Monday, June 10, 2013

A Persistent Argument – Gay Marriage and "Non-Biological" Family creation.

There is an argument against the removal of gender from Australia’s’ marriage legislation; changes that would permit same-sex couples to be married. This argument usually uses obscure language like “the grammar of society” to make certain dog-whistle points that you either will agree with or not understand. Still it has considerable currency. For example it was recently published on the ABC Religion and Ethics page. It is possibly the second loudest argument against gay marriage after just quoting religious texts out of context.

I’ve attempted to improve the arguments’ clarity and have identified it as having three steps;
1. Reserving marriage as a rite for heterosexual couples maintains “biological” family creation as normal over other forms,
2. This is a positive effect.
3. Therefore marriage legislation should continue to prevent same-sex couples from being married.

My goal is to lay out what in the real world the argument is actually describing and whether it makes any case for reserving marriage as a rite for heterosexual couples in Australia.

To discuss point one we need to recognize that there are many ways in which an adult can be in the parenting role with a child. A man and a woman can “love each other very much” as we like to tell children and their horizontal dance in bed can summon a stork in the traditional manner. These two people can maintain a relationship together in which they fairly exclusively co-parent the child. In lieu of a better term I’ll call this “biological family creation”.

Foster care and adoption are obvious alternatives to this. Blended families are even more common and can produce situations where a child has more than two adults who play some kind of parenting role, and where clear definitions of what mum and dad means and who holds those roles, don’t hold up. It can be up to the children as they age to say who their “real” parents are based on who does the parenting. They may nominate more than two.

In a much smaller number of cases people enlist IVF technology to assist in reproduction. Some of these technologies through the use of donor sperm mean that one genetic parent is never involved at all in parenting or legally defined as a parent even before conception. There is also the use of surrogate mothers where women bear children for other couples to raise. Sometimes the child is genetically unrelated to the woman who bears them, through artificial insemination, but it is also possible that the woman’s own eggs are fertilized by one of the parents-to-be.

All of these forms of family creation, from the most common of blended families to the least common use of surrogacy, can occur in opposite-sex parent families. However, heterosexual relationships can mimic successfully the mum-dad-stork situation regardless of how they came to parent (foster, IVF, blended families). Outsiders are able to simply assume that the mother of a child born in another woman’s womb, or the father of an adopted child are in fact biological parents. This is not disrupted by single-parent situations either. Biological family creation can be assumed whether or not it has occurred.

Same-sex-parent families are different. They can’t successfully mimic families that are “biologically created”. (Note: I am really disliking this term but struggling to come up with an alternative). It’s obvious that a child with two parents of the same sex is part of a family that has been created through foster care or adoption, or as a blended family or with some form of assisted reproduction. This means that same-sex-parent families oblige schools, other institutions and the general public to recognize non-biological families in a way that all the heterosexual versions never did.

The particular role that gay marriage plays is that it makes same-sex-parent families public and undeniable. The last defense for people who wish to minimize acknowledging families created by non-biological means (after reading heterosexual parents as biological parents regardless) is to simply deny the homosexual family. The mothers’ partner is not accepted as the child’s parent - as their mother - but merely as the mother’s partner. This can be done even despite gay marriage but it’s harder to do with it. Certainly there is some obstacle that has been removed – at an institutional level – when gay parents can use the word marriage in terms of the recognition of their families.

Now that we’ve drawn the long bow between gay marriage and the normalization of non-biological family creation we have to ask the question, is this a bad thing? The answer to this lies partly in separating out two meanings of normalization.

On the one hand normal is a label and a description that justifies certain default privileges. This is generally a sucky situation for anyone who lies outside of the norm. For the children of non-biologically created families being treated as ab-normal is not great.

On this level if extending marriage to same-sex-parents does something to normalize and oblige the celebration of the non-biologically created family it would do a good thing for those families. This will be of benefit to heterosexual parents and their children of non-biologically created families too. Furthermore, the cost for biologically created families will only be the loss of bullying privileges, not an “ab-normalisation” of their own situation. It’s a win – win for the children because normal is being broadened not merely shifted.

