Students sat on the floor, wedged between backpacks and pressed back against the walls. Brightly colored “Support Love” t-shirts were sprinkled liberally throughout the audience in Cushing 001 on Thursday night, as students gathered to hear-and question-Ryan T. Anderson, the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society at the Heritage Foundation.
Titled “A Case Against Gay Marriage,” Anderson’s presentation was arranged by the St. Thomas More Society (STM), a student-run group at Boston College. Rev. Ronald Tacelli, S.J., the group’s faculty advisor and a professor in the philosophy department, introduced Anderson, stating that the event would be more question-and-answer based, as opposed to the panel that had originally been planned. “When I see the size of the crowd, I think it was a better idea,” he said, eliciting laughter.
The large turnout for the talk can be attributed in part to a Facebook event created earlier in the week by BC Students for Sexual Health (BCSSH). The event, formed in opposition to Anderson’s talk after an email about it was sent out to students on the philosophy and theology departments’ listservs, encouraged students to show up wearing Support Love shirts and to participate in the discussion. “This is not the type of programming that fosters an accepting environment for students,” the event description read. “This event is going to have to rely on the audience for any hope of a balancing opinion presence.”
After Tacelli’s introduction, Anderson began by running down a list of things upon which he would not be basing his argument: morality, sexual orientation/homosexuality, religion, tradition. “I think frequently people have an expectation of what they’re going to hear,” he said. “I make a philosophical and policy argument about marriage.”
He then asked a question of the crowd. “From the looks of the t-shirts, this is probably a challenge for most of the audience,” he said. “I want to know what you think marriage is … that’s actually the question that people in favor of redefining marriage refuse to answer. And they refuse to answer that question by hiding behind what I think is a rather sloppy slogan: marriage equality.”
Anderson said that everyone involved in the debate over marriage is ultimately in favor of equality. “We all want the government to treat all real marriages in the same way. The question is, what type of relationship is a marriage?”
According to Anderson, advocating a redefinition of marriage “conflates the marital relationship with companionship writ large.” The increasingly common conceptualization of marriage as an intense emotional relationship with a “number one person,” he said, fails to explain the tradition of American policy and marriage law.
Anderson listed the norms surrounding marriage in the U.S.: monogamy, sexual exclusivity, permanency, the involvement of the government, and the connection with family life. He asserted that each factor is not necessarily a precursor to an intense emotional connection, questioning why all are still widely accepted as martial norms even by those who advocate for marriage reform. After posing this question to the audience, Anderson went on to present a summary of the argument articulated in the book What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, which he co-authored with Robert P. George and Sherif Girgis.
Marriage, he argued, exists as an institution not to legitimize adult relationships, but to ensure the wellbeing of children.
“From the government’s perspective, marriage exists to unite a man and a woman as husband and wife to be mother and father to any children that their union creates,” he said. “It’s based on the truth that men and women are distinct and complementary, that reproduction requires a man and a woman, that children deserve a mother and a father. Part of this is based on the reality that there’s no such thing as parenting-there’s mothering and there’s fathering. Men and women interact with children in distinct and unique ways, and children do best when raised with a mother and a father.”
At this point, Tacelli interrupted to inform the crowd that BCPD had requested that the event be moved to a larger auditorium, McGuinn 121. The audience left Cushing slightly before 8 p.m., and Anderson resumed his point on government interest in marriage less than 10 minutes later.
“The marriage law in American history has traditionally incentivized men and women to commit to each other,” Anderson said. “Marriage is a personal relationship that benefits the public good in a way that very few other personal relationships do. It’s the least restrictive way that a political community has to ensure the wellbeing of children-it’s the least restrictive, least coercive way to ensure that someone raises that child.”
