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What Makes a Homophobe? Ireland's Debate Goes Global

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The man pictured above, journalist John Waters (no, not the famous film director) has just taken €40,000 from RTE, Ireland's national broadcaster. And it's all because a guest on a TV show called him homophobic. Waters threatened to sue, and the station buckled with craven immediacy.

Since then, a 2012 interview that Waters conducted with a student newspaper, the UCD College Tribune, has come to light. In this interview, Waters expressed some rather extreme - arguably virulently homophobic - views on gay people. There are calls for Waters to give the money back, but they are likely to fail.

Is it homophobic to say that same-sex marriage should be opposed? Not because the gay sex is icky, you see. And not because the Bible says so. No, according to the most prominent opponents of same-sex marriage in Ireland, the reason to oppose same-sex marriage is because of children, and because the "optimal environment" for children is being raised by a biological mother and father.

Homophobia Row

It all began when Irish drag artist Panti Bliss (aka Rory O'Neill) appeared on RTE's The Saturday Night Show and was asked about homophobia. O'Neill said that anyone who argues that gay people should be treated in any way differently from anyone else is homophobic.

The show's host, Brendan O'Connor, unwisely asked O'Neill who was homophobic. O'Neill proceeded to name the Catholic and conservative think-tank known as the Iona Institute, which previously campaigned against civil partnership rights and now opposes same-sex marriage. O'Neill also named Irish Times columnist John Waters as a homophobe.

The offended parties responded swiftly, threatening O'Neill with legal action and demanding an apology from RTE. Panti responded by delivering a powerful oration on the nature of homophobia at The Abbey, Ireland's national theatre. One prominent Irish journalist, Fintan O'Toole, described it as "the most eloquent Irish speech" in almost 200 years. Panti's speech has now become a global sensation with almost 450,000 views to date.

This issue has dominated the news agenda in Ireland for the last month, and it shows no signs of stopping. The story is making waves abroad, with US columnist Dan Savage and UK newspaper The Guardian among those taking up the issue. Even Madonna has sent Panti her support.

The spotlight on Irish gay rights occurs at a time when the Irish Government has promised to hold a referendum on same-sex marriage next year. Polls suggest that voters are likely to back full marriage equality.

The most civil opponents of same-sex marriage say that they believe children are better off raised by their biological mother and father. They argue this does not make them homophobic. Maybe it doesn't. Either way, they have absolutely every right to publicly state their case, but some of them are seeking to deny the same right to their opponents. This is an issue of censorship. At least five of them threatened legal action against RTE and O'Neill for suggesting they might be homophobic, while repeatedly referring to their concern for the welfare of children. (O'Neill, in fact, never specifically referred to their views on child-rearing, he focused on general opposition to full equality for gay people.)

Gay Parents

Nobody denies that gay people are already bringing up children in Ireland. They can already adopt, but only as a single person. Families with gay parents currently lack legal protection.

But perhaps it is precisely the belief that gay people cannot offer as good a home to a child as two heterosexual, opposite-sex parents, that is homophobic. If you think that children will be damaged or have a lesser childhood if brought up by gay people, you might be afraid of, or worried about, or concerned by gay people, and this may just make you a homophobe. If you think that what matters most to children is the gender of the people who love and care for them, you might be perhaps a little homophobic, and maybe a little bit sexist too. Of course I might be wrong, but is this mere suggestion really defamatory?

Your Family Is Not Optimal

My mother is the eldest of five. Her biological parents abandoned her as a baby. She was handed her over to her paternal grandmother and two aunts, who gave her a wonderful upbringing without any input from her genetic parents. My biological grandparents treated her awfully throughout her life. My mother was much, much better off with her aunts and her grandmother. It is deeply insulting when people who know nothing of her life declare that her situation was not "optimum", and it denies the great work of my late great-aunt Pearl, who I have long considered to be my real grandmother.

My friend's father died when he was just a baby and he was raised alone by his wonderful mother. He wanted for nothing but is constantly hearing that he was somehow deficient, that his situation wasn't "optimum", that it could have been better.

Another great friend of mine, Sinead, has raised her daughter alone. It hasn't been easy, but her 13-year-old is probably one of the kindest, sweetest, most intelligent, well-adjusted young women you could meet. According to the opponents of same-sex marriage, who profess a deep concern for child welfare, her situation isn't "optimum." This little girl constantly hears those messages about her deprived situation on the radio and on TV all the time; luckily, she has a brilliant mother to reassure her that it doesn't matter.

Each time a child who, for whatever reason, is being brought up by a gay parent or gay parents, hears that their situation is not "optimal", they are told that their family is somehow deficient, and they absorb this message. The problem is not their loving families; their problem is those who constantly oppose their loving families.

I cannot imagine that those who profess such concern for child welfare could possibly want to inflict this hurt on children from non-traditional families.

Gay Parents: The Evidence

Here's what all the evidence says about the needs of children. What matters most for a child's happiness and future prosperity is not the sexuality or gender of their parents; what matters is the education levels of their parents (there are so many studies to support this that I've linked to some below).

The evidence that children raised by LGBT have equal or better prospects than children raised by heterosexual parents, as well as evidence that some opponents of same-sex parenting have consistently misrepresented research, is so overwhelming that, short of writing my own academic paper on this blog, only the Wikipedia page on LGBT parenting gives a half-decent overview of all the research; readers can make up their own mind.

Those who devote their energies to stopping same-sex marriage may very well be motivated by a genuine, albeit misplaced, fear over child welfare. If child welfare really is such a concern, perhaps they should review the evidence and direct just a fraction of their energy towards creating a more equal society and an education system that provides an equal chance for all children, irrespective of the socio-economic status, sexuality or gender of their parents.

Studies on Prospects for Children:


The American Journal of Pediatrics

EuroStat Report on Educational Attainment
Health Impacts of Education: Ireland
Equity and Quality in Education: Supporting Disadvantaged Students and Schools (OECD Report)
US Elementary and Secondary Schools: Equalising Opportunity or Replicating the Status Quo?
Parental Socioeconomic Status, Child Health, and Human Capital