The politics of gay parenting science

In public debates on sexuality, conservatives are increasingly and explicitly relying on the popular notion of science as objective, apolitical truth as a means of opposing progress. More and more, the discourse on marriage and parenting is being framed in terms of the “best outcomes” for children. However, this focus on scientific studies does not arise out of sincere devotion to empirical research but instead serves to obscure and confuse the true nature of these debates.

In the on-going Irish debate on marriage equality, conservatives are attempting to defuse accusations of homophobia by appealing to the science of parenting. The argument is that children raised by heterosexual parents have the best outcomes in general and that this claim is supported by the empirical research. In this way, conservatives pretend that homosexuality is merely incidental to the debate. The real concern should be children, and it just so happens that same-sex couples might necessarily be unsuited to child rearing. As this infamous video from the Iona Institute tells us, “it’s not discrimination to treat different situations in different ways”. Anti-gay conservatives like those at Iona cast themselves as citizens seeking to be informed by hard science while LGBT activists are blinded to the welfare of children by emotional sentimentalism. The question of legal equality for same-sex couples is framed as a question of the science of parenting, rather than as a question of exclusion.

Thus far, it seems as though marriage equality supporters have been, in some ways, willing to accept the debate on these terms. Progressives are perhaps comfortable with the framing of the debate in this way because the overwhelming consensus from empirical research is that same-sex couples are perfectly capable of raising well adjusted children. In fact, it could be said that much of the empirical research on gay parents is surprisingly positive. Gays, lesbians and bisexuals face legal discrimination in family law as well as widespread prejudice and yet their children fare as well as, or in some cases perhaps even better than, children raised by heterosexual parents. However, this is a false sense of security. Those opposed to marriage equality have not been dissuaded by this consensus from appealing to science to aid their cause of denying rights to same-sex couples and maintaining the instructive heteronormativity of the status quo marriage law. Studies that find same-sex couples to be capable parents are dismissed with claims of poor methodology and insinuations about political correctness and biased findings. Even when studies cited by anti-gay campaigners are shown to have been misrepresented or fraudulent, they revert to more modest claims about how the research isn’t settled, or extrapolate conclusions about same-sex parents from studies showing good outcomes for heterosexual parents.

Why is it that anti-gay campaigners are content with framing the debate on marriage equality as a question of science even though the scientific consensus in fact contradicts their position? The focus on scientific studies and research obfuscates the political nature of the debate, making it appear as little more than a simple disagreement over competing scientific claims about gay parenting. The reality of the debate on marriage equality is that it fundamentally concerns the historical and present injustice of homophobia. The exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage, a prestigious institution accorded legal benefits and near-universal recognition as a cultural milestone, is an attempt to maintain and continue the institutional exclusion, social ostracisation and invisibility that non-heterosexuals suffer. Anti-gay conservatives are seeking to uphold the legal, cultural and economic supremacy of heterosexual, gender norm-conforming couples and families. The perception of opposition to marriage equality as being an ostensibly political position motivated by homophobia is therefore an accurate one. However, in presenting their opposition as cautious concern for the outcomes of children raised by gay parents, this accurate perception is confused and frustrated. If the debate is merely about competing scientific claims, then it can be framed as a disagreement where both sides of the argument are more or less equally respectable. Outright discrimination is no longer a tenable public position to advocate, but a merely cautious, politically neutral, approach to the science of gay parenting certainly would seem to be. In fact, conservatives now often claim to be the real victims in the discourse on homosexuality, casting themselves as unfairly vilified for holding one position in what they represent as nothing more than disagreement over differing approaches to empirical research.

