The Institute for American Values streamed John Corvino’s and Maggie Gallagher’s cordial discussion of same-sex marriage (SSM) on June 7th, 2012 at 18:00 EDT. An archived video of the event is now available. A respectful and lively exchange between two intelligent people who respect one another (rather than see one another as the demonic incarnation of all that is wrong in the world, i.e., the United States) demonstrated, at least, that Gallagher is indeed—as I suspected—a human being and not a construction of the technical media and NOM’s publicity machine. Nevertheless, their discussion ignored key dimensions of the struggle for and against LGBT legal protections. Corvino’s and Gallagher’s friendship and engagement with mostly philosophical (or theoretical) arguments for and against SSM tended to treat the question as a hypothetical and never engaged with the realities of the campaign against civil equality for LGBT people. By treating marriage theoretically—as though it were a potential object, a fantasy to be studied from afar—they ignore the simple fact that opponents of SSM are fighting directly against existing LBGT couples and families. As even Noah Millman points out (via Andrew Sullivan), gay and lesbian couples already live in de facto common-law marriages:
Numerous gay couples settle down for long-term, even life-long relationships of mutual support. They jointly own property. They bear, adopt, and rear children. These are already existing realities, not hypotheticals. They are not the product of state diktats; they are the product of organic cultural change which, in turn, has shaped changes in the law. The question before the people is whether to recognize these realities, and, if so, as what. “As marriage” is one answer – the answer favored by those who want to secure those already-existing arrangements, for families already in them and for future generations who might want to form similar arrangements. And it’s the answer that seems to be getting intuitively more persuasive to more and more people as they look at these couples and at straight marriages and don’t see any fundamental differences that the law should be cognizant of.
To his credit, John Corvino tangentially approaches this point by making the ethical argument that marriage is about two people’s love and commitment—and, presumably, love doesn’t yet need legal recognition to exist. Gallagher essentially argues, as she summarized in one sentence for David Blankenhorn (who hosted the debate), that marriage is about the intimate connection of sex and children (i.e., that sex produces children). That’s a particularly specious connection considering that humans have sex (most of them anyway) year-round, while other species have specific mating seasons. For the former, sex and procreation fortunately coincide, while for the latter, the two have a more necessary connection. That’s a scientific question anyway, which Gallagher isn’t qualified to opine on and which has little to do with marriage.
In fact, getting from children to sex to marriage requires so many leaps that it weakens her position. What if we don’t agree that sex, much less marriage, necessarily leads to children, especially in the age of birth control and couples who choose not to have children? The argument she makes to Blankenhorn is really against LGBT couples raising children, against divorce for any couple, and against contraception. It sounds more and more like an orthodox Catholic position all the time, and more and more out of step with the way people (including lay Catholics) actually conduct themselves. Gallagher’s case is a Catholic, theological one slightly disguised as a biological and secular, philosophical one. You must accept her religious premises to agree with everything that follows—the fact that Corvino (and most people) don’t accept those premises is the reason he will never agree (philosophically) with her.
My larger concern about the debate and their book Debating Same-Sex Marriage (2012) is the way its rational arguments obscure the actualities of the fight LGBT people have waged for civil equality. The discussion proceeds as though everyone involved in the fight over SSM were rational actors who carefully considered their positions and justified them with tight, logical arguments. Neither Corvino nor Gallagher admit in their discussion that on the issue of SSM or other legal protections for the LGBT community, most people take a position based on their emotional reaction or on the stance they perceive their community to take. I seriously doubt most people logically way pro and con arguments before reaching their decision on SSM (and on many other topics). The closer an issue comes to the primitive emotions of anxiety, anger, and desire the more likely an instinctive or emotional response is to heavily influence our thinking. Logical explanations of or arguments for a such emotionally motivated beliefs arrive after the fact, as a way of rationalizing otherwise completely irrational sentiments. I think proponents of SSM and other LGBT civil rights have been most successful not by offering people reasons to support equality, but by showing others that LGBT are family, friends, neighbors, co-workers and other people with whom they have personal (and often emotional) attachments. That work tries to reverse (or correct, depending on your perspective) the disgust, revulsion, and fear that many people still harbor toward gay and lesbian people.
Unfortunately opponents of SSM have continued to exploit and reenforce those fears and sentiments in their continued push against equality for the LGBT community. When asked about this motivation of disgust (or disgusting motivation) by David Blanckenhorn, Gallagher acknowledges its presence but says it does not reflect the people she works with or the majority of people who oppose marriage equality. Given the overall sincerity of the discussion, I’ll take her at her word on the former but think the latter is, at best, willful ignorance. The tenor of the campaigns against marriage equality demonstrate otherwise. North Carolina is just the most recent example, but we should not forget how Prop 8 supporters (mostly NOM and their backers) in California disseminated ads to frightened parents with the possibility that their children would be taught about same-sex relationships in school. The horror! The horror!
Jeremy Hooper at Good as You (GAY) has done excellent work in taking NOM and others to task for this cynical and divisive campaign, as has the HRC’s NOM Exposed series. Indeed, the legal challenges of the latter helped bring to light secret NOM memos that explicitly called on the organization to exploit supposed animus in the black community toward LGBT people. By actively promoting negative protrayals of the LGBT community through the mass media, NOM helps to instill prejudice, stokes fears, and then exploits that anxiety and animus. Knowing that others will find this tactic despicable, they simultaneously seek more rarified venues and discourses through which, as NOM writes the documents, opposing marriage equality can become intellectually respectable. Unfortunately the discussion Gallagher had with Corvino attempts to do exactly that—coat the specious arguments against marriage equality (and ultimately any civil protections for gays and lesbians) with a patina of logic. If we can have a sound-bite-free discussion of the so-called arguments against SSM, then we should also be able to have a similarly frank discussion of the cynical and unethical tactics NOM and similar organization use.
At present, Gallagher’s only substantive comment on NOM’s strategy as revealed in those documents are her equivocal replies to Thomas Roberts on CNN. Video here. She doesn’t like the language (but doesn’t disown it); and claims NOM has simply reached out to people who already have these beliefs, that NOM didn’t cause the “divide” (3:17) because it already existed. NOM must have particularly bad public relations consultants if they don’t think that mass media (and social media) can be leveraged to influence public opinion, or that public opinion and mass media don’t feedback into and mutually influence one another. To claim that the media and Internet just connect people and don’t influence ideas is merely another lie—one of many.
In this interview she is already doing what the co-authored book on SSM does—shift the focus anyway from the bigotry that NOM and its allies marshall and cultivate to stymie advances in civili equality for LGBT people by emphasizing that there are perfectly sedate and reasonable intellectual arguments against SSM, that one can oppose SSM but not be a bigot. I believe Gallagher when she says she has no animosity toward LGBT people, but by refusing to denounce NOM’s tactics (when explicitly given the opportunity to do so in a public forum), she countenances and implicitly approves those who would nurture and profit from bigotry in others.