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Gayby Baby and the Privilege of Normality

by Patrick Stokes
27 August 2015
The NSW Education Minister banned an in-school screening of a documentary about children raised by same-sex parents. Patrick Stokes says the arguments for this decision are flimsy and aim to preserve an unjustified definition of “normal”.

The furore – oh, I’m sorry, “Gay Class Uproar” – over Sydney’s Burwood Girls High School’s decision to screen the documentary Gayby Baby to its students tells us quite a lot about where LGBTQI issues are up to in Australia. You might be dispirited by the thought that an Education Minister in 2015 would step in to stop the school from presenting Burwood alumnus Maya Newell’s exploration of the lives of children of same-sex couples. But the fact that the key players have to resort to fig leaves may be cause for a strange kind of optimism.

Even by the argumentative standards of modern political life in Australia, the justifications offered for this decision are gossamer thin. The claim that parents had complained en masse evaporated as soon as it hit the ground. The NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli instead declared he’d nixed the film because students should only be following the curriculum during class hours, which leads one to ask why he didn’t stop Foreign Minister Julie Bishop from addressing the same students just two days before. She wasn’t, one assumes, there to drill them on their times tables.

The fact that the key players have to resort to fig leaves may be cause for a strange kind of optimism.

It was left to Telegraph columnist Piers Ackerman to articulate – and that’s a fairly generous use of the term – the real case against showing students a film that says nothing more controversial than ‘some kids have same-sex parents and that’s not actually a bad thing’. No-one denies kids in such families hear and internalise the opposite message far too often. Ackerman himself quotes a twelve-year-old girl from the film, Ebony, who tells us, “‘It’s not normal. You’re not normal’. They’re the kind of things that go through my head”.

In response, Ackerman cited the Oxford Dictionary definition of “normal”. That’s something we drill into our first year students not to do, by the way, because dictionaries report how words are used rather than offer solid ‘definitions’ of concepts. And on the basis of that dictionary definition of “normal”, Ackerman added, “Statistically, you are not in a ‘normal’ family, no matter how many LGBTIQ-friendly docos you may be forced to watch by politically driven school principals”.

Of course, that’s sleight of hand. He’s swapping out Ebony’s evaluative sense of “normal” for a neutral, statistical one. That allows him to speak of “the fantasy that homosexual families are the norm” without having to admit there’s any value judgment in such a phrase. No one thinks pandas are immoral, perverse or inferior just because they’re statistically rare. But it’s fascinating and telling that Ackerman had to make that move. No-one is particularly interested in the mere statistical sense of ‘normal’ here, but most pundits now realise the evaluative sense can’t be appealed to explicitly. Yet when people complain films like Gayby Baby normalise same-sex parenting, it’s that substantive conception of what is ‘normal’ that’s at issue. And we need to understand why.

No one thinks pandas are immoral, perverse or inferior just because they’re statistically rare.

Proponents of same-sex marriage often challenge its opponents with the question, How does who I marry affect you?” In other words, what could proponents of ‘traditional’ marriage possibly stand to lose by extending marriage to same-sex couples? Surely the nature and quality of their own marriages isn’t changed by the legal status of other couples?

Think of what’s known in philosophy as a “Cambridge Change”. If I cut your leg off I bring about a real change in your properties. But I also change your two-legged sister’s properties. She now has more legs than at least one of her siblings, which is a property she didn’t have before. But it’s hard to see how your lost leg is ‘real’ change for your sister. Similar logic leads people to ask, why do the ‘traditionalists’ care so much whether other people’s relationships are defined as marriages?

Unfortunately we’ve known the answer for quite a while, at least as far back as the philosopher Cheshire Calhoun’s analysis of the arguments given by U.S. lawmakers for the Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA). One implicit reason they were keen to back DOMA was because changing the legal definition of marriage implied marriage wasn’t a sacred, pre-political institution given with the universe itself. Rather, it indicated that marriage is a culturally and politically contingent human response to realities of love, sexuality and kinship. It seemed, in other words, to knock heterosexual marriage – and by extension, currently married couples – down off a metaphysical pedestal.

That’s why “normalisation” threatens some heterosexual people. “Normalising” same-sex relationships means heterosexuality is no longer special, no longer the ‘right’ way to be. For some people that loss of status has a sting to it. Status means power and power means politics, so in one sense at least, Ackerman is right. It is “political” to show such a movie to school kids, a movie that explodes the justifications for unearned or illusory privilege. But again there’s equivocation here, for when Ackerman uses “political” he’s implying this is somehow a controversial or partisan topic, an open and contested question rather than something we should be presenting to children as beyond serious dispute.

The Daily Telegraph reported “Daniel”, the closest thing to an on-the-record complainant parent at Burwood, said the film was “pushing an alternative view and was pushing my view and my daughter’s view into a minority”. Ackerman agrees, describing this as a “political” move on the part of “political propagandists” to “advance the interests of a particular political group”. In doing so, Ackerman tells people like Daniel, in effect, it’s still ok to believe what you believe, because as you can see, the argument isn’t over yet. The ball is still in play and that means schools and governments have to be impartial between your team and the other folks.

But there’s only so long you can pretend you haven’t heard the final siren.

Dr Patrick Stokes is a senior lecturer in Philosophy at Deakin University. You can follow him on Twitter @patstokes.

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