Breda O’Brien: Dolce & Gabbana face boycott over ‘synthetic babies’ comments

Elton John and Martina Navratilova criticise ‘parenting’ views of designers

As someone who would not recognise a Dolce & Gabbana outfit even if I found it in Martina Navratilova’s dustbin, it was interesting to watch the video of the Italian duo’s last fashion show. The theme was: “The mother – the heart of the family.”

Pregnant models stalked down the catwalk, and instead of carrying dinky little handbags, some of the models toted beautiful babies.

My interest does not signal a midlife conversion to expensive Italian fashion. Rather it was sparked by the boycott of Dolce & Gabbana called for by Elton John, Martina Navratilova and other celebrities after comments made by the two gay men, who used to be partners in love as well as in business.

In an interview with the Italian magazine Panorama, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana came out strongly in favour of the mother-father model of parenting. Dolce said: "The only family is the traditional one. No chemical offspring and rented uterus. Life has a natural flow: there are things that cannot be changed." He added: "Procreation must be an act of love."

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Boycott call

John, who has two children conceived through the use of surrogates and egg donors, was outraged and immediately called for a boycott.

John had his first child, Zachary, through surrogacy after he and his partner, David Furnish, were unable to adopt a Ukrainian toddler. Ukrainian law specifies that an adoptive parent cannot be more than 45 years older than the child. John was 62 at the time and Furnish was 47. Also, it was reported that the child’s mother had not relinquished her parental rights.

John said in an interview: “It will be heart-breaking for [Zachary] to grow up and realise he hasn’t got a mummy.” This was before he commissioned a second child. (Of course, Zachary has two mothers, an egg donor and a surrogate mother, neither of whom gets to act as a mummy.)

It was wrong of Dolce and Gabbana to refer to children conceived this way as "synthetic" – bambini sintetici. Until recently, donor insemination was known as artificial insemination. Artificial and synthetic are not a million miles apart.

However, any implication that a child is synthetic is wrong. Any child, no matter how he or she is conceived, is a valuable human being.

This week, Dolce and Gabbana retreated from their more trenchant comments, with Gabbana saying they love gay couples, they love gay adoption, they love everybody, and that he was just expressing a private view.

The immediate call to boycott the gay designers can be seen as part of a wider movement to punish people who think differently – even members of your own community.

Perhaps the most astonishing recent example was the reaction to Peter Tatchell, the veteran gay activist, when he signed a letter published in the Observer defending free speech.

There has been a growing “no platform” movement in British universities in particular, which has resulted in speakers such as feminist Germaine Greer being “disinvited” from speaking engagements following allegations of transphobia or, more specifically, transmisogynism.

Greer’s view that surgically removing genitalia and undergoing hormone treatment does not make a man a woman, is well known. Reasonably enough, Tatchell and the other signatories of the letter suggested that debate is the best way to deal with people whose ideas you believe are mistaken.

Tatchell wrote that he got some 5,000 tweets in a 48-hour period. He says, "Many were hateful and abusive: homo, foreigner, misogynist, paedophile, nutter and so on. Others were threatening: 'I would like to tweet about your murder you f****** parasite.'"

When he said that drawing attention to the murder of trans people never received this volume of tweets, the attacks redoubled. Apparently, as a “privileged, white, non-trans man”, he had no right to speak, and was disempowering trans people by doing so.

Again, it is easy to dismiss this as just the dark underbelly of the internet. However, when someone like Tatchell, who has been campaigning for LGBT rights since the 1970s, is hounded and threatened for defending free speech it surely is a moment to be alarmed.

Thoughtcrime

We are drifting perilously close to George Orwell’s thoughtcrime, that is, a world where it is a crime even to hold unspoken beliefs or doubts opposing the ruling party.

In Ireland, stating biological facts such as that every child has a mother and father, and expressing the view that it is best for a child, where possible, to know and be cared for by those parents, has been described as homophobic. Yet the United Nations convention on the rights of the child says every child “has a right to know and be cared for by his or her parents”.

In Northern Ireland, Ashers Bakery is facing a civil action by the equality authority for refusing to ice a cake with a political slogan in favour of gay marriage. The future of free speech, or even free thought, looks bleak.