Why marriage equality DOES matter for children
With a front-page banner headline like “I’m gay but I’m against same sex marriages”, on the day of the first civil partnerships in Ireland (congratulations to the couples!), Richard Waghorne was bound to attract some attention for himself. While the case is one I have argued against before here, his article is as good an opportunity as any to highlight what I believe are some mistaken assumptions.
First off, his point that it should be irrelevant to a debate of this nature whether one is gay.
I am not a big believer in people making arguments on the back of who or what they happen to be. When I last made the case in these pages against gay marriage, about a year ago, I didn’t feel the need to mention that I am gay myself. Arguments stand on their own two feet, or don’t, but not on the strength of who happens to be making them.
It is wrong to think that life experiences are irrelevant to a social issue of this sort. For most gay people, myself included, it is a grievance to a greater or lesser extent, that we cannot hope to get married in this country; how is it an irrelevant fact that this is at least tempered by those such as Richard Waghorne who do not take it as such? This is not a theoretical issue, it matters because of the people involved. Imagine a situation where no gay person wanted to marry, but the idea was proposed. It would surely then be relevant for Richard to mention his sexuality. Why less so now?
Richard proceeds to argue that as marriage is recognized because of the protection it provides for children, it is selfish of gay couples to look for it.
The support and status that marriage entails is not a societal bonus for falling in love and agreeing to make a relationship lasting. That is not, of course, to say that love and romance are not an important part of marriage. But they are not the reason it has special status. If romance were the reason for supporting marriage, there would be no grounds for differentiating which relationships should be included and which should not. But that is not and never has been the nature of marriage.
Marriage is vital as a framework within which children can be brought up by a man and woman. Not all marriages, of course, involve child-raising. And there are also, for that matter, same-sex couples already raising children. But the reality is that marriages tend towards child-raising and same-sex partnerships do not.
The substance of my criticisms are two-fold, and covered by his side comment acknowledging the exceptions to his general rule.
While raising children is an important reason to recognize marriage, it is not the only one. We also recognize the importance personal bonds are to people. The obvious example is of an elderly couple, who are past child-bearing age, and who have no desire to adopt. No one begrudges them the right to marry. We feel instinctively that by making the commitment to be with each other in all circumstances, they will be the better for it. They have that emotional security of the other’s bond that they will be there for each other. There are benefits not just to the couple, but to society at large, to people not being isolated.
Indeed, the marital vows themselves emphasize only this part of marriage:
…. will you take …. to be your husband?
Will you love him, comfort him,
honour and care for him,
and, forsaking all others,
be faithful to him as long as you both shall live?
It seems wilful denial then to consign this aspect of the commitment to a side issue.
On the question then of children, it is certainly relevant to the discussion that there are same-sex couples raising children. This can happen because of adoption, artificial insemination or a child from a previous relationship. And it will happen, parental instincts exist among all to some degree, regardless of sexuality. At present in Irish law, only one of the parents can be officially recognized as such, and the other treated in law as a stranger. This would change as of right if gay couples could marry.
Even were the Civil Partnership Act amended to acknowledge this and take account for these situations, the children would undoubtedly be better off if their parents could marry. Conservatives like Richard Waghorne are quick to trumpet the benefits of marriage in general, that it increases stability in the home, which is good for children. On the whole, I would agree with them. But this should not become any less true for children raised by gay couples. Does Richard believe a couple raising a child is no less likely to dissolve their relationship if they are in a civil partnership than if they were married? I find it difficult to see how he can consistently hold this view.
The reality is that the distinction is part of a legacy of centuries-old discrimination against gay people. Had we continued from classical times to the present with no discrimination, different terminology might not be an issue. Given the possibility of questions, it would mean so much more to such children that they could respond to any question from curious friends by simply saying, “My parents are married”.
So I differ with Richard’s premise, that marriage is near exclusively about children, and hold that even if it were, children would be better off with marriage equality. I also find it odd that ten years after the first gay couples married in the Netherlands, he feels no need to back his claims with evidence of harm from there or other countries and territories. I’ll finish in questioning his overall critique, that gay couples would fundamentally change the institution of marriage, by quoting John Corvino from last month,
So why do conservatives think that this tiny minority will undermine the norms of the vast majority, rather than vice versa?
It’s hard to escape the answer: because that view fits their preconceived objections better, evidence and common sense be damned.
Edit: Do read as well an excellent response from Conor Prendergast, signed “Proud son of two loving mums”.