How The Arguments Against Marriage Equality Have Shifted Over 40 Years

Frank Kameny questions Elaine Noble during the 1974 “The Advocates” marriage equality debate. CREDIT: WGBH/SCREENSHOT
Frank Kameny questions Elaine Noble during the 1974 “The Advocates” marriage equality debate. CREDIT: WGBH/SCREENSHOT

In 1974, the public television program The Advocates held a debate on the question, “Should Marriage Between Homosexuals Be Permitted?” featuring gay activist Frank Kameny arguing in the affirmative and civil rights attorney Tobias Simon opposing. Thanks to WGBH in Boston, that debate can be watched today, and it provides some interesting context as to how some arguments around the question of marriage equality have changed while others have very much stayed the same.

Though it was a very different time, the arguments in favor of marriage equality sounded pretty similar to those advanced today: same-sex couples and their families benefit economically and culturally from the security of marriage, and denying them the same privileges other families is discrimination. What is telling from this debate is how opponents of marriage equality have shifted their tone on some arguments while abandoning other arguments entirely over the past 40 years, conceding ground as society became better informed and more accepting of gay, lesbian, and bisexual families.

When this was recorded, over 40 of the states still had laws on books criminalizing gay sex. Only five years had passed since the Stonewall riots, and the highly visible San Francisco activist Harvey Milk hadn’t been elected yet. It was only the year before when the American Psychiatric Association (APA) had declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder. Nobody had yet heard of HIV or AIDS.

At no point in this particular debate were religious beliefs used to justify banning same-sex couples from marrying. In fact, the opponents even expressed support for legalizing consensual gay sex, although Charles Socarides, one of the fathers of ex-gay therapy and a witness for the opposition, still expressed moral concerns about homosexuality. The live University of California, Irvine audience seemed biased toward Kameny’s team and gay rights, but it’s clear from the opponents’ candid responses that condemning gay people was much more socially acceptable at the time. Modern-day arguments that emphasize “religious liberty” and downplay the lives of same-sex couples differ greatly in this regard.


Similar to today, however, opponents were largely concerned about procreation. Their general argument seemed to be that because same-sex couples cannot naturally procreate, they should not be granted the legal benefits of marriage. Far fewer same-sex couples were raising children at the time, so conversations about adoption, egg donors, and artificial insemination did not come up, but they didn’t have to. As Kameny repeatedly pointed out, the opponents were suggesting that the fate of humanity was at stake, as if allowing same-sex couples to marry would somehow inhibit different-sex couples from continuing to procreate, a claim they could not substantiate.

Here’s a look at some of the issues that came up during the debate that mirror conversations about marriage equality today.

The “Advantages” Of Same-Sex Couples Marrying

One of Kameny’s witnesses was Emerson College Professor Elaine Noble, who was a member of The Daughters of Bilitis, a lesbian rights advocacy group. She explained to Kameny that there are financial benefits to marrying, such as filing taxes jointly and receiving Social Security benefits. But, there are also personal advantages to recognizing same-sex unions.

Noble pointed out that among heterosexual couples, “the whole concept of marriage seems to strengthen the relationship and maintain the relationship during these periods of stress and anxiety,” benefits that would extend to same-sex couples in the same way. More importantly, she said, legal protections would allow couples to come out and “participate in the community in a very full and complete way” without fear of retribution. Though opponents suggested that marriage is about providing a “bounty” to support child-rearing, they did not address the other benefits of marriage to couples during the debate.

Same-Sex Relationships Are “Notoriously Unstable”

The stereotype that gays and lesbians have multiple partners and are incapable of monogamy was one of the major contexts for the debate. According to Socarides, homosexuality is not even an identity, but a compulsion that results from poor parenting and trauma. “Most homosexuals must seek, and strive, and look for numerous partners,” he asserted, “in order to try and find themselves, the replicas of themselves.” Socarides explained that his patients — a group Kameny pointed out is wholly non-representative because of their choice to seek self-shaming therapy from him — “must find many, many, objects who can fill them up with a kind of identity, and this means they must go from person to person to find this particular fulfillment.”


Noble refuted this assumption in her remarks: “Given the fact that I think the current heterosexual divorce rate is up to 40 percent, I think maybe the stereotype is perhaps misplaced.” In contrast, she offered, she knew many same-sex couples who’d been together “ten or twenty years without societal sanctions.” When Simon pressed such stereotypes during his cross-examination, Noble countered that none of his claims were unique to same-sex couples. He attempted to joke with Noble, asking her that if she was so happy with her romance, “Aren’t you a little bit afraid of taking a chance on ruining it by getting married?” The joke backfired when she retorted, “Are you speaking for me or for yourself, Sir?”

This same argument, that same-sex couples do not have “stable and enduring family units,” has been used as recently as the past month. According to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi (R), banning same-sex couples from marrying is important because they make inferior parents for this very reason.

