The NFL and Marriage Equality: We’re Winning

Professional football players are, very publicly, talking about marriage equality.

In a less insane world, no one would care, but the reality is that endorsements are as much a fixture in our culture wars as they are in advertising. As silly it is to listen to a Punter telling me what to think about same-sex marriage, it’s slightly less ridiculous (I think) than listening to Roger Federer telling me which razor to buy.

And, as I’ve said before, a culture war can’t happen without battlefields.  A lot of people thought it was ridiculous that there was so much attention being paid to fried chicken when the Chick-fil-A hubbub went down. (A lot of people completely missed the point.) It wasn’t about chicken. The Chick-fil-A news-cycle provided a holding place for the sort of social discussions that are otherwise hard to instigate. For better or worse, chicken garners more public attention then, say, a substantive and well-structured debate on C-Span.

So with this NFL marriage equality news cycle the culture war has moved to a new arena. (You see what I did there?) And it seems to me that the good guys are winning. Here’s a quick recap:

The Baltimore Ravens’ big-tough-guy linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo “became one of the first athletes from a major American professional sports team to speak out in support of same-sex marriage” in 2009. Pro-GLBT equality activists have consistently praised Ayanbadejo’s willingness to support their cause, but not everyone was happy to see an NFL athlete venture into the realm of public policy. One of Maryland’s state delegates–Emmett C. Burns–drafted a letter to the Ravens owner expressing his deep dismay. The PDF is here, but I’m gonna go ahead and quote it in full:

As a Delegate to the Maryland General Assembly and a Baltimore Ravens Football fan, I find it inconceivable that one of your players, Mr. Brendon Ayanbadejo, would publicly endorse same-sex marriage, specifically, as a Raven Football Player. Many of my constituents and your football supporters are appalled and aghast that a member of the Ravens Football Team would step into this controversial divide and try to sway public opinion one way or the other. Many of your fans are opposed to such a view and feel it has no place in a sport that is strictly for pride, entertainment and excitement. I believe Mr. Ayanbadejo should concentrate on football and steer clear of dividing the fan base.

I am requesting that you take the necessary action, as a National Football Franchise Owner, to inhibit such expressions from your employee and that he be ordered to cease and desist such injurious actions. I know of no other NFL player who has done what Mr. Ayambadejo is doing.

Please give me your immediate response.

It would be an understatement to say that Burns’ request for censorship wasn’t terribly well received. Chris Kluwe–a punter for the Minnesota Vikings–penned a blistering open letter that quickly went viral. It includes pretty gratuitous (although hilarious) profanity as well as such gems as “why do you hate freedom?” and “They [gay people] won’t magically turn you into a lustful cockmonster.” Kluwe’s letter generated sufficient buzz as to propel him into the national media spotlight, and he’s now (probably out of necessity) toned down some of his more heated rhetoric.

But the reason we’re winning isn’t because Chris Kluwe’s massively snarky open-letter went viral. We’re winning because of the responses it elicited from the Baltimore Ravens Center Matt Birk.

Over the past few days, Birk has moved into the public sphere as an opponent of same-sex marriage. He laid out his position in a StarTribune editorial and a couple of days later appeared in a video on behalf of the Minnesota Catholic Conference meant to sway public opinion as a ballot initiative approaches.

The goalposts (you see what I did there again?) are moving, and they’re moving in our favor.

Mainstream anti-gay rights activists are apparently past the point of trying to claim that gay marriages would in any way directly delegitimize straight marriages. Birk points to the institution of marriage being “in trouble” but acknowledges that, from his point of view, same-sex marriages have little to do with that. Instead, he points to a “culture of relativism” and factors like “no-fault divorce, adultery, and the nonchalant attitude toward marriage.”

In my reading, Birk spends a lot more time in his editorial giving up ground or addressing the manners of those involved in the debate than actually putting forth a coherent, well-supported argument. The meat of his editorial is that

Same-sex unions may not affect my marriage specifically, but it will affect my children — the next generation. Ideas have consequences, and laws shape culture. Marriage redefinition will affect the broader well-being of children and the welfare of society. As a Christian and a citizen, I am compelled to care about both.

