26 January 2014

Is there a secular case against gay marriage?

In my experience, much of the active opposition to gay marriage seems to be tied to religion. While we can mutually agree that all voices have a place in the gay marriage debate, opinions derived solely from a particular religious conviction cannot be the sole motivation for enacting public policy that affects people who may have a wide range of religious beliefs. For a healthy democratic republic, we must strive to balance the common good and individual freedom. Our laws and policies must be based on more than belief. They cannot unduly infringe on the right to individual belief, but they cannot unjustly impose specific tenets on the conscience of others.

So putting religion aside, are there sound non-religious arguments against gay marriage?

Earlier this month, the Witherspoon Institute (a conservative thinktank) published a short anti-marriage equality essay authored by Ryan Anderson, a graduate student in political science. Anderson’s essay was adapted from testimony he gave to members of the Indiana State Legislature which is considering a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.

In the article, Anderson makes the following points:

(1) Marriage exists for, and therefore must be defined in relation to, childbearing;
(2) Marriage matters to the state because it ensures that children are less likely to be victim to a host of social ills such as poverty and incarceration, ultimately benefiting society collectively; and
(3) If governments change the definition of marriage, it will become more of an institution for adults to the detriment of children.

In addition to proscribing what marriage is, and should be, Anderson argues that same-sex relationships undermine marriage because:

(1) Gays can’t have children;
(2) Children need both a mother and father to optimally raise them; and
(3) Redefining marriage to accommodate homosexuals means that society would have to redefine marriage for every conceivable type of romantic union including “temporary” marriage, etc.

Remembering that we are putting religion aside for the time being, are Anderson’s arguments sound rationally, sociologically or politically? If the facts had a chance to speak, are gays really inferior at a social institution at which heterosexuals only have about a 50% success rate? Do we have enough sociological data to soundly support all of these arguments against gay families? What do the lived experiences of gay couples tell us about these arguments?

Unfortunately, I don’t have the time, energy or academic background to really tackle some of these questions in depth, but here are a couple of thoughts:

1. The author argues that the state’s interest in the institution of marriage is for provision of a stable environment in which to raise children. While I won’t argue that this isn’t in the state’s interest, why should we accept that children are the only reason government has an interest in the definition of marriage? For example, if children are the sole reason for legal recognition of marriage, then it is inconsistent for government to issue marriage licenses to infertile couples or couples that remarry after they no longer wish to have additional children. They don’t need the state’s investment in their relationship because they wouldn’t be doing anything functional for the state. In fact, if marriage is solely designed to support parent’s efforts to raise children, then government could create laws that nullify all marriages once the youngest child in a family finally leaves the nest.

This argument can lead us to silly conclusions because it is pretty obvious that marriage exists for the couple as well as for any children they may or may not have. Loving relationships between two consenting adults are among the greatest joys of life. They are compelling initially because of the love that blooms between a couple, and they are sustained – especially during the trying times of parenthood – by that love.  Since I think it is fairly reasonable to assume a strong connection between individual happiness and broader social well-being, then it is to a society’s advantage to promote happy marriages, whether or not they involve children. For gays, lesbians and bisexuals who are capable to achieving their maximum relationship satisfaction with a member of the same sex, is it in the state’s interest to exclude them from this opportunity?

The desire to form stable relationships is independent of sex and sexual orientation. Gay and lesbian couples can form loving stable homes in which to raise kids. With a preoccupation on the sex of each individual in a couple, those who argue against same-sex marriage run the risk of elevating relationship structure above relationship quality. Clearly an unhappy male-female couple cannot provide a more stable home life than a happy same-sex couple.

2. Gay people can’t have children? This is obviously not so. Many gay and bisexual people have their own biological children, perhaps from a previous heterosexual relationship before coming out (ahem, quietly raises hand). Other gay couples very much want to raise children and choose to adopt. If governments decide to deny gay couples who are raising children equal protection under the law, how is the state helping those particular children? In fact, the state would be discriminating against them. When we have too many orphaned children already, is it not in the state’s interest to facilitate the adoption of these children into loving homes?

