The Magazine

Marriage à la mode

The conservative case for gay marriage is not made here.

Aug 13, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 44 • By HELEN RITTELMEYER
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For a book that claims to be addressed to conservatives as well as to libertarians, A Fundamental Freedom contains very few arguments that traditionalists would find interesting. Many open-minded conservatives are willing to consider embracing gay marriage, but have two main questions they would need to see answered: First, whether gay parents are bad for children; and second, whether granting marriage to gay couples would really make their relationships more conservative in the family-values sense. Lampo shortchanges one question and ignores the other.

“There is no evidence that gay parents are any less effective or loving than heterosexual ones,” Lampo argues—or repeats, anyway. The only kind of argument he makes on this point is from authority, which is a problem because there are many reasons to doubt the American Psychological Association line on this. Studies of gay parents often draw their research samples from sperm-donor clinic lists, which are biased toward lesbians (obviously) who are white and upper- or upper-middle-class and who, moreover, tend to define emotional well-being in the same way academics do—all of which results in their favor, sometimes in amusing ways. (One parenting study downgraded straight households for reinforcing gender roles, e.g., by saying that boys shouldn’t wear nail polish—this was considered a hardship for the children.)

It is also possible that the quantifiable measurements favored by social science are not sensitive enough to detect the problems that children of gay parents face. Children conceived through sperm donation by single mothers, for example, may not fail eighth grade or knock over convenience stores, but they do experience confusion, resentment, and other emotional problems (as explained in My Daddy’s Name Is Donor). It’s odd that Lampo is not more skeptical: He repeats, uncritically, the very recent consensus that children of single mothers are disadvantaged by their fatherlessness, while seeming utterly confident that the same disciplines that flubbed that issue for so many decades (and for similar politically motivated reasons) have got it right this time. 

As for the argument that marriage would impose values like fidelity, stability, and commitment on gay couples, Lampo doesn’t bring it up. Somewhere around half of long-term gay couples admit to having a mutually agreed-upon arrangement for circumventing monogamy, so there’s some reason to doubt the optimists. Is the gay community’s tendency to nonexclusivity just a hangover from the dark days of closets and cruising, or is it an intrinsic side effect of sex that is largely consequence-free? (The lesbian comedienne Lynn Lavner once joked, “The Bible contains six admonishments to homosexuals and 362 to heterosexuals. That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t love heterosexuals. It’s just that they need more supervision.” It’s true, and pregnancy has a lot to do with it.) Social conservatives suspect promiscuity is a permanent feature. If Lampo disagrees with them—and maybe he doesn’t; he could regard nonexclusivity as a salutary innovation—he should explain why.

Lampo has obviously put a lot of thought and effort into this book, and it is helpful to have such an up-to-date picture of gay rights laws and poll numbers. (Pop quiz: How many states permit gays and lesbians to petition for legal adoption of their partner’s children from a previous marriage? Answer: 28.) But like many libertarians, he is far too simplistic in his view of politics. He seems to think that by labeling gay marriage a type of “freedom,” he can end the argument. A truly conservative case for gay marriage will have to address more factors than that—and it will have to wait for another book.

Helen Rittelmeyer is a writer in North Carolina.