Standing up for our gay parents
An Irish report into the experiences of children of gay parents reveals the closeness of such families, but also the anguish caused by legal loopholes that rob them of basic rights
EVAN BARRY, a 23-year-old Dubliner who works in the film industry, is explaining what it is like to have two mothers. “It was normal to me,” he says. “It was all I knew. I remember one day in school a guy came in and said ‘your parents are lesbians’. But before that I’d never put a word to it. I went home and said to my mothers ‘are you lesbians?’. I think I was eight or nine.”
Tomorrow marks the launch of a groundbreaking report from the organisation Marriage Equality called Voices of Children. The report documents for the first time the experiences of children growing up in Ireland with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) parents. The often complex social and legal issues raised in the report will be discussed at a one-day conference being held as part of the launch.
Like the other young people interviewed for the report – there were 12 participants, all of them the children of lesbian couples, in what is a modest qualitative research study – Barry believes it is important that awareness is raised about their legally precarious status.
The recently published Civil Partnership Act does not give children of civil partners the same rights as those of married people. Nor does it recognise the relationship between a child and its non-biological civil-partnered parent. The children of gay parents are left in limbo with regard to a range of issues such as the protection of the family home, maintenance, succession rights, divorce, guardianship and custody.
When Barry’s biological mother became seriously ill with cancer eight years ago he went to live with her ex-partner, his ‘other mother’, who he still lived with part of the time after she and his biological mother split up. This caused difficulties within his biological mother’s family, some of whom did not know she was a lesbian. It also caused added strain for mother and son that his non-biological mother was not able to come to the hospital or direct doctors in terms of treatment because she was not viewed as a relative by hospital authorities.
“It all caused a lot of unnecessary pain and anguish,” he says. “It made me realise that the person who was my mother wasn’t seen in that way . . . it feels like a burden. You have, not quite a secret life but a different life, and you can’t help being affected mentally.”
If his other mother became ill now, he wouldn’t have any right to see her in hospital and if, in the event of her death, he was left money or property he would have to pay inheritance tax. “It’s not about money,” he says. “Legally we just don’t have the basic rights that other people have when it comes to their parents.”
Dublin-based brothers Conor Pendergrast (24) and Daragh Pendergrast-Manning (21) also took part in the study. The brothers were conceived through the use of two different sperm donors when their mothers Ann Pendergrast, originally from New Zealand, and Bernadette Manning decided to start a family while living in London. Pendergrast is the biological mother of both boys but they have always had two mothers. Sprawled on the sofa in their parents’ city-centre apartment the four – plus dog – could be any other family.
“We are very keen on protecting and promoting rights for our parents,” says Conor. “Because, in a very selfish way, it means we are protected as well”. As it stands, Manning is legally a stranger to them, this woman who has been their mother in every way since the day they were born. Daragh points out that, had anything happened to Ann before they were 18, the law would have dictated that they be shipped off to relatives in New Zealand rather than remain in the care of Manning.
“We were lucky that didn’t happen to us but there are plenty of other children growing up in the same circumstances and this is a serious issue for them . . . we do feel a sense of solidarity and we want to try to change the situation,” says Daragh. The brothers are part of a newly formed group of young adult children of LGBT parents called Believe in Equality.
Those of us who grew up in the “mammy, daddy, 2.5 children” scenario cited by one participant in the report, are understandably curious about the children of gay parents. These children are destined to spend their lives answering the same questions over and over, or, in Daragh Pendergrast-Manning’s case, “I just get my mates to explain it.”
Typical questions include: How do they address their mum and mum, or dad and dad? Many children of gay parents say they use first names to avoid confusion. “When you call ‘Mum’ both of them turn around so it’s easier to use first names,” says Barry. Did they miss not having a father growing up? The participants of the report talked about having plenty of male role models in friends of their parents, uncles or other relations.
Does having gay parents mean they are more likely to be gay? This question makes Christine Irwin-Murphy (22) from Darndale in Dublin laugh out loud. “I just find that question hilarious; it always makes me laugh,” she says. “Sexuality is not predetermined by what your parents are. It’s who you are and who you find attractive or, more importantly, who you don’t find attractive.
She grew up with her father and mother until the age of 12. “It was a pretty standard setup, but when I was 12 my mam and dad separated because my mam had finally come to her senses and realised she was gay,” she says. Her mother became the primary carer and the children lived with her and her new female partner who Christine came to love as her other mam. “It wasn’t a difficult adjustment. You still have two parents ragging on you if you do something wrong,” she says.
As a teenager at secondary school, she learnt to deal with the occasional prejudice. “Kids will jump on anything that makes you stand out,” she says. “In primary school I got picked on because I was always wearing a coat; in secondary school it was because my mam was gay. But I had a great group of friends and it made me more open. I was always the first one people told if they were gay and afraid to come out.”
Having an unconventional family arrangement made school life difficult for many of the children in the group, except where they attended a more progressive school or had teachers who were “nice” enough to respect their families.
The report contains several examples of everyday homophobia, especially concerning the policy in some schools not to let sick children go home with their non-biological parent. “Even something as simple as being sick in school – they can’t come and collect you,” said one of the group. “They say: ‘you have to have your parent’ and you’re like ‘she’s coming to collect me, she is my parent’ and they’re like: ‘no she’s not.’”
Another example was one group member’s memory of being discriminated against by her friend’s homophobic parent with the apparent approval of the school principal. “That friend’s parents found out that I had a gay mother, and went into school and told the principal that she didn’t want her child playing with that other child. And the principal actually accepted that,” she said.
Young people in LGBT families are excluded from adoption and Civil Partnership legislation, despite warnings from the Ombudsman for Children that this could give rise to violations of international human rights. For campaigners, the upcoming referendum on children’s rights is an opportunity to address these very real concerns.
Christine Irwin-Murphy’s biological mother’s ex-partner had a son. She grew up with him and considers him her brother. “The law doesn’t recognise him, a boy I grew up with, as my brother – whereas the baby my father had with his new wife is legally my step-brother. It’s a raw feeling to know your own family isn’t recognised,” she says.
“It just makes me want to put up one hell of a fight for all the other families that are not recognised. There are too many legal gaps for kids to fall through and there’s a whole load of people who are going to be left as second-class citizens if something isn’t done soon,” she says.
Excerpts from the report:
“In this day and age saying that everybody is equal is a load of b*****ks, excuse the language, but it is. Everybody is not equal. But it would take no effort of the Government to actually lead, to turn around and say “everybody is equal, everybody can get hitched, you can have your family.” There should be legal ways to protect the children of LGBT parents. In order that if something does go wrong, say they do break up or a parent does die, they can go with the family that is going to love them and look after them rather than being shunted to another family . . . it should just be done as a human right.”
“They are together 26, 27 years . . . they are not seen as a full family whereas my best friend’s parents who don’t speak to each other are.”
“In primary school it’s pictures of the mammy, the daddy and the 2.5 children, dog, cat and everything else . . . well that’s not my picture. I’ve got my own much bigger better picture but I don’t have what everybody else has . . .”