Student Perspectives on Same-Sex Marriage

In light of the Supreme Court’s recent oral arguments over the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and California’s Proposition 8, The Stanford Review interviewed students from three different student groups to get three different perspectives on same-sex marriage and its relation to Stanford.

Neither the *Review *nor the author of this piece necessarily endorses the opinions expressed below. Instead, our goal is to put these various student perspectives into dialogue with one another.

*Ben VanBerkum is a junior from Detroit, Michigan.  He is majoring in physics and will be graduating this year. Ben is the co-president of Stanford Anscombe Society, a nonpartisan student group interested in issues surrounding family, marriage, and sexual ethics.  *

**What is your position on same-sex marriage? **

We don’t think the government should define marriage outside its role in protecting children. That involves defining marriage as a union of one man and one woman because that’s the union naturally capable of producing children—outside of edge cases, but that’s for courts to deal with, not for laws. The government should deal with marriage not because it cares about our love life, but because the government has an interest in making sure children are brought into the world under the best possible circumstances.

Can you elaborate on “edge cases”?

Things like infertile couples. Requiring couples to prove fertility before marriage is a gross invasion of privacy. There should just be a general principle enshrined in law, and courts can deal with other stuff that comes up.

**What about two 70-year-olds wanting to get married, where having children would not be possible? **

For marriage to serve its role as an institution, there needs to be an established pattern, and people need to be aware of the pattern and why it exists. In my personal opinion, it would be reasonable to say they should just be married in church and not legally. I think it would be equally reasonable to say that if they want to get married, that’s fine, because they’re not fundamentally incapable of producing children in the sense that age is a gradual process instead of a binary switch. You’re still emphasizing the institution of marriage as such.

**Could you explain to me the importance of the institution of marriage as such, and how it connects to your position on same-sex marriage? **

It’s twofold. One is the protection of children. Another is about the family as the fundamental building block of society. The ideal is to have children with biological parents. Having an ideal is something we need in order to be effective citizens. The family is where we learn to be effective citizens. If families are failing, that won’t work out well for the nation. Family is also important for individual liberties. If families are strong, there’s more of acknowledgement that you can’t take away personal liberties, because the family sphere will be able to take care of concerns that the government won’t have to.

**Biological parents are the ideal? **

The ideal is definitely biological. Every study ever done shows kids do best when raised by biological parents. That’s been obvious throughout all history. The child embodies this connection between husband and wife, literally. In a huge majority of cases, this provides the optimal environment for a child. Adoption is our way of trying to fit the ideal when that doesn’t work.

**You’ve been discussing protection of children and their interests. Can you spell out the ways in which same-sex marriage would not protect children and their interests? **

You can either look at it neutrally or negatively. Neutrally, the relationship between gay marriage and children is really about adoption, which you can look at as a separate issue. Negatively, by establishing same-sex partnerships at the same level as what we understand as marriage, the government is saying, we don’t think this ideal of marriage is important anymore, we think it’s more important for adults to have their love officially recognized than it is for children to have their best interests served. Marriage would then be transformed into an institution about adults’ desires. The concept of marriage in a family becomes separated from kids.

**Do you believe same-sex couples should be permitted to adopt children? **

Personally, no. But the argument here is different from marriage. I don’t think the sociological work is clear either way. You could say children should see both the male and female sides of life to develop appropriately, so I think there’s a very strong priority to have children raised by a mother and a father. If the ideal family setting can’t be met, you still want it as close to the ideal as possible, which would be a male and a female adopting. But if you had everyone in the adoption line being male and female abusive parents…I’m exaggerating.

**So if the sociological work is inconclusive, why do you believe same-sex couples shouldn’t adopt? **

For the sake of not using kids as experimental guinea pigs, we should stick with what we know works. The other option is saying, “We’re not sure if this will work, but let’s see what happens.”

**How do you respond to the argument that the government shouldn’t be involved in marriage? **

In an ideal world, I agree, but we’re not in an ideal world, and we need the government to declare, essentially, that this is the kind of thing society should be doing. Right now we need marriage law to protect the interests of children, but ideally in the future we won’t. That applies to government intervention anywhere.

