Same-Sex Marriage, Bigotry, and the Public Interest

What I find somewhat surprising in the gay-marriage discussion is this: By the evidence of most polls, nearly half of Americans favor gay marriage, even though only 3-5 percent of Americans are gay. That is, only a very small minority of the population has any personal interest in the matter; so why does nearly half the population favor the matter? Suppose athletic directors in high schools proposed some special tax benefit for themselves. Would half of the population support giving that small minority such a tax benefit, merely because they wished to have it? I doubt it. So what accounts for such widespread support for a public policy that would only benefit a very small portion of the population? I believe the answer has two parts.

First, for many people, to oppose gay marriage is to be bigoted; it is to oppose homosexuals themselves. For such people, not to approve gay marriage is to be bigoted (an “enemy of humanity,” as Justice Kennedy so breezily put it), and in our pluralistic and relativistic culture, the only value that is commonly shared is non-bigotry. The last thing we wish to appear is bigoted.

The reason I believe this is what motivates many people is that, whenever I raise the question of the hypothetical public interest in gay marriage, I get blank stares. Whenever I mention that I am open to being persuaded that the public has an interest in protecting homosexual unions, and open to hearing, therefore, arguments to that effect, I get no reply. Indeed, some of my friends and acquaintances appear to be almost shocked when I ask, “Why does the public have an interest in gay marriage? What public good does it serve?” If I had framed the question differently, and inserted “tax benefit for athletic directors” instead of “gay marriage,” the question would be regarded as a perfectly legitimate, ordinary question of public policy. But in this case, if I raise the question of the public interest or the public good, I get embarrassed, indignant, or horrified looks, rather than reasoned opinion. Why? Because for many people, anything associated with homosexuality is merely a litmus test for bigotry. The first and most ordinary question of public policy – how does this proposal serve the public good? – is not even germane.

Second, for many people, human sexuality is completely disconnected from procreation. The widespread availability of birth-control has disconnected human sexuality from its biological purpose, at least in the minds of many people (though not in their reproductive organs). For them, human sexuality no longer serves the public good of producing other generations of mature and responsible citizens; human sexuality is merely a private good, something that brings pleasure to individuals. And for some people such sexual activity is even more enjoyable for those who are married; thus, to deprive them of marital status is to deprive them of some of the private pleasure of human sexuality.

prisonerI hardly know where to begin in responding to such a belief, a belief that effectively reduces public policy to a sexual aid. I might timidly suggest to such individuals that the government and its policies are not obliged to enhance the pleasure individuals derive from sexual activity; government is designed to promote the public welfare. If government’s purpose were to enhance sexual pleasure … well, just think where that might lead. But if we were to grant that government exists to promote the public welfare, then Justice Kennedy would have to grant not only that there are “two tiers” of union, but four: Committed and reproductive (i.e. traditional marriage between a man and a woman), casual and reproductive (e.g., unwed mothers), committed and non-reproductive (e.g. same-sex unions), and casual and non-reproductive (Hugh Hefner). Curiously enough, then, one might argue that the state has more interest in the second than in the third or fourth, because the state does have an interest in the extension of the human race. On the other hand, the children of the second category often require substantial government assistance, and so, perhaps, this category is a “wash,” financially. If this were so, we would indeed be right back to Justice Kennedy’s “two tiers” of committed sexual unions: those that ordinarily produce offspring, and those that do not and cannot do so.

So, once we get over all the emotion, hand-wringing, and fear of bigotry, the question is merely this: Does human reproduction serve the public good?

By the government’s own calculations, it cost my wife and I $225,000 to rear each of our two daughters until they were 21, nearly half a million dollars total. The public now benefits from these two adult, independent, gainfully employed, tax-paying citizens. If the public does not benefit from such citizens, then Cass Sunstein is right, and the state should stop recognizing any unions of any sort (cf. “Privatizing Marriage,” chapter 15 of Sunstein’s Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, co-authored with Richard H. Thaler). But if human reproduction does serve the public good (e.g. Who will pay for my Medicaid when I retire?), then it is perfectly reasonable to consider protecting those unions that ordinarily foster such human reproduction. Every other union, by this consideration, is “second tier,” as Justice Kennedy said, but justifiably so.


This article originally appeared at the Center for Vision and Values and is used with permission.

image: shutterstock

Dr. T. David Gordon


Dr. T. David Gordon is a professor of religion at Grove City College and a contributing scholar with The Center for Vision & Values.

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  • pnyikos

    A minor detail: I believe “enemy of humanity” is Scalia’s term, used to characterize Kennedy’s remarks.

  • George Marshall

    If we were talking about creating some new tax benefit for athletic directors which did not exist before and which no one else got, your argument might be on target, but we are not. The various states have already recognized marriage between 2 individuals. Two individuals fall in love and they decide they want to commit their lives to each other. There are rules established when the state will recognize that commitment. How old the people have to be, whether they can be related, etc. There used to be laws which said that if one of the partners was white and the other African American, they could not be married. Those laws no longer exist. If the couple met the conditions and followed the procedures, they could be married. The question is now whether individuals who otherwise meet those rules should be excluded from being married because they are homosexuals. For many people, the answer is that they should not be excluded because they are like any one else who wants to be married.

    You raised 2 daughters at great cost and those children are hopefully happy and productive. For your slight benefit, you were given a few tax breaks to offset those costs. I have raised 3 children and know full well that the costs were not close to being offset by those benefits. Of course, there are same-sex couples who are raising children at the same costs. The question is whether those same individuals who are doing exactly the same things you and your wife did should be excluded from being married because they are homosexuals.

    Finally, you say there are only 3 to 5% of the population who are gay. Whether that is an accurate figure remains to be seen. But it is not just people who are gay that are affected. It is their family and friends who are also impacted. And for many more individuals, their religious freedom is impacted. There are a number of people whose religious beliefs support gay marriage. Would you say, as a matter of public policy, that only those religious groups which totally a particular set of religious teachings receive tax benefits and have freedom of religion? I would guess the answer would be no, but you do seem to be willing to say that people should not be married because they do not share you beliefs about SSM.

  • true_believer

    You’ve gotten a lot of your facts wrong. First of all OVER HALF of Americans support the right to same-sex marriage, not “nearly half” like you’ve said. Secondly, Kennedy never called same-sex marriage opponents “enemies of humanity.” That phrase came from Scalia’s dissenting opinion. Third, marriage is not a special tax benefit. It’s a loving relationship that people enter into in order to establish and celebrate their union and raise their kids if they have any.

    Finally, I want to add that I personally know a lot of gay couples who are raising children. Some of them are raising the children that irresponsible people who happen to be heterosexual had and then couldn’t raise for themselves. They have the exact same interest you do in forming a stable union to raise these kids.

  • QuoVadisAnima

    No, the question is whether or not anyone has the right to redefine marriage as it has been known since before history, and whether or not it serves the best interests of society & the children involved to allow them to do so.

    Since the jury is still very much out on these questions, we should avoid opening the gate till we find out why it was made and what it is keeping enclosed (to borrow from Chesterton).