The briefs filed in Hollingsworth v. Perry, the Supreme Court case on California’s Proposition 8, reveal something odd. Much of the debate over same-sex marriage has been a fight over metaphors.

Can a same-sex couple mean the same thing as a man and a woman, even if the body parts are not identical? Can domestic partnerships mean “separate but equal” and embody a new Plessy v. Ferguson? Is Proposition 8 analogous to “separate but equal”? Is gay the new black? Is California of 2008 a metonym for Virginia in the Loving case? Are gay couples the same thing as infertile straight couples? Is homophobia like Jim Crow?

Humbug. Since California has domestic partnerships with all the same legal benefits as marriage for same-sex couples, the material difference to be gained by overturning Proposition 8 is nowhere near as lucrative as the symbolism of doing so.

Symbols are definitely meaningful, which is why I do not discount the LGBT lobby’s desire for the word “marriage.” Though they could settle for a “civil union” or “domestic partnership,” prestige and validation attend the word “marriage.” Even if unquantifiable, the fact that marriage is culturally understood as something prestigious and validating makes it worth fighting for. I get it.

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Yet a thorny contradiction remains unresolved. I must explain it before doing some necessary critiques of the black-as-gay metaphor, which is the basis for invoking the Fourteenth Amendment in defense of same-sex marriage.

Children Don’t Get a Choice

To make such a stink about the difference between “marriage” and “civil unions,” same-sex marriage enthusiasts acknowledge the profound importance of abstract terms. Then they dismiss the profound importance of the abstract terms “father” and “mother” for the children they plan to raise. The asymmetry in how much weight is given to cultural entitlement has led me to call for an international movement to counter the problematic bioethics of the LGBT movement.

We hear that as long as kids have a clean home, love, decent grades, and good scores on sociologists’ “self-esteem” tests, terms like “mother” and “father” ought not to make much difference. This nonchalance about the child’s attachment to cultural figures seems to contradict the attitude that precipitated the whole movement for “marriage,” something not different legally from “civil unions.”

Had gay parenting not been intertwined with the debate about gay marriage—and I am not sure exactly when and how the two issues became code for each other—then the importance of mother and father could be brushed off as irrelevant. Too bad the proponents of same-sex marriage greeted Zach Wahl’s testimony in Iowa with such fanfare; now they cannot back away from the basic fact that their push for marriage does not symbolize but rather is a fight for parental equivalence.

Conferring marriage on same-sex couples means some children will never be able to invoke the words “father” and “mother” in order to describe the household that their parents are now allowed to describe as a “marriage.” In order to grant validation and prestige to mom and mom or dad and dad, the kids lose access to the value of celebrating a maternal and paternal line of ancestry. Come Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, they will not be equal to their peers, due directly to the fact that their same-sex guardians fought so hard to be equal to their peers’ parents.

Same-sex marriage enthusiasts will say that same-sex couples are already raising children, so if I object to such arrangements my objections should extend beyond merely marriage rights. My response: Yes, my objections do extend to any same-sex couple consciously seeking out exclusive custody of an infant or toddler. But I pick my battles.

Asking government to grant “marriage” to same-sex couples is a way of endorsing millions more couples duplicating a domestic arrangement that was controversial and largely undesirable to begin with (as the son of a lesbian, I get to say this: Growing up in a same-sex household is hard enough that nobody should set out with a plan to create such a life, notwithstanding divorce or the death of a parent.)

The stakes for gays and the stakes for children are not good parallels for each other. Gay adults can understand the value of marriage at the time they enter it, whereas children have no clue what it means not to have a father or mother when they are born. The full impact of this lifelong absence may not hit the child, in fact, until far into adulthood.

Children of gay couples do not have a choice about being denied a maternal and paternal line of descent. Some may live well and go to their deathbeds uncritical of the decision made some seventy years earlier by a gay activist to place them in such an unusual family tree. Common sense tells us that many others, however, will feel cheated. Fortune makes it impossible to predict which ones will end up not caring about missing one parent, and which ones will end up scarred by the theft of half their cultural entitlement.

Either way, for an adult to decide what matters to a child on behalf of the child—knowing the child will bear the consequences of such a choice long after the adult is dead and this whole debate is long forgotten—seems like an abuse of power.

Compare the weightiness of the child’s stakes to the levity of what gay activists are fighting for. A same-sex relationship is always a choice, for even if one can’t help having same-sex attractions, one decides with whom to couple and whether to couple at all. Many gays will decide never to settle down with one other person, or if they do, some will decide never to formalize the relationship, and still others will be happy with a civil union. Gays can change their mind, get divorced, and marry the opposite sex. Children of gay couples cannot divorce their parents and go looking for new ones.

There is no contest here. The child comes first. In any ethically grounded discussion, same-sex marriage is dead on arrival.