**What do you think of arguments against same-sex marriage that are religious in nature? **

I think they’re relevant for religious communities and in a democracy people should be able to voice their opinions no matter where they come from. Legally and societally, I don’t think we should be saying, “Oh, he’s arguing from the Bible, his claim is irrelevant.” But I don’t think the rationale behind our laws should be religious in nature.  I think we should look at the claim and see if there are other good reasons for supporting it. A lot of times people offer religious reasons and non-religious reasons, and people latch onto the religious claims and dismiss the rest.

**What is your group’s position on no-fault divorce laws? **

To strengthen marriage, divorce laws need to be tightened from their current state. Ideally, the law would be divorce for fairly limited cases. I think we need a societal recognition that this is bad for society. This is why we’re on campus. People need to start thinking of marriage as a permanent construct regardless of what the laws say. If we wake up tomorrow morning and change the law, I don’t think that would have positive results for anyone. Practically speaking, we need to encourage a societal change in which people are approaching marriage as something permanent, and then the law will follow that at the appropriate time.
**What’s it like being a social conservative on campus? **

It’s not that bad, but I hear some people complaining about it. You get the feeling there’s this implied assumption that everyone holds certain liberal values, so contradicting them can sometimes make conversations awkward. When professors crack a joke based on those assumptions, okay, at that point, you think they don’t think you exist, and that’s not a pleasant feeling. But I haven’t picked up on it as strongly as others because I take science classes.

**Have you encountered the impression, implicit or explicit, that you’re homophobic? **

Yes. Explicit. There’s a Daily article from April, two years ago. We were labeled homophobic, and misogynist, and a couple other things. I would look at the response of being called homophobic as “I don’t have anything else to say, so I’m going to call you this and hope people ignore you.” Actually, to me, the parents’ sexual orientation is neither here nor there. It’s just about the children. That’s why I’ve been saying “same-sex” and “opposite-sex” marriage, not “gay” marriage.

**What do you think of the way Stanford as an institution approaches these issues? **

I’m generally disappointed with the way the institution tends to take positions at all. The one that really got me was when Dean Julie sent an email—I’m pretty sure on the gay marriage issue—pretty explicitly taking a position on this in an official university capacity.* For me that was an overstep.  Just distinguishing between people acting as individuals rather than in their capacity at the university. When you get the impression that the university has an official policy, that makes it harder to have fruitful discussions about an issue that’s actually being discussed in real life.

At my residential staff training, they sent us to a talk to give staff information to emotionally help students, and my impression was there was a presumption that these students would be engaged in sexual relations. They made some really disparaging comment about people who practice abstinence; whether they meant to or not, that’s how it came across. Generally speaking, though, I don’t have a problem with professors disclaiming their opinions within reason.

**Generally speaking, how does Stanford Anscombe Society seek to change these implicit attitudes on campus? **

The biggest factor is our existence as a recognized student group. It’s our way of saying, despite what you might hear, not everyone on campus agrees with these set of viewpoints, and you can legitimately talk about these issues, and we provide a place to do this. And we provide speakers and resources for people to read.

**Do you think there will be legal recognition of same-sex marriage throughout the United States in the upcoming decades? **

No. It’s not hugely unlikely, but I don’t think it’s for sure. I can’t say I’d be surprised. A lot of people compare it to abortion, where it swung one way and then another pretty solidly. I don’t think the current political climate is strong enough to say “we’re done, let’s wait this out,” on either side.

**The Stanford Review *was unable to independently corroborate this claim.

Johnathan Bowes is a sophomore from Chattanooga, Tennessee majoring in Science, Technology, and Society. He is a member of the Stanford Libertarian Club, an unofficial student group.

**What is your position on same-sex marriage? **

In a nutshell, I believe the federal government should both allow and support queer marriages, whatever that happens to be. While I would hope that the government could be out of the marriage business someday, for the time being that’s impossible.

**What makes it impossible for the government to get out of the business of marriage now? **

As of right now, the idea of getting the government out of marriage would make it so that people who don’t have a religious or spiritual background would not be able to get married. There’s basically no other way for them to get married outside a courthouse. So if the government gets out of marriage there’s no place for them to do that. Ideally, marriage could be supported by non-state institutions, and the state recognizes those marriages.

**Are you concerned with the state of the family in our society, or with the state of marriage? **

I wouldn’t say “the American family is in peril” or anything like that. Part of me thinks that traditional family dynamics aren’t something we should celebrate as the be-all, end-all. The thing I’m most concerned about for marriage and families today is that there are families that aren’t being treated equally, being treated as full citizens under the government. There are queer families who aren’t being treated right, and there aren’t really the right kinds of dialogues about it at times.

