Thursday 13 December 2018

It's not a debate if one side can't speak

Opponents of same-sex marriage don't come from another planet. They just have a different view

Illustration by Tom Halliday
Illustration by Tom Halliday

Eilis O'Hanlon

Before the 2008 US Presidential election, stand-up Chris Rock joked that the only way to get Barack Obama elected was to kill rapper Flava Flav. For the first time, a black man had the chance to reach the White House. They couldn't risk Flava running round, confirming all Middle America's worst fears about African-Americans.

A similar thought must have occurred to a few Irish people lately as they watched Celebrity Big Brother, where melodramatic blogger Perez Hilton seems to have embarked on a solo mission to undo all the good work gay men have put in for years. This man is actually bringing up a child. How scary is that? There's a referendum on same-sex marriage (SSM) coming up in a few months. Obviously we don't wish harm on the man, but if someone could just lock him up somewhere nice until it's all over, it would certainly help.

Because if the referendum is to be defeated on any point, this is the one on which it could flounder. Not marriage, as such. The arguments against that don't stand up, unless you view marriage as a religious sacrament belonging to God. If it belongs to us, then we can redefine it as often as we like. Marriage is simply a contract underwritten by the State. It makes no more sense to have that contract arbitrarily dependent on someone's sexuality than it would to give mortgages only to people who can speak Esperanto.

The frailty of the pro-SSM campaign lies rather in worries among some that, once the Constitution is changed, there'll no longer be a distinction in law, particularly adoption law, between male/male, female/female and male/female partnerships, which goes against their belief that children are best brought up by a mother and father.

Regardless of whether they're right or wrong, that seems a reasonable enough concern. The problem is that it's well nigh impossible to have a debate about it, because too many on one side are now afraid to say what they really think.

Talk to many TDs and they will admit private doubts about automatic gay adoption rights, but they won't say so publicly because they fear being swept away by a tsunami of liberal outrage. It's not worth the abuse.

Social workers and those in the family court service, likewise, have learned that it's wise to keep their doubts to themselves so as not to attract the disapproval of colleagues who've decided the traditional family unit isn't worth saving.

Somewhere along the line it was decreed that, not only is it homophobic to admit having doubts about SSM, it's homophobic to even suggest that those who do have doubts should have the right to express them.

What lies behind this shift is an ideological desire to do away with the concept of mothers and fathers, replacing it instead with the catch-all term "parent", despite the fact that most people's lived experience leads them to the conclusion that men and women do indeed play different, unique, complementary roles within the family.

That doesn't mean every child can have a mother and father, or that gay parents, of which there are plenty, don't do a great job; or even that gay parents should be disbarred from adoption, because that would make no sense either. Adoptions should be decided on the merits of each individual case. Sometimes it means preferring this gay couple over that heterosexual couple. Anyone willing to offer a home to children should be encouraged to put themselves forward.

But when did it become so awful to even hold the belief that a child is, ideally, better off with both a mother and father? Again, that's not to say children have a "right" to a mum and dad, because that's not a right that can be enforced, as proven by the fact that many children are being brought up already in households that are far from ideal. But as a rule, one mother plus one father under one roof has proven itself as a fruitful model for bringing up kids, hasn't it?

Many campaigners insist not, pointing to research such as that by the American Psychological Association, which concluded: "Not a single study has found children of lesbian or gay parents to be disadvantaged in any significant respect relative to children of heterosexual parents." There are even studies showing same-sex parenting to be better for children.

Which is great. Or would be, if it wasn't that much of this research isn't worth the paper on which it's written.

The journal Social Science Research published a rebuttal to the aforementioned paper, looking in detail at the 59 studies cited and found that they didn't justify the conclusions drawn from them. Half the studies had no heterosexual comparison group. The comparison group in many others was made up of single mothers. Examination of other studies also found that many did not use random sampling, but selected particular families from within the gay community. The best ones, naturally.

There's also an over-concentration on lesbian couples as opposed to male/male couples within these studies. As a result, the dynamics of all-male parenting remain largely mysterious, because there are less families of that type to study, and they've been around a shorter period of time. Male/male parenting may in time turn out to be the best of all methods; and one Israeli study did find that emotional triggers towards a child are activated more strongly in gay than straight fathers. But the truth is that we just don't know enough to make definitive pronouncements.

There is also the ever-present risk of confirmation bias, the tendency to search for evidence which backs up one's own opinions. Many of the studies cited in support of same-sex parenting are conducted by gay researchers with funding from gay organisations. Nothing wrong with that. But if a Christian group paid a conservative researcher to conduct a study into gay parenting, be honest, what would be said? That's exactly what did happen recently in Texas. Guess what the research concluded?

This skewing of evidence towards a desired conclusion is particularly common in the "social sciences", where the word "science" has only a tenuous link to its normal meaning. Research is rarely value-free in a field where an overwhelming majority share the same cultural outlook, especially one as potent as the notion that gender differences are merely social constructs.

To clarify: none of this is a reason in itself to oppose SSM. The two issues need, as far as possible, to be kept separate. But to box these subjects off even from discussion is crazy.

Unfortunately, referendums increasingly look less like opportunities to unpick certain ideas, and more like grand stages for throwing shapes and making the right noises. It's not about finding the truth, but about identifying oneself as a member of an enlightened elite in order to bask in the glow of the favoured group's approval. Does everything have to be reduced to a case of kindly metropolitan liberals versus nasty Catholic conservatives? Most people move around on the liberal/conservative spectrum more fluidly than that. They can't be pinned down so crudely.

Sensationalist sloganeering by people who'd have us believe SSM is the biggest civil rights struggle of our generation - despite the fact gay couples in civil partnerships already have more rights than cohabiting straight couples - risks losing the referendum through triumphalist complacency. No one likes an arrogant frontrunner.

Even the fact that the Government is calling it a vote for "marriage equality" feels like a clumsy attempt to prejudge the outcome. Who could possibly be against "equality", after all?

Only a compulsive gambler would gift his opponents such an easy opportunity to paint themselves as martyrs to political correctness by shouting them down as they express their honestly held disquiet about what redefining marriage means for children. It's a debate, not a Two Minutes Hate.

Sunday Independent

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