Penny Wong

Overseas experience suggests a plebiscite on same-sex marriage will be dominated by claims same-sex couples harm children and that only heterosexual couples provide a healthy environment for children to be raised in.

The claim that children raised by same-sex parents somehow suffer harm compared to peers raised by heterosexual couples is a myth that has been repeatedly and comprehensively debunked. Studies date back to the 1970s; the American Psychological Association states, “the results of existing research comparing lesbian and gay parents to heterosexual parents and children of lesbian and gay parents to children of heterosexual parents are quite clear: Common stereotypes are not supported by the data” and that “not a single study has found children of lesbian or gay parents to be disadvantaged in any significant respect relative to children of heterosexual parents”. The Australian Institute of Family Studies has an extensive paper exploring overseas and Australian peer-reviewed research that show little difference in outcomes for people raised by same-sex (mainly lesbian) couples compared to their peers — if anything, the children of same-sex couples appear to perform better academically than others. In an amicus brief filed with the US Supreme Court, the American Sociological Association stated:

“There is a clear consensus in the social science literature indicating that American children living within same-sex parent households fare just, as well as those children residing within different-sex parent households over a wide array of well-being measures: academic performance, cognitive development, social development, psychological health, early sexual activity, and substance abuse.”

There are a wealth of peer-reviewed US studies backing this statement, while the one recent academic study claiming children of same-sex couple fare more poorly has been discredited. A 2014 University of Melbourne study provided some further Australian results that align with US experience.

[Don’t make gay people beg for equal rights]

Nevertheless, opponents of same-sex marriage — invariably religious groups — continue to maintain, in the face of all evidence, that same-sex parenting somehow harms children, and thus that all same-sex marriages should be banned. In fact, this is the key tactic used in campaigns against same-sex marriage in other jurisdictions. Anti-gay marriage groups in the US and in Ireland have relied heavily both on arguing that same-sex marriage harms children and that it would somehow lead to parents losing control of the values inculcated in their children.

Australian anti-gay groups, which are strongly influenced by US evangelical organisations, have adopted exactly the same tactics. The fundamentalist Australian Christian Lobby insists, despite the evidence, that children need their biological male and female parents to thrive. One-time Family First election candidate Wendy Francis, who is now a director of the ACL, has called same-sex marriage “legalising child abuse“; ACL head Lyle Shelton says same sex marriage would create another “stolen generation”. The ACL, in alliance with reactionaries at News Corp, has also aggressively attacked the Safe Schools program by arguing it deprives parents of control over what values their children are taught.

[Your guide to groups that think marriage equality would bring on the apocalypse]

There’s a deep irony in all this: Christian groups have been responsible for systematic child abuse and its cover-up over the course of decades in Australia and around the world, but they are now seeking to use the welfare of children to fight same-sex marriage (Shelton in fact has defended George Pell, who played a key role in moving a paedophile priest around Australia, and who was forced to admit the Catholic Church had covered up child rape).

A plebiscite will almost certainly mean that same-sex couples with children — according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 2011 there were more than 6000 kids living in same-sex households — and those planning to become parents will be repeatedly attacked as harming their children, not for any failures of parenting, but simply because of who they are. According to the ACL and other opponents of same-sex marriage, they will harm their children simply by virtue of their identity, regardless of how much they might love their kids or how well they raise them; the ACL’s preferred view, presumably, is that gay and lesbian people not be permitted to bear children, given the importance of heterosexual biological parents.

Along the way, of course, single-parent families — there are around 900,000 of those, according to the ABS — will be collateral damage, victims of same-sex marriage opponents’ insistence only a biological father and mother can raise children properly.

As Irish LGBTI people discovered during the referendum in Ireland, a national vote has the effect of elevating attacks on them to an unavoidable topic of public discourse, with claims about their failures as parents plastered all over public property and publicly discussed by media desperate to maintain the appearance of balance.

[Stop calling us bigots, whine bigots]

A subsidiary tactic of same-sex marriage opponents will be to claim they are the real victims, that their rights are being suppressed to benefit LGBTI Australians, and that criticism of their views amounts to a form of bigotry. The latter claim might have some substance if there were any evidence to support their argument that same-sex couples automatically harm the children they raise, instead of the rank denialism it actually is. We had a taste of this yesterday from Treasurer Scott Morrison, who equated himself with victims of homophobia when he complained that he had been the subject of bigotry for his opposition to same-sex marriage. According to Morrison, criticism of one of the most powerful men in the country, the Treasurer, a white middle-aged conservative male occupying one of the most senior political positions in Australia, was comparable to the abuse and bullying endured by a gay or trans teenager, or same-sex parents called child abusers by Christian fundamentalists.

The lack of any sort of intellectual rigour in Morrison’s comments, however, will probably be the least offensive aspect of a same sex marriage plebiscite. For Australia’s LGBTI communities, the plebiscite will be a highly personal attack on them about the thing that all of us prize above all else — raising our kids well.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey