A sentence from a recent New York Times Magazine profile clings to the mind, like lint. The profile is of Scott Brown, whose sudden ascent to the U.S. Senate fascinated America a few months back. In 2001, the story relates, when a colleague of Brown’s, a lesbian state senator in Massachusetts, “announced that she and her partner had decided to have children, [Brown] said that such an arrangement was ‘not normal.’ (He later apologized.)”
Two points shriek for attention: Brown’s deployment of the word normal in a context—the moral/philosophical—in which it is nearly out of use these days, and his abandonment of the term once the room temperature soared too high.
It’s not normal anymore to talk about normal. Yet, in so speaking, Scott Brown was 1,000 percent right. It really, truly, honestly is not normal for two people of the same sex to undertake the vital and holy estate of parenthood. That Informed Opinion brought him around to an apology shows just how tough things have become for the acceptance and living out of propositions once deemed clear, plain, and unassailable.
Growing acceptance of the right of “gays” and lesbians to adopt children is great stuff, we read and hear. Adopting reinforces, supposedly, the relationships of homosexual couples: showcasing their innate caringness, not to mention their basic human abilities. It integrates into structured family life children lacking families and homes of any kind, loving and concerned or abusive and violent. What’s not to like?
Consider another New York Times story from around the time of Senator Brown’s electoral victory. New Jersey’s senate had voted against allowing same-sex “marriage.” The Times noted the active role that children being raised by homosexuals were playing in the campaign for such unions: the New Jersey ten-year-old, for instance, who said, “It doesn’t bother me to tell kids my parents are gay. It does bother me to say they aren’t married. It makes me feel that our family is less than their family.”
Scott Brown clearly wouldn’t say it, but someone must: Whatever the large claims made for homosexual adoption, whatever the benefits that accrue to adopted children freed from less-than-good circumstances, the “gay family” is inherently less than the traditional two-parent family. It’s a fact of life, even in an age notably careless with facts it finds disagreeable.
The Times quotes a UCLA law-school researcher as reporting that, in 2008, some 116,000 same-sex couples were bringing up a quarter of a million children under 18. What Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute calls “a radical revision of the traditional relationship between parents and children” is coming at us down the track—a revision “whose consequences no one can predict.” Maybe not “predict,” but fret about all the same.
Not the least consequence, to my way of thinking, is rhetorical dissonance. Take, in the second New York Times story cited, the declaration of 21-year-old Chiah Connolly-Ingram, in reference to California’s statewide ban on “gay marriage,” enacted by referendum in November 2008. She begins: “As the daughter of lesbian moms . . . ”
One child, two moms? Not hardly, as we say in the South. One is all you get in life, for good biological reasons. Miss Connolly-Ingram is redefining to her own satisfaction the institutions of parenthood and marriage, never mind what civilization and religion might say and believe to the contrary. Rhetorical dissonance can be hard on the eardrums, but it has its purposes. To redefine is to give new shape to something. The idea with “gay marriage” and adoption is to establish equivalence with the traditional forms, if not to deform the forms entirely: to make personal choice instrumental in the definition.
“There is no ideal family form anymore,” says Lisa Bennett of the Human Rights Campaign, which agitates on behalf of gay rights. “There are many forms of family.” There are? Then Miss Connolly-Ingram’s form is just as good, just as valid, just as worthwhile as, say, Dr. James Dobson’s—possibly better, by a little bit anyway, than Sen. John Edwards’. From this acknowledgement—if one chooses to go that way—large implications flow. For instance, childbirth and rearing move ineluctably outside the husband-wife circle. Anybody can do it—why not?
Artificial insemination (someone should write a thesis sometime on the ghastliness of the term) can provide any lesbian with a baby. Indeed, according to the Urban Institute, more than one in three lesbians has given birth. An equally efficacious route to parenthood is adoption, which various states, according to Bennett, now see “as a fine thing” for gays and lesbians. “Some,” she adds, “have explicit, welcoming language” in their policies.
The great majority of states do not specifically prohibit homosexual adoption. For one thing, the large and growing population of abused or abandoned children needs housing and feeding. Gay and lesbian couples, according to Bennett, “are willing to take children [whom] others are not.” So pragmatism plays its own role—along with rights ideology—in the abandonment of supposedly rocklike family norms.
As we know, pragmatism and ideology, once they get in high gear, sweep past roadblocks hewn from experience, common sense, and, shall we say, cosmic understanding. The American Psychological Association archly declares, “[T]here is no reliable evidence that homosexual orientation per se impairs psychological functioning. Second, beliefs that lesbian and gay adults are not fit parents have no empirical foundation.”
Well, pardon us as a culture for cleaving all these years to the assumption that, because biology pointed rather clearly to the complementarity of men and women, there must be something to the assumption that nature (yea, even Nature’s God) fixed things up in this particular way.