3. The secular case against same-sex marriage seems to rest heavily on the notion that only a two parent, opposite sex married couple is an optimal parenting team for children. The challenge here from an empirical point of view is that this argument rolls quite a few phenomena into one succinct conclusion. Sociologically, we are asking several questions: (i) is a one versus two parent home better?, (ii) do the sexes in a two parent home need to differ or can they be the same?, (iii) does the sexual orientation of the parent(s) matter?, and (iv) does legal recognition of a couple’s relationship have an effect on children?

For instance, if research finds that the parenting abilities of single gay parents aren’t as good as married heterosexual couples, is the disparity due to the sexual orientation of the parent, the one versus two parent home question, or the effect of legal recognition on parenting success? This apples-to-papaya example doesn’t say much about whether gay marriage has a net positive, negative or neutral effect on children. The only scientifically sound way to evaluate whether gender “complementarity” has a non-trivial effect on children is to compare straight and gay two parent homes that both have legal recognition and that have raised children continuously from very young ages. Because gay marriage has been prohibited for so long in the US, is that sort of study even fully possible yet?

One of my concerns with insistence that children need to have opposite sex parents is that it makes little distinction between gender (a social construct that defines what it means to be ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’) and biological sex. The two are not synonymous. If gender duality in the home is really what is important in raising children, then a “feminine” female paired with a very “masculine” female might do a better job raising children than a man and woman who both act very “feminine”. However, I will back up here and suggest that arguing about what is “feminine” and what is “masculine” and how much of each a child needs is rather pedantic. Don’t children really need parents who model love, strength, honesty, trust, compassion, integrity, and hard work -- qualities that are genderless??

4. The issue of harm. I think most of us would agree that governments put in place laws and restrictions in order to protect other people from harm. Speed limits, drug and alcohol laws, laws against theft and aggression, etc. are generally instituted to ensure that the behaviors of some people do not impinge on the liberties of other individuals and cause them harm. Whether gay marriage actually causes harm to anyone is central to the debate about marriage equality, because if material harm cannot be demonstrated, gay marriage opponents have a very poor case indeed.

So, let’s go through several major classes of people:

Does gay marriage harm gay adults? No: lots of them can’t wait to get married! 
Does gay marriage harm the children of gay parents? No: it lends needed support for their families. 
Does gay marriage harm straight couples? No: it's irrelevant to them. 
Does gay marriage harm the straight children of straight couples? No: if anything, it sets an example of tolerance and love.
Does gay marriage harm the gay children of straight couples? No, it may give them something wonderful to hope for in their futures! 
Does gay marriage infringe on any particular church’s theology or opinion about homosexuality? No: they can still believe whatever they want.


Human beings form such a variety of relationships that I am skeptical of any claim that only a narrow subset of family arrangements can provide an optimal environment for children. I am open to critical scrutiny of all of these ideas by sound sociological research. If it can be determined that loving gay couples substantially and repeatedly harm children or society generally, then sure, let’s ban same-sex marriage. But I think that presently, there is no more than a weak non-religious case against gay marriage. Societal sanction of gay marriage is pretty common sense and more and more people are coming around.


The Witherspoon organization was a major funder of the controversial Regnerus study that claimed to show that gay parenting was substandard.

28 December 2013

Changing attitudes

I’ve been following news about same-sex marriages in Utah over the last week, both in formal media and in accounts I’m seeing on-line in social media. I was really surprised to hear that a district court ruled Utah’s Amendment 3 unconstitutional, paving the way for same-sex marriages to begin in the state. 

For me there is definitely a temptation to feel like karma has descended on Utah, given the heavy involvement of the LDS Church in California politics during Proposition 8 five years ago. Those months are a sore spot for me.

Putting that aside, there is a lot of good news coming from the mountain west recently. Several petitions for immediate stays of the ruling have so far been denied and I’ve read reports of a celebratory atmosphere in Salt Lake City as many couples were married. 

It is also encouraging to read of Latter-day Saints who support marriage equality. Many of them are willing to stand in support of marriage equality even though Church leadership will not budge on this issue. It seems like I’ve heard many more positive stories than not, though my Facebook feed is far from a representative sample of liberal celebration versus conservative outrage.