**There aren’t the right kinds of dialogues sometimes—can you elaborate? **

It seems to me in the dialogues people have about marriage in our American political sphere, first of all, the idea is usually about “gay marriage,” which I take issue with because most of the time “gay” means a homosexual male or a homosexual man. For the most part it’s just focusing on two men getting married, but there are all these other issues like lesbian marriage, bisexual marriage, etc. that don’t fall under the title “gay.”

There’s also the issue that it’s too easy for people to say, “My religion says this, this doctrine says this.” We should respect people’s views about marriage, but we should be deciding based on the Constitution.

**If there were convincing empirical evidence that traditional families were, for example, best for children, what would your stance be? **

I would question the study.

Let’s say the study is legitimate.

Even if there were a statistically significant difference between children raised in “traditional” homes vs. “non-traditional homes,” the idea of “better” is problematic. What defines “better”? What we need to believe in as a society, what we need to impart to future members of society, and that is a core belief, “you do you,” basically. You should be free to be yourself, and that includes marrying whatever person you love as long as they consent to marry you back. I think that is the core, fundamental thing we need to impart. And that, by my definition, is always better for children. Whatever empirical measures there could be—taller, better SAT scores, better-looking—I think pretty much everything you test will fall short of that.

Do you think the position that same-sex couples should not be married is a homophobic position?

I think most of the time, yes, but not necessarily. The idea that we should legislate to say that is injecting a little homophobia, queerphobia of any sort into our law, but I don’t think an individual who says that is necessarily homophobic. But I think over 80% of the time, maybe 90% of the time, homophobia could be causing that reaction. ****

**Do you have any opinion on the way Stanford as an institution handles these issues? **

About supporting dialogue about same-sex marriage, about a whole slew of other queer, minority issues, I think Stanford is definitely a very open environment to talk about them. I don’t think we are a monolithic environment by any means. I don’t think we are entirely liberal, entirely conservative. We might lean liberal, but I think there is room for two opposing viewpoints for same-sex marriage or any other issue.

I think there are some environments that are good for opening up dialogue on campus, like “crossing the line” in my frosh dorm. And some other environments, not so much.

I also think it’s interesting how there are some divisions within the queer community about the issue of same-sex marriage. There is a group of people who support same-sex marriage but there’s another group that does not like the idea of marriage as an institution, because of its history. Those are the two viewpoints within the queer community that get articulated the most, as far as I can tell. Since the rest of the debate takes the institution of marriage as given, it adds a new element. Personally, though, I think marriage does have social benefits and I definitely support gay marriage.

**Do you feel our campus treats those who do not believe in same-sex marriage fairly as members of the debate? **

I’d say from certain sectors, from certain people, absolutely not. In general, being someone who has a more conservative viewpoint and at times a more libertarian viewpoint too, I’m treated as less informed, less educated, more bigoted, in this case homophobic. I feel like there’s an inherent bias in some people about some views traditionally considered conservative. I think there are some people who would instantly write someone off for opposing same-sax marriage, would think “I’m arguing with a monkey now.” Just within certain segments—not many people, not all people, not all of Stanford. I think that influences the debate in some way, with the bystander effect and all that. ****

**Do you think there will be legal recognition of same-sex marriage throughout the United States in the upcoming decades? **

I think for sure by the time I die, there will be marriage equality throughout the US. I definitely think that that’s the future and it’s definitely coming within this century. Depending on how DOMA and Prop 8 goes in the courts, it could be quicker or later. The problem could be that it might cause some backlash that lasts a few decades, similar to Roe v. Wade. We’re still talking about abortion today. In my heart of hearts, I think within the next 20-30 years [same-sex marriage will be legal] around the country, at least on paper.

*Nick Amahed is a sophomore from Plymouth, Minnesota. He is majoring in Political Science and is the president of the Stanford Democrats.  *

**What is your position on same-sex marriage? **

We think it should be legal. We see it mostly as a 14th Amendment issue—all people are given equal protection of the law. Congress or states cannot willingly deny rights to groups of people based on something they were born with.

**What is marriage? **

There are really two definitions of marriage. One should be used by the state and shouldn’t discriminate along religious or moral lines. And there’s one that is religious that is defined by each religion. The latter is irrelevant to this debate and only the former is relevant.

