would be worse. We allow people to divorce. We already know that this will impose some psychological costs on the children. And in this case, we don’t even rely on the notion that children are better off in households with less conflict, not when we are honest. We don’t restrict the assessment to the welfare of the children. We consider the welfare of the parents too, and we have tacitly concluded what many societies do not conclude: the burdens to the children are worth it to lighten the burdens to parents no longer able to bear bad marriages.
Again, and in short: if you are genuinely concerned with the impact of same-sex marriage on the welfare of children, and are in possession of what I suspect are the facts, then you probably have to abolish marriage altogether, or abolish adoption and divorce. And those are things we are not willing to do, because the prospective harms they might help us avoid are just not worth avoiding. The harms to children of gay marriage would have to be far worse than the actual evidence suggests to warrant special treatment for this population of folks.
I conclude that there really is no powerful argument against same-sex marriage as a matter of policy (the legal argument for it being constitutionally required is a separate issue) other than “St. Paul says no.” Which he does. The question is: why should our governments do something if that is the only reason? “Because Paul speaks for God here.”