Attitudes about gays and gay marriage are changing, and they are changing remarkably fast. I found the following analysis of estimated state-by-state support for gay marriage from the Williams Institute at UCLA. In the figure below I graphed support for gay marriage in 2004 versus 2012 for two “liberal” states (California and New York), two “swing” states (Florida and Ohio) and two states that typically vote very conservatively in national elections (Alaska and Utah). In each case (in fact, for all 50 states according to the Williams Institute analysis), support for gay marriage has increased over the last decade.

Modeled support for same-sex marriage in 6 selected US states in 2004 and 2012. Error bars show 95% confidence intervals.

Another dataset on Utah opinions about same-sex marriage was compiled by the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at BYU. According to these polls, between 2004 and 2012 there was an increase in the percentage of people in Utah that supported at least some legal recognition for gay couples. Pretty much all of that increasing support was for civil unions. 

Public opinion polls in Utah about legal recognition of same-sex relationships in 2004 and 2012.

There are still some entrenched points of view in Utah, no doubt. Two recent opinion pieces in Utah newspapers following Judge Shelby’s ruling carried the inflammatory titles “massacre of marriage” and “judicial tyranny”. There has long been a culture of misunderstanding, marginalizing and maligning gay people in the Church and broader society that will take time to change. But LGB people are in the open like never before. It will be increasingly difficult to look a gay brother, child, cousin, best friend, teacher, or parent in the eye and say that their love doesn’t count.

21 December 2013

Whoa, Utah?!

Yesterday a federal judge overturned a Utah state constitutional amendment adopted in 2004 that limits marriage to opposite-sex unions. Who would have thought that this would occur right now in the Mormon heartland?! I read through much of the judge’s legal opinion this morning and was pleased to find that he cogently addressed many of the arguments that have been made over the years by opponents of same-sex marriage.

This ruling may not be the end of the matter as far as Utah and gay marriage is concerned, but for the time being, wow! Some excerpts from yesterday’s ruling:

“The Constitution guarantees that all citizens have certain fundamental rights. These rights vest in every person over whom the Constitution has authority and, because they are so important, an individual’s fundamental rights ‘may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.’ W. Va. State Bd. of Educ. v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 638 (1943).” (p.17)

“The right to marry is an example of a fundamental right that is not mentioned explicitly in the text of the Constitution but is nevertheless protected by the guarantee of liberty under the Due Process Clause. The Supreme Court has long emphasized that the right to marry is of fundamental importance.” (p.18)

“The State [of Utah] asserts that Amendment 3 does not abridge the Plaintiffs’ fundamental right to marry because the Plaintiffs are still at liberty to marry a person of the opposite sex. But this purported liberty is an illusion. The right to marry is not simply the right to become a married person by signing a contract with someone of the opposite sex. If marriages were planned and arranged by the State, for example, these marriages would violate a person’s right to marry because such arrangements would infringe an individual’s rights to privacy, dignity, and intimate association. A person’s choices about marriage implicate the heart of the right to liberty that is protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. See Casey, 505 U.S. at 851. The State’s argument disregards these numerous associated rights because the State focuses on the outward manifestations of the right to marry, and not the inner attributes of marriage that form the core justifications for why the Constitution protects this fundamental human right.” (p.23-24)

“The State points to Supreme Court cases that have linked the importance of marriage to its relationship to procreation. … The court does not find the State’s argument compelling because, however persuasive the ability to procreate might be in the context of a particular religious perspective, it is not a defining characteristic of conjugal relationships from a legal and constitutional point of view. The State’s position demeans the dignity not just of same-sex couples, but of the many opposite-sex couples who are unable to reproduce or who choose not to have children.” (p.25)

“The State argues that the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage is justified based on an interest in promoting responsible procreation within marriage. … The State has presented no evidence that the number of opposite-sex couples choosing to marry each other is likely to be affected in any way by the ability of same-sex couples to marry. Indeed, it defies reason to conclude that allowing same-sex couples to marry will diminish the example that married opposite-sex couples set for their unmarried counterparts. Both opposite-sex and same-sex couples model the formation of committed, exclusive relationships, and both establish families based on mutual love and support. If there is any connection between same-sex marriage and responsible procreation, the relationship is likely to be the opposite of what the State suggests.” (p.44)

