Debate flared when Princeton received a visit from Ryan Anderson ’04, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, on April 12. I attended his talk entitled “Marriage: What It Is, Why It Matters, and the Consequences of Redefining It,” which triggered exactly the response from the campus community that you’d expect: accusations of bigotry and hotheaded listserv battles. Though I’m a strong supporter of same-sex marriage, I didn’t approve of these complaints about Anderson’s presence on campus. Speakers like Anderson are those that I’m always the most excited to listen to, because there’s no better way to craft your own argument than to understand the opposition’s claims. Know thy enemy, after all.
I emerged from Anderson’s talk a new man, in that my support for same-sex marriage was stronger than ever before. It’s not that his argument was not sporadically compelling, well-crafted, or logical. Rather, like most arguments, his was delegitimized by the presence of a few gaping holes. For all his reliance on philosophical and sociological evidence, his talk did very little to advance the cause against same-sex marriage — a movement that is rapidly losing steam. Anderson’s speech bolstered my confidence in same-sex marriage because it helped me exercise my ability to rebut contrary arguments. And indeed, there was much opportunity to rebut him.
Anderson began his lecture by returning to his philosophical roots. Aristotle taught that any community can be analyzed by looking at three aspects: actions, goods, and norms. By this definition, Anderson argued, marriage is a comprehensive union in that spouses engage in an act that unites them (the action), which leads to the creation and raising of new human life (the good), and involves comprehensive commitment and the pledge of permanency and exclusivity (the norms). In other words, the action of love-making results in the good of life-giving. Because same-sex couples cannot conceive through sex, they do not fit Anderson’s definition of marriage.
As soon as I heard this, I immediately began wondering: what of heterosexual couples who do not have children, whether due to medical reasons or choice? They would no longer possess “the good” of child-bearing, and thus would not fit into this definition. I raised this question to Anderson, and he argued in response that couples who do not have children suffer from a void in their life from which they rarely recover. But this is demonstrably false, as concluded by a Princeton University report that found “very little difference” between the life satisfaction of parents and people without kids. It’s also utterly irrelevant — the question was not whether couples should have children, but whether their marriage retains legitimacy should they be childless. Anderson failed to negate this objection, which I next posed to him.
My mistake in offering this objection was in asking if such couples who do not have children should have their marriage license revoked. This phrasing allowed Anderson to attempt to move from matters of philosophy to matters of public policy, by stating that the government isn’t in the “defining” business, which plainly makes no sense anyway. The government is charged with making many definitions. In fact, the whole debate over same-sex marriage is predicated on the existence of two camps of people who have two very different views on how marriage should be defined, and who are pushing for the government to codify their definition. Hence the Defense of Marriage Act, and hence Obergefell.
Moving on from his attempt to define same-sex couples out of marriage, Anderson then brought up the so-called “social truth” of marriage as a public policy matter: that a child deserves both a mother and father. He highlighted studies that prove that girls who grow up without their fathers are more likely to engage in sexual activity at a younger age and have an abortion, and boys are more likely to engage in crime and end up in jail at a younger age. It was immediately apparent to me that these adverse consequences could have been the result of having a single parent — not of having lesbian parents. It is troubling that Anderson would equate the psychological trauma of being abandoned by one’s father to being raised by two very present mothers.
Burrowing deeper, Anderson also highlighted the issue he sees in gay adoption. “No gay loving dads,” he argued, “can replace a mother.” There’s a lot to unpack here. Firstly, he assumes that heterosexual couples are intrinsically better at raising children than same-sex couples by virtue of falling into traditional gender classifications. Notice how he said, “gay loving dads,” but not “a loving mother” — just “a mother.” As if it is enough to be straight, regardless of personality. Shouldn’t adoption centers subject all potential parents to the same scrutiny, gay or straight, instead of immediately assessing them on the sole basis of their sexuality? Isn’t there the possibility that a perfectly horrible, potentially abusive heterosexual couple comes in to adopt a child? Are you still willing to maintain that two gay loving dads are the worse option?
Anderson also assumes that for every same-sex couple wanting to adopt a child, there exists a heterosexual couple waiting right behind the door, ready to take their place. But reality is not so optimistic. According to AdoptUSKids, of the 400,000 children currently in foster care, more than 100,000 are waiting to be adopted. Clearly there are not enough heterosexual couples in the country to adopt all of these children — maybe because the majority of them can just conceive a child naturally. Is anyone really going to look a 10-year-old orphan boy in the eye and tell him that two loving parents want to adopt him — but because they’re gay and “untraditional,” he’s going to have to stay in the foster care system? Are you willing to rid him of the chance to be a part of a permanent family?
Anderson’s visit to campus was a gift to advocates of same-sex marriage. It has made our case all the stronger. The poster that was distributed throughout listservs to advertise Anderson’s talk was accompanied by the blurb: “Ever wanted to hear arguments for traditional marriage that aren’t based in religion and aren’t motivated by prejudice?” If Anderson’s argument is the best that opponents of same-sex marriage can produce when thinking independently of their religion or prejudice, then there’s a bright future ahead for same-sex couples and the children they may adopt. Visits from Anderson and similarly controversial speakers should not be feared; they sharpen our opposition, and the weaknesses inherent in their arguments gives us hope that reason and logic will win out in the end.
Lou Chen is a sophomore from San Bernardino, Calif. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.