This is the final installment in my four-part series on gay marriage and Prop 8. Comments are open today--feel free to respond to anything from the entire series, but please be respectful to those whose opinions differ from yours and/or mine.
Marriage evolved early to protect the “vertical” relationships between generations and only more recently to protect the “lateral” relationships between partners. So what will happen if we take the vertical and lateral legal framework of marriage and apply it to lateral same-sex relationships that haven’t attempted to serve a vertical function in any previous generation? Three different court rulings in California have sidestepped this question by asserting that since men and women no longer have legally defined gender roles, there is no difference between a same-sex and an opposite-sex relationship.
I wish sometimes we’d approach social engineering more like we approach actual engineering. Gay marriage proponents have pointed out that in the five-month window during which California did recognize same-sex marriages, nothing drastic happened to suggest that the fabric of society had been fundamentally changed and have used this to extrapolate a future free of negative consequences. But what would happen if we used the same reasoning to approve oil drilling technologies? No one would have a right to be upset at BP over the massive Gulf oil spill. Our nuclear safety laws could be held in court as having “no rational basis.”
But engineers don’t aim for five months of safety. My uncle, who’s a chemical engineer, has a job where the acceptable projected major incident rate is once every 30,000 years. So if engineers are going to incorporate a new building material or configuration into a plant design, they consider numerous possible consequences first. If we are going to stick same-sex couples into the old category of marriage, we ought to be considering what stresses the design change might put on marriage as a category and on same-sex couples as a group.
It seems to me that there are two possibilities. The first is that expanding the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples could decrease the vertical emphasis in marriage, which may have broader social implications. The second is that marriage’s vertical dimension is strong enough not to be affected, in which case using the term “marriage” would likely increase the pressure on same-sex couples to focus more on vertical relationships.
Would including same-sex relationships under the legal umbrella of marriage affect vertical relationships in the long term? Is it reasonable to be concerned about the effects of gay marriage on procreation and parenting?
Judges have dismissed such fears when it comes to procreation, but the truth is that we don’t know. Some people will exclusively pursue lateral same-sex relationships no matter what the legal or cultural context is. Others will have children and invest significant energy into vertical relationships no matter what the legal or cultural context is. But we don’t know what will happen in the marginal cases in between: whether, for example, same-sex marriage rights will change the opposite-sex married fatherhood rates of men who are roughly equally attracted to members of both genders.
These sorts of unknowns may not matter to secular, highly-educated, white, middle-class voters. But then again, that’s a demographic with a fertility rate below replacement levels. Among many of the racial minority and religiously conservative communities that have fertility rates above replacement levels, fears about the possible consequences of gay marriage are much more prevalent. Is this just ignorance and prejudice, or a product of pro-natal values that are perfectly compatible with the Constitution?
The parenting question is more sensitive. For most of history in most cultures, parenting models have been based on ideas of the two genders as complementary (yin and yang, if you will), but parenting styles that rely on gender roles in America today are controversial. Do mothers and fathers matter, or are loving adults essentially interchangeable as parenting units?
On a practical level, I’m not opposed to some experimentation. After all, there are plenty of children without stable and loving parents at all—even in the absence of a historical precedent for gay parenting, I think it’s better for children to be raised by adults who want them than by adults who don’t. But judges aren’t ruling that we should open a door to experimentation on gay parenting right now—that’s already been done. They are ruling that differentiation between opposite-sex couples and same-sex couples has no rational basis and violates the United States Constitution, ruling effectively that it’s prejudice to consider opposite-gender parents superior to same-gender parents.
If the mother-father model is based entirely in social constructs, that’s no problem. But if there turns out to be a meaningful biological component to the mother-father model, well...good luck getting biology to change in response to a court order.
It may be instructive to consider another parenting controversy in which progress and biology seem pitted against one another as a reference point. Yes: just in case gay marriage isn’t enough to start a fight in the comments, I’m going to touch briefly on infant formula vs. breastfeeding.
For most of human history, babies were breastfed—if not by their mothers then by a wet-nurse. But during the 20th century, when our collective respect for technology and industry overtook our respect for tradition, infant formulas became increasingly popular. In the 1920s, studies that suggested formula-fed babies fared as well as breast-fed babies led to the first significant formula boom. By 1950, roughly half of American babies were being raised on formula and by the early 1970s, the percentage was up to three-fourths. Whenever evidence suggested breastfeeding might have inherent advantages, scientists simply attempted to create more advanced formulas.
Eventually, though, the body of evidence for the advantages of breastfeeding (both nutritional and psychological) grew large enough to inspire a counter-movement. Four decades and billions of dollars in public awareness campaigns later, three-fourths of American mothers start their babies on breast milk—though only a third are still exclusively breastfeeding by even the three month mark. And pushing for more breastfeeding can be tricky, despite the body of evidence. Campaigns like the “Breast is Best” one are accused of being judgmental or devaluing mothers who choose formula.
Now, do I think we should ban formula? No. But would I be nervous if a court ruled that infant formula and breastfeeding are no different from one another? Yes.
Do I think we should keep same-sex couples from building lives together, or keep determined same-sex couples from parenting together? No. But do I think we can treat traditional marriage and same-sex marriage as identical without affecting the strength of our vertical relationships in some way? Well, let’s just say I think there’s sometimes a fine line between progress and hubris.
So far, though, my structural analysis has focused on how ruling Proposition 8 unconstitutional might affect the next generation. A good engineer would also carefully consider whether there will be unintended effects for the current generation of same-sex couples.
Let’s assume that marriage as an institution would not be affected by being expanded to include same-sex couples. Would same-sex relationships be benefited or harmed if they were expected to do the same work of connecting generations that marriages have traditionally done? Again, we don’t know. My general impression is that few same-sex couples before, say, 1990, felt like parenting or grandparenting were vital missing dimensions of their romantic relationship. Is it optimal for gay couples to have norms based in heterosexual relationships projected onto them without any adjustment? How would it affect gay men, in particular, to have adoption and parenting as common social expectations of their long-term relationships?
I don’t necessarily have a problem with social engineering, but hastily redefining a core building block of society seems like really shoddy engineering work. I agree that we need to do something in this country to protect gay Americans, but is trying to leverage social acceptance by redefining marriage really the best solution?
And will anyone really benefit in the long term if we decide it’s hate or prejudice to believe that same-sex and opposite-sex relationships aren’t quite the same?