Many opponents of gay marriage do so on the grounds that marriage exists primarily for raising children, and that gay couples cannot satisfy this purpose. A strong version of this point holds that gay parents are incompetent to raise children, and perhaps are even dangerous to them (the “competence argument”). A milder version claims that opposite-sex married couples are optimal for child-raising (the “optimality argument”). The competence argument is factually unsupported and contravened by the laws of every state. The optimality argument may or may not be correct, but either way is irrelevant to the controversy over gay marriage.
The competence argument maintains that children raised by gay parents, as compared to those raised by heterosexual parents, are at higher risk emotionally and cognitively; that they are more apt to be confused about their sexual and gender identity; and that they are more likely to be molested. Gays, therefore, ought not to raise children.
Since marriage includes a presumptive right to have and raise children, either through conception or adoption, gays ought to be denied marriage. The happiness and needs of gay couples do not justify putting children at risk.
If the competence argument is correct, states should bar gays altogether from parenting. Yet while judges sometimes use homosexuality as one factor among many in making custody and visitation determinations, no state categorically bars gays from raising children. Only one state, Florida, prohibits gays from adopting children. However, even Florida permits gays to raise their own biological children, to obtain custody of children, and to be long-term foster parents.
Contrary to the competence argument, the strong trend in the country is toward the relaxation of rules disfavoring gay parenting. About thirty states now recognize two-parent adoptions in which same-sex partners both adopt a child. Gay parenting is common. More than one million children are now being raised by gay parents in this country. According to the 2000 census, about one-fourth of all same-sex-couple households include children.
The available studies, while not methodologically perfect, seriously undermine the competence argument. While the studies may not yet prove that gays are just as good as heterosexuals at raising children, they point strongly to the conclusion that gays are at least minimally competent parents.
In a review of 21 studies of gay parenting, sociologists Judith Stacey and Timothy Biblarz concluded that “every relevant study to date shows that parental sexual orientation per se has no measurable effect on the quality of parent-child relationships or on children’s mental health or social adjustment.” The minor observed differences between children raised by gay parents and those raised by straight parents “either favor children raised by lesbigay parents, are secondary effects of social prejudice, or represent ‘just a difference’ of the sort democratic societies should respect and protect.” While more work must be done to shore up these conclusions, a strong provisional judgment can be made that the competence argument is factually baseless.
A milder version of the child-raising objection to gay marriage maintains that even if gays should not be completely barred from parenting, married heterosexual couples should be strongly preferred. This optimality argument holds that, all else being equal, children do best when raised by a married mother and father.
In contrast to the competence argument, there is at least some empirical basis for the optimality argument. There is substantial evidence that children raised in married households are on average happier, healthier and wealthier than children raised by single parents or by unmarried cohabiting parents. This probably has something to do with the legal and social support marriage provides.
Still, this is shaky empirical support for the optimality argument. There is no good study comparing children raised in married households with children raised by same-sex couples. And, because gay marriage is forbidden, there is no study comparing children raised by opposite-sex married couples with children raised by same-sex married couples.
Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that opposite-sex married couples provide the optimal environment for child-raising. That is still no argument against gay marriage. First, even if a primary purpose of marriage is to facilitate child-raising, it is not an indispensable purpose, as the many childless married couples can attest.
Second, gay marriage won’t take children from mothers and fathers who want to raise them. Consider: there is no shortage of children in the country. There are not enough married couples to raise them all. That’s why states allow sub-optimal parenting by singles (gay and straight) and unmarried couples (gay and straight). Almost everyone agrees these sub-optimal arrangements are better than orphanages or foster care, where the outcomes for children are often terrible.
No serious person advocates removing all children from gay parents. So whether or not gay marriage is allowed, children will continue to be raised by gay parents. The only question is, will these children be raised in homes that may enjoy the protections and benefits of marriage? If it’s better for children to be raised by a married opposite-sex couple than by an unmarried opposite-sex couple, it would surely be better for children to be raised by a married same-sex couple than by an unmarried same-sex couple. That’s the relevant comparison.
If it’s really a concern for children that’s motivating them, opponents of gay marriage ought to rethink their conclusion. They ought to be pounding the table for gay marriage.
Dale Carpenter is a law professor. He can be reached at OutRight@metroweekly.com.