The focus on the science of parenting is merely a charade, one in which both sides have been thus far willing to play along. Anti-gay conservatives are transparently not motivated by sincere interest in the data. Any research that does not fit the their agenda is swiftly, almost instinctively disregarded. The apparent conservative position is that all same-sex couples should not be granted access to marriage unless gay parents can collectively and undeniably meet particular statistical standards set by the most ‘ideal’ heterosexual parents. This position is in and of itself homophobic; no other class of people have had to collectively prove anything by way of statistical probability before rights claims can be taken seriously. This point is lost, however, in the fight to claim that scientific research, mutually accepted as the objective arbiter of the debate, falls on one side or another.

Given the regular dismissal of positive scientific findings on gay parents, an even more pernicious aspect to this strategy has increasingly become clear. The organised opposition to marriage equality seems to advocate an impossible level of both qualitative and quantitative comprehensiveness and methodological perfection for studies before they should be accepted. This standard set for gay parents is deliberately formulated in such a way as to make it insurmountable. The Iona Institute and similar organisations are not threatened by any actual research because it can always be dismissed on the basis of not meeting this impossible standard.  They can continually manufacture controversies in the social sciences safe in the knowledge that progressives will be willing to play along.

This charade and the resultant apolitical framing of the debate is legitimated when it is implicitly accepted that science can, and should, have the last say on this issue. The framing of the debate in this politically neutral way is normalised whenever progressives engage in an uncritical swapping of quotations from scientific research with conservatives. This approach seems ultimately ineffective, the best case scenario being merely that the scientific claims of LGBT activists are made to appear stronger than other claims. The political context of homophobia is neglected, the arguments about injustice and prejudice become less important, and the real motivations of those opposed to marriage equality remain substantially obscured. Marriage debates on Irish media increasingly descend into contentious and confused bickering and trading of assertions over the results of research, shutting out arguments about, for example, the damaging and forceful limitations placed on non-heterosexuals by homophobic legal and social barriers. Most importantly, any implicit acceptance that science can answer this question necessarily structures the debate on conservative terms. 

In separating the debate on marriage equality from the political context, the anti-gay position can be presented as respectable and thus, most importantly, as conceivable. Many people would regard outright discrimination against non-heterosexuals as unacceptable, but societal suspicion against non-conforming sexual identities remains pervasive.  When opposition to equality can be framed as a politically neutral concern for children rather than outright discrimination, conservatives play on this widespread suspicion of sexual minorities. Opposing equal marriage becomes conceivable for people who may have express or subconscious suspicions about homosexuality but could not justify political support for direct, biased discrimination. We can see the successes enjoyed by anti-gay conservatives in compartmentalising one aspect of the marriage debate (empirical research on gay parents) as discrete and seperate from the political context of homophobia whenever people who are sympathetic to the struggle for gay rights nonetheless object to characterisations of the opposition to equal marriage as being motivated by animus. When the debate is shaped in such as a way to appear separate from the context of prejudice, it becomes difficult to speak unequivocally about that context. Elucidating the homophobic nature of the opposition to equality can be characterised as unfair and, most worryingly, as a distraction from the actual issue, which is the science of gay parenting rather than the injustice of homophobia within this apolitcal framing of the debate. 

Another unfortunate consequence of this uncritical deference to social science is that empirical data has become highly contentious and does not inform discourses on parenting in the way it ideally would. Rather than viewing empirical data as one thing among others that should inform public debates and enable us to refine our understanding, the research is seen as a point of objective reference in a tit for tat partisan controversy. When both sides accept that social science can act as an objective arbiter, the results of the empirical research are reduced to a high-stakes game in which both progressives and conservatives vie for the most advantageous sound bite to use in order to further their causes. If empirical research does emerge showing difficulties for gay parents, or relatively worse outcomes for their children in particular aspects, that data should be used as the starting point for a debate on what causes these difficulties with a view to changing the conditions that cause them to arise. Using negative results to further the goal of marginalising non-heterosexuals demonstrates a lack of concern for the welfare of children. Genuine concern for the well being of children would entail an approach to empirical studies on gay parents that would seek to alleviate any problems that might exist, rather than seeking to advocate exclusionary laws.

