The Traditionalist Case — The Numbers:

Raising a family and keeping it together is important and hard work, work the state should assist. Marriage benefits both individuals and their families (individualistic benefits) and the societies in which they live (communitarian benefits).

Very few people doubt these claims; certainly the conservative opponents of gay marriage do not doubt them. I will contend that uniting gay families in marriage will produce, at least in some degree, the same kinds of individualistic and communitarian benefits that traditional marriages produce.

But first, let’s look at some relevant numbers that often seem to get overlooked in this debate:

There are a lot of gay people in the United States. Of the roughly 300 million people living in this country, most surveys put the number of homosexuals in the 3-4% range (that’s based on self-reporting, so it’s probably an undercount). Taking the most conservative end of the range, that’s about 9 million homosexuals.

That’s a lot of people to leave with no reasonable prospect of ever marrying.

There are also a lot of gay families in the U.S. According to the 2000 Census, there are about 594,000 same-sex “unmarried partner” households, almost evenly split between gay male and lesbian couples. (Adults living with others were asked by the Census to classify their relationship to the others as, among other things, “husband/wife,” “housemate/roommate,” “roomer/boarder,” and “unmarried partner”). The Census data on unmarried partners can be found at http://www.census.gov/prod/2003pubs/censr-5.pdf. The Census figure of 594,000 is a good low-ball estimate of the number of gay-couple households in the country, though it’s almost certainly an undercount since many gay couples probably reported their status as “boarders” or “roommates” rather than as “unmarried partners.”

At a minimum, this means there are 1.2 million Americans already sharing a home and a life together who will never be able to marry.

Lots of children are being raised by these gay couples. Of the reported female unmarried partners, more than 1/3 are raising children. Of the male unmarried partners, more than 1/5 are raising children. That’s about 162,000 unmarried same-sex households in the U.S. raising children. (This number, too, is almost certainly an undercount, for the reasons given above.) This data is also available at http://www.census.gov/prod/2003pubs/censr-5.pdf.

Once we include single gay people raising children, estimates of the total number of children in the U.S. being raised by gay parents (singles and couples) range from a low of 1 million to a high of 9 million. That’s between 1% and 12 % of all the children in the country. These estimates come from Judith Stacey and Timothy Biblarz, “(How) Does the Sexual Orientation of Parents Matter?”, 66 Amer. Sociological Rev. 159, 164-65 (2001). I think the estimates on the lower end, somewhere in the 1-2 million range, are more reasonable.

That’s a lot of kids whose families by law will never be united in, and protected by, marriage; and who may well grow up thinking marriage is just another option among many.

A striking characteristic of this debate is that few opponents of gay marriage ever acknowledge the existence, extent, or needs of these families. It’s as if they are not real, as if their interests don’t count in a debate that is at least in part about them. Or, if opponents do recognize these families, they often evince little understanding of the function they serve. These families get lectured, somewhat bizarrely, for pushing 1970s disco-era selfishness, for being adults trying to satisfy personal desires for intimacy, for promoting a political cause at the cost of compromising an important social institution, and for distracting responsible people from cleaning up the mess somebody else has made of marriage.

Yet families headed by gay people are families in important ways relevant to social function and state interests. They are not simply strangers who happen to live under one roof. They are doing the hard and critical work of providing for themselves, caring for their loved ones, and raising the next generation. This is what we expect families to do.

They are not going away. If anything, their numbers are growing. The question then is, what is to be done about them? Advocates of gay marriage have an answer: let them wed. Many, though not all, opponents of gay marriage have had nothing to say up to now. I cannot see how a traditionalist, even if he does not favor gay marriage, can just ignore their fate.

This, then, gives you an idea of the dimensions of the problem and some of the familial interests involved in this debate. I don’t ask that gay families’ interests be considered to the exclusion of everybody else. I just ask that they be considered. Obviously, gay families are a small portion of all the families in the country and maybe sacrificing gay families’ interests and needs to some greater good (like the needs of traditional families), if that’s really the trade-off, is worth it. (I’ll address the trade-off argument directly later in the week.) But that calculation cannot even be made until we appreciate that, for gay families, the stakes in this debate could not be higher.

Next, I’ll identify some individualistic benefits these families might get from marriage; tomorrow, I’ll finish up on the individualistic benefits and discuss some of the communitarian ones.

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