The Message of Marriage

First published at on April 30, 2010

If I’ve asked it once I’ve asked it a hundred times: how does marriage equality hurt heterosexuals?

Recently I posed the question yet again to Maggie Gallagher, outgoing president of the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), as she visited my ethics class at Wayne State University via audio conference.

I “get” that Gallagher wants children to have mothers and fathers, and ideally, their own biological mothers and fathers. What I’ve never quite gotten is why extending marriage to gays and lesbians undermines that goal. One can be married without having children, one can have children without being married; and (most important) same-sex marriage is not about gay couples’ snatching children away from their loving heterosexual parents. No sane person thinks otherwise.

Maggie Gallagher is a sane person. (Wrong, but sane.) For the record, she is not worried that marriage equality would give gays license to kidnap children. Nor does she oppose adoption by gay individuals or couples, although she thinks heterosexual married couples should be preferred. So what’s the problem?

At the risk of oversimplifying, one could describe her concern—which she graciously explained to my class—as The Message Argument. The idea is this. The core reason society promotes marriage is to bind mothers and fathers together for the long-term welfare of their offspring. In doing so we send a message: “Children need their mothers and fathers.”

But on Gallagher’s view, extending marriage to gays and lesbians makes it virtually impossible to sustain that message. The central premise of the marriage-equality movement is that Jack and Bob’s marriage is just as valid, qua marriage, as Jack and Jill’s. (That’s the whole point of calling it “marriage equality.”) And if we make that equivalence, we cannot also say that children—some of whom Jack and Bob may be raising—need their mothers and fathers. Indeed, the latter claim would now seem offensive, even bigoted.

So Gallagher’s argument poses a dilemma: either maintain the message that children need their mothers and fathers, and thus oppose marriage equality; or else embrace marriage equality, and thus relinquish the message. You can’t have both.

Whatever else you want to say about this argument, it’s not crazy. It’s about how to maintain a message that seems well motivated, at least on the surface: children need their mothers and fathers.

Elsewhere I’ve argued that the claim “Children need their mothers and fathers” is ambiguous. On one reading it’s obviously false. On another, it’s more plausible, but it doesn’t support the conclusion against marriage equality. For even if we were to grant for the sake of argument that the “ideal” situation for children is, on average, with their own biological mother and father, we ought not to discourage—and deny marriage to—other arrangements: stepfamilies, adoptive families, and same-sex households. It’s a non-sequitur.

But that (familiar and ongoing) argument is somewhat beside the point. The Message Argument does not say that promoting children’s welfare logically entails denying marriage to gays and lesbians. It says that, in practice, it is virtually impossible to maintain the message “Children need their mothers and fathers” while also promoting the message that “Gay families are just as good as straight ones.” And given a choice between the two messages, Gallagher favors the former.

I think urging parents—especially fathers—to stick around for their offspring is an admirable and important goal. It’s also one that has personal resonance for Gallagher, who has spoken candidly of her experience as a young single mother left behind by her child’s father.

I also think that there are 1001 better ways to achieve this goal than fighting marriage equality. The fact that NOM targets gays and gays alone makes it hard to believe that we are merely collateral damage in their battle to promote children’s welfare.

That said, I want to thank Gallagher for clarifying her position. I want to assure her that I’ll take The Message dilemma seriously. I plan to grapple with it in future columns (and our forthcoming book).

But I also want to pose for her a counter-dilemma, which I hope she’ll take equally seriously.

For it seems to me that, in practice, it is impossible to tell gay couples and families that they are full-fledged members of our society, deserving of equal respect and dignity, while also denying them the legal and social status of marriage.

Yes, marriage sends messages, but “children need their mothers and fathers” is scarcely the only one. Marriage sends the message that it’s good for people to have someone special to take care of them, and vice-versa—to have and to hold, for better or worse, ‘til death do they part.

Marriage sends a message about the importance of forming family, even when those families don’t include children; about making the transition from being a child in one’s family of origin to being an adult in one’s family of choice.

Gallagher claims that she loves and respects gay people, and I want to believe her. But how can she sustain that message while also opposing marriage equality? How does her own preferred message not tell gay families—not to mention stepfamilies, adoptive families, and single-parent households—that “Your family isn’t real”?

Yes, marriage sends messages. So does its denial.