“The State’s second argument is that the Plaintiffs are really seeking a new right, not access to an existing right. … The alleged right to same-sex marriage that the State claims the Plaintiffs are seeking is simply the same right that is currently enjoyed by heterosexual individuals: the right to make a public commitment to form an exclusive relationship and create a family with a partner with whom the person shares an intimate and sustaining emotional bond. … If the right to same-sex marriage were a new right, then it should make new protections and benefits available to all citizens. But heterosexual individuals are as likely to exercise their purported right to same-sex marriage as gay men and lesbians are to exercise their purported right to opposite-sex marriage. Both same-sex and opposite-sex marriage are therefore simply manifestations of one right—the right to marry—applied to people with different sexual identities.” (p.27-28)

“The Fourteenth Amendment protects the liberty rights of all citizens, and none of the State’s arguments presents a compelling reason why the scope of that right should be greater for heterosexual individuals than it is for gay and lesbian individuals. If, as is clear from the Supreme Court cases discussing the right to marry, a heterosexual person’s choices about intimate association and family life are protected from unreasonable government interference in the marital context, then a gay or lesbian person also enjoys these same protections. The court’s holding is supported, even required, by the Supreme Court’s recent opinion concerning the scope of protection that the Fourteenth Amendment provides to gay and lesbian citizens.” (p.30)

“As noted in the court’s discussion of fundamental rights, the State argues that preserving the traditional definition of marriage is itself a legitimate state interest. But tradition alone cannot form a rational basis for a law. The traditional view of marriage has in the past included certain views about race and gender roles that were insufficient to uphold laws based on these views. And, as Justice Scalia has noted in dissent, ‘’preserving the traditional institution of marriage’ is just a kinder way of describing the State’s moral disapproval of same-sex couples.’ Lawrence, 539 U.S. at 601 (Scalia, J., dissenting). While ‘[p]rivate biases may be outside the reach of the law, . . . the law cannot, directly or indirectly, give them effect’ at the expense of a disfavored group’s constitutional rights. Palmore v. Sidoti, 466 U.S. 429, 433 (1984).” (p.48-49)

“Although the State did not directly present an argument based on religious freedom, the court notes that its decision does not mandate any change for religious institutions, which may continue to express their own moral viewpoints and define their own traditions about marriage. If anything, the recognition of same-sex marriage expands religious freedom because some churches that have congregations in Utah desire to perform same-sex wedding ceremonies but are currently unable to do so.” (p.49)

“Applying the law as it is required to do, the court holds that Utah’s prohibition on same-sex marriage conflicts with the United States Constitution’s guarantees of equal protection and due process under the law. The State’s current laws deny its gay and lesbian citizens their fundamental right to marry and, in so doing, demean the dignity of these same-sex couples for no rational reason. Accordingly, the court finds that these laws are unconstitutional.” (p.2)

09 December 2013

I'm homophilic

If there is one thing about sexual orientation with which I agree with certain conservative religionists, it is that sexuality is not the sum total of a person. Of course. Each of us has characteristics, propensities, and abilities that are unrelated to, or only mildly connected to, our sexual interests.

But in some discourse I've seen, that kind of statement by conservative religionists seems meant to diminish gay attractions, to reduce them to some minor component of the human experience. If sexuality is only sex, the thinking seems to go, then being celibate or marrying someone of the opposite sex might be possible. If a "same-sex attracted" individual can be celibate or with an opposite sex partner, they need not call themselves gay, because they haven't succumbed to the defining characteristic of a homosexual - gay sex. If the person messes up and succumbs, still, they need not call themselves gay. They can believe their same-sex attractions are unwanted, believe their sexual instincts have been pathologized, and believe themselves to just be a broken heterosexual. Whatever the form of the denial, mentally the goal is to disown the sexuality. It is to see the attractions as foreign to one's core identity. This way of thinking leaves their brains and my stomach in knots. Such intentional mental and emotional compartmentalization must be a terrible way to construct a happy whole human being.

The belief that sexuality is just about sex is wrong. Humans spend much more time engaged in pairbonding behaviors than they do in actual sex. Many people probably spend a lot of time thinking about sex, but no one gets as much action as their libido thinks they're entitled to. Humans enjoy non-sexual affection, they nest, they daydream about romance, they find emotional security in having a significant other, they merge their lives and marry. They engage in a lot of behaviors related to their innate attractions that don't involve sex. We are a remarkably social species and the forms of our interpersonal relationships are diverse.

