Friday, January 21, 2011

The Helen Lovejoy Argument

“Won’t somebody PLEASE think of the children!”

David Novak - No right to marriage for same-sex couples

David Novak is an example of an interesting, but sadly not uncommon, subtype of those opposed to gay marriage. He is a very religious man - a Professor of Religion, amongst other things - and he is entirely opposed to gay marriage, but puts forward his arguments on ostensibly unreligious grounds. As tends to be the case with such people, though, his otherwise logic-based arguments are built on the sands of prejudice.

Novak’s article is full of ridiculous non-sequiturs, contradictions and outright falsehoods that I could debunk in great detail (in fact, I did - the first draft of this was over 3000 words, before I cut it down). For example, his claim that the state invented public education but inherited marriage is both incorrect (the state institutionalised private education just like it institutionalised the custom of marriage) and irrelevant (in some sense everything we do is inherited; we must change things to improve them).

He claims that gay marriage would redefine it so radically that it would lose all meaning, all continuity with the tradition and the meaning of the word; the etymology of most marriage-related words ultimately come from either love or alliance, not procreation; and when he talks about ‘tradition’ he is not referring to ancient Babylonian practises, he’s really only going back about as far as his own great-grandparents.

He claims that he’s fine with correcting injustices within the institution - such as the legal treatment of a wife as the property of her husband, and presumably the illegality of mixed-race marriages - but, for some reason, not this one, for fear of somehow “destroying” the institution.

He says the state has a right to control marriage because it needs people to breed in order to maintain statehood, and that allowing gay (read: childless) marriages would undermine this…but somehow I doubt people would stop breeding in the absence of a state to make sure they do. We have officially got that one covered.

But then he gets onto the child-rearing arguments, and that’s where it gets interesting. Because a lot of people who are totally in support of gay marriage have reservations about their abilities to raise children - not so much in their quality as parents but in their uniformity of gender. So it’s these arguments I will be taking a closer look at.

He starts out well enough - parents have a right to raise their kids, and to be looked after by those kids if they grow too old to look after themselves. Kids have a right to be supported by their parents. This is all well and good - the problem is, he is presupposing the words “biological” at the front of all these words and he shouldn’t be.

He thinks of the biological, heteronormative nuclear family as a norm that should not be deviated from except under the most extreme circumstances, and it just plain ain’t the case. Who a person’s “real” parents are, or who a person’s “real” children are, is something decided by their actions rather than their blood.

He says to ask kids of divorce if they feel violated - if they feel bad that their family was torn apart. I say, ask kids whose parents stay together when they shouldn’t. If the relationship is working then of course parents should stay together - that’s a nurturing, loving environment. But if it isn’t, raising children in such a toxic environment is much worse than divorcing. Ask kids whose parents got divorced relatively late in the piece, or kids who never knew the family unit - a large portion of both will tell you they don’t feel violated at all.

He says to ask parents whose kids have been taken if they feel violated. Forcibly taken? Absolutely. Willingly given? They may feel a bit conflicted, depending on the circumstances, but if they made the decision they will have had their reasons and will undoubtedly feel less violated than if they’d been forced to keep an unwanted child.

If you actually look at the facts instead of cherry-picking them to suit your argument, you can see that marriage and child rearing are both done in multifarious ways, and that the only necessary condition for either of them is love and a desire to enter into that particular commitment.

Then we come to the real crux of the argument - and a surprisingly common problem in thinking. Despite the fact that Novak is rigid in his commitment to the heteronormative nuclear family, he’s fine with single parents - and therefore “fails to see” what the addition of another adult adds to the family.

That’s right - he can’t see how another parent to love, support, teach, and financially back a child could possibly be of any benefit. His basis for this? The fact that they’re the same sex. Because, let’s face it, one man or woman is much the same as the next - they’re basically Pokemon cards. “Aww, I’ve got doubles of Dad, can I trade you for a Blastoise?”

Novak here reveals his huge, glaring heteronormative bias, and general ignorance. He suggests that, in the case of a lesbian couple, the addition of an extra woman would mean that one would be, essentially, “playing father” (and vice versa for male couples) and that this is unnatural - a poor simulation of an actual father.

This is a very popular myth, as it turns out, and is an extension of the assumption of a butch/femme lesbian paradigm. But guess what? The child wouldn’t have one mother and one simulated father - the child would have two mothers. Novak is so mired in the heteronormative paradigm that he tries to cram the gay couples into this mould - and he is far from alone, even people who are fairly progressive and supporting of gay rights tend to think this way (myself included, for a long time).

