John Corvino discusses ‘real children’ in new book

In a new book, Debating Same-Sex Marriage, philosopher and prominent gay advocate John Corvino works to make the case for the freedom to marry while Maggie Gallagher, co-founder of the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage, attempts to explain her opposition. The point/counterpoint approach to the book helps readers explore what marriage is for, why the government sanctions it, and how marriage for same-sex couples affects children's welfare, religious communities, and our societal understanding of why marriage matters. 

Earlier this week, we shared an excerpt with you from Corvino's sections of the book about what marriage really is. Here's another excerpt from the book, one that focuses specifically on why marriage matters for children in the United States.

My partner Mark and I neither have nor plan to have children. Although we have a large circle of friends, we have no close gay friends with children, except for some whose children are grown or nearly so. Our lack of experience with gay parents probably stems from the fact that people with kids tend to hang around other people with kids, with whom they share common interests (such as sofas that don’t show jam stains). The only children routinely in our lives are our infant nieces, whom we thoroughly adore—although not to the point of wanting babies of our own.

So my direct experience of gay couples with children has mostly been through acquaintances. Among these are Dennis and Tom, who live on a farm just outside Ann Arbor, about forty-five minutes from where I live in Detroit. While working on this book, I visited them. I share their story in order to put a face on an issue that too often gets discussed only in abstractions, with vague assertions about an unspecified threat to unidentified children.

Dennis and Tom have four adopted sons: Josh, 14; Joey, 11; Paul, 11; and Raul, 9, who is Joey’s half-brother. A fifth boy — Zack, 9 — is a foster son, and they are hoping to adopt him as well. They live in a Victorian farmhouse on five acres, with chickens, pigs, goats, a bird, a turtle, some fish, a dog named Scout, and a cat named Milkshake. I met Tom some years ago when we both served on the selection committee for a local gay and lesbian film festival. The family came back on my radar when the local LGBT newspaper profiled them around the time of Michigan’s 2004 marriage amendment, which prohibits same-sex marriage “or similar union[s] for any purpose.” In order to devote more attention to the boys, Tom — a high-school math teacher — had decided to work only part-time, and he was getting his health- insurance benefits through Dennis, a university communications professor. The amendment’s wording threatened those benefits, potentially forcing Tom to choose between having affordable health insurance and spending days with his boys.

As we sit in the large screened porch behind their house, I ask Dennis about this problem. “Yes, it’s unfair, but the main problem isn’t the benefits,” he explains. “It’s the lack of protections for the boys.” Because Michigan forbids same-sex couples from marrying, and because it doesn’t have a clear policy on second-parent adoption by unmarried partners, typically only one partner in a gay couple can be the adoptive parent. Let’s suppose that parent is Dennis. If Dennis were to die, Tom — the man these boys know as “Papa” — might lose the children: It all depends on whether they find a sympathetic judge. Even while they’re both living, there are challenges related to hospital visitation, family leave, school access, and so on. And there’s also the more general sense of permanence that marriage helps provide, and that this family is denied.

Dennis has always wanted children. Tom needed some convincing, but now he’s hooked. I can see why. The boys, who greet me at various points during my tour of the property, are charming. As Dennis and I chat, two of them come running in. “Dad, can I use my allowance to buy a movie on demand?” one asks. Before he finishes his sentence, the other interrupts, “Dad, can I buy something on eBay?” They both give me a curious glance. Dennis specializes in family communication, and he speaks with the calm, assured demeanor one might associate with a family therapist. “Okay, but can we talk about that later?” he responds patiently. “We have a guest right now.” “Oh, okay!” they shout in unison, running off.

A rooster crows nearby, and I’m reminded that this is a real farm. It’s a nice setting for raising children—downtown Ann Arbor is only fifteen minutes away—and the boys strike me as happy and well-adjusted. Given what I know of Tom and Dennis, this doesn’t surprise me, although I’m also aware that these children, like many adopted by same-sex couples, were difficult to place. One has a seizure disorder and cognitive disabilities. One is hearing-disabled. Two have ADHD. Two have been sexually abused or have witnessed sexual abuse by their “natural” (biological) fathers. At least three have had parents who have been incarcerated. One wasn’t speaking when Tom and Dennis first met him. He was 5 at the time. Dennis’s professional training is doubtless a strong asset here.

Zack, the foster child the couple is trying to adopt, is in his sixth placement. Two previous families had told him that they would adopt him, but didn’t. Needless to say, he has serious “trust issues.”

