Friday, July 11, 2014

Gay Marriage is Not Inherently Doomed

As anti-gay writers continue to attack gay marriage as somehow fundamentally inferior to straight marriage, the facts about same-sex marriage point to realities that are much more complex than these articles suggest.
 by Grant Andrews

A few days ago, The Christian Post published an article by guest contributor Jason Richwine entitled “Why Gay Couples Divorce More Than Straight Couples”, in which Richwine claimed that academics were unwilling to confront the realities of gay marriage and conduct serious comparative studies because they were afraid of political backlash. He claims, for reasons unknown, that gay marriages are likely to have higher divorce rates (they are not proven to, as his title suggests), and also suggests that once this is confirmed through research that it should somehow have “policy implications”. Mr Richwine’s message is clear: gay marriages are less durable or broken somehow, people are afraid to say this or to explore this reality scientifically, and this inconvenient truth should be proof that gays should not have equal marriage rights.

Richwine’s line of inquiry is inspired by the first case of same-sex divorce in Indiana. He takes his impetus from an article by Stephen Hayward which sides with dubious, widely discredited research in support of the theory that research on minorities or oppressed groups is demonised in media and academic circles. Hayward will find, on closer inspection, that academic rigor was not followed in the research which he cites, even if the findings happen to be in line with his political convictions. He refers to the study of Mark Regnerus, in which the author claims that children of same-sex couples were prone to more "social dysfunction" than those of opposite-sex couples. The research was very poorly executed: the sample size was too small to support the sweeping conclusions which the study draws, as the 250 parents interviewed can hardly be seen as representative. Also, Regnerus quickly collapses categories in order to make any person in his sample who has had a same-sex experience in their past identified as a “gay parent”, even if the children being studied were raised in a heterosexual marriage by these “gay parents”. In addition, the study did not undergo the usual peer-review process, and over 200 academics signed a letter questioning how such an unscientific work was published in the first place, and demanding a retraction. Mr Hayward’s claim that the study was attacked purely based on its findings is ridiculous in light of these various failures in the academic process, and subsequent studies have actually contradicted Regnerus’s claims and shown that children of same-sex relationships often develop many positive attitudes and traits in comparison to those raised in heterosexual marriages, and are even shown to be healthier and happier.

Hayward and Richwine’s idea that researchers are afraid of conducting studies on LGBTI issues is clearly false considering the plethora of articles, books and studies on these issues which point to many complexities of LGBTI life - a quick Google Scholar search would have helped them here. In fact, even though the article claims that there is a dearth of material upon which to draw, many studies on gay divorce rates have been conducted, and largely they are found to be lower than divorce rates for straight couples. One of the example cited by Richwine of higher divorce rates for same-sex couples in Norway and Denmark, in a paper which he does not seem to have read, claims that a major contributing factor in these divorces is cultural differences, as 43% - 45% of male same-sex partnerships had a case of at least one partner not born in the host country versus 22% of opposite-sex couples. In addition, the research shows that the much higher divorce rate of female same-sex couples is mostly in line with the tendency of women to initiate divorce around the world, but especially in Scandinavian countries where they have more wealth equality, and women initiate divorce more often even in heterosexual marriages. Homosexual couples also often have a larger age gap between partners, they often live in metropolitan areas, and are less likely to have children, all of which are linked to higher divorce rates for any couple. In fact, the researchers themselves clearly state in the abstract of their paper that even though divorce-risk levels are higher for same-sex couples due to the various factors listed: “[p]atterns in divorce risks are quite similar in same-sex and opposite-sex marriages”. This means, for the clarity of readers like Mr Richwine who do not seem to understand it, that same-sex couples face higher risks for divorce due to their demographics like location, age, cultural differences and other factors, but when these same risks are faced by either heterosexual or homosexual couples, the couples are equally likely to opt for divorce. The second study which Richwine points to, based on British data, does not compare same-sex marriage and divorce rates, and thus does not support the argument he attempts to construct. The study does, however, point to many of the same social pressures which result in the dissolution of same-sex couples, and these perspectives might have offered Richwine a more nuanced understanding of the marginalisation of gay couples if he had paid attention to them. Thus, Richwine offers a deliberate misreading of the literature which is available simply in order to support his theory that same-sex marriage is doomed to failure.

But even though Richwine and Hayward’s ideas are not based on the scientific inquiry which they seem to champion, there are some important issues raised by the fact that such articles even see the light of day: why do many people still have such negative attitudes towards gay marriage, and are there particular issues which gay couples face which might make them vulnerable to marital problems or even divorce? These types of questions might lead us to more compassionate, logical approaches, instead of aiming for the immediate “policy changes” which Richwine points to in reaction to the first case of gay divorce in a particular state.

The latter question could be linked to a variety of factors. Same-sex marriages might be under added pressure since these couples almost always face incredible social pressure, not just from their communities but often also from their religious institutions, at their workplaces and even from their own families. They are underrepresented in media and made to feel isolated and ostracised from a young age and at every stage of life, from not being able to bring a same-sex partner to a school dance all the way to not being able to legally marry the person they love as an adult due to the fact that most of the world still does not allow same-sex marriage. These factors lead to heightened levels of self-loathing, internalised homophobia and depression in gay people, and gay teens are about five times as likely to attempt suicide as their straight counterparts. Gay couples also are subject to legal discrimination throughout the world, as they face added obstacles when trying to gain the same benefits as straight couples or when trying to have children or adopt. Gay marriage is illegal in most countries besides about 18 worldwide (some legislation has not yet taken effect), and homosexuality is punishable by death in 10 countries. Even when they are able to marry, many face public humiliation, violence,  resistance and taunting from anti-gay people and groups (and some writers on The Christian Post) who condemn their relationships and terrorise their families, sometimes on a regular basis. These social and legal issues will obviously put strain on a marriage or relationship.

In addition to this, even when the rights of LGBTI people are recognised and gay marriages are legalised, these are still treated as special cases and on the basis of separate but equal. The language reinforces this difference, as the term “marriage” is often reserved for opposite-sex unions, and same-sex couples are in many cases only offered the (sometimes legally inferior) option of “civil unions”. Official forms are geared towards heterosexual couples, and they are often denied service based on their sexuality due to the "religious freedom" of those who discriminate against them. By devaluing these marriages through this framing, our societies send the message that these couples are somehow not as legitimate as opposite-sex couples. Articles like those published by Richwine and Hayward, with inaccurate and misleading titles, add to this social stigma and hostility towards gay people.

As the rights of LGBTI people are becoming more widely recognised, it is imperative that we challenge those who try to create misconceptions in order to support their agenda of denying equal rights to all people. Advocates of intelligent debate, which Richwine and Hayward claim to be, should be required to debate intelligently, and not try to veil their prejudices behind alarmist reactions to a single case of same-sex divorce or behind purposefully misrepresented or poorly conducted research.

As for the question of why people still hold these prejudices and seek to oppress and dehumanise gay people, there is no answer which is rooted in the rational mind; these phobias, to put it plainly, are irrational, undemocratic and hateful, and entertaining them as relevant or worthy of our consideration or respect is an injustice to all of us in a democratic, evolving, intelligent society. We need to expose them and shine the light of logic on them, and eventually, I hope, they will cease to carry the power that they do.