But the assertions in that small paragraph–which are basically the entire content of his argument–are equal parts nebulous and undeveloped. What exactly is the mechanism by which marriage equality negatively affects the “broader well-being of children?” And what are the consequences of the idea that two people of the same gender ought to enjoy the same legal benefits as heterosexual couples? Birk doesn’t hit on any of that in any sort of concrete detail, but he gives us some hints in earlier passages. Here, I’ll quote at length:

The union of a man and a woman is privileged and recognized by society as “marriage” for a reason, and it’s not because the government has a vested interest in celebrating the love between two people. With good reason, government recognizes marriages and gives them certain legal benefits so they can provide a stable, nurturing environment for the next generation of citizens: our kids.

Children have a right to a mom and a dad, and I realize that this doesn’t always happen. Through the work my wife and I do at pregnancy resource centers and underprivileged schools, we have witnessed firsthand the many heroic efforts of single mothers and fathers — many of whom work very hard to provide what’s best for their kids.

But recognizing the efforts of these parents and the resiliency of some (not all, unfortunately) of these kids, does not then give society the right to dismiss the potential long-term effects on a child of not knowing or being loved by his or her mother or father. Each plays a vital role in the raising of a child.

Okay, there we go. Children, ideally, ought to have a mom and a dad, says Birk. They need to be loved by male and female figures during their formation or else they’ll be subject to unspecified “potential long-term effects.”

The argument, framed in that way, is a pretty easy one to win.

Suppose first that Matt Birk is correct in arguing that a household, as it exists in the mind of God, consists of a mommy, daddy, and their kids. That’s how we’re most likely to produce spiritually whole, well-adjusted kids. And suppose also that, in order to encourage that arrangement, we’ve decided as a society that only straight couples can enjoy the legal benefits of marriage.

Actually, don’t suppose. Remember that I’ve just described reality in most parts of America.

Now consider another reality: Gay people raise kids. They adopt them as a single person or they find a willing surrogate who gives birth and then signs custody over to one (or, if possible, both) of the partners. How exactly is a ban on same sex marriages or civil unions functioning in this case? It’s not stopping gay people from raising kids. The value-neutral, economist-y way of framing this would be that it’s a “dis-incentive.” We’re making it more difficult in terms of time and money for gay people to raise kids. And the end result is presumably that gay people make a decision to raise fewer kids than they would otherwise due to prohibitive costs. So the best possible outcome in Matt Birk’s world is that fewer kids end up being raised in this less-than-ideal household.

But those outcomes are pretty binary, aren’t they? It’s not the case that children end up either in loving mommy-daddy homes or same-sex couple homes. Kids are also raised a whole slew of other environments that fall short of the loving mommy-daddy home ideal. Single parent homes or foster homes or abusive homes. Plus plenty are in no brick and mortar home at all. Surely even someone attached to the notion of the idealized nuclear family would concede that a loving daddy-daddy home or a loving mommy-mommy home would be a better option for a lot of kids than the situation in which they currently find themselves. It would seem to me that staunch supporters of the traditional family are in many ways making perfect the enemy of the good.

So, even conceding Birk’s main assumptions about the idealized family, there’s a pretty strong argument to be made that same-sex marriages are the preferable policy option as relates to the future of our children.

The problem with Birk’s main assumption, though, is that it’s wrong.

There isn’t any credible research to suggest that children raised by same-sex parents are in any way worse off than their counterparts raised by heterosexual parents. There are have been, however, plenty of attempts to distort valid research in order to make that claim. Mark Regnerus recently tried to make arguments to that effect and was quickly shot down for his dishonesty in manipulating the data.

And, this is anecdotal, but do you remember this kid? Who the heck wouldn’t want him for a son?

This isn’t primarily about well-adjusted kids. Anyone paying attention should realize that the kids of same-sex couples aren’t, in the aggregate, any better or worse than the kids of hetero parents. I’d imagine, though, that kids of same-sex parents are more likely to support GLBT equality than their age-groups as a whole. I’d also have to guess that they’re less likely to buy into rigid, traditional formulations of gender.

And that–gender–is what worries Matt Birk and other opponents of marriage equality so much about the legitimization of same-sex marriages. GLBT equality is a direct challenge to traditional gender roles. For those who view gender as a divinely mandated reality, a world without well-defined gender roles is a world without the presence of God. Catholic social thought, in particular, holds that the nuclear family is the foundation of all human institutions. Many religious conservatives are genuinely concerned that the collapse of the gendered nuclear family would usher in the collapse of Western civilization.

So, we’re winning, but the culture war is far from over. In conceding considerable ground in this debate, conservatives have in some ways “punted.” (You see what I did there AGAIN?) Now the cultural football is in our possession, and we’re gonna need to be ready to talk about gender.

Fists up for feminism, ya’ll.

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