On the other hand, normalisation is the establishing of norms – the limits of our usual choices. (Where the first type of normal is descriptive, the second is prescriptive.) Norms can be simply such matters as talking in turn or how much of the human body can be seen in public. We have successfully “normed” breastfeeding in public from a previous norm of huddling in change rooms. People can still make choices outside of norms – it’s just harder to do because you have to confront a tide of expectation and surprise. It also simply doesn’t occur to many people to go against norms. At their strongest norms are internalized and assumed. 

At the moment it is a norm in Australia for people to biologically create their families.  By this I mean that most people assume that to have a family they will have heterosexual sex with someone else and subsequently co-parent with them. Some people anticipate fostering or adoption rather than having their own kids but most don’t. Gay men and lesbians often assume that they will not have kids because this “normal” option is not open to them.

Changing what is considered normal in terms of family creation will potentially change people’s expectations and thus their choices. The increasing normalization of foster care hopefully means more people consider this an option when starting their own families. That’s the explicit intent of the advertising by foster care agencies. Given the terrible shortage of parents prepared to foster compared to kids in need this must be considered a great thing.

But could it go too far? To an extent the stolen generations or the historic forced adoptions placed on unwed mothers in this country are cases of fostering / adoption becoming a greater default than is desirable. However, to a greater extent those tragedies are borne of the racism and lack of consent that polluted them. Still they affect our imagination when we consider what an increased trend towards fostering and adoption as means of family creation might look like.

And what about IVF and surrogacy? Could that become increasingly popular if norms privelaging biological family creation were relaxed? The economic conditions for such a situation are there given that the best age biologically for pregnancy is currently the worst financial time for it. Economically it might make sense if women paid their way through higher education by bearing children for people like themselves with a decade of post graduation income to raise the child with.

Most of us would not be comfortable with these kinds of situations becoming more normal however. Whether a child’s separation from their genetic parents is due to fostering, or IVF or surrogacy we recognize this includes issues for children. This may just be in such a simple matter of access to medical history, but also for some people in terms of identity. Surrogacy raises additional concerns about the commodification of pregnancy and the exploitation of the poor. IVF technology has its own unique bio-ethics concerns.

Fostering and adoption can also move children from poor to rich families when a more just solution would be to address people’s poverty. Given the overlay of class and race in Australia, fostering and adoption can have implications for indigenous self-determination in particular. The national rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care in 2012 was 10 times the rate for non-Indigenous children (AIHW, 2012). This is only partly remedied by a focus on kinship care where children are placed by priority with extended family members.

Whether or not a ballooning in other methods of family creation would eventuate from the de-norming of biological family creation involves huge speculation. What can be said is that the norming of biological family creation may be part of what restricts these kind of scenarios. Of course numerous other restricting norms can be imagined including ones specific to surrogacy for example, or to some fostering situations but not others for example. Overall norming non-biological family creation may be a good thing (making many more kids feel normal), but we can imagine it could have some negative effects we will need to address.

This brings us to the final point. If gay marriage has some correlation (albeit a weak one) to norming non-biological family creation and norming non-biological families might have some negative effects is this sufficient to oppose gay marriage? I think the answer to that is no based not only on the gaps and stretches in the steps taken so far but on the fact that this last step is not a necessary conclusion.

Firstly it is disingenuous, in the context of arguing against gay marriage, to suggest that marriage is only about family creation. Marriage is a public measure of commitment and “seriousness” for any relationship. Marriage, as a commitment to one’s partner for life, has historically legitimised sexual activity and you only have to consider the use of contraception in married relationships to realize that most everybody knows sex is about more than making babies. It should be clear that restricting marriage to heterosexual people is entirely consistent with some group’s expectation of celibacy for homosexual people. This shouldn’t be something that the state gets involved in. Churches can use their own specific marriage rites to legitimize sexuality according to their religion.

Furthermore marriage is a public act which communicates to the wider community your relationship status and thus draws on community support for that relationship. It’s taking yourself and partner off the market by “putting a ring on it.” If same sex relationships, their communities and their children will benefit from greater social support for permanence in relationships then we should enlist marriage as way to provide this.

