Gay Marriage: The 21 Century's Most Successful Pro-Family Policy

Rick Santorum would forbid it and nullify existing unions. So how can he claim to be the most pro-family candidate?

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There are an estimated 131,729 same-sex married couples in the United States, a Census Bureau figure that would be significantly higher if not for the fact that the vast majority of jurisdictions still prohibit gays and lesbians from marrying. Still, more than a quarter of a million gay people are married to one another. And it's worth explicitly pondering what that means.

For wedded gays and lesbians, it means more financial stability, more emotional stability, better access to health care, hospital visitation rights, and fewer legal burdens in the event of their partner's death. It means a more formal investment in their relationship, and in many cases, vows uttered before family and friends to strengthen their union. It means emotional fulfillment, and the end of the feeling of being discriminated against by one's own government, a valuable thing in itself. 


And for the one-third of lesbians and one-fifth of gay men who are parents? For them, It means more stability for their children, plus an opportunity for their socialization into what a loving marriage looks like. For society as a whole, it means gay people share in the same method of family formation as their parents, their straight colleagues, and their heterosexual friends. It means that gay culture is more invested than it would otherwise be in the success of marriage as an institution and in the norm of long-term coupling.

Compared to the old status quo, wherein gay couples were everywhere prohibited from marrying, and often made less financially secure, healthy, and happy as a result -- wherein the children of gays and lesbians enjoyed less stability -- the advance of gay marriage has been the most important and successful pro-family reform of the 21st century, and it's only going to expand as more jurisdictions permit same-sex unions as younger people vote their conscience.

There are, of course, Americans who are opposed to gay marriage. Barack Obama, for example, turned against equal rights for gays so that he could advance politically. But Obama's shameful political calculation isn't going to do anything to prevent states from making gay marriage legal, nor does he threaten the unions that have already been entered into.

Rick Santorum does.

The socially conservative presidential candidate, who came in a close second in the Iowa caucuses, sells himself as a family-friendly pol. There is some truth to that. As Ross Douthat put it, he has:

distinguished himself by talking about issues that most Republicans don't want to touch -- the problem of middle-class wage stagnation and the declining social mobility of the poor. Santorum has also framed these issues, correctly, in the context of the crisis in family life that social conservatives have been worrying about for years, making the essential point that absent fathers and broken homes play a greater role in middle America's struggles than the supposed perfidies of the richest 1 percent. Somewhat disappointingly, Santorum's specific proposals have focused on reviving manufacturing (and with it, in theory, the solid blue-collar paycheck) rather than targeting family policy directly. But one can doubt his cure and still appreciate his diagnosis.
Douthat later added that "thanks to Rich Lowry's column on Santorum today, I'm reminded that the former senator has called for tripling the deduction for each dependent child. This falls short of my family-friendly tax policy ideal, but (as Lowry writes) it makes Santorum's agenda 'the most pro-family of any on offer from the GOP candidates,' and my praise should have been more unqualified."

In fact, the qualification should've been different.

Santorum isn't "pro-family" so much as he is "pro-family for people whose family doesn't include anyone gay." He regards marriage as a force for good in the lives of couples who enter into it and their children. He is willing to deny those benefits to gay families, because he believes -- without any evidence -- that keeping gay marriage illegal will benefit straight unions.

What would he do about the quarter of a million people who've already established stable families by entering into same sex marriages? He would destabilize the family lives of those people. He explained that in a recent interview with Chuck Todd, where he touted his preference for a constitutional amendment codifying marriage at the federal level as a relationship between a man and a woman:

SANTORUM: I think marriage has to be one thing for everybody. We can't have 50 different marriage laws in this country, you have to have one marriage law...

TODD: What would you do with same-sex couples who got married? Would you make them get divorced?

SANTORUM: Well, their marriage would be invalid. I think if the Constitution says "marriage is this," then people whose marriage is not consistent with the Constitution... I'd love to think there's another way of doing it.
I presume everyone reading this post is either married or is close to someone who is married, whether it's parents or close friends or a boss or teacher or colleague. Think of that married couple. That family. Imagine if they got a letter in the mail informing them that by order of the federal government, their marriage is no longer valid. I submit that a man who would send out letters like that to gay and lesbian married couples does not deserve to be labeled as the candidate with the most pro-family agenda. His desire to invalidate the unions of people who are already married, some of whom have kids -- to invalidate existing families by federal mandate -- makes him arguably the least pro-family candidate, despite his other pro-family positions.

The more than a quarter of a million families with a gay married couple at their core are not disconnected from American society. They have extended families: brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, friends who come over every Thanksgiving -- and for all these extended families, for everyone who has a gay person in their extended family, Rick Santorum isn't a pro-family candidate, because he is hostile to their family as it actually exists, and would invalidate it by decree if he could. Are we to regard targeted tax cuts as the more important stance?

Image credit: Reuters
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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