Why Conservatives Should Want Gay Parents to Marry

First published at 365gay.com on February 5, 2010

Brian Brown throws around the term “irrational” quite a bit.

Brown is the Executive Director of the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), an anti-gay-marriage organization (Maggie Gallagher is its president). I first came across his name last summer when the Washington Post profiled him, describing him as “pleasantly, ruthlessly sane” and “rational.”

From the profile, it appears that “irrational” is Brown’s favorite term of abuse.

For example, he claims it’s irrational when polls indicate that most young people support equal marriage rights for gays and lesbians. Or when people argue that marriage equality is ultimately inevitable. Or when they describe his position as bigotry:

“I think it’s irrational that up until 10 years ago, all of these societies agreed with my position [and yet now they’re changing]” he tells the Post.

However, the term “irrational” was given new meaning in Brown’s most recent fundraising letter, in which he uses a new Department of Health and Human Services study, the “Fourth National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect (NIS-4),” to argue against same-sex marriage.

Brown cites the HHS study as stating that

“Children living with two married biological parents had the lowest rate of overall Harm Standard maltreatment, at 6.8 per 1,000 children. This rate differs significantly from the rates for all other family structure and living arrangement circumstances.”

Brown goes on to argue,

“All parents working hard to raise good kids…deserve our respect and help. But there is no call to wipe out the ideal itself, rooted in Nature and Nature’s God, and replace it with a man-made fantasy that same-sex unions are just the same as the one kind of union that best protects children.”

Got that? Children do best with a married biological mother and father. Therefore, we ought to oppose same-sex marriage.

I felt like I was missing some steps—maybe I was being “irrational”—so I went and read the study Brown cites. And I learned a few interesting things.

First, the 455-page study says not a word about gay and lesbian parents. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Which makes it essentially useless for anyone wanting to do a three-way comparison between children of married straight parents, married gay parents, and unmarried gay parents.

The study does indeed find that, on average, children living with married biological parents are at substantially lower risk of maltreatment than children in other family structures studied: namely, those with “other married parents” (not both biological but both having a legal relationship to the child), unmarried parents (biological or other), single parents with an unmarried partner, unpartnered single parents, and no parents.

What follows from this finding is quite simple. My fellow gays and lesbians should stop snatching children away from married biological parents who are raising them. As the Gay Moralist, I hereby call for an immediate cessation of this horrible practice. It’s bad for the kids. Stop it. Thank you.

Back on Planet Earth, where gay and lesbian people are generally not kidnapping children from their married biological parents, the relevant conclusion is rather different.

To the extent that the study teaches us about gay and lesbian families at all, it is to suggest that children in them would do far better IF THEIR PARENTS COULD GET MARRIED.

Are you listening, Mr. Rational? The study actually shows the OPPOSITE of what you’re using it for.

But wait—there’s more. Everything I’ve said thus far (and indeed, everything in the HHS report) assumes an “all else being equal” clause. But of course, all else is often not equal.
Which is why the report looks at factors beyond family structure, and notes that, for example

• Children of the unemployed are at a 2-3 times higher risk for maltreatment.

• Children in large households (four or more children) had more than twice the incidence of maltreatment than those in two-child families.

• Children in families of low socio-economic status were 5 times more likely to be victims of maltreatment than other children.

Somehow, however, I don’t expect Brown to oppose marriage for the poor, or for his fellow conservative Catholics (who tend to have large families).

Or maybe to ask wealthy lesbians (Ellen and Portia?) to revive that imaginary kidnapping trend.

The general problem here is familiar: making the best the enemy of the good. Brown’s argument presupposes that the only people who should be allowed to marry are those whose marriages would create ideal scenarios for children.

By that logic, NOM’s own president wouldn’t have been allowed her current marriage, since that marriage created a stepfamily. Logician, heal thyself.

Meanwhile, there are several million American children being raised by gay parents. What (if anything) can the HHS study tell us about them?

According to the study, children living with “other married parents” (at least one non-biological) are at LESS THAN HALF the risk of maltreatment compared to children living with a single parent and an unmarried partner.

So if we really care about these children’s welfare, we should let their parents marry. It’s only rational.