"Sexual orientation" is in many ways a poor term. If one gets to the heart of human attractions, I believe that we could just as easily describe a "romantic orientation" and an "emotional orientation" as we could a sexual orientation. I cannot speak for all LGB people, but when I'm attracted to someone of the same sex, I am not just interested in sexual contact. I'm interested in sharing adventures, holding hands and cuddling, smiling, crying, having interesting conversations, spending time together (even doing boring things!), or appreciating a beautiful spot in nature. A few such things can be done by myself, and many more with the welcome company of friends, but how great to share them with someone about whom I have piqued interest!? If I live the rest of my life without having sex again, I will still be gay. I will still wish to pairbond with my own sex.

Put simply, sexual orientation is really just about who one falls in love with. It isn't everything about a human being, but it is a heck of a lot. It doesn't need to be the sole defining characteristic of a person, but it doesn't need to be diminished either. So, perhaps if I am to put a label on myself, I should just say that I am homophilic*. I'm homosexual, but I am also homoromantic and homoemotional. I fall in love with guys, and the amazingness of the opposite sex notwithstanding, my brain is just wired for men.

*Though of Greek origin from "philia" indicating a friendship-like love, I'm using the suffix as we would in modern English to simply mean "an affinity towards". The Greeks had multiple words to describe different aspects of love, and many of them are applicable to the feelings I describe in this post.

20 November 2013

More progress

Today the governor of Illinois signed a law that legalizes same-sex marriage, making it the 16th state in the US to recognize gay marriage. This comes just after similar good news emerged Hawaii, where the legislature there also granted marriage equality to gays and lesbians. Gay marriage was approved in Hawaii despite organized conservative religious opposition.

It is instructive to look back just two or three years to see the rapid progress of marriage equality in the US. In fact, the sadness of proposition 8 in California seems almost like ancient history, though it was just five years ago that marriage equality was vigorously debated in my home state.

It was not too long ago that I recall reading about how opponents of same-sex marriage noted that gay marriage was only making headway because of "activist" judicial actions that flaunted the will of the people. But today we know that this "rogue" judiciary now includes the relatively conservative Supreme Court and its nullification of DOMA. Furthermore, of the sixteen states where gay marriage is now legal, the path to equality has come not just because of the courts, but also because of state legislatures and direct votes of the people.

On Sunday, a young gay Mormon came over to have dinner at my place. We were discussing the rapid evolution of public sentiment on gay marriage in the US. He predicted that marriage equality would even spread to Utah in five years. While I'm not sure I share that level of optimism, the rapid progress in this new wave of American civil rights is mistakable. Perhaps my children will look back on this time as adults and be unable to imagine a nation in which gay relationships were treated as second class by the law.

States in the US with some form of legal recognition for same-sex relationships as of 20 Nov 2013. I modified this map from a Wikimedia commons file, licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. Click here for a list of original and subsequent authors of the map and a link to the license.

09 October 2013

My only rejoinder is that I've done my best

Coming out is supposed to be a wonderful liberating event, and in many ways it has been. I'm so happy to be myself. But the last three years of my life have been immensely challenging too. I try to stay generally positive on this blog, yet it would be inaccurate to ignore the negative.

My life feels like it is being turned upside down recently, with not much indication that the near future will be much improved. There have been moves and job changes, periods of physical separation from my family, conversations, tough conversations, more conversations, a few close individuals who are angry with me, my broken heart, sorrow that I have hurt my wife, concern for my children, confusion, uncertainty about my career, loneliness.

I'm torn between different visions for my life, lost on a map that is full of courses but almost no details. I'm torn between what my wife wants and what I yearn for deep down. I can't give what others can give to their marriages, but I love my wife so deeply as a friend and as the amazing person that she is. In no way do I want to be a cause of her sorrow, but I want so much to follow my heart, to feel whole, to be myself. I don't know where I am headed in my career. I finished up a very successful term position recently, but my current work feels less rewarding. I don't even have a place that really feels like home anymore. I count 9 places I've slept in 3 states in the last 2 months and that doesn't include camping.

