Massachusetts decision ignores fate of children

Posted: Nov 27, 2003 12:00 AM
If same-sex marriage is a culture war issue at all, it's a weird one that cuts across the usual political and ideological lines.

Take Elizabeth Marquardt, for example. Elizabeth is a 33-year-old mother, wife, feminist and lifelong Democrat. "I've always known gays and lesbians -- school, workplaces, neighbors. I find really repellent those who think it is a sinful lifestyle, and I don't want to be identified with them," she says.

She is a child of divorce, so she certainly knows marriage is not perfect. In fact, as an affiliate scholar at the Institute for American Values in New York City, she is in the middle of an important research project on the consequences of divorce for the spiritual, moral and emotional development of children.

So when she actually read the Massachusetts Supreme Court decision giving gays and lesbians the right to marry, how did she feel?

"Really angry. I didn't expect to feel that," she tells me. Why? "It really offended me the justices so confidently stated that marriage is about the adult commitment and not children. They didn't seem to give a hoot about children at all. The only children they mentioned were those living with gay and lesbian parents in need of legal protection. I agree with that, but that's not the end of the discussion."

Elizabeth Marquardt supports civil unions, but draws the line at redefining marriage. There is a big chunk of Americans out there who agree: They are not sexual traditionalists across the board. They mostly accept what might be called the liberal understanding of homosexuality. They support various legal protections for gays and lesbians. And a lot of times, they can't quite put their finger on what is making them so queasy about same-sex marriage.

Elizabeth can. She has spent much of her career studying marriage as a social institution. Because she speaks (I think) for so many, it is worthwhile hearing what she perceives as a neglected point of view, lost in the culture war rhetoric on both sides.

The court, she says, was dismissive of social science evidence of the importance of children and families, and of those who disagree with its position. "This is the same kind of nasty name-calling you see in the media sometimes, but I didn't expect it of supreme court justices," says Elizabeth.

Word is that up in Massachusetts, a lot of state legislators had a similar angry reaction. The court not only imposed gay marriage, it insulted people of good will who disagree. "The way they framed the decision was really dismissive of genuine concerns. I felt radicalized," says Elizabeth, "even though I do not identify with a lot of the people who are opposing it."

To Elizabeth, it is all too reminiscent of the divorce revolution in the 1970s, when, based on enthusiasm for adult choice (and a handful of preliminary social science studies), "experts" concluded that divorce was fine for children. It took 30 years of painstaking research and a whole generation of adult children of divorce revealing their own experiences to reverse that adult consensus about what children need. Our culture of marriage has not yet fully recovered.

That experience makes her wary of what might be called the family utopianism invoked by the Massachusetts court: "Massachusetts last week redefined marriage in a way that makes you unable to say that children need mothers and fathers. When people start lying about children's experience, I get really angry."

She is not going to be deterred by charges of bigotry or hate. Children of divorce, she says, suffer because they don't have a mom and dad in one family: "I really suspect that children of same-sex couples feel the same way, and I will keep raising the question until we find out."