First appeared September 10, 1994, in the New York Times.
AS CONSERVATIVES GEAR UP for the fall elections, many are pinning their hopes on attacking gay rights. Self-styled "pro-family" groups, seeking to build on the success of five local and state anti-gay initiatives in 1993, have been working to get similar measures on the November ballots in several states.
These organizations are correct in saying that America faces some real social problems, and that many can be attributed to the deterioration of families. What is upsetting, however, is the extent to which they focus on gay issues almost to the exclusion of the real problems.
Children need two parents, for financial and emotional reasons. Children in fatherless homes are five times as likely to be poor as those in two-parent families. Single mothers also find it difficult to control teenage boys, and such boys have made our inner cities a crime-ridden nightmare. Conservatives have taken note of this problem, and many of them have correctly indicted the welfare state. But with a few exceptions - notably Dan Quayle - they seldom put a high enough priority on condemning single parenthood.
And they pay almost no attention to the effects of divorce; every year more children experience divorce or separation than are born out of wedlock. These children are nearly twice as likely as those from intact families to drop out of high school or to receive psychological help.
Conservatives overlook this because they are too busy attacking gay men and lesbians. Consider the leading conservative journals. The American Spectator has run ten articles on homosexuality in the past three years, compared with two on parenthood, one on teen-age pregnancy, and none on divorce. National Review has printed thirty-two articles on homosexuality, five on fatherhood and parenting, three on teenage pregnancy, and just one on divorce.
The Family Research Council, the leading "family values" group, is similarly obsessed. In the most recent index of its publications, the two categories with the most listings are "Homosexual" and "Homosexuals in the Military" - a total of thirty-four items (plus four on AIDS). The organization has shown some interest in parenthood - nine items on family structure, thirteen on fatherhood, and six on teen pregnancy - yet there are more items on homosexuality than on all of those issues combined. There was no listing for divorce. (Would it be unfair to point out that there are two items on "Parents' Rights" and none on "Parents' Responsibilities"?)
As for the Christian Coalition, despite Executive Director Ralph Reed's vow not to "concentrate disproportionately on abortion and homosexuality," its current Religious Rights Watch newsletter contains six items, three of them on gay issues. The July issue of the American Family Association's newsletter, Christians & Society Today, contains nine articles, five of them on homosexuality.
Cobb County, Ga., a major battleground in the conservatives' culture war, is a microcosm of this distorted focus. In 1993 the county commission passed a resolution declaring "gay lifestyles" incompatible with community standards. Cobb County is a suburb of Atlanta; its residents, eighty-eight percent white, are richer and better educated than the national average. Yet it had a twenty percent illegitimacy rate in 1993, and there were two thirds as many divorces as marriages. Surely the 1,545 unwed mothers and the 2,739 divorcing couples created more social problems in the county than the 300 gay men and women who showed up at a picnic to protest the county commission's assault on their rights.
When teen-age girls wear sexually explicit T-shirts, when teenage boys form gangs to tally their sexual conquests, when eighth graders watch twice as much television as their European counterparts, when ten-year-olds on bicycles dart in front of my car at 1 A.M., when students take guns to class, where are the "family values" conservatives, and why aren't they calling on parents to take their responsibilities more seriously!
Perhaps they fear that making an issue of divorce would alienate middle-class supporters-including divorced conservatives. Perhaps they fear that putting welfare at the top of their agenda would seem racist, or worry that calling for parental responsibility would be a hard sell politically. They may be right, but thats no excuse for ducking crucial family issues. Their scapegoating of gay men and lesbians may get them some votes and contributions, but it's not going to solve any of American families' real problems.