I’m all for toning down the emotion in politics and avoiding vitriol. But sometimes a silly idea reprinted for the umpteenth time just gets to you.
In an attempt to bridge the gap between proponents of marriage equality and the opposition, columnists Will Saletan and Connor Friedsdorf have been arguing that the former shouldn’t dismiss the latter as bigots. Not all same-sex marriage opponents are homophobic, they declare, and comparing them to interracial marriage opponents is a false equivalency because plenty of traditionalists think gay people are perfectly okay. “Opposition to gay marriage can be rooted in the insidious belief that gays are inferior,” Friedsdorf writes, “but it’s also commonly rooted in the much-less-problematic belief that marriage is a procreative institution, not one meant to join couples for love and companionship alone.”
Childfree couples will take umbrage at this, and who can blame them? If we decide that the word “marriage” should only be awarded to those ready and willing to make babies, how about raising the bar a bit higher while we’re at it? How about limiting it to couples who have known each other for at least five years, have both completed their education, and are financially independent enough to pay for their own wedding? How about requiring premarital cohabitation for a period of at least 18 months—the infatuation phase lasts 9 to 18 months, after all—and of course requiring engaged couples to have sex a bunch of times, in order to make sure they know what they’re getting into? And why not reserve marriage for those who have never been previously married, never had a brush with so much as a traffic cop, and have passed an emotional intelligence test? In any case, conservatives who dare to argue that only baby-minded couples qualify for the marriage moniker shouldn’t be one bit surprised when this unleashes a barrage of opinions about which sorts of couples truly “deserve” it.
But while we all privately hold firm opinions about the best recipe for a partnership, and we all tend to voice these opinions here and there in public, there is something particularly horrible about those earnest attempts to argue that the ideal family is founded in a man and a woman’s physical capacity to make children. Five justices already decided last year that this argument doesn’t hold up in court. But Saletan and Friedsdorf’s insistence that the argument is nevertheless “rational” and “much-less-problematic” than other forms of bigotry is solipsistic and insensitive to the point of seeming cruel.
My extended family includes foster children and adopted children. My partner and I may or may not have children biologically, for reasons that really are no one’s business but our own and that of an agency, should we appeal to one. There are scores of wonderful reasons for couples to adopt: they can’t physically have kids, they don’t want to physically have kids, their medical situation is complicated, they don’t want to increase the world’s population, they desperately want to do something about the crisis of unwanted children in society. They recognize the indisputable truth of which most are aware but not all of us like to acknowledge – that family is what you make of it.
Some adopted children, like the subjects of the 2011 documentary Somewhere Between, feel compelled to make contact with their birth parents or culture of origin, and that is their right. Others, like Scott Fujita and Philipp Rösler and Steve Jobs, have felt no connection whatsoever and are at best amused by others’ fixation with their origins, and that is their right. When facing the myriad complexity of what makes a person who she is, guaranteeing everyone the right to self-determination is by far the fairest solution.
Some people admirably bend over backwards to honor their family ties no matter how hard this may be, and others wisely save themselves a lot of grief by avoiding toxic individuals who share their DNA. For outsiders to implicitly value that DNA over genuine love and unwavering devotion is a pretty brazen putdown. Those who voluntarily commit and honor their commitment to be someone’s family deserve so much more respect than all of the deadbeat and emotionally abusive parents I’ve had the misfortune of knowing.
Because I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again. Caregiving isn’t just about having a big heart and finding joy in knowing you helped someone. It’s about sacrifice. It’s about reading a book for the fourth time no matter how much you want to throw it out the window. Or rubbing someone’s feet to distract them from the pain no matter how little sleep you’re running on. Or missing out on parties and events no matter how badly you want to go. Or suppressing your gag reflex as the one you love spits up something absolutely gross. Or mustering the strength to decide whether you should endure the anger being vented at you because everyone needs to vent, or whether you should call your loved one out on their self-pity lest their anger become an abusive habit. Caregiving is about testing your patience until it inevitably wears thin and you make a mistake or lash out, ensuring you’ll be up the next several nights wondering whether you just scarred someone for life. Caregiving is work and, regardless of whether it is paid work, it is one of the most psychologically taxing kinds of work there is.
Yet blood is still thought to be thicker than sweat, as the stigma of non-biological families persists. This traditional obsession with genealogy on a grand scale has led to classism and inbreeding and racism and the sterilization of disabled people. On a smaller scale, it’s led to parents and children pushed to the brink of tears as they endure, again and again, some loudmouth’s opinion about “real” families.
Which is why I propose a challenge for all those well-intentioned supporters of “traditional marriage.” I won’t ever call you a bigot—if anything because name-calling has a pretty low success rate when it comes to changing minds—but do me a favor. Walk up to a childless couple planning to adopt and tell them that you’d like to see their marriage invalidated. Say it to their face. Tell them that their marriage is “wrong” or “not right” or less than or whatever it is you’ve been lead to believe is “real” because they didn’t use their own genes to make their children. Then visit them again after they’ve adopted and tell their kids about your wish to replace their parents’ marriage with a separate-but-equal civil union. And then tell me with a straight face that what you’ve said to them about their family is “much-less-problematic” than what Jim Crowe said about our president’s family.
Speaking of the president, he may have said it best: “What makes you a man isn’t the ability to make a child, but having the courage to raise one.”