Ending myths about gay parents

Periodically, a case involving same gender parents comes up in the news, usually in the context of a court attempting to take a child away, refusing to allow a couple to adopt, or blocking moves like listing a second parent on a birth certificate. Such news events tend to follow a particular course, typically taking place in conservative settings, involving robust debate as the right crows over the need to think of the children while the left cries foul, and then the dust settles and the matter is forgotten. Of course, for those at the heart of the case, the experience may linger for days, weeks, months, a lifetime.

Inevitably, both sides want to cite science. The right relies on just a handful of studies that haven’t passed empirical review to justify its claim that same gender parents are bad for children, typically suggesting that children will grow up with ‘gender conflict’ or deviant behaviours. The left, in turn, offers up scores of studies clearly illustrating that, when controlled for other factors, there is no substantive difference between different gender parents and same gender parents, and that in fact on some metrics, children from same gender families perform better than their counterparts. Scientific evidence comes down pretty heavily on the ‘love is more important than gender’ front and specifically calls out that the major concern with parenting and outcomes is socioeconomic status, not parental gender.

If the right cares for children, which it repeatedly and ardently claims it does, it has a distinctively odd way of showing it. Conservatives slash funding to pregnant women and children, deny opportunities for early childhood benefits, and want to cut assistance to families with children. All of these benefits are designed to alleviate the effects of socioeconomic disparities and given children a better chance at life, but the right has no interest in retaining them. Moreover, the right resists moves like anti-discrimination ordinances, which would put same gender parents in a position to better care for their families by preventing housing, healthcare, and employment discrimination. Needless to say, the right has kittens over families with more than two parents and other more complex family structures.

The issue here is not one of looking out for the wellbeing of children, which should of course be a national priority, but rather one of moral panic. Conservatives in the United States take extreme exception to equality for all families and relationships, and this is one way of expressing them, as it tries to litigate and regulate the reification of familial structures, privileging some over others. Even in liberal states, many families occupy a precarious status, dependent on the mercy of the state, which can giveth…or taketh away…family benefits like the right to see children after a divorce. Something as simple as the venue where a case as heard can have a profound effect on the lives of those involved.

I am not entirely convinced that responding to the right with studies on same gender parenting is the best approach to handling these cases. The conservative right has repeatedly demonstrated that it has little to no interest in the sciences and in clear evidence disproving (or proving) claims, and in fact tends to react even harder when presented with peer-reviewed information about a given subject. In fact, there’s something known as the backfire effect, in which people tend to double down if they are presented with information that conflicts with their world view. Think of a simple example — maybe you accept that global climate change is real, as you probably do if you’re reading this website. You may also believe that it’s anthropogenic. What would happen if someone presented you with reams of studies from highly-reputed peer-reviewed journals, showing unequivocally that climate change, while occurring, was a natural phenomenon? You’d likely grasp at anything to negate these studies, because they conflict with your personal bias. It takes a great deal to overcome these biases.

Showing conservatives that their opinions — because that’s fundamentally what their ‘science’ is — about same gender parenting are wrong quite simply doesn’t work, and may be subject to the backfire effect. To protect their worldview, conservatives may well determine that the best reaction to the presentation of scientific evidence is to kick back even harder against it, which, needless to say, is not the desired effect at all.

Instead of trying to convince people with science, perhaps it is necessary to take a different tack. We’ve also learned that it takes a great deal to convince conservatives that something is in their best interest, as seen with evidence that providing social benefits is actually cheaper than allowing the status quo to stand. What if, however, the left accurately identifies these behaviours as what they are, which is bigoted, with science as a smokescreen? Conservatives know full well that their concerntrolling is really designed as a red herring to embroil the left in arguments it will never win, because in the battle of science among laypeople with preconceived notions, no one will ever come out on top.

By contrast, if the left refuses to play along, indicating that it has no interest whatsoever in entertaining notions that such ‘discussions’ are anything more than evidence of bigotry, it perforce charges the right with something a little more challenging. Undoubtedly, it turns most of the right off, as it rests assured on a bed of self-importance, convinced that it has somehow won something righteous. But it also tells moderates on the right that if they really want to stick to their plans to oppose same gender parenting, they’re going to come up with a more convincing argument, because the left is on to them.

If you want to pass bigoted legislation or make homophobic court rulings, be prepared for people to push back, and be prepared for them to completely ignore the ‘science’ you’ve brought to the table to focus on the heart of what you’re doing, which is being a terrible person.

Image: Parents, Caitlin Childs, Flickr