Conversations with Maggie Gallagher

First published at on April 23, 2010

Maggie Gallagher has announced that she is stepping down as president of the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), adding that she will remain on NOM’s executive board while pursuing future projects, including a book with me, “Debating Same-Sex Marriage,” for Oxford University Press.

This prompted some surprised e-mails from friends who hadn’t heard about the book: “You’re doing WHAT with WHOM?” You would think she had announced that we were planning on spending the next few months braiding each other’s hair and painting our toenails.

Here’s the deal: Maggie and I will each write a long essay aiming to give the most powerful possible statement of our respective positions; we will then each write a rebuttal to the other’s essay. We will exchange drafts with each other (and no doubt, with various colleagues); the book will contain the finished versions of our two essays and rebuttals.

Why do a book debating Maggie Gallagher? The main reason is that I think she’s wrong—badly wrong, wrong in ways that hurt real individuals and real families—and I want to refute her.

Why “dignify” Maggie Gallagher with a platform for her pernicious views? Because, like it or not, those views are still shared by the majority of voters, in every single state in which marriage equality has been put to the ballot. You may call Maggie Gallagher a right-wing fringe lunatic all you like, but her side is winning plenty of battles, even while it is slowly losing the war.

I’m doing this book because I’d like to speed up that loss, not because I’m trying “to justify profiting from the suffering of others,” as one blog commenter put it. (Incidentally, academic-press books seldom turn a profit for their authors.) Yes, Maggie’s popularity on the right will sell books, but that also lets me make the case for equality before people I wouldn’t otherwise reach. Some of those people will have gay sons and daughters.

I don’t debate Maggie or other professional gay-rights opponents mainly to win them over. I do it to win over the moveable middle. I aim to give them, in the words of John Stuart Mill, “the clearer perception and livelier perception of truth, produced by its collision with error.” There’s something valuable about forcing people to defend their views in writing in a sustained way.

In the process, I aim to build relationships with people, including our opponents. Sure, I’m a philosopher, and I believe in the power of ideas. But opposition to our lives is not ultimately based in logic, and it’s not ultimately going to be won on logic (even while logic plays an essential role). It’s going to be won as our adversaries get to know us and thus find it increasingly difficult to turn a blind eye to our fundamental needs and interests.

Meanwhile, both sides need to stop pretending that we’ve got the other completely figured out. We don’t.

I’ve known Maggie by e-mail for years, but we’ve only met in-person twice. The first time was for a marriage forum in New York. The second was for a debate in Oregon. Unexpectedly we encountered each other on a connecting flight in Salt Lake City, and we sat together on the plane. At one point I showed her a picture of my partner Mark, displaying the broad, welcoming smile that is his trademark.

“I can see why you call him home,” she said.

At first I misunderstood her. “I don’t need to call home,” I answered. “I just talked to him.”

“No—I can see why you call HIM home. He’s ‘home’ for you,” Maggie replied.

You might wonder how someone who “gets” that Mark is “home” for me can spend her life fighting my right to marry him. You might conclude she’s just being a hypocrite, “profiting from the suffering of others.” As I’ve said many times (and will continue saying), Maggie’s work harms real individuals and real families.

But you could also—at least, if you knew Maggie as I do—keep the conversation going, pressing her directly on some of these points. And that’s what intend to do.