On 22 May Irish citizens are being asked to vote on the issue of marriage equality. On paper, this referendum has nothing to do with children. Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald assures us that the legal rights of children in LGBT families are being dealt with separately. In actuality however, marriage equality will impact the lives of some children. It will make it possible that children of LGBT families could grow up with married parents. Now, and in the future, these children will exist. So, why not use this referendum to have a meaningful conversation about LGBT families? Avoidance of this same conversation will not progress undecided voters any closer to a YES vote. In fact, avoidance may allow unnecessary fears about children in LGBT families to grow.
In Ireland, the welfare of children is a touchy subject. We have every reason to feel on edge. Our failure, over many decades, to keep children safe has been epic and widely documented. Government reports tell us that the church and society let children in their thousands be hidden, mistreated and denied their human rights. Some of the children we failed most were those born outside the traditional nuclear family structure. It comes as no real surprise that some NO campaigners are trying to exploit society’s worst fear and all over Ireland today, leaflets being dropped into homes bear the manipulative message that a YES outcome on 22 May will once again leave children at risk.
It’s difficult to know where to start dismantling the false alarm that NO campaigners have activated about child welfare. ‘Deprivation’ is a word that is being used widely in the media. Potential children of same-sex unions will be ‘deprived’, Breda O’Brien argues, of birth mothers and birth fathers and of a strong sense of identity. ‘Deprivation’ is a red-flag word and deliberately evocative of loss, trauma and want. But what does ‘deprived’ in the context of a loving same-sex family actually mean? If we break the ‘deprivation’ down into possible categories (e.g. physical, emotional, intellectual, biological) to try and understand it, what exactly are we looking at? Does ‘deprivation’ begin to look a lot less dangerous and more like a challenge that can be met with good parenting and decision-making? Does ‘deprivation’ now bear a striking resemblance to the many ordinary, everyday challenges that parents of all types – single, elderly, teenage, separated, bereaved, remarried, working, unemployed and adopted (to name only a few) – face? This week ONE FAMILY released a statement urging NO campaigners to revise their message
“Campaigners stating that only a married mother and father can meet a child’s needs are not only misrepresenting facts, they are hurting any family that does not conform to their restricted ‘ideal’ and ignoring the wonderful diversity of families that already exists in Ireland”.
In Ireland we have a long history and expertise of parenting children with whom we do not share a biological connection. As a practice it is, ironically, in our blood. In pre-Christian Ireland, fosterage was a hallmark of family life and written into law. Originally, fosterage had nothing to do with removing a child from a harmful situation. It was seen simply as a social arrangement that was good for the child and good for the community. Popular legend reveals our respect for the endeavor and indicates that it was not something that was rated as a ‘deprived’ family arrangement. Ireland’s most famous foster child is of course Cuchulainn, given to Finnchaem to be suckled, to Amergin to be taught wisdom, to Sencha to learn eloquence and oratory, to Blai Briuga for maintenance and to Fergus ‘to be dandled on his knee’ and shown affection. Cuchulainn is potrayed as a gifted super-human hero. He demonstrates that our cultural perceptions of children from ‘different’ family structures has, in the past, been really quite positive.
Worryingly, a 2015 RedC poll says that only half of YES voters have no reservations about adoption by LGBT couples. It’s clear that more action needs to be taken to tackle the reservations of people on all sides of the debate about what marriage equality actually means for children and LGBT families in Ireland.
YES campaigners must dig deeper to argue the case for LGBT families, by providing the public with evidence that Ireland has the skill and experience to embrace different family structures. Harm done by the church (i.e. mother & baby homes, industrial schools, Magdalene Laundries) may have left us with a reluctance to talk about family, but unless we do voters will become disconnected from the knowledge at the heart of Irish culture that of course happy, healthy children can be raised in non-nuclear family structures.
In the Irish language, we have a very inclusive way of speaking to each other about family and relationships. Our native tongue reflects a deep respect for the true dynamic nature of families. I grew up in the Donegal Gaeltacht being asked ‘cé leis thú?’ This question is often used to ascertain who a person’s parents are but it actually asks ‘who are you with?’ Similarly, many of the key Irish words we use every day show a sophisticated understanding of the complexity of family. ‘Teaghlach’ (translated mostly as ‘family’) refers to ‘all the people within your household’ and ‘muintir’ (translated frequently as ‘parents’) means simply ‘your folk’. It’s frustrating to think that our original understanding of family diversity is, literally, being lost in translation.
“Children benefit from the balance that mothers and fathers bring to parenting” say the anti-marriage equality group Mothers and Fathers Matter. This claim is not in dispute. Children also benefit from love, security, social acceptance and information. There is an endless list of things that benefit children. No parent is super-human and no-one can provide every single possible benefit, but the beauty and reality of families is that each parent can, regardless of gender or sexuality, bring to the task of child-rearing their own unique recipe of benefits. This recipe makes a family uniquely special.
In the run-up to this referendum it’s also important to address some untruths. I take particular issue with the scaremongering that children in Irish LGBT families will grow up without any sense of identity or without adequate understanding of their biological make-up. YES campaigners need to make the public aware that the culture of secrecy around children has changed. Adoption in Ireland, for example, has changed dramatically. As few as 16 non-relative domestic adoptions were made in 2012 and 32 in 2013, and groups like Adoption Rights Alliance are doing everything possible to make sure all adopted children get legal access to their identity information. By the same token, and whether you agree or not, a legal end is coming to anonymous sperm and egg donation. Debate around ethical surrogacy procedures will also, inevitably, soon move appropriate legislation into place. The idea that future Irish children will be manufactured out of thin air for married LGBT couples is simply not true.
Over the next month, discussion about family and children will be highly emotive but it’s a topic that YES campaigners must embrace. Like it or not, this discussion is crucial to how and why some people will vote in the marriage equality referendum. YES votes can be won by debunking some of the prevalent myths and worries about children in LGBT families. Next time someone tells you they’re voting NO in the referendum because they’re unsure how equality will impact on the future of families in Ireland, PLEASE take the time to give them proper facts and information.
Annemarie Ní Churreáin is a poet and writer from Donegal.