The fact that many of the studies on gay parenting seem to be conducted on the basis of answering the question of whether children raised by same-sex couples can match the outcomes of children raised by heterosexual couples demonstrates the highly contentious context in which this research occurs. Investigations into whether same-sex parenting differs significantly from heterosexual models of parenting and how the effects of any potential differences might function, for example, would better help us to deepen our understanding of this issue. Instead, children raised by same-sex couples are simply measured against children raised by heterosexual couples. The results of these studies thus far have shown us that same-sex couples can make for capable parents, but only people who think lesbians, gays and bisexuals are somehow mentally defective, functionally impaired or less inclined to love their children, could have thought otherwise. Those who hold such beliefs are unlikely to be dissuaded by academic research. It seems that empirical research would be more helpful in informing our understanding of this issue were it to depart from simple comparisons that implicitly position gay parents in opposition to heterosexual parents.

We can see that accepting science as the arbiter of the debate on legal equality benefits conservatives while weakening the ability of progressives to make strong and unequivocal arguments about the political injustice of homophobia. Moreover, this approach to science damages our capacity to use empirical data in aiding our understanding of parenting more broadly. Progressives should reject the notion that social science can answer the question of legal equality for same-sex couples whenever the issue is raised.  The opposition to equality directly dehumanises gays and lesbians when families headed by same-sex couples are characterised as social experiments. This scientific language should be rejected outright at every opportunity. Empirical data can aid our understanding of parenting, but it could never provide the basis for the institutional exclusion of LGBT people. Most importantly of all, marginalised minorities should not have to collectively prove some kind of ‘worthiness’ by way of social science and academic studies.

Positioning social science at the heart of the marriage debate is strategically disadvantageous for progressives, but the notion of science as politically neutral is also fundamentally and conceptually flawed.  Progressives should never accept science as an apolitical, objective observer on any public debate that concerns social, political and economic issues. We should not forget that, until 1973, the American Psychiatric Association included homosexuality in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In retrospect, it’s clear the scientific methodological approaches to homosexuality were informed by the pervasive social norms of the time. It would be naive to think that science is no longer vulnerable to politics in the way that it was when homosexuality was classified as an abnormal mental illness.

The kind of research that protrudes into political and social discourses could not exist outside of the societies in which it is undertaken. Even where we can be sure the researchers themselves harbor no discernible biased motivations in the conduct of their studies, we should be vigilant of the ways in which overpowering, sometimes subconscious conceptions of gender, race, sexuality, the family, etc. limit all of us in our ability to think ‘outside of the box’, to conceive of these things in non-normative ways. Moreover, science itself can make things like sexuality appear as a force of nature which can limit further our ability to conceive of ways in which we could change our approaches to it. We should adopt a critical approach to this kind of science and reject the notion that it does, or indeed ever could, function as objective, apolitical truth.

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2 thoughts on “The politics of gay parenting science

  1. This is a great read and an important point. I may be wrong on this but I read somewhere that there are plans to address adoption by same-sex couples before a referendum on same-sex marriage, which would essentially nullify this aspect of the debate.

    It would be interesting to find out if that’s true and if so, what pitfalls in the debate then lie ahead.

  2. Yes, the Children and Family Relationships Bill 2013 was published recently by the justice minister and when it’s eventually passed it will reform Irish family law in very significant ways, including by allowing same-sex couples to jointly adopt. However, I don’t think that will nullify this aspect of the marriage debate precisely because anti-gay campaigners are not actually concerned about children but are simply using that as a means of obscuring the political nature of their advocacy. Same-sex couples in California had been accorded joint adoption rights, but Proposition 8 (banning same-sex marriage) nontheless passed in 2008. The organised opposition to marriage equality in California relied on arguments about the best outcomes for children in California during the Proposition 8 debate even though it was effectively a moot point. I can’t imagine the Iona Institute will drop their talking points on ‘ideal’ families for the marriage equality referendum just because same-sex couples will already have adoption rights by then.

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