How To Define “Marriage”

The same debate about how to define the word “marriage” — or “redefine,” as opponents frame it — was playing out 40 years ago. Simon, opposing equality, expressed his belief that “marriage is designed primarily for the heterosexual couple and is inappropriate for the homosexual couple.” In pointed questions about whether a same-sex marriage would include an “identifiable head of the family,” a name change, a “responsibility of fidelity throughout their entire lifetime,” and the possibility of divorce, he identified a number of gendered assumptions about marriage. Noble, who was also working with the National Organization for Women to fight for women’s rights, offered that she believed that marriage is simply a “very loving, supporting, and nurturing relationship” and challenged Simon that his assumptions about what defined a marriage were “dated.”

Dr. Richard Green, a psychiatrist and sexologist at the University of California, Los Angeles who had advocated forcefully for the APA to declassify homosexuality as a mental illness, offered a similar definition. Marriage, he said, is “the greatest single event and the greatest single signal that we have as adults” regarding “our ability to share with another human being, to commit ourselves to an enduring, loving relationship.”

Simon’s definition of marriage is one still used widely by opponents of marriage equality. What is unique to a heterosexual family, he explained, is that it “produces and conditions the children that preserve and propagate the race.” At another point in the debate, he had suggested that same-sex couples might raise children to be gay themselves. His other witness, Professor Robin Smith of Occidental College, confirmed that this was the intended line of thinking, contending that sexual behavior “has to be learned,” and that parents train their children about “what sexual objects to choose.” Under cross-examination from Kameny, Smith revealed his logic for this claim: “It seems to me that statistically more heterosexuals than homosexuals come from heterosexual families. That’s as good a reason as what you’ve just suggested for saying that more homosexuals than heterosexuals will come from homosexual families.”


ThinkProgress reached out to Smith, the only surviving opponent from the debate. He believes that the arguments he presented then were “transparently bad” and he has long since repudiated them entirely. He pointed out that if his arguments from the debate were followed to their logical conclusion, only couples who raise children would be allowed to marry; thus, same-sex couples who do raise children would be allowed to marry and different-sex couples who choose not to would not be allowed to marry. He deeply regrets his appearance in the debate, and it has been his view for some time that same-sex couples should have equal access to the right of marriage.

Nowadays, opponents have adopted new variations on the procreation argument, arguing that marriage should be reserved for heterosexual couples because only they can accidentally become pregnant, because marriage “reinforces procreative potential,” and because different-sex couples are uniquely “complementary.”

The Slippery Slope To Incest And Group Marriage

The Heritage Foundation’s Ryan T. Anderson frequently argues that marriage equality will lead to other structures of marriage, including polyamory and “throuples.” Simon made these same kinds of arguments 40 years ago, asking whether same-sex marriage would least to incest or group marriage.

Green explained that while there was some research being done on group marriages and other atypical structures, the data were still lacking. On the other hand, “We know an awful lot about marital styles, we know an awful lot about one-to-one personal relationships,” and “we know enough about homosexuals to say yes, they ought to be able to marry.” Making a comparison to incest was like “mixing apples and pears,” he offered, particularly because incest can be problematic for reasons of sexual victimization that have “nothing to do with a marital issue.”

Where Are They Now?

Several of the participants in this debate went on to play considerable roles in LGBT history.

Frank Kameny had already been a pioneer of the modern-day gay rights movement through his work with the Mattachine Society in the early 1960s. In 1971, he ran as the first openly gay candidate for Congress. He continued to advocate for equality until his death in October, 2011.

The same year as the debate, Noble was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives, where she served two terms, making her the first openly gay or lesbian candidate elected to a state legislature. (Harvey Milk’s election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors came a few years later.) The campaign was ugly; she experienced “a lot of shooting through my windows, destroying my car, breaking windows at my campaign headquarters, [and] serious harassment of people visiting my house and campaign office.” She is now retired and living in Florida.

After successfully ending the classification of homosexuality as a mental disorder, Dr. Richard Green went on to do substantial research on gender identity, particularly transgender identities in parents and in children. In 2007, Green told a reporter for The Atlantic, “I suspect that at least in your lifetime we will find a gene that contributes substantially to sexual orientation.”

Charles Socarides helped found the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), a professional organization for ex-gay therapists still in operation today. He blamed the declassification of homosexuality as a mental disorder for the AIDS epidemic, and continued to believe that homosexuality was caused by a controlling mother and a distant father. He promoted and offered ex-gay therapy until his death in 2005. His son, Richard Socarides, is openly gay, served as an adviser to President Clinton, and continues to advocate for LGBT equality.

Tobias Simon died of cancer in 1982. Florida’s highest award for statewide pro bono legal work bears his name.

Robin Smith is professor emeritus of philosophy at Texas A&M; University, where he served on the faculty from 1994–2007. Smith told ThinkProgress that he “deeply regrets” having participated in this debate, and that he has long since believed that same-sex couples should have equal access to marriage.

Watch the full 1974 debate here.