So many debunking-type conversations that we have go like this:
- “But gay parents will raise gay children!” “Actually, children of same-sex couples aren’t any more likely to be gay.”
- “Women just want insurance to pay for their birth control so they don’t have to pay for all the sex they’re having.” “Actually, many people take birth control for medical reasons.”
- “Feminists are ugly and can’t find a man!” “Actually, many feminists have male partners and happy relationships.”
- “Lesbians just had a bad experience with a guy so they’ve decided to date women.” “Actually, lesbians are Born That Way.”
- “Polyamorous people just want to have tons of casual sex without having to commit to anything.” “Actually, polyamory is about love, not sex; many poly people have lifelong partners and raise children with them.”
- “Mentally ill people are crazy and can’t act like normal people.” “Actually, most people with mental illnesses have jobs, friends, and relationships just like everyone else.”
- “Gay men have deviant, promiscuous lifestyles.” “Actually, most gay men are Just Like Us; all they want is to marry their soulmate and raise children together.”
- “Women who get abortions are just casually throwing life away.” “Actually, for many women, abortion is a difficult and painful decision.”
- “Homosexuality is a sin.” “Actually, gay people never chose to be gay.”
These are defensive narratives. They’re defensive because they accept the opposition’s terms and assumptions and then respond as though those terms and assumptions are acceptable, even preferable.
It’s not always obvious what you’re accepting when you take these statements at face value. So let’s unpack them.
- “But gay parents will raise gay children!”: Raising gay children, and being gay, is a bad thing. The idea that same-sex parents might raise gay children is therefore a counterargument against letting them adopt.
- “Women just want insurance to pay for their birth control so they don’t have to pay for all the sex they’re having.”: It’s bad for women to have sex, and women who cannot afford birth control shouldn’t have sex.
- “Feminists are ugly and can’t find a man!”: Being unattractive by conventional standards and being unable to find a man to date is a bad way for a woman to be and it means I don’t have to take her opinions seriously.
- “Lesbians just had a bad experience with a guy so they’ve decided to date women.”: If someone’s sexual identity stems from negative experiences that they’ve had, then that identity is invalid.
- “Polyamorous people just want to have tons of casual sex without having to commit to anything.”: Wanting to have tons of casual sex without having to commit to anything is wrong.
- “Mentally ill people are crazy and can’t act like normal people.”: Being unable to act like “normal people” is a bad thing and worthy of shame and stigma.
- “Gay men have deviant, promiscuous lifestyles.”: Being “deviant” and “promiscuous” is bad.
- “Women who get abortions are just casually throwing life away.”: It’s wrong to treat abortion like any other medical procedure; it’s only acceptable if the person getting the abortion suffers emotionally because of it.
- “Homosexuality is a sin.” That one’s pretty obvious.
How do you know that you’re taking a defensive stance and accepting your opposition’s faulty assumptions? If you find yourself trying to claim that a stigmatized group is “just like everyone else,” or that your group or idea is really totally nonthreatening to the status quo, you may be agreeing with more of your opposition’s premises than you mean to.
Children raised by same-sex couples aren’t more likely than children of different-sex couples (or single parents) to be lesbian, gay, or bi. But so what if they were? Why is that a bad thing? How would that justify denying rights to same-sex couples?
Women with feminist views don’t generally come to those views by being “ugly” and rejected by men (if anything, some of us have had a little too much attention from men). But so what if they did? The ideas can be evaluated on their own merits, can they not?
Many or most lesbians have probably been lesbians for their whole lives, and didn’t have any particular experiences that “caused” them to be lesbians. But some did. Some women find that their patterns of attraction change after traumatic experiences with men. Aren’t their identities just as valid?
Most people with mental illnesses do have jobs and families and can generally “pass” as neurotypical. What about the ones who can’t? Don’t they deserve support rather than shame and stigma? Shouldn’t we fund programs that will provide much-needed services to these people, not just to the ones who “pass”?
Most LGBTQ people do not experience their identity as a choice that they got to make. But so what if they did? What’s the problem with choosing to be gay, supposing that’s even possible?
Progressive advocates don’t concede these points maliciously. Often, they understand what’s being left unsaid and disagree with it, but they believe that we need to go “one step at a time” or else we’ll never get anywhere.
Maybe that’s true. I don’t actually know. That’s an empirical question, but it’s very difficult to answer because studying attitude shifts is a process laden with variables that can’t be controlled. I obviously understand the reasoning–you can’t teach a child algebra until you teach them how to count–that doesn’t necessarily mean that the reasoning applies.
For instance, it’s also possible that this approach actually increases the length of time it takes to achieve equality or justice. When we accept the opponent’s faulty premise, we waste time that we could’ve spent challenging that premise. So we hear “Gay people are sinful deviants” and respond that actually gay people just want to get married and raise cute babies, why won’t you give them that chance? And the premise we accept is that being gay is only okay as long as you can look as much like a typical straight person as possible, and we choose our battles accordingly. If rather than battling homophobia, we battle the fact that two people of the same gender cannot get married, and next we battle the fact that in many states same-sex couples can’t adopt children, and so on, then when will we actually defeat homophobia?
Moreover, as plenty of people have pointed out plenty of times, this approach often ignores the most marginalized in a given group. If we’re always choosing the easiest, most press-friendly battle, then when are we going to address the fact that trans women of color are being murdered at really high rates? When do we address violence and discrimination against homeless queer youth, including the ones who do sex work and the ones who use or sell drugs?
I’m kinda wondering if the answer is “never.”
Accepting the opponent’s premise is not a neutral action; it causes actual harm to actual people. It marginalizes everyone whose narrative doesn’t fit into the tidy paths we’ve laid: the lesbian whose sexual trauma influenced her developing identity; the gay man who does want to have lots of random casual sex rather than finding a husband and raising children; the person who accidentally gets pregnant and immediately gets an abortion and feels nothing but relief; all the people who do want birth control specifically because they love sex and don’t want children. Which, by the way, is totally okay. That’s why birth control exists.
I won’t pretend to know what the way forward is, but I think we do have a responsibility to at least try to challenge faulty premises. It’s possible to say, “Actually, children of same-sex parents aren’t more likely to be gay or bi themselves, but so what if they were?” or “For many people, the decision to get an abortion is actually a really difficult and painful one, but for some it’s just another medical procedure. What’s the problem with that?” Throw that shit back in their face. Make them explain to you why they’re saying what they’re saying. Make them actually admit that they think that being gay is bad or that having non-procreative sex is wrong or that having occasionally smoked pot makes it okay for the police to murder you on the street. At least then you know where you stand.
If you liked this post, please consider supporting me on Patreon!