When I argued that the language used by same-sex marriage advocates also risked doing harm to LGBTI youths, Facebook removed my post. It took the intervention of former Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson to get it restored, writes John Dickson.
Perhaps the most powerful argument for same-sex marriage and against holding a plebiscite on the issue is the potential harm that is being done to vulnerable LGBTI youth. But the argument itself is far from self-evident, and there are reasons to suspect that both sides of the debate share equal responsibility for protecting gay and lesbian youth from feeling they are a despised minority.
The statistics are solid and alarming. A systematic review of research in the scientific journal BMC Psychiatry found that lesbian, gay and bisexual people “are at higher risk of mental disorder, suicidal ideation, substance misuse, and deliberate self harm than heterosexual people.”
Suicide attempts are 2.47 times higher among lesbian, gay and bisexual people than among heterosexuals. Depression and anxiety rates are 1.5 times higher. Alcohol and substance abuse are 1.5 times higher. And, most alarming, suicide rates among gay and bisexual men are 4.28 times higher than average.
The pastoral issues are huge, and must be a priority. As I recently told my own congregation in a series of talks on sex and relationships, I would rather be misunderstood as fully supporting same-sex relationships than misunderstood as suggesting that LGBTI Australians are second-class citizens. Any discussion of the classical, or even biblical, understanding of sex must be subordinate to the long-held Western conviction – also from the Bible – that every human being is made in God’s image and is inestimably precious.
Christians do bear a special responsibility in Western history. While Greeks and Romans were also against same-sex marriage as an institution, they famously accepted all manner of informal loving same-sex relationships.
It was the ascendency of Christianity in the West by the sixth century that brought all same-sex relationships, not just same-sex marriage, under a cloud of judgment. The argument was a simple extension of the classical, or Greek and Roman, argument: “Nature” (Christians said “God”) had endowed just one human bond with the miraculous power to create and nurture their own offspring for the good of society. This unique bond deserved its own name: “Marriage.”
It cannot really be doubted that this classical argument in favour of heterosexual monogamy as a strict norm led to all manner of despicable language and actions against those who didn’t “fit”. Thousands of lives through history must have existed in fearful turmoil at the prospect of being exposed as a “pervert”. The ire of the Christian-influenced world, and especially of Mother Church, would have been terrifying. Better to suppress one’s inner longings, or hide in the shadows of shame. We now have the awful statistics to confirm such historical musings.
Against this background, it may seem utterly implausible and misguided to suggest that anyone but the church bears any responsibility for ensuring the LGBTI community, especially young people, are not harmed in the current debate. But I ask readers to hear me out.
I think I detect a pattern of argumentation over same-sex marriage today that could be harming gay and lesbian youth but which is partly the fault of those advocating for same-sex marriage in the public media.
It is true that demeaning insults were once part of the stock language against the entire LGBTI community in the public square. I can only imagine the damage that did to young (and old) people wrestling with their sexuality. It is a terrible part of our recent Australian history. God, forgive us!
But we don’t see many demeaning insults directed at the LGBTI community in the public square nowadays. I am not talking about in the schoolyard or at the pub, where I am sure deep problems of language and behaviour persist. I am talking about the public square – in newspapers, on TV, and on the radio.
Whether on The Project or Q&A, most of the anger, intemperate language, and open spite comes from advocates of same-sex marriage against traditionalists. Defenders of classical marriage – even if they are wrong and loopy – on the whole seem to have learned to engage in the contest of ideas with respect and civility. This is the one upside of having made so many mistakes in the past: we can see the harm we’ve done and try to do something about it.
There is an intriguing pattern in public debates about gay marriage. At the climax of many of these discussions, as advocates of same-sex marriage raise their voices and deliver their insults, they frequently declare with unnoticed irony something like, “And this is precisely why we shouldn’t have a plebiscite on gay marriage. Look how negative and hate-filled the discussion becomes. This can only reinforce feelings of rejection among LGBTI youth.” Apparently, there has been a recent surge in calls to LGBTI helplines. Something terrible does indeed seem to be happening.
Young gay and lesbian people are being encouraged to believe that a whole segment of Australian society despises them and regards them as second-class citizens.
Following Telstra’s recent statement that it would no longer publicly advocate for same-sex marriage (before reversing the decision), the president of Melbourne’s Gay and Lesbian Organisation of Business and Enterprise (GLOBE), David Micallef, released a statement slamming the telco for bowing to perceived pressure from the Roman Catholic Church.
GLOBE pledged to cancel its Telstra phone services and no longer accept financial support from the company. Micallef added: “I have been concerned by the hate-filled discussion that this news from Telstra has generated and the negative impact it has already had on LGBTI people in the community.”
I read, watched, and listened to as much of the media discussion that week as I could, and I detected no hate-filled speech at all from defenders of classical marriage, though there was a lot of open spite from the critics of Telstra.
I am left fearing that what Micallef really means is that disagreeing with gay marriage is itself hate speech. We have come to the point in the discussion where you can be described as bigoted, hateful, and demeaning toward others simply for articulating the view that “marriage” is a unique word to describe the unique bond between a man and a woman in hope of creating and nurturing their own offspring. There is a large intellectual blind spot here, that probably deserves its own analysis. But my fear is more practical.
By heightening the spiteful tone of the debate and constantly emphasising the bigotry traditional marriage advocates allegedly hold toward the LGBTI community, public advocates of same-sex marriage may be unwittingly entrenching in young gay and lesbian people the feeling that there is something wrong with them. After all, they are being encouraged to believe that a whole segment of Australian society despises them and regards them as second-class citizens.
Older LGBTI warriors no doubt have good reason for feeling spiteful, and their sense of being scorned is historically and personally grounded. I am really talking about contemporary media advocates of same-sex marriage – frequently seen on Q&A or The Project, or preaching their message on Twitter – who equate opposition to same-sex marriage with hatred, pure and simple.
It is their message I fear has the potential to harm not just healthy debate but human beings. By insisting that traditional marriage advocates hate gays and lesbians, these well-intentioned same-sex marriage advocates may be exacerbating the feelings of LGBTI youth that they are indeed hated.
But imagine an alternative. If same-sex marriage advocates chose tomorrow to emphasise in public debate that, whatever the faults of history, it is entirely possible in the present to disagree with same-sex marriage and genuinely care for LGBTI people, isn’t it possible that young gay and lesbian listeners would be spared some of the harm any debate would cause? If calm and respectful discussion was the order of the day, instead of tribalism and slurs, from whichever side, wouldn’t LGBTI youth feel better about who they are and less “under attack” from other segments of society?
I realise I see all this through the lenses of classical Christian convictions and centuries of social power. I have tried to assess my motives and look at this from the perspective of others. And still I am left wondering if same-sex marriage advocates bear as much responsibility as traditional marriage advocates for ensuring that LGBTI youth are not harmed in the lead up to any plebiscite.
The substance of this article first appeared as a Facebook post which was deleted by Facebook and subsequently restored, following the intervention of former Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson; it was then published at The Drum.
Dr John Dickson is an author and historian and the Founding Director of the Centre for Public Christianity.