The freedoms of real people and real families are at stake in Ireland’s marriage referendum. We must put the facts before the fears when we vote.
My nephew Alejandro is nine. He doesn’t like to be left out of the loop. He could be watching TV, reading or playing video games but if he catches so much as a whisper in an adult conversation, he’ll drop everything and demand “What?” To which he’s usually told: “It’s adult stuff.” A couple of weeks ago, however, he started to suspect that some adult stuff was about kids – when he saw a poster on a lamppost that read Children deserve a mother and father. This time, when he asked, his mother decided to let him in.
“It’s about whether gay people should be allowed to get married,” she told him.
“Oh my god!” he gasped, horrified.
Priming herself for a ‘talk’, my sister tentatively asked what the matter was.
“That’s ridiculous!” he answered. “Why would that even be a question?”
Nonplussed, she said: “Do you think they should be able to get married?”
“Of course!” he replied. “If they love each other, why can’t they?”
For Alejandro, and probably most people, love is instinctively an essential element for marriage. For many others, it is instinctive to think of marriage as ‘husband+wife’. For Mothers and Fathers Matter, the organisation who put up that poster, family instinctively means ‘husband+wife+children’. Our own instincts may be all well and good, but when we make decisions that affect others, we need to rely on our reason as well as our instincts. We need to consider the facts and the realities.
Alejandro and his sister have a mother and father who have been married for over ten years. By the No campaign’s formula, this should be the ideal family situation. But their reality is far from ideal and always has been. The ins and outs aren’t important here – the point is that there is no ideal family situation. Every family is different, and those rigid and simplistic generalisations about what a family should be and what every child deserves don’t reflect the myriad realities of real people’s lives.
Last month, my friend Annemarie Ní Churreáin wrote an excellent article in which she delved into Ireland’s rich cultural history of family and parenthood. What she portrayed was a reality much more profound and dynamic than such shallow stereotypes. In one passage, she compares the instinctive assumption of the No campaign’s slogan with the more nuanced reality:
“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 my own extended family, there are many unique and different family set-ups. We have single-parent families, some with only a mother, some with only a father. We have separated families, widowed families, remarried families and childless families. None of them are any less a family for not conforming to the generic formula that The Iona Institute and Mothers & Fathers Matter call “irreplaceable”. All these families have the very same legal and constitutional protections, entitlements and rights. For all their variety and diversity, what they have in common is love and commitment. Whatever shape their particular framework takes, that much is essential.
That same love and commitment were no less evident when Amnesty International’s Colm O’Gorman spoke of his relationship with his partner of 16 years and their two children. When his daughter Safia wrote of her feelings about her parents, it was hard to deny that this was a familial relationship much like any other, where “my parents cook, clean, do laundry, listen to me moan about school, help me with homework and encourage me throughout my exams, just like any other parent”. But her parents are not heterosexual and so they are not entitled to formalise and safeguard that familial relationship with civil marriage. They are not entitled to the rights, opportunities and protections that families of all other shapes and makeups can avail of. The constitution does not consider them a family. Not because the children don’t have a mother. Not because they are not biologically related to their parents. Solely because the two parents are gay. Is that right or just? Is it in the children’s best interests?
Regardless of the outcome of Friday’s referendum, many children will continue to be raised by LGBT parents in Ireland. If groups like Iona and Mothers and Fathers Matter truly believe the married family unit to be in the best interests of children, wouldn’t it be better for those children if their parents could be married? Not just civil-partnered – which another deeply callous poster declares should be good enough – but married, with the protections and opportunities that civil partnership neglects to provide to LGBT couples and families.
Best for children
That declared concern for the impact of same-sex marriage on children’s welfare is at the heart of the No campaign, and of course it is crucial that children are protected in every area of our society. So one would imagine those concerns should be alleviated by the assurances of every major child welfare agency, by all the evidence that same-sex parenting is not intrinsically any better or worse for children. When the ISPCC says that, in fact, “children and young people… are directly and adversely impacted by a system in which rights to marry are restricted to heterosexual couples,” one would hope that those who say that children’s welfare is their prime concern would reconsider their stance.
When the chair of the adoption authority explains that a child’s welfare will still be paramount in deciding who is best suited to be her parents, and the head of the Referendum Commission himself states that the amendment will have no impact whatsoever on future surrogacy legislation, one would think those worries would be assuaged. But no, no and no. Why?