Same-Sex Marriage Objectifies Children

Why, then, are we still having a debate about same-sex marriage? Why is Hollingsworth even an issue?

The problem is metaphor, which keeps getting in the way. Whatever same-sex marriage is, that’s not what gays are after. They are after a symbolic vehicle that can make them equal to people who can do something they cannot—procreate.

The tenuousness of this equivalence, in fact its near impossibility, makes the fight for same-sex marriage even more metaphorically desperate. Faced with the prospect that nothing a same-sex couple does will ever approximate the uncomplicated triangular bond among child, mother, and father, the activists deflect attention away from the child’s rights toward the rights of gay adults again and again.

As long as the focus is on gays, a wealth of metaphors, especially the notion that gay is the new black, can shield the gay activist from inevitable scrutiny about the effects of his demands on children.

By contrast, when speaking of the child’s interests, metaphorical reasoning is highly dangerous. To what can we compare a child who has been partly engineered—either through surrogacy or insemination, always for some kind of fee—and then placed under the power of same-sex parents who deemed their quest for validation more considerable than the possibility that the child might be less than happy missing a father or mother?

To what can we compare a child trafficked from a third world orphanage to America by a couple that knew that the child’s birth culture frowns upon gay relationships? To what can we compare a child who’s been told either that “mother” is double and “father” is nil, or that “father” is double and “mother” is nil? To what do we compare a child who must know, forever, that his mother was treated like a leased oven or that his father was a stranger in a sperm clinic who masturbated into a glass jar for $750?

Is the child like someone in a cafeteria given two spoons and no fork, then told to eat lunch? Is the child’s situation a metonym for progress, social change, luck?

Or is the child comparable to things less flattering to the same-sex couple: a trophy, a tool, a piece of property, a doll, a cosmetic enhancement, an Erlenmeyer flask for someone’s sophomoric chemistry experiment, an opiate to help them forget that they had to contrive such a home instead of conceiving it the way heterosexuals do? Is the child powerless chattel to be bought and sold?

Such metaphorical reasoning is threatening to the proponent of same-sex marriage, since it strikes at precisely what is so incorrigibly wrong with the case for marriage “equality”: for same-sex couples to be equal to straight ones, their children must be objectified.

The solution, for same-sex marriage advocates, is to draw distracting parallels with race. It is a testament to the failures of marriage defenders, however, that few people involved in the debate have made good on the same-sex marriage advocates’ desire to shift the metaphors toward racial history.

Why Gay-Race Parallels Backfire

Given that the entire basis for overturning Proposition 8 depends on invoking a constitutional amendment designed to protect freed black slaves, racial parallels can only help the cause of people who oppose redefining marriage. From virtually all angles, the modern-day equivalent of uprooted blacks reduced to chattel and severed from their own flesh and blood is not anyone in a same-sex couple, but rather, any child forced to be raised by such a couple!

Literature is useful here. Read Phillis Wheatley’s “On Being Brought from Africa to America.”

She was removed from her birthplace, Senegambia, and brought to New England to live under the ownership of John Wheatley. The Wheatleys were fond of her and taught her Latin and English. She wrote a set of poems called Poems on Various Subjects, and published them at around the same age Zach Wahls was when he testified that growing up with two moms was great. “On Being Brought from Africa to America” is the most anthologized and most agonizingly controversial poem in that historic poetry collection. Here it is below:

‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with a scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin’d and join th’angelic train.

She thanks whoever took her as a little girl from her birthplace to New England. She thanks the people who enslaved her. It was all good in the end, right? After all, she learned Latin, met Voltaire and Benjamin Franklin, and lived better—even if she died young—than she would have in Africa. Buying it? Of course not. Our basic skeptical faculties can tell us that whatever gratitude Wheatley expressed above was compromised.

Had she not praised her masters, she never would have gotten published and certainly never would have been freed. Even if she did feel grateful, she had been a commodity bought and sold for the gratification of a family that thought they were doing her a favor by using her as a tool. Her poem could hardly be taken as the universal approval of trading human chattel.

Can we trust the testimony of a teenager testifying in court in front of his lesbian moms? Is our skepticism that atrophied? Are we that blind to common sense? Can we take seriously a letter written by a little girl to the president about her gay dads? And what of all those “studies” conducted by researchers who interviewed same-sex couples and their children, with all involved knowing exactly the implications of all their answers? Even if all these people really, truly feel happy about the fact that they are missing a parent of one sex and their very existence came about because of buying and selling human life, the metaphors of our country’s haunted racial past demand that we be skeptical.

Metaphors are naturally available devices for people who need to sort through difficult moral issues. If we are going to engage in them, however, we must engage intelligently. If we are to go to racial metaphors, let’s go there, but what we find buried in America’s collective memory won’t be all that useful for same-sex marriage advocates.