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From Prop 8 Advocate to Gay Marriage Supporter: In Praise of David Blankenhorn’s Nuanced Evolution

David Blankenhorn—lead witness for Prop. 8—has announced that he is changing position on same-sex marriage. In today’s New York Times, he writes, “for me as a marriage advocate, the time has now come to accept gay marriage and emphasize the good that it can do.” In particular, he wants to work with pro-marriage forces within the gay community to strengthen the institution for everyone.

Blankenhorn’s announcement is not merely a victory for marriage-equality advocates, it is a victory for reason and nuance. In a “culture war” normally devoid of such things, it is important to note what Blankenhorn is saying, and what he’s not saying.

He is endorsing same-sex marriage. He is not, however, giving a full-throated endorsement. For those of us who know him, this lingering ambivalence is unsurprising. In his book The Future of Marriage, hailed by many conservatives as the most thoughtful case against same-sex marriage ever assembled, Blankenhorn explicitly stated that the marriage battle is not a debate of good against evil, but a debate about competing goods. He still sees it that way. But the scale has tipped for him.

What’s changed? Blankenhorn’s overriding concern has always been children’s welfare, and in particular, their right “to know and to be cared for by the two parents who brought them into this world.” That has not changed. Despite what right-wing critics will say, he is not suddenly subordinating children’s welfare to adult interests. Rather, he has come to recognize that opposing same-sex marriage doesn’t help children and in fact hurts them.

It doesn’t help children because same-sex marriage never takes children away from competent biological parents who want them. Opposing it doesn’t make straight men any more inclined to stick around for the babies they create, and it doesn’t make anyone (straight or gay) think more carefully about the grave responsibility of creating new life.

What the stigma against gay marriage does, instead, is to demean same-sex couples. It treats them—and their children—as second-class citizens. And it perpetuates the marginalization of gay and lesbian youth, by telling them that the “happily ever after” to which they aspire is a private affair, not worthy of social approbation. For Blankenhorn, whose paramount concern remains children’s welfare, this latter effect has been especially troubling. As he writes in the piece, “much of the opposition to gay marriage seems to stem at least in part from an underlying anti-gay animus. To me, a Southerner by birth whose formative moral experience was the civil rights movement, this fact is profoundly disturbing.”

I have a personal stake in all this. I’m a gay man, and I’ve recently published a book in which I engage in some sharp criticism of Blankenhorn. I appreciate having him, finally, on both the pro-children and pro-equality side.

But it’s not just as a gay advocate that I found his announcement uplifting: It’s as a philosophy professor who believes—sometimes against considerable odds—in the continuing power of reasoned discourse. The true gift of Blankenhorn’s announcement is not simply to move a NAY into the YEA column (and to nudge some fence-sitters along with him), but to set an example of nuanced thinking. There are, after all, many social issues that involve competing goods, rather than a stark clash of good and evil.

Some on my side of the debate will crow that Blankenhorn has caved from sheer embarrassment, and some on his side—his former side—will accuse him of slouching toward Gomorrah. They’re both wrong. What Blankenhorn has done is to re-calibrate on the basis of evidence. It’s a rare thing. He’ll get a lot of flak for it. I hope he wears it as a badge of honor.

John Corvino is chair of the Philosophy Department at Wayne State University in Detroit. He is the co-author (with Maggie Gallagher) of Debating Same-Sex Marriage, new from Oxford University Press.