The matter, to be sure, goes beyond the merely physical. Heather Mac Donald (no evangelical Bible-walloper she) notes that the “institutionalized severing of biology from parenthood affirms a growing trend” of “men abandoning their biological children. Too many men now act like sperm donors: they conceive children then largely disappear, becoming at best intermittent presences in their children’s lives.” Particularly is this true, she says, among blacks, who pay for it in the coin of social breakdown and educational failure.
Mac Donald notes, as do many other writers on the subject, that the complementarity of men and women has to do with more than biology. If maleness and femaleness are distinct attributes, however friendly to each other, the child needs exposure to both in order to function in the real world, as opposed to one governed by ideology. Mothers nurture, fathers teach—to borrow Mac Donald’s wonderfully antique phrase—the “manly virtues.”
OK, OK, anyone can point to plenty of instances in which men nurture very nicely and women would as soon slap you silly as look at you. Such instances no more than reinforce our old understandings of the normal. If the American Psychological Association has “empirical” evidence to show a man and a woman are the same commodity (one just smells better than the other), might it be pleased to come forward and elucidate?
A subsurface consideration, on account of its unacceptability in politically correct forums, is that of potential confusion in children reared by people of the same sex—the capacity for acclimating them, and others outside their immediate circle, to marital and parenting arrangements that civilization has heretofore declared at odds with its purposes and understandings.
Oh boy, can I hear it. The friends of homosexual adoption rejoin that it is about love and care and concern. They relate—with justification—horror stories concerning many of the children whom homosexual couples have scooped up from the child-welfare system, or worse. We hear as well that same-sex couples aren’t behindhand at all in the teaching of values and virtues; that they show at least as much love and care and concern as many heteros one probably knows. I am willing to grant most such expostulations and with pleasure to affirm that gays and lesbians as a category may know at least as much about honesty, prudence, dignity, temperance, justice, fortitude, and so on as do heterosexuals as a category.
That is not, of course, the end of the matter. Hard and faithfully as they might try, homosexual couples cannot model the virtues and opportunities inherent in a mom-and-dad-headed family. Only Mom and Dad can do that. That they do not do it nearly as often as they promised to at the altar of God, or with the dedication of their forebears, in no way impeaches the conviction that such families are the only kind that makes sense—and that society should actively encourage them, not least by discouraging imitations. Society does not encourage the formation of traditional families by saying to the citizenry, oh, you know, it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other, different strokes for different folks, etc.
There is just the one stroke worth applying here, and it is the traditional family. The assault on the moral order has gone far indeed when so basic a proposition can raise more than a few eyebrows, and those largely in Ivy League dorms. Scott Brown was right: The particular adoption he disparaged, involving a pair of lesbians and a small child, was not normal. It failed, as he saw, to coincide with the great norms laid down in millennia past by prophets and priests and thinkers wiser even than the board of the American Psychological Association.
One thing a society has to do is repopulate—a task made all the harder, at least in the West, by the social and political tolerance presently accorded abortion on demand. Repopulation is the service that men and women, acting in literal conjunction, provide. It keeps life moving forward: new generations raised up, essential tasks taken in hand, new ideas hatched and developed.
Is a girl raised by two women, or a boy brought up by two men, likely to evaluate parenthood with the eagerness, the expectation, of a teen who sees, in Mom and Dad, an appealing pattern for the future? It simply doesn’t stand to reason that downgrading heterosexuality as the civilized norm is going to encourage, or even maintain, the desire to march boldly into the future, doing what parents have always done. Yes, and still do, to the credit of the majority—namely, make new life; nurture and protect that life; adorn it with understanding; then, at last, endow it with a sense of responsibility for what comes next.
The tenor of life since the 60’s has been one of unabashed self-indulgence. We are to suppose that downgrading traditional marriage and parenthood will discourage illegitimacy, quick divorce, child abuse, and the age’s other expressions of self-regard? Not bloody likely, as Eliza Doolittle might put it.
The gay-parenting vogue is part and parcel of the 50-year recoil from the old standards and decencies we came for odd reasons to find boring or irrelevant. Consequences? We’re not supposed to care for such. It’s all in the eye of the beholder, this consequences stuff. Such a beholder, perhaps, as the seven-year-old girl in Virginia over whom her lesbian birth mother and the mother’s ex-partner have been contending in court since the ex-partner converted to evangelical Christianity and procured a legal end to the civil union. It hurts the head to say these things, in part on account of their complexity—mostly because of the hurts and injuries that come inevitably when ordinary people twist rules and norms in the service of decidedly non-ordinary purposes.
The old priests and thinkers knew what they were doing when they set the moral tone of the old life—one poorly adapted to novelty and emotional trickery, and all the lovelier for it, all the more powerful and enduring.
This article first appeared in the May 2010 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.