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‘Legitimating gay marriage is like legalising child abuse’. Family First Senate candidate Wendy Francis’ comments on Twitter reiterate the homophobic anxieties towards same-sex parenting and marriage that continue to plague the political imagination in Australia.

Ms Francis’ archaic commentaries reflect a traumatic history in which same-sex couples were not simply discriminated or alienated, but were produced as criminal deviants. Much of the rhetoric that connected pedophilia and homosexuality emerged in the early 20th century where psychological, legal and religious institutions claimed that being ‘gay’ was a perversion or a disorder. Francis’ comments recuperate this history in an extremely unpalatable way.

While the comments may not have the same currency today, the homophobic rhetoric of ‘difference’ continues to be recycled today in different ways. Today, homosexuality is not a crime. However, the law uses sexuality to limit involvement in other social relationships.

For example, in the current adoption reform debates in NSW, same-sex families continue to suffer the rhetoric that the absence of a ‘gender complementarity’ in their relationship undermines their ability to perform as parents.

While not equating same-sex parenting to child abuse, the reliance on a gendered model of ideal heterosexual parenting is problematic. Not only does it privilege some unspecified innate sexual differences between men and women that ensure good parenting, it also stigmatises those children already living with two mums or two dads by claiming they ‘lack’ optimal parents.

Medical and social scientific research contends that sexual orientation is not a meaningful indicator of parenting ability. A recent study on lesbian parenting published by the American Academy of Pediatrics reiterated this. The longitudinal study, which mapped children living in 84 lesbian households, noted that the children “were rated significantly higher in social, school/academic, and total competence and significantly lower in social problems, rule-breaking, aggressive, and externalising problem behavior than their age-matched counterparts”.

Rather than evidence the alleged ‘social problems’ and ‘depression’ that Ms Francis claims is faced by children in same-sex families, the study recognises the value of lesbian parents. Same-sex foster carers are actively recruited in Australia for their capacity to parent children from the most vulnerable and displaced backgrounds. Perhaps Ms Francis should avail herself to this information before continuing to moralise on the degeneration suffered by children living in same-sex households.

The 2006 Australian Census figures illustrate that there are over 4,300 children living in same-sex families in Australia. With the exception of Western Australia, the ACT and Tasmania, children in same-sex families still struggle with obtaining the legal recognition of both their parents. Adoption laws in most states reflect Ms Francis’ sentiments, serving to privilege some abstract notion of the perfect family, rather than concentrate on empirical research about parenting. Who suffers when stereotyping is placed above empirical research? Children.

Parenting is not the only arena for political intervention. As Ms Francis forcefully reminds us, children are pivotal sites for the regulation of intimacy in Australia. Movement towards marriage equality has been undermined by the insistence of conservative figures, such as our former Prime Minister John Howard, that marriage is fundamental to the reproduction of the species.

Where then do childless couples or infertile heterosexual couples fit in the rubric of ‘natural’ reproduction? Following this logic, a biological inability to reproduce or social desire not to do so, regardless of sexual orientation, should exclude couples from marrying.

Marriage is a civil institution, governed by secular laws, of which all people are entitled to access, irrespective of sexual orientation or gender identity. Legislation should not dictate family planning and the Marriage Act rightly makes no mention of children.

However, if you accept the moralising argument that marriage is crucial to rearing children, it seems disingenuous to then deny same-sex couples access to such a ‘legitimating’ institution to raise their children.

How can we claim to contest the vilifying statements by Wendy Francis, when legislation continues to discriminate against same-sex relationships? We may not use her words like ‘abuse’ or ‘wrong’ to characterise same-sex families, but the legislative exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage and adoption in some states reinforces bigotry based on sexuality.

If we are truly committed to the protection of families and children, let us start by removing the inequalities faced by sexual and gender minorities in Australia.

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This is the blog for thinking and talking about culture, Cultural Studies and cultural analysis at the University of Sydney.