Gayby Baby: A missed opportunity to model healthy conversation

Justine Toh on what was lost in the controversy over the Gayby Baby screening ban: robust debate.

It’s often the case that wisdom only emerges in hindsight.

So how about we erase the last few days of the Gayby Baby furore and start again? We now know how things might have been done differently in order to avoid the ministerial intervention that shut down the screening of the film during school hours.

Here’s how it could have gone (and could go still). Hold a special assembly where the documentary is screened. Celebrate the achievements of Maya Newell, the Burwood alumna who made the film, and simultaneously bring students’ attention to a current issue of contemporary import for everyone.

Then, in the interests of public discussion, follow up the viewing with a friendly and spirited discussion of the topics raised. Invite different voices, each with their own stake in this debate, to speak and share their views.

This would require students not be forced to attend the screening or strongly encouraged to dress up as part of ‘Wear it Purple’ day, a campaign expressing solidarity with LGBTI young people. After all, the struggles of sexual minorities remind us that it’s important to celebrate difference in all its forms. We’re so wise, these days, to the perils of peer pressure – so surely we wouldn’t compel students to belong by, say, obliging everyone to wear purple?

This alternate state of affairs seems quite fantastical in our current context – but it really shouldn’t. If it is, it’s because there is an impasse in the public conversation around same-sex marriage. Discourse is guided by the assumption that there are only two sides to this debate: you’re either a bigot or an ally.

After the 9/11 attacks, U.S. President George W. Bush’s infamous statement carved up the world into friends and foes: “You’re either with us or against us”. Back then, such ‘us and them’ thinking rightly unsettled people but we seem to have made our peace with it now.

Writing in The Age about her reaction to the screening ban, Rebecca Shaw channelled Bush, declaring her impatience with measly tolerance as a general principle to manage difference. “You either accept us, or you will be left behind. Those are the choices.”

Such black-and-white thinking marked Bush as a right-wing fundamentalist, so what does it say when similar language is deployed by the left? What unites both perspectives is the conviction the matter at hand is so clear and apparent there is no discussion or debate worth having.

In this case it’s obvious, isn’t it, that bigotry is the only reasonable explanation if someone isn’t unequivocally in support of same-sex marriage? And bigotry has to be stamped out. Hence the Purple campaign, and the slew of businesses, banks and schools that have taken pains to proclaim their support of inclusiveness and diversity. But there are some critical questions worth asking here.

One is whether compassion for the struggles of gay, lesbian and queer teens in a world often ignorant (at best) and hostile (at worst) to their identities requires a belief that marriage is intrinsically about equality. If a person doesn’t believe this, does that make them a bigot?

Another question: if love is what makes a family, then surely broadening marriage to admit same-sex couples and no one else discriminates as well. What about three or four adults in a committed, loving relationship? In the context of group marriage, they could more effectively raise children than time-poor pairs.

It’s not enough to charge that this is a ‘slippery slope argument’ or that it is irrelevant since throuples or quartets aren’t campaigning for marriage equality in great numbers. If gender is of no consequence to marriage, then there is no intrinsic reason why marriage should be restricted to two people. Nor why other familiar norms of marriage, like permanence or exclusivity, should be maintained.

Another important question is whether our efforts at inclusiveness can also encompass an individual’s religious commitments, and not simply in a privatised form that fears to venture into public. As many have noted in the aftermath of the Supreme Court ruling legalising same-sex marriage throughout the United States, religious liberty is at stake. Or have we already made the logical progression and determined that religious belief in and of itself constitutes bigotry?

If so, it’s not just the faithful who will lose out. If part of the mission of the school is to prepare the young for life beyond the classroom, then it should offer students multiple and varied chances to interact with each other. Students should test out their ideas, values and commitments in relation to a whole range of difficult issues.

Rather than political regulation into the teaching of complex matters in school, students need adults to model ways of grappling well with big questions in ways that can allow well-meaning people to remain friends despite disagreement. The Gayby Baby incident shows if students want that kind of education, they may have to look elsewhere.

Justine Toh is Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity.

This article originally appeared at The Ethics Centre.