Could David Quinn learn from David Blankenhorn?
Let’s be honest: The gay marriage debate is nearly over.
In the Los Angeles Times last week, David Blankenhorn, President of the Institute of American Values, opened with these words to write again about his personal journey. He was one of the witnesses who spoke in defence of Proposition 8 in its original court hearing in 2010, and a long-term leader of those who were against. Between his institute and where he places his emphasis in his arguments, such as on family stability and the effect of absent fathers, he brings his namesake to mind, David Quinn, Director of the Iona Institute.
Yet last year, David Blankenhorn wrote in the New York Times, ‘How My View on Gay Marriage Changed’. He did not depart from his core understanding of marriage as ‘the planet’s only institution whose core purpose is to unite the biological, social and legal components of parenthood into one lasting bond’. But the debate on gay marriage did not pan out as he initially expected, nor did it have the effect of strengthening an understanding of heterosexual marriage. In that context, comity matters, he said,
Sticking to one’s position no matter what can be a virtue. But bending the knee a bit, in the name of comity, is not always the same as weakness. As I look at what our society needs most today, I have no stomach for what we often too glibly call “culture wars.” Especially on this issue, I’m more interested in conciliation than in further fighting.
As he came to see it, maintaining his opposition did not help the conversation he believed was most important about marriage, and began to realise that these discussions can perhaps best take place while accepting that gay couples are living together and raising children,
So my intention is to try something new. Instead of fighting gay marriage, I’d like to help build new coalitions bringing together gays who want to strengthen marriage with straight people who want to do the same. For example, once we accept gay marriage, might we also agree that marrying before having children is a vital cultural value that all of us should do more to embrace? Can we agree that, for all lovers who want their love to last, marriage is preferable to cohabitation? Can we discuss whether both gays and straight people should think twice before denying children born through artificial reproductive technology the right to know and be known by their biological parents?
His piece of last week, ‘What matters now about marriage’ was a little more personal, saying that ‘arriving at that position has for me been a difficult and painful journey’. Of course it must be, to admit that you’ve got it wrong, a high-profile change of heart. None of us like to do that. He cites Jonathan Rauch (whose recent ebook, Denial, I’d strongly recommend) as the man who was the catalyst, a conservative gay marriage proponent, and what dawned dawned on him through their debates,
But at some point we stopped debating and started talking about our lives, including about my wife, Raina, and his husband, Michael. Did Jonathan’s marriage threaten the idea of marriage? Perhaps in theory. But in real life, was I able to see it? No. In fact, quite the opposite.
But Blankenhorn is far from the only person to change his mind on this. Across the western world, support for letting gay couples marry has shifted dramatically over the course of the last decade. His was the same journey so many have taken, but the many have been able to shift their stance more quietly and privately. Popular opinion has changed much more rapidly than is usually the case with social change, and this is I believe from so many conversations people have had with family and friends, just as between Blankenhorn and Rauch.
David Quinn seems to have locked himself into a corner on the question of research on gay parents. It would be a big deal in the local sphere of Irish conversation on this question were he to do so, and he would subject himself to widespread focus. He insists that only a large-scale blind study would be good enough, despite a preponderance of research on this question leading in one direction, some of which I have compiled before, and comprehensively detailed by the blogger Humanisticus.
Just this week, the largest ever study of children raised by same-sex, of 500 Australian children, found that on key health indicators, they are doing as well as they general population.
Perhaps in the year 2025, after around a decade of gay marriage in this country, David Quinn might concede that it is not having a negative effect on raising children more generally, but still maintain that he was right to have been cautious about such a change in our understanding of marriage and the family.
But he would miss the opportunity to fruitfully engage with some of those who are currently presenting consistent and strong arguments on the benefits of marriage to individuals, couples and their children.
As David Blankenhorn put it,
So this is where I found myself a year ago: Fighting gay marriage was wrong because it was denying real people access to a status and an institution we all have a stake in. Moreover, that battle was doing nothing to strengthen the institution overall.
And this is where I find myself now: The goal of marriage equality is to make marriage available and achievable for all who seek it — gay and straight, the upscale minority and the non-upscale majority. And the strategy for achieving full marriage equality is a strategy of strange bedfellows: social conservatives and gay rights liberals, a coalition that could put an end forever to the conflict between gay rights and family values.
We are coming to a new understanding of marriage. The Atlantic recently had a lengthy cover essay on how gay couples might affect the way straight couples think about their own marriages. Some of these are in ways that should have an appeal to someone like David Quinn, such as the lack of historic gender roles means that in same-sex relationship, a parent can feel less social anxiety if they choose to stay at home to raise their children.
I would not anticipate that even were David Quinn to change his views on this that we would be in agreement across the board; he is instinctively conservative, I am instinctively liberal, as are many other frequent sparring partners of his. But we should be able to have this debate about how best to strengthen families without the distraction of a debate that will in a decade or so seem quaint.
I think a referendum on marriage quite possible in October 2014. I hope David Quinn seriously takes the time in the 15 months or so before the heat of the campaign to consider carefully why it is that so many have embraced the benefits of marriage for gay couples and their families, and considers whether he is in fact promoting the long-term position of marriage in society through his current stance.