I've had so much additional work from various quarters in the last year that this blogging pasttime had to either start to significantly benefit other areas of my life, or else be neglected.
But today, I'm wearing red, and with some free time courtesy of "Spring Break", this teacher has a chance to say something about an issue that's become important to me in the last few years: marriage equality.
First of all, as a practical matter, I've never seen any convincing evidence that same-sex couples make worse parents than couples of the opposite sex.
Interestingly, when I was younger, I assumed the opposite was the case: that, in order to promote healthy development, that it was important for young men and women to have healthy role models of both sexes in their immediate family. Reasoning this way, I argued that while I had no animus against homosexuals per se, that the state could justifiably prohibit same-sex marriage on the grounds that the state had a vested interest in acting when possible to promote the optimal development of minor children.
Well, turns out that my assumptions are terribly flawed. It seems that the stability of the family unit is far more important than the gender or orientation of the parents. Whatever contribution relative to healthy development is made by homosexuals versus heterosexuals seems to be so small that it's easily swamped in the noise of all the other factors that arguably can make childhood heaven or hell for a young person. Homelessness, unemployment, addiction, the reckless accumulation of debt and marital infidelity seem to pose far greater threats to the health and well-being of the child, because all of these items appear to contribute directly to the breakdown or dysfunction of the family relationships that sustain the child's development. Divorce or abandonment, especially in adolescence, can be particularly traumatic for young people. Again, compared to the obvious bludgeoning of the child's circumstance by these factors, the role of gender and sexual orientation is so muted that it probably can't even be estimated with any degree of reliability.
Now, it could be argued that homosexuality is just part of a continuum of aberrant behavior, and that it could be seen as symptomatic of other issues that directly threaten the family. Again, the data doesn't seem to bear that out. When comparing committed couples who have been together for a decade or more, the incidence of things like homelessness or addictive behavior does not seem to vary significantly based on the parent's sexual orientation, especially when compared with heterosexual couples who were not married. The American Psychological Assocation has made a number of recommendations, including the following:
1) There is no scientific basis for concluding that gay and lesbian parents are any less fit or capable than heterosexual parents;
2) There is no scientific basis for concluding that the children of gay and lesbian parents are any less psychologically healthy or well adjusted;
3) The institution of marriage offers social, psychological and health benefits that are denied to same-sex couples;
4) The children of same-sex parents will benefit if their parents are allowed to marry.
So, the available data does not in any support my original position on same-sex marriage. It suggests, in fact, quite the opposite. I am now in my fifties, and whether I like it or not, it appears that something that I confidently asserted for much of my adult life simply lacks evidential support and probably reflected stereotypical (and limited) experiences with gay people, rather than any real understanding of what it might be like to be any sort of parent with grown children.
This realization came gradually to me, and I should probably express gratitude for the many gay people who may have heard my clever rationale for denying them oppotunity, yet continued to engage me with courtesy and dignity. While I certainly don't think I ever held homophobic views, I definitely was ignorant, and I definitely was operating under stereotypes that discouraged me from thinking critically about my views. Thank God I have an opportunity to make my mea culpa now, though to be completely honest, it wasn't logic that initially propelled me to reconsider my views, or even increased familiarity with the social science literature on the topic. It was the practical experience of having a very diverse student population, including kids who were nerds, misfits or even (as some claimed) "gay."
Teaching was a second career for me. During my forties, as I gained experience in the classroom, I came to see that the one putdown that was still universally accepted by my students was the word "gay", which had become a stand-in insult for anything that the present clique might regard as outlandish. It wasn't necessarily hate speech as used by most of my students, but it was clearly acceptable practice for them to use this term in such a way, and I came to realize that this caused a few students more than discomfort, but pain. This was disruptive to the learning environment, but it was not enough in my view to forbid the practice on practical grounds. What was needed, I felt, was a sound justification not based on sentiment, but logic, as to why we should not use the word "gay" as a put-down. Yet, as an agent of government, it was probably not be prudent for me to advocate for "gay rights" per se in a public school classroom. That would create even more controversy and disruption of the learning environment.
Searching for a professionally-appropriate way to protect these students from this sort of language, I realized that the reason the word could be used in a perjorative way had to do with it having originally been embraced as an identify statement. Few people wake up in the morning and announce to their bathroom mirror their pride at their particular sexual orientation, but for many homosexuals it became essential in the late 20th century to develop a self-descriptive term that was empowering, rather than clinical. Heterosexuals who bemoaned the loss of a "perfectly decent word" (gay) from their lexicon had missed the point: gay people had chosen to call themselves gay, as a means of identifying themselves in a fashion that was assertively positive. Indeed, "gayness" was often deliberately invoked in the phrase of "gay pride." Thus, what made the use of the word "gay" as an insult so obnoxious was that it attempted to invert the target's positive self-image, and turn their very identity against them.
This was a revelation for me, personally. The very next time a student used the word 'gay' as a put-down, I matter-of-factly explained that for many people in our state, the word 'gay' described their identity, in the same way that the word "Jew" or the word "black" might describe another person's sense of their self. "We should never use another's identity as a weapon against them," I would say. And, at some point, that saying became a mantra, because (of course) students being students, that particular "teachable moment" would come again. I can honestly say that in my classes, that sort of moment is becoming less frequent. What was a mantra, adopted out of convenience as a way of finessing disruptive behavior, has gradually become a core belief that informs not only my instruction, but how I view others. I disagree with political conservatives on many points, probably more so now than at any point in my life. But I no longer view it as legitimate to use words like "conservative" or "Republican" as a put-down; such folk, like everyone else, deserve to be engaged on the basis of their ideas and not rejected on the basis of how they identify themselves.
To be consistent with my classroom practice, a fair-minded person would have to reconsider the arguments made against same-sex marriage with respect to the claimed (negative effects), rather than simply assume that (being gay) that somehow such unions must be sub-optimal with respect to children's development. It was at this point that, for the first time, I made a serious effort to understand the social science literature, to see if it would actually provide any support for my earlier rationale. The discovery that such evidence was not forthcoming was not entirely a shock. My mind was prepared to consider the possibility that I was wrong. What was surprising, however, was that confronted by the evidence it still took time for my views to crystallize.
So, to summarize what I've written, the scientific evidence that is available suggests that marriage equality provides a net benefit to society as a whole, but I was only prompted to carefully consider that evidence (and thus modify my views) on the basis of practical challenges of managing conflict in a public school classroom. That is, I was persuaded as much by necessity as reason to find another way. In my next post, however, I will discuss the legal and historical rationales for and against same-sex marriage, and how they form an eerie parallel to the "creationism vs. evolution" struggle that has been so formative for me as a science educator these last twelve years.
Word Count: 1,549
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