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.

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Gender and marriage equality

Gender is really at the heart of the same-sex marriage debate. Well, at least that’s what David Quinn, the figurehead of the anti-marriage equality movement in Ireland, thinks. He says that the debate comes down to whether or not we attach “any particular importance to gender differences.” In an article of his published last month in the Independent, he criticises proponents of same-sex marriage for ignoring things like the “sexual complementarity” of men and women and the importance of the “blend” of motherhood and fatherhood in the rearing of children. His argument is neatly summed up by this paragraph:

In the name of ‘tolerance’ and ‘equality’ Irish people are being asked to abandon the notion that motherhood and fatherhood are complementary roles of special value to children and society.

What are these apparently important and complementary gender differences? Curiously, David Quinn doesn’t elaborate on them on his article. In fact, he never elaborates on this point, even when I’ve asked him directly in the course of our interactions on Twitter. His use of the terms gender differences and complementary roles rather than gender roles is also evasive; the latter term is associated with an era when women stayed in the home and had dinner waiting for their husbands when they returned from exclusively male workplaces. Gender differences seems to suggest something altogether different, but in reality, it doesn’t. The idea of motherhood and fatherhood as complementary only makes sense if we think of them in terms of particular roles that are, or should be, fulfilled by men and women in the home.

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