He continued by asserting that the state could incentivize marriage between a man and a woman without criminalizing other relationships. “Another one of the sloppy slogans that I think some used here was talking about legalizing same-sex marriage, or saying that a state voted to ban same-sex marriage, that they voted to criminalize same-sex marriage,” Anderson said. “Nowhere in the 50 states is it illegal for two people of the same sex to live with each other or love each other … One of the primary arguments you’ll hear is that we’re supposed to legalize same-sex marriage. Not having the government recognize your relationship is not the same thing as the government making your relationship illegal, and sloppy language normally reveals sloppy thinking, which normally reveals an error.”
Finally, Anderson ran through possible consequences of redefining marriage. If marriage ceases to mean the union between a man and a woman with the goal of producing children, he said, then the norms against polyamory, short-term marriages, and adultery would break down.
“I think it’s much harder to answer those questions correctly, about monogamy, about permanency, and about sexual exclusivity, once you say the male-female aspect of marriage is irrational and arbitrary,” Anderson said. “The only reason we arrived at monogamy, sexual exclusivity, and permanency was because of the male-female aspect, because it’s precisely one man and one woman can unite in the type of action that creates new life, and every new life has exactly one mother and one father, and deserves to be raised by that mother and that father. That bundle of goods, that group of individuals, is what created the marriage institution in the first place and what got the state in the marriage business.”
Anderson then concluded his talk and commenced nearly an hour of question and answer, with Tacelli moderating.
Nine students asked questions, with many challenging Anderson on various aspects of his argument, to applause from much of the audience. Most questions focused on his central point-that children who were raised by a heterosexual, married couple were better off than those raised by same-sex couples.
“If further studies came out that show these children are fine-they’re healthy, they grow up to be responsible adults and members of society-would you change your mind?” asked one student
Anderson replied that if the studies showed that there was no difference based on family arrangement, then he would not think that government should be in the marriage business. “I don’t think the government should be recognizing consenting adult love if ultimately it doesn’t make a difference one way or another to the common good,” he said. “If the science came back saying, actually, it’s a wash … then yeah, I wouldn’t care what the law or public policy would be about marriage. I would be surprised-and let me say that it wouldn’t change my opinion about what marriage is, that would just be a study of parenting arrangements.”
Brandon Stone, A&S ’14, asked whether, if the end goal was providing the best environment in which to raise children, that would also necessitate defining marriage along economic or class lines.
“The idea here is not that we should only recognize marriages that are socially valuable,” Anderson said. “The idea here is that marriage as an institution is a socially valuable institution, therefore the state tries to promote it. But when the state promotes marriage, it has to promote the truth about marriage. Poor people can get married, right-they can form the reality of that comprehensive unit. So it would be unjust to deny poor people the opportunity if they’re actually capable of forming a marriage.”
Further questions centered around legal rights, such as the transferal of property after death; the specific definitions of “mothering” and “fathering”; and whether a non-child-producing heterosexual relationship could be considered a marriage.
After Tacelli ended the question and answer period, Alex Taratuta, chair of the GLBTQ Leadership Council (GLC) and A&S ’14, stood up to announce that GLC would be hosting an after-event discussion for any students who wanted to keep talking.
“Going into the event, GLC’s main priority was the mental health and safety of the students,” Taratuta said in an email. “This is one of the reasons that we held a post-event discussion afterwards; we wanted people to have some time to digest the conversation before going back to their dorms … I think it went better than I expected. I knew it would be well attended, but the amount of support from the student body for the GLBTQ community on campus and even the community as a whole, exceeded my expectations.”
Mike Villafranca, co-president of STM and A&S ’14, stopped by the GLC discussion to speak with the students there.
“I was concerned going into tonight’s talk because I knew nothing about Mr. Anderson, and I was worried that the student reaction would be visceral and angry,” Villafranca said later in an email. “Instead of that, I was impressed by the way that the students from GLC and BCSSH reacted to what Mr. Anderson said. It was clear that they came with ideas about what they wanted to ask, but that they listened to what he had to say, and they challenged him in terms of what he said rather than what they came expecting to hear. I’m glad that the Q&A stayed on an intellectual level and didn’t descend into emotional outbursts, which it easily and justifiably could have done.”