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Lesbians of Mass Destruction: A Review

(x-posted lots of places)

An article rebutting conservative arguments against gay marriage appeared on slate.com a little while ago. My position is pro alternative family - I'd like one of my own some day - so I thought I'd review the article.

Lesbians of Mass Destruction from slate.com


William Saletan does an effective job of rebutting the moralists when it comes to same-sex couples and parenting. The ever-conservative Dick Cheney's lesbian daughter has been making headlines again for deliberately getting pregnant with the intention of raising the child with her long-time partner, angering moralist groups, which has apparently provoked Saletan to write this article. He refers to the sixty-seven abstracts on family research by the American Psychology Association and provides the reader with all the references necessary to give his article a strong factual foundation.

If you don't want to read the article, I've summarized it.

Saletan begins by citing two studies, one that found straight couples "made a greater effort to provide an opposite-sex role model for their children," and one that found that the children of lesbian parents "were more likely to explore same-sex relationships," and claims these findings are the only ones that can be interpreted to have negative implications for gay parenting. He then refers to a few studies that had positive conclusions about lesbian parents, which weren't received all that kindly by the moralist community.

Moving on from studies on parenting, Saletan examines the specific objections to gay parenting from the anti-gay community, starting with the premise that "on average, children do best when raised by their two married, biological parents." Saletan attempts to use logic to defeat this premise and also writes of future technological advances (such as female & female reproduction) that would make such an argument obsolete, since conservative groups claim "that gay parenthood is unhealthy because 'it is biologically impossible for a child living in a same-sex home to be living with both natural parents.'"

Saletan also addresses the objection of James Dobson, chairman of Focus on the Family, who claimed that [lesbian parenting] "is a bad idea because a father 'makes unique contributions to the task of parenting that a mother cannot emulate,' such as 'a sense of right and wrong and its consequences.'" (I don't know about you, but my mother punished me far more often than my dad when I broke the rules).

Going on the offensive, Saletan then begins to attack the basic premise of the anti-gay parent argument: that non-biological parents are unhealthy for children. After dealing with this, Saletan returns to more specific arguments against gay parenting that appear to be largely unfounded according to current research, mentioning various family councils who say that lesbians would be bad parents because they're prone to "'high prevalence of life events and behaviors related to mental health problems'" and that children of gay couples are more likely to associate with homosexuals [and this is bad because they] as a class considerably more apt to have STDs and a criminal history [and] be interested in sex with children."



I'll start with the last bit of the article first, since Saletan mentions some conservative views that particularly anger me. First of all, while there are those who claim pedophilia is a sexual orientation in itself, as opposed to a disorder, putting it in the same group as homosexuality is simply a way to discredit the gay lifestyle - pedophilia violates age of consent laws, which we have for a reason, and can have lasting, life-long traumatic consequences for the child involved. Homosexual acts take place between consenting adults, and do not harm or traumatize those involved. As for homosexuals being most likely to have STD's, lesbians are in the lowest-risk group for STD's (as far as we know - the body of research on the subject is still quite small), and while AIDS is still very much associated with the gay male community, it is extremely difficult to get an accurate representation of the STD numbers in the queer population because of the wish of many individuals to be private and discreet about their sex lives. It is unfortunate that Saletan does not mentions these facts in his article.

Instead of beginning his article with references to studies on parenting, it might have been more advantageous for Saletan to begin by listing the arguments against gay parenting, citing any evidence in their favor, and then citing arguments for gay parenting, along with supporting research. However, the author takes a more conversational approach for the general public, and scores points with the reader for amusing comparisons and a few well-placed remarks, such as "if you want every child to have the benefit of two parents, you're picking on the wrong Cheney. Mary's sister, Liz, just had her fifth kid. All things being equal, Liz's baby will get one-fifth as much parental attention as Mary's will get. But nobody complains about that."

Saletan needs to re-examine his analysis of the argument against the premise that "on average, children do best when raised by their two married, biological parents." Saletan's rebuttal to this argument is one of the few places where he does not cite research to back up his claims. He writes that two parents are better than one, and that married parents are better than unmarried parents, which I would call conventional wisdom, but it is essential to cite sources in a case like this where so-called "conventional wisdom" may be challenged. Saletan does attempt to use logic to defeat the argument. While I agree with his reasoning, I do not think he got to the root of why this moralist argument seems convincing at first glance. The research shows that children do better with biological parents than non-biological parents, one needs to ask why. Is it in fact because in the majority of cases that were researched, the non-biological parent joined the family at a later time, when the child or children were older, creating tension and domestic problems? What about heterosexual parents that adopt their children? Many child development researchers believe that the most formative years for children are the first three, which does not bode well for children who are adopted after that age or who live in foster care for a long time.

