The Right to Form Imperfect Families

Andrew Sullivan published the following letter from an unidentified reader of The Daily Dish. It deserves to be propagated as widely as possible, and I hope he will not mind my reproducing it here.

I am a sociologist who does research on families and child well-being, and I am strongly pro-marriage equality. However, while I am aware of all of the social science showing that children of gay/lesbian parents do just as well as children of opposite-sex parents, I did not consider this evidence when forming my opinion.

Let me first say, marriage throughout history has not been about children. It is a social institution for adults, one that organizes intimate relationships and distributes resources. Essentially, marriage is an institution because it is good for adults and for society; often it’s good for children too, but that’s not the reason the institution exists.

More importantly, it is an empirical fallacy to impose expectations on individual behavior based on the average outcomes of groups. This is the first thing I teach my students every semester. By definition, most families are not optimal, but society does not allow only optimal families to have children. If it did, only married, Asian, college educated, wealthy, church-attending (but not evangelical), blue-state-residing people would be allowed to procreate. (The fact that stepfathers are more likely to abuse children does not mean that we prohibit men from marrying women have children from prior relationships.)

I initially expected children of same-sex parents, on average, to fare worse than those of opposite-sex parents on some outcomes, if only due to social prejudice, and the likelihood that these children experienced the dissolution of their biological parents’ relationship (most children of gay/lesbian parents are products of prior, heterosexual unions).

It has been a pleasant surprise to me, over the past 10 years or so, to find more and more credible research showing no disadvantage for children of same-sex parents (though more and better research is needed). But it would be unfair to those children and their parents to require evidence of this before supporting their families’ right to exist.

Gays and lesbians should have the right to form imperfect marriages, and imperfect families, just like the rest of us.



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