I spent most of Friday at St. John’s Law School in scenic Jamaica — the one in Queens, New York — participating in yet another symposium on marriage equality. The students and administrative staff did a great job in putting the event together, and the dean and faculty were welcoming and thoughtful speakers and moderators.
Unlike many similar events, though, this one featured quite a number of speakers from the right — far right — side of the spectrum. That the event was called Legal, Secular, and Religious Perspectives on Marriage Equality/Marriage Protection/Same-Sex Marriage was in itself telling. Let’s make sure every perspective is represented even if doing so requires a tongue-tying title. (Even that wasn’t enough for the angry Jane Adolphe of Ave Maria Law School though, who opined that same-sex marriage should be placed in ironic quotes since it “can’t exist.”)
Balance is good. But I always find odd and more than a little off-putting that most of the anger in these debates comes from the right — you know, the side without the immediate personal stake. As fellow panelist Courtney Joslin told me during a break, it had “been a long time” since she’d been around so many people who thought that she was worth less than they were. And they’re not shy about that sentiment.
In the first of what will likely be a series of posts on the conference, I’d like to focus on the very offensive scattershot of arguments spewed forth by Penn law professor Amy Wax. She’s better known for her insidiously racist book Race, Wrongs and Remedies,1 in which she cheerily relieves government of the obligation to do much of anything about the effects of the centuries-long political and social subordination of African-Americans. She also suggests that efforts to improve their lot might have limited effect even with the sort of good ol’ self-help she prescribes, because (citing IQ tests) “blacks have lower cognitive ability than whites or Asians.” Continuing in this essentializing mode, she then writes that “[a]t this point it is not known whether different groups are equally endowed with all the abilities that make for success in modern technological societies.”
Biology is (mostly) all that matters and there’s no use trying to do much about it. This is the underpinning of Wax’s simplistic world view, and it suffused her presentation on Friday in which she savaged the marriage equality movement. In a bizarre and undertheorized version of the natural law argument, she seemed to ground her opposition in an idiosyncratic version of the procreation argument: Gay or lesbian couples can’t procreate without outside assistance (I wonder what her response would be to a change in that fact), and since biology matters, well, QED.
That view was centrally on display in Wax’s neo-eugenic view of families, which exist in a “hierarchy,” with opposite-sex couples with their own bio children ensconced permanently at the top of the pyramid. Yes, she said, she’d be “somewhat disappointed” if one of her three kids turned out to be gay because that would mean they wouldn’t be able to produce their own biological children.
When I suggested, during Q&A, that it might turn out that having a gay offspring who adopted a child might turn out to be a gift rather than a “disappointment,” Wax began her response by acknowledging the heroism of adoptive parents, but then added the non-responsive and obvious point that an adoption also involved a loss at the other end of the adoptive pipeline — the birth parents. Well, duh. That doesn’t explain why her kid’s hypothetical act of heroism wouldn’t take him or her out of the disappointment category. Based on her worldview, I’d suggest that the intractable problem is that the adoptive kid — who might, after all, not have the same cognitive ability as a mini-Wax — wasn’t as good as a bio offspring would have been. (Adoption, she said, was “second best.”) “I stand by what I said,” she offered, without further elaboration.
Wax also decried the constitutionalization of the marriage issue, stated that sexual orientation classifications were no different from discriminations based on looks or intelligence, and accused the other side of being interested only in rights and not in the normative meaning of marriage. Oh, and she also said that “gays hate the polygamy analogy,” a comparison she finds persuasive.
I have neither time nor stomach for addressing these latter points here, but may do so in a subsequent post.
For now, let me end with this: Like Maggie Gallagher, Wax ends up doing marriage equality a favor. Sitting next to me during the jaw-dropping presentation was an attorney who told me that, because of her Catholicism, she was “struggling” with the idea that same-sex couples might be allowed to marry. (She was unequivocally in favor of civil unions.) She was there to listen and to learn. But as she listened to Wax’s uncharitable presentation, she became increasingly agitated. The part about adopted kids really offended her.
Yesterday, this thoughtful and undecided woman — and, I’d guess, many others in the audience — moved a step closer toward the pro-equality camp. The bigotry she was hearing had made her realize the need to protect and strengthen GLBT families — families that exhibit the very humanity that Wax denigrates.
- This is the correct title. I had originally misnamed the book “Rights, Wrongs, and Remedies”. Professor Wax called the error to my attention and was very gracious in doing so. ↩