This morning I felt utterly defeated. I probably lost a chance for romance with someone I've become very close to. I had put so much energy into hoping that something would work out for us in the future. He was my first real gay friend (besides my sister), the first stranger I reached out to with some trepidation when I was first coming out and wanted to meet gay people. I fell into feelings for him almost instantly, unexpectedly. He was so integral to my coming out experience, such a positive example of acceptance of himself and of doing his best in a mixed orientation marriage. From practically the very beginning, I talked openly with my wife about these feelings and what occurred in our relationship over time. Emotionally I became very attached - and that process taught me how much emotional attraction is an integral part of my sexuality. I waited and waited as we both had a lot to figure out. I fell into something so utterly natural for me as a gay person and yet it caused so much sorrow for my wife to be a witness to all that unfolded.

Some days I get caught up in the swirl of these emotions of sadness and loss and feel so stuck. In those moments I feel an expectation to make all of the "right" decisions. But this is such an unpredictable journey that I can't keep up with it all. I'm colliding often with my own personal limits. I want to have happy children, a wonderful same-sex relationship, an enduring deep friendship with my spouse who finds comfort in moving on, friends who are proud of me and my choices, a decent job where I contribute meaningfully to the world, and some time for hobbies to enrich my life. But currently it feels like I am barely getting by. My intentions and hard work carry me a ways into positive territory, but the momentum of my past, my confusion, my failings, keep moving me back onto challenging ground.

To have a broken heart, to break another's heart, to feel deep sadness about both - I haven't experienced anything unique that almost every other human will experience. Yet all of these challenges seem to have fallen on me at once. I brought them upon myself though, and when sympathy is in short supply I must acknowledge that I'm the main cause of the mess. My only rejoinder when the spotlight is turned on my life is that I've honestly tried my absolute best at every turn. I can't wait for sunnier days again.

25 June 2013

Tomorrow is a big day

Apparently the US Supreme Court will issue rulings tomorrow on the federal Defense of Marriage Act and on California's Prop 8. The court has a conservative leaning, but hopefully it will recognize basic principles of equality under the law and rule in favor of further extending marriage rights for gay couples.

I cannot speak to the legal matters relevant to these cases, but I feel strongly that fairness and non-discrimination demand that we overturn laws that put gays and lesbians on unequal footing through no fault of their own. Though slow - even backwards - at times, the social and legal trajectory of this nation has long been in the direction of extending greater equality and fairness towards marginalized groups of people. May tomorrow be another milestone in this great tradition worthy of celebration.

08 May 2013

Eight greats about being gay

1. Currently, opportunities for LGB people to embrace and celebrate their identities in western society are probably greater than at any time in the past. We still have a ways to go for full equality and dignified treatment across all segments of society, but the greater openness and acceptance of homosexuality in contemporary society is unmistakable and remarkable.

2. I am not constrained by traditional western concepts of gender. In many ways, my personality is consistent with mainstream American concepts of masculinity, yet I am free to be tender, nerdy, sweet, spacey, apathetic about football, or to be anything else I am comfortable with. Obviously straight men are free to be whatever they want to be as well, but there is often pressure in the heterosexual male world to act in ways that meet certain norms.

3. I really value my close male friendships. Friendships have almost exclusively been the way for me to experience intimacy with male peers, so they have long been an important part of fulfilling some of my homosexual emotional needs. I hope that what I offer my close friends reflects how important those relationships are to me.

4. I usually feel very comfortable around my closer female friends and co-workers. I don’t know how many straight men have trouble being close friends with women, however I suppose I have little or none of the sexual or romantic tension that can arise sometimes in those relationships for straight men.

5. I appreciate the male body. I will just leave it at that.

6. I can celebrate my uniqueness. Being gay is not all that common and it is one way in which I stand out.

7. By being gay, I have a way to empathize with the underdog. There have been a lot of challenging things about being gay in my life, especially while growing up and coming to terms with my sexuality. While feeling a little bit inadequate isn’t always the best feeling, it usually prompts me to work extra hard. It is hard to defeat hard work.

8. I feel best being myself. The closet sucks. Having a secret identity (unless you get paid for it) sucks. Loathing something about yourself (which you are powerless to change) is no way to run a life. I don’t know when or how I acquired my sexuality, but I am pretty sure it is here to say. I am out now and happy when I am comfortable with my identity.