The family researchers need to perhaps examine families with non-biological parents who have been there all along, (for example a heterosexual couple who needed a sperm or egg donor in order to have a child), and families who adopted a newborn child that was not a blood relative. Would researchers find differences in the well-being of children who were raised in these circumstances versus heterosexual couples who raised their collective biological offspring? My guess is that there would not be much difference, which would go a long way towards defeating the arguments of the anti-gay lobby. It is not fair, logical or scientific to use these arguments against gay parents without also criticising families that deviate from the model of two married, opposite-gender, biological parents with their biological offspring. The lack of criticism towards other family units demonstrates the clear bias of the conservative groups against those individuals whose only crime is an inability to fall in love with the opposite gender. The goal of these moralist and conservative groups is not the protection of the children. Saletan leads the reader to the research that shows that the children are safe. The goal of these moralist groups and family councils is to sabotage the efforts of homosexuals to be able to live as equals under the law.

The obviously weak statements by James Dobson of Focus on the Family that Saletan refers to allows the author to imply that all the arguments of the right-wing moralists are in fact not just arguments against gay marriage, but in fact arguments against single parents, families with a step-parent, adoption, and possibly even foster-care, yet it is only gay parents that they target, even though many other family units have the same "shortcomings". The only male-associated behaviors I can think of that children are likely to miss out on in families with two moms is how to shave facial hair and how to pee standing up. It's tricky to say what issues may potentially arise in families with two fathers. Breast-feeding might become something of an issue. Fortunately, I hear formula is not too hard to obtain.

Saletan mentions that many studies on gay parents are inconclusive because so many people are closeted. On the other hand, how many closeted couples are trying to raise a child together? I can't imagine it is all that common, but we really don't know, because they're closeted. It just doesn't seem that likely. Gay couples who are so stable, out and want to become parents are probably far more prepared to become parents than many young straight couples who dive into pregnancy without a thought for the future. After all, everything has to be planned for very carefully. In an article from Maclean's magazine or Newsweek (probably Maclean's, and within the last year or two, I think), I read that non-standard families are creating legal contracts before conception, which puts into place contingency plans that are designed for the child's best interests in case of death, divorce, accidents and debilitating diseases, as well as setting out the legal obligations of donors as biological parents, as well as non-biological parents. The children who live with such arrangements can well benefit from multiple parental figures. These contracts aren't always made, but it's becoming more common because of the need for sperm/egg donors in order to conceive a child in a gay family.

In response to the conservative argument that non-biological parents are more likely to harm children, Saletan cites numerous studies that found harm caused by non-biological parents is disproportionately caused by males. While this doesn't help gay male couples, it does make lesbian couples look like the perfect potential parents. Are there any studies on abuse cause by exclusively gay males? I didn't think so.

An issue that Saletan understandably does not mention, is that most of the arguments against gay marriage and gay parents are based upon religious doctrine. This makes arguing with anti-gay groups about as much fun as arguing with the anti-evolution groups - religious objections are based on either beliefs or "christian science" - people on opposite sides of the debate are really speaking a different language. Faith and fact are like apples and orangutans.

Saletan's article is well-researched and well-written. Unfortunately, the article is most likely preaching to the converted. It is doubtful that many anti-gay people are going to read this article, and even more unlikely that it will change their mind when they do read it. However, Saletan makes a few good points, and his article is very accessible for his readers. The article would be alot stronger if he tried to find research to disagree with his views, and if he didn't hang gay male parents out to dry. It relies a little too heavily on good writing and not quite enough on strong arguments, but Saletan's analysis are sound, but his position makes his choice of foudational research suspect, since he only reviewed research that seemed to agree with his position. The next time Saletan writes in defense of gay parenting, finding more research that supports the moralists and then analysing it will greatly aid his cause. Otherwise, we'll always keep coming back to the question of whose science do we trust? Ours or theirs?
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