I ask Dennis whether the kids expressed any concern about living in a same-sex household. He smiles. “No. Their concerns were much more practical. Like, ‘What kind of video-game system do they have?’ Or, ‘Do they have a dog?’ Only recently have they come to realize that this is at all controversial.” Last year the family participated in an episode of Thirty Days, Morgan Spurlock’s reality series where participants spend a month in an unfamiliar setting in order to explore cultural divides. The family hosted a conservative Mormon mother who vocally opposed homosexuality. While she acknowledged that Tom and Dennis are loving parents, she was resolute in her conviction that such adoptions should be forbidden. Her cited reason was God’s law.

The porch door swings open again, and another boy appears. This one seems more hesitant and shy. “Dad, what are you doing?” he asks quietly. “I’m having an interview with my friend John,” Dennis answers. “He’s asking about our family. Why don’t you go get your brothers so he can talk to you guys too?” As the boy runs off, Dennis and I continue our conversation. Tom, meanwhile, is preparing dinner in the kitchen, and he sends us a delicious tray of fried vegetables. The vegetables are from their garden, and Dennis warns me that some of the peppers are quite hot. “The boys like to play a version of ‘Russian Roulette’ with them, mixing one hot pepper with a bunch of mild ones and then daring their friends to taste them,” he informs me with a chuckle.

“Do you ever worry about the absence of a mother?” I ask pointedly. Dennis pauses. “It depends on what you mean by ‘mother.’ When I think ‘mother,’ I think of things like nurturing, caring, unconditional love. The boys have all of that. And they certainly have female influences in their lives. One of their biological mothers visits regularly. They also have grandmothers, aunts, and the women who dote on them at church.” (Tom and Dennis are active in the United Church of Christ.)

I wince when I learn that one of the boys ended up in foster care because his mother was selling his ADHD meds to support her drug habit. Dennis continues, “We may not be ‘mothers’ in the technical sense, but we’re certainly giving them a loving, safe home, which they desperately needed.”

The boys return, and I become slightly uneasy. I’m not accustomed to being around children, and I’m certainly not used to interviewing them about their personal lives. Dennis, a communication expert, senses my discomfort. “Guys, John was just asking about what it’s like living here without a mom.” Several of them shrug: “It’s fine.” I realize that their point of comparison is rather different from mine: group homes or foster care, not a stable mother-father environment from birth. I’m reminded, again: Same-sex marriage never takes children away from competent biological parents who want them.

One of the boys pipes up, “Sometimes kids at school ask if my mom died. She’s not dead!” The other boys laugh: “We saw her last month!”

I decide I should ask them something directly. “What would it be like if your Dad and Papa could get married?” I offer. At first, more shrugs. Then, after some prompting from Dennis, they start opening up. Before I know it, they’re all talking at once, interrupting and elbowing and teasing each other the way brothers do: “It would be fun...I would wear a tuxedo...You would wear a wedding dress! [giggling]...I would not! You be quiet! . . . No, you be quiet! . . . He would be the flower boy! [more giggling]...There is no flower boy, silly...”

Two things strike me as I hear this cacophony. One is that, same-sex parents or not, boys will be boys. The other is that, in kids’ minds, it’s hard to separate “marriage” from “wedding.” Josh, Joey, Paul, Raul, and Zack don’t understand legal reality, and their personal reality already looks to them like “family”— because that’s what it is. I can only hope that they never experience the devastating problems that often arise when the legal and personal realities don’t align.

It’s not just the absence of legal protections that concerns me, however. It’s also the less tangible—but undeniable—social support, stability, and security that marriage brings. And it’s the message that we’re sending them, and society at large, when we deny it to their “Dad” and “Papa”: this family isn’t worthy.

There are some who will dismiss this case as anecdotal, or as a fallacious appeal to emotion. It is true that not all same-sex households look like that of Tom and Dennis: a family-communication professor and a high-school math teacher raising adopted special-needs children on an idyllic farm near Ann Arbor. But it’s equally true that not all different-sex households look like the “ideal” family that traditionalists invoke when they insist that “children need their own biological mother and father”—a point that is painfully underscored by these kids’ family histories.

In any case, allowing gays to marry will not take children away from such “ideal” families. This is where the rubber meets the road in the marriage debate: same-sex marriage does not take children away from competent biological mothers and fathers who want them, but its absence denies the security of marriage to real children—children like Josh, Joey, Raul, Paul, and Zack. 

John Corvino is the Chair of the Philosophy Department at Wayne State University in Detroit, MI. He is a well-known speaker on LGBT issues, often referred to as "The Gay Moralist." His book Debating Same-Sex Marriage just went on sale on June 1.