He then moves past children from a previous marriage and onto surrogacy and artificial insemination (and thence to adoption, where he uses similar arguments). Again he starts out with the baseless accuastion that biological parents are automatically better than adoptive ones. This assumption is ridiculous, and statistics strongly disagree with it - through a combination of factors, (mostly the lack of unwanted pregnancies and the intense screening process) adoptive parents are much, much less likely to mistreat their children than biological parents are.

He goes on to say that heterosexual adoptive parents would be better for ‘simulating’ the child’s biological parents. To the eyes of someone as biased as him, maybe, but if you look at the facts - the dozens upon dozens of studies that have been done over the last 40 or so years - children raised by gay parents are no different to those raised by heterosexual parents. And I don’t mean “as good as”, I do mean “no different” - their respective bell curves fit in every area, from reported happiness to education levels to social skills to sexual orientation.

Reading between the lines of Novak’s arguments, he is making the common assumption that male children need a father to act as a role model for their behaviour as a man, and that the opposite is true for female children. There are two problems with this. Firstly, the studies I referred to above show that this is patently false; children raised by homosexuals are perfectly “normal”. Secondly, as you may have guessed by the quotation marks, the current standards of what is and is not “normal” are often stupid, arbitrary and deeply rooted in sexism - and such standards are often very well-entrenched in even medical science and psychology.

For example, there have been scientists who have seen things like not wanting to play with dolls, a disinterest in motherhood or an interest in “masculine” jobs as serious diseases that require radical hormone treatments or even surgery to correct. Even if children raised by gay parents showed some behavioural differences, this might very well be a good thing - but the idea that the status quo is “normal”, and any deviation is a perversion, is so entrenched that most people can’t see it.

The takeaway from all this? Our society has serious issues with anything even remotely approaching gender and sexuality, so you really can’t assume that current trend = normal = good. And this above all else is the reason that the Helen Lovejoy “Won’t somebody please think of the children!” argument falls to pieces.


  1. Just in case this Google thing doesn't work, it's Sib here :P

    I agree with much of this (which is hardly surprising!) except for one interesting issue you've raised - I do believe that male children benefit from male role models and female children from female role models...not to say it's a completely necessary action, but I do think it would be highly beneficial to the children to have role models of their own gender.

    Of course I'm going to agree with your arguments anyway, because you've got such a similar belief as my own...even if I'm not in such a relationship anymore, and likely won't again, the issues are still close to my heart!
    Marry me? :P

  2. Having gender role models is easily facilitated regardless of the biological sex. But if we feel the need to assume that children need a role model of the same biological sex, at what point do we make the staggeringly vast assumption that the male-sexed role model must cohabitate and coexist in a "meaningful" (i.e. sexual and financial Christian-based Western conception of a...)relationship with the female-sexed role model? If we start being descriptive instead of prescriptive (which our illustrious host has done by bringing in some psychological aspects to elucidate the argument), then there are plenty of models in plenty of paradigms that will show that IF (and it is a ridiculously tenuous "if") we need a sexed role model (which is based almost solely in outdated patriarchal and religious axioms) then the role model can come from anywhee within the social circle. I would consistently argue that it is in fact gendered traits (see Sandra Bem and Janet Spence) that need to be available to children, and as a matter of simple equilibrium in almost any "functional" relationship then these gendered traits will be on offer. Still, I reject the notion and think that the entire notion of "family", "marriage" and so forth has been radically altered and challenged over the last few decades as much as anything else with po-struct and po-mod theories. The problem (in my opinion) is that in the West we have become so entrenched in certain ways and have internalised so many norms from a young age, that most theories, authors, art, etc that challenges traditional notions (such as the theories mentioned before) are simply far too removed and academic from most people's everyday lives that there is no easy way in. This creates then a false dichotomy on which twits like Novak can create fallacious arguments that seem to be reinforced by "common sense". So, while I haven't really brought anything useful to the table I have thrown up a few ideas. To live in such an inequitable global situation but yet be worried about two people of the same sex (but in many oftens still in traditional gendered roles) having some legal rights is profoundly ignorant. If our laws were founded on religious concepts - well, too bad. The law MUST reflect ethical constructs. This often means striving to fulfil the Enlightenment promise of leaving religion to faith, and the law to reason.