BY KATIE MAPES
Gallagher, who writes a syndicated column, is the co-author of The Case for Marriage: Why Married People are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially and an outspoken opponent of same-sex marriage. Silbaugh, a Boston University professor specializing in family and employment law, worked with the plaintiffs in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, in which the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriages must be recognized under the state constitution.
Silbaugh began her ten minute opening statement with a description of a celebratory party she attended the evening the Goodridge decision was handed down, one attended largely by same-sex couples. The room, she recounted, was filled with more emotion than any that she had ever been in. Throughout the debate, she went back to this event, reminding the audience that same-sex marriage is not an abstract, “bloodless” issue, but instead one of tremendous practical and symbolic importance to its proponents.
Silbaugh further questioned the efficacy of banning same-sex marriage, noting that current census data shows that there are gay and lesbian couples in every “city and town” in the state. Banning same-sex marriage will disadvantage those couples, she said, but “is not going to change people’s orientation.” Similarly, she stated, “straight people do not become gay because same-sex marriage is available. They don’t.”
For her part, Gallagher focused her argument not on homosexuality or the gay rights movement in general, but on the nature of marriage as an institution designed to “tie children to their fathers” and to create and raise the next generation. By legalizing same-sex marriage, she argued, we are inherently divorcing marriage from that meaning. Further, she argued, we are stigmatizing proponents of that “traditional” viewpoint as “bigots.”
Gallagher began her opening statement by asking those audience members who supported, and then those who opposed, same-sex marriage to raise their hands. A substantial majority of the crowd chose the former option, and she later urged that audience to recognize that support of gay marriage was equivalent to advocating a major ideological shift in societal conceptions of marriage. Further, she expounded, advocates of gay marriage should recognize that the opposition “is not merely rooted in animus or fear” but instead has concrete concerns.
The two debaters clashed on several specific points. While Silbaugh argued that bans on gay marriage are per se discriminatory, Gallagher asserted that it is “not discrimination to treat different things differently.” Similarly, Gallagher described marriage as an institution historically regulated out of concern for children and their families. Silbaugh countered that marriage law has not been primarily, or even notably, about procreation for at least 200 years.
Both participants agreed that the same-sex marriage debate is largely symbolic; that is, that while the benefits awarded to married couples by the state are very important, they are not ultimately the central issue at play.
After both candidates had spoken, and given a five minute rebuttal, the floor was opened up to questions from the audience. The first questioner, who mentioned that his own marriage – to a man – was coming up in a few weeks, asked Gallagher whether she assumed that same-sex marriage would confer the same financial, emotional, and health-related benefits on the married parties as she believes straight marriage does. Gallagher responded that evidence on that point is currently lacking, but that it probably would. Still, she said, if she is correct and marriage as we know it is essential to perpetuating a healthy society through the next generation, gay and lesbian people need marriage to be a strong institution as much as straight people do, and their welfare would be equally compromised were marriage as an institution to be undermined.
Another questioner asked the panelists if they believed gay marriage would open the door to other institutions, such as polygamy. Silbaugh responded that gains made by the gay rights movement have been incremental over a period of many years – marriage is only the latest development. That type of movement, she believes, is almost entirely lacking in regards to polygamy.
At the close of the debate, panelist Bob Bordone thanked the participants and congratulated them on remaining civil throughout. Alluding to his role in the Harvard Mediation Program, he recounted that he asked the debate’s organizers “Do you want me to moderate this or mediate it?” He continued, “I was very pleased I didn’t have to mediate it.”