**Is there any significant difference to you between civil unions and marriage, if they granted the same rights? **

No. I myself would say that if you want to use “civil union” instead of “marriage” in all the federal statutes, that’s fine, so long as it’s the same for everyone.

**Are you concerned with the state of the family in our society, or the state of marriage? **

No. By and large, there are many legal incentives that already encourage development of families and having kids. While some living situations aren’t ideal – like single mothers – redefining marriage and who can have kids and who can raise kids won’t change that. We do not believe that legalizing gay marriage will ruin marriages for heterosexual couples, as some on the right would allege.

**Do you have a position on the effects that having same-sex parents might have on a child? **

It’s hard to say, but by and large, having two loving parents is all that matters, and having that support at home is critical. Whether it’s two men, or a man and a woman, or two women, or whatever, having that support when you come home at night is really at the core of what a family is, and we should do more to encourage that.

**Do our laws currently do enough to encourage that? **

No. The fact that gay marriage is federally illegal is just one example of how we fail to encourage that enough. If you’re a kid with two dads or two moms, and you’re told federally that their love isn’t moral, isn’t legal, isn’t okay, how does that affect your attitude towards your family, and your own personal development and confidence? This is just one example of where we can go further to encourage those sorts of positive family situations.

You said earlier having two loving parents is at the heart of what a family is. Does this imply the government should do more to encourage marriage even among opposite-sex couples? For example, does this imply that there’s something wrong with our divorce laws?

I think we should encourage families because of the positive environment it gives kids, but families aren’t the only positive environment where kids can be raised. We shouldn’t punish people for falling out of love, or unexpected changes.

**Do you think the position that same-sex couples should not be married is a homophobic one? **

Yes, they are homophobic. According to the House Report on DOMA, it was meant to represent Congress’s “collective moral judgment and to express moral disapproval of homosexuality.” As Justice Kagan said, the law was “infected with prejudice, fear, spite, and animus”.

**Let’s say it were empirically proven to you that instituting gay marriage would, say, increase rates of divorce, or in some way psychologically harm children with same-sex parents. In that case, what would you think about the legal recognition of same-sex marriage? **

I would have two responses. First, you would have to convince me that lowering divorce rates is a compelling state interest. When the army was considering desegregating units, they were told adding black soldiers would dislodge unit cohesiveness and would likely lead to the death of soldiers. But the Army didn’t listen, and the units did get weaker and there was a loss to stability and cohesiveness, but they got over it. Yes, gay marriage may contribute to divorce rates now, and it might harm children now, but that could change as our society becomes more tolerant. So that suggests their empirical argument doesn’t provide the basis for a compelling state interest, and therefore doesn’t justify, in legal terms, discrimination against a suspect class.

**Do you have any opinion on the way Stanford as an institution handles these issues? **

I don’t know. Something I appreciate is there’s more awareness about trans* issues and a lot of activists seek to promote that in discussions about gay marriage, which is not something that’s brought up in the national debate. However, it’s also sort of disappointing, because a lot of people simply assume that gay marriage should be federally constitutional, and don’t give a lot of thought to the plausibly legitimate argument over states’ rights.

**Do you feel our campus treats those who do not believe in same-sex marriage fairly? **

I can’t say I know how they’re treated. For the sake of answering your question, I’ll assume they’re not treated respectfully. There’s a group called the Stanford Anscombe Society (SAS). Stanford Democrats think they’re not in the debate enough because they’re afraid of being attacked for their beliefs. But we absolutely as an organization would like to see more events that reach across the divide.

**You’ve said you’re not sure whether they actually are attacked for their beliefs. Still, I want to ask: how should they be treated in this debate? **

My response to that is the same as our group’s response to the gay marriage issue: everyone should be treated with respect.

**Even though they’re “homophobic”? **

Yes. We want them included in the debate even though they’re homophobic because hearing their point of view helps us understand our own beliefs and it exposes people who were unaware of their position to their arguments. Most importantly, it brings an important debate over a national issue to campus, where there was none before.

**Do you think there will be legal recognition of same-sex marriage throughout the United States in the upcoming decades? **

I think the Supreme Court will strike down DOMA. By 2020, gay marriage will be federally legal. I don’t know whether that argument will extend to the states, but I would hope it does.

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