Because, for all its claims, the No campaign knows as well as the Yes campaign that that’s not really what this referendum is about. The wording of the proposed amendment is clear and it is specific – ‘Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.’ That is it and that is all. It is solely about civil, non-religious marriage and sexuality.
However, ever since the so-called Pantigate incident, Iona and Mothers and Fathers Matter have studiously avoided talking about sexuality – presumably for fear of being labelled as homophobic. Instead, they have doggedly dragged the debate off-track with tangential speculations about same-sex marriage being bad for children – even after their claims have been conclusively refuted by the experts. Moreover, despite this unswerving focus on children, the No campaign is just as opposed to same-sex marriage even if there are no children involved. Why? Because that is not really the issue.
When we go to the polls on Friday, we all need to stay on-track. We need to focus only on what we are being asked – should a couple’s sexuality should bar them from the same legal and constitutional recognition and protection as other couples? There may indeed be a link between marriage and parenthood but they are not mutually dependent, and it is misleading to treat them as such. Children are complementary to a marriage; they are not essential for marriage. Even if the debunked claims about adoption, surrogacy or parenting abilities were valid, that still would not justify denying all same-sex couples the right to a civil marriage, just because of speculations about what a fraction of those couples may or may not choose to do in the future. That is the implication of a No vote, and that is neither fair nor just.
That is not to suggest that anybody thinking of voting No is inherently a bad person. I don’t doubt that there are many people with honest concerns, people who, with the best intentions, are wary of voting Yes, because of traditional beliefs or because of fears propagated by the No campaign. We often have an instinctive fear of change, of breaking with the tried-and-trusted past, afraid that we might regret our actions. That wariness and instinct is not necessarily a bad thing – so long as we we are wise enough to not act on instinct alone. We need to weigh our instincts against the facts and the realities to find out if they are well-founded or not.
My worry is that – in the privacy of the polling booth – wary instinct might trump the reality, that nebulous notions of the ideal family might trump the actual situations of real families, and that many people who do honestly believe in equality may nevertheless vote against it. If the referendum were to be defeated on false pretenses, because of exaggeration, equivocation and misinformation, it would truly be a tragedy. My hope, however, is that – whatever our instincts – we will consider the real people, with all their diverse but equally valid realities, and we will vote out of reason and compassion and not just instinctive fear or unquestioned dogma.
Instincts are not absolute. They change and evolve with our environment, our society and our times. My nephew’s instinct is that committed couples who love each other should be allowed to marry, whatever their sexuality. My instincts at his age would have been very different, as the Ireland shaping those instincts was very different. Homosexuality was a still crime at that time, and the very notion of same-sex marriage would have been instinctively alien to me. Not that I was even aware there was such a thing as homosexuality at his age, and I was much older than he is now before I had anything like his thoughtful and empathetic understanding of it. Ireland has matured and opened up enormously since then, and it is all the better for it. Perhaps it is that openness that has influenced the instincts of kids like Alejandro and Safia O’Gorman to be more fluid and inclusive – instincts that are more closely aligned to the realities we find in our society.
It’s not just society and instincts that evolve like this. Marriage changes and evolves too. It always has and it always will – as Fintan O’Toole illustrates eloquently in today’s Irish Times. It is not – and never has been – the static, rigid institution the Iona Institute and others would have us believe. It is a social institution and as such, it has, can, will and must adapt with society. The Archbishop of Armagh, Eamon Martin, recently said that changing marriage is “not a trivial matter”. He is right in that: it is far from a trivial matter for people who are denied the protections and of civil marriage simply because they are not heterosexual. For those of us who are, it’s not trivial either. Why should our country deny our friends and certain members of our families the same rights it grants us, just because of the gender of who they love and commit to? Shaping our constitution to reflect our changing society so that it affords the same respect, recognition and security to all citizens is not trivial at all: it’s our duty.
This Friday, I hope we will do that duty. Please go and vote. Please vote with your head as well as your heart. Please vote Yes to a constitution that respects and protects the love and commitment of all couples and families equally. Everyone deserves that and LGBT couples and families deserve no less.
Check out this beautiful short film by Karla Healion in which different couples and parents reflect on what family and marriage means to them