The reality is that the big drivers for non-biologically created families are not gay and lesbian couples wanting to marry. Denying same-sex marriage because we anticipate some dystopian future in which the problems of non-biologically created families overwhelm us – like something out of Brave New World – strikes me as simply making lesbians and gay men the scapegoats of society’s direction. We have created an economy that requires study and work through ones easiest childbearing years just in order to think about home ownership. We have created the often racially based inter-generational poverty that partly drives kids into fostering and adoption situations. It is heterosexual couples who first sought the technologies of IVF and for whom they have been developed. None of this is affected by withholding a potential benefit to same-sex couples, their families and their communities.

Personally I think we went wrong when we normalized nuclear families and made an idol of parents’ rights. This model of raising kids requires people to have their “own” kids to be in the child-raising game. That’s a tragic loss of the gifts of many people unless they create their own families, non-biologically if necessary. It seems stupid that we have created this forced choice though to be fair we were encouraged by marketers to do so. Nothing consumes like a society in nuclear families.

Ultimately I think gay marriage has become inevitable because too many high profile people have compared same-sex relationships to dog fucking for people to accept anything less. The debate has been almost entirely framed by what people think about homosexual sex, in the nastiest of terms. Now too much “face” is affected by the issue for a continued restriction of marriage to be heard (by either side) as anything other than a win for homophobia.

When we consider the issue from a direction other than a disapproval of homosexuality as this argument tries to do I’m still unconvinced. Although this argument gets a lot of airplay I don’t think it shows that we shouldn’t remove gender from Australia marriage legislation. We should address our concerns about non-biological family creation in other ways. I’m certainly open to the opinion that we should remove all marriage from the state all together –some congregations of different faiths will choose to marry gay people and some wont - but keeping gendered marriage preserved in our legislation and preventing gay marriage is something I hope will soon end. 


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  2. Not a bad blog Tony. It expresses how the debate for "Marriage Equality" is actually about how we define and relate to the symbol of marriage, and what effect our official definitions have on our society. That's a point I've been thinking about lately, and I wanted to write up something on that topic.
    Basically, what makes a "better" society and what should or shouldn't be "normalized" is just as subjective as the question, what is "marriage". That's why I think, if people understand it in this way, then they should not be ashamed to be on either side of the fence on this issue in this democratic society. We all have the right to voice our strategy for creating the type of society we see as best, especially on the issue of the definition about something that has no actual legal difference to society one way or another.

    Sadly though, as you point out: "Now too much “face” is affected by the issue for a continued restriction of marriage to be heard (by either side) as anything other than a win for homophobia." The discussion has been coloured by prejudice. In fact, you might say "homophobia-phobia" has jeopardised thoughtful and democratic debate on this issue.

  3. Simon, Just a quick comment that I think when you describe what this blog expresses you may be reading it merely how you want to.

    I don't buy into the language you are using of "right", "ashamed" and certainly "homophobia-phobia". Those words seem to me to belong to a Christian sense of persecution on this matter which is frankly false to any fair observation. This discussion has been coloured by some horrible language from its very beginning with the phrasing of the issue as the Defence of Marriage by John Howard. Cory Bernardi, and the Australian Christian Lobby have also been offensive if not intentionally then because they are idiotic. I think its fair to say people have been trolled by those voices and John Howards beginning of this matter - it would be better to stop reacting to them and for the debate to become a whole lot less heated. On that we probably agree.

    I'm sure there are times where individuals genuinely not interested in punishing homosexuality and rewarding heterosexuality with the blunt instrument of law and shame have still been labelled as homophobic - just for opposing marriage equality. Those people can usually be identified by the general recognition they make for gay and lesbian relationships. But in heated debate we often reduce things to black and white.

    However there are a lot of people interested in a world in which all homosexuality is considered a perversion who use softer arguments like the one in this post as it suits them with no real sincerity. They are quick to scapegoat same-sex marriage for the end of civilisation - ignoring everything else driving changes to families. They want to be told their views are unembarrassing and welcome as a contribution to democracy but I wouldn't be making that point. Of course they have the right to a voice but not to anyones attention.

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