I had the privilege of sitting in on the conversation between Maggie Gallagher and John Corvino last night (ably facilitated by David Blankenhorn) at the Center for Public Conversation. (There was wine! Perhaps that helps explain why the conversation was so civil?) I just want to toss a few thoughts at you — after I briefly introduce myself. (Here’s a slightly more self-aggrandizing bio.)
I’m a law professor who teaches Family Law, a writer (for law journals, but also for publications that people actually read, like Slate, and for a couple of blogs). I’m especially interested in civil unions, and am working on a book about what they might mean in the long-term. Meanwhile, I’m under contract (with co-author Carrie Stone) to write “Same-Sex Legal Kit for Dummies” (under the lash; the complete manuscript is due next month). I met Elizabeth Marquardt in April in Chicago when I was speaking about the effect of opposite-sex civil unions (they exist in Illinois!), and that led to this stint. I’m excited to be here, and await your comments over the next couple months. I will be mostly be writing about civil unions. Not today, though!
Back to the event: Corvino and I used to be site-mates (is that a word? it is now…) at the late, lamented 365gay.com. We’d even briefly discussed teaming up to do a column together just before the site shut down last year. We’ve kept in touch, so when he invited me to this event, I was excited to attend. It was nice to actually meet him in person, and it was also good to meet…Maggie Gallagher.
Gallagher and I had exchanged emails several years ago (in what I’d describe as a mostly collegial way), and we’d engaged each other across the blogosphere on her position on civil unions (you can follow the back-and-forth here, if you have too much time today), but we’d never officially met (even though we were both panelists at a marriage symposium last year). So we did. And we had a nice conversation. Really. This wasn’t the side of her that I’ve often seen on cable news shows, where I’ve often given consideration to whether I can afford the new television I’d need after hurling any handy object at the screen.
We talked a bit about the book (“Debating Same-Sex Marriage”), but quite a bit more about our families — well, OK, mostly about mine, because her story (and, I’d venture, a not-small part of her decades-long marriage crusade) is by now well-known. (Single mother who learned, the hard way, about the fact that sex and procreation can’t be separated and about the need to provide social and legal support for marriages, so that fathers stay.)
My situation poses perhaps the hardest case for her traditionalist position. One strategy she uses in the book to defend against the argument that allowing same-sex marriages would be good for the children of those marriages is to minimize the number of children being raised in what she thinks are “qualifying” situations (not the children of remarried parents, for example). But I’m one of the “qualifiers”: my partner and I adopted twin girls from the Philadelphia dependency system, but only after fostering them from infancy until they were two years old. It’s hard to see a good argument for denying us the kind of legal and social stability that would support our children, and, really, Gallagher doesn’t try to deny that our kids might be better off were marriage available to us. But she thinks the costs (to society) greatly outweigh the benefits.
I have a couple of responses to this.
First, for someone who claims that her principal argument against marriage equality is non-consequentialist (same-sex marriages are intrinsically “a lie” and are “unjust”), her willingness to go hammer-and-tongs into this kind of utilitarian argument is striking. And hers is a peculiar kind of utilitarianism, because it weighs actual harm to existing families (like mine and many thousands of others) against the speculative, long-term harm she fears (and explains, quite well, in the book) to the institution of marriage if same-sex couples are given the keys to that kingdom.
Second, I must say, in fairness, that one of the three core arguments she makes against marriage equality is the best one I’ve seen. Not successful from my point of view, but at least coherent and worthy of serious discussion. I’m going to do a fuller book review soon, so this is just a taste of that review. Here, as I see them, are her three central points:
- Marriage “means” the union of a man and a woman, in much the same way that “mother” means “the person who bears the child with her body.” So when we try to change these kinds of definitions, we’re paltering with language. There’s so much wrong with this argument that my brain is frozen, paralyzed by too many devastating rejoinders. Stay tuned for the book review to read in amazement as they unfold.
- If marriage equality comes to town, then opponents will have to get out by sundown, or be shot (throught) by the accusation of bigotry. For about sixty-eight reasons, I find this argument both offensive and weak. It should never again appear in print, be spoken, or be the subject of interpretative dance (although the issue of how to accommodate religious and other conscience beliefs is a real one, as I discussed in a series of posts you can find here).
- By restricting marriage to the union of a man and a woman, society sends a number of mutually reinforcing messages — all of which are important to the maintenance of civil society: Sex makes babies; sex and procreation can’t be reliably separated; mothers and fathers matter. She fears that allowing same-sex couples to marry will have a long-term, slow-drip effect on these messages, and that the cost is just too high to bear.
This last argument is the only one that has any traction with me, even if I ultimately found it unpersuasive . You’ll have to read the upcoming review to find out why, but for now let me say that I think society is capable of more complex messaging than Gallagher allows, that people understand that different factual situations call for different solutions, and that expanding the definition of marriage to accommodate same-sex couples is in fact more consonant with our contemporary understanding of the institution anyway (and that the broader understanding is an advance).
Am I usually this wordy? Unfortunately, yes. But typically I do a better job of reining myself in. Let’s see how well I manage myself here!