Kathy Sheridan: Less about marriage, more ‘you’re one of us’

Vivian Cummins has fostered a child for 10 years with husband Erney Breytenbach

Vivian Cummins (left) and Erney Breytenbach. Their foster child Jason (not his real name), arrived when he was a five-year-old, after the couple had been together for 10 years. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times

Vivian Cummins (left) and Erney Breytenbach. Their foster child Jason (not his real name), arrived when he was a five-year-old, after the couple had been together for 10 years. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times


The No campaigners stepped up a gear this week with pretty, full-colour posters about surrogacy, showing a little girl and the catchline: She needs her mother for life, not just for 9 months.

Not the least of the problems is that the message implies that all gay people campaigning for gay marriage are alike.

Vivian Cummins, a 56-year-old architect, who has been fostering a child for 10 years with his husband, Erney Breytenbach, says if the vote was about surrogacy, he would by no means support it in every case.

“It’s not what this referendum is about, although it suits the No side to confuse the issue. But if we were voting on surrogacy, I would like to see the legislation . . . There are too many complications and all of that has as much to do with heterosexual as with gay couples.”

Their foster-child, Jason (not his real name), arrived when he was a five-year-old, after the pair had been together for 10 years. The community’s reaction in their townland near Athy was to shower them with toys and clothes. Neither has ever experienced a negative comment.

“Both of us are very fond of children,” says 58-year-old Breytenbach, a former South African diplomat.

“We felt we had a lot to offer a child, but we absolutely did not want to go down that road of surrogacy,” adds Cummins. “There is so much misery out there and there are enough kids in the world, kids who really need to be cared for.”

Jason is 15 now, preparing for his junior cert and they quote his wisecracks like every proud parent. “I consider having got the opportunity to parent a child as an enormous privilege,” says Cummins. He has described him as, “as much our son as a blood child”.

For Breytenback, the outwardly steely Afrikaner, the fostering experience changed him as a person. “Before, I had no empathy or sympathy with down-and-outs or addicts. I would be, ‘get your life together’. Then Jason came into our lives and I started dealing with where he came from, all the problems in the background, the hurt and the pain when his mum didn’t turn up for an access and the rejection he felt. And my heart started to change towards people with problems, people like his mum.”

It changed so radically that he embarked on addiction studies and is now a busy, qualified counsellor.

But don’t children need a mother, as the posters say? “Jason has a mother; the relationship is not very good but he sees her,” says Cummins.

What about the male couples who set out to have a child who will not have a mother? “The biology is such that the child will have a mother – it’s how that mother will be incorporated into that child’s life . . . But there is so much sexism . . . It’s always the mother. There are only about 300 same-sex couples in Ireland raising children – of whom very, very few are fostering – and the reality is that there are many more lesbians. It’s fear-mongering.”

The discussion returns to why this debate is taking place at all, with inevitable reopening of old wounds.

Breytenbach came from a deeply-conservative Afrikaaner society where homosexuality was both a crime and a sin. He was in his 40s when he wrote to tell his parents that he was gay and had met someone he liked.

After many months of silence, his father and he were finally reconciled during a Christmas phone call, during which Erney was invited to take Vivian to South Africa to meet them.

Three weeks after that call, his father was dead from an aneurysm, he says, his voice cracking.

“But that he accepted me and my partner meant the world to me, and always will. The bottom line is that you just want to be accepted for who and what you are. I didn’t create myself gay. If I honestly could have a choice today, I would have preferred not to be gay. There is so much pain, so much secrecy, hiding and ducking . . .”

There are “degrees of being out,” says Cummins. “It came home to me in canvassing. Lots and lots of gay guys will not canvass. They may be out to their parents and families and possibly to some work colleagues, but the idea of going public so as to knock on a door, is a step too far.”

They come across as a confident, secure couple, in their lovely, old water-side home, with a cherished child and supportive community. It’s a scenario that 35 years ago, would have seemed as fantastical as Star Trek to Cummins.

Civil partnership

But it is not complete acceptance.

Their South African marriage is not recognised here and civil partnership is not marriage, says Cummins. “We are not considered a family under the Constitution. This is not recognised as a family home. It’s like saying to Rosa Parks in Alabama – ‘You’re on the bus, what’s your problem, now get to the back and just be grateful you got anything because otherwise we’ll take it away from you’. And they can do that, because it’s just legislation. With a referendum, a Yes would reflect the will of the people, then it’s in our constitution and not easy to change.”

But the debate is taking “a huge, very personal, emotional toll” on everyone.

Jason is fully aware of “the very negative message” being sent out. “The message he’s hearing is that it’s bad enough that he’s taken from his parents, but then he’s put with a second-class gay couple. If we’re sitting watching the news and hearing that gay people can’t raise children, then of course we have to talk to him.

“It’s such a fundamental thing,” says Cummins. “This is us. This is the core of our beings that’s being dissected and analysed and voted on. I’m feeling it and I’ve very fortunate because I’ve got a great partner backing me up.

“But I think there are a lot of older, single gay and lesbian people who are isolated and feeling this spotlight on them and feeling threatened. Words have consequences and some of the stuff that people are heading from the No side is very, very painful to hear. So I find it really hard . . . People can only take so much.”

But what the “actual issue” comes down to is huge, he says. “It’s less about marriage almost. It’s that by voting Yes, the people of Ireland are saying to their gay brothers and sisters, ‘you’re okay, you’re one of us, the same as everybody else’. For me, that has become the debate.

“When the results start to come in on May 23rd, that’s the message I will hear – not for me or for Erney, but for the 16- and 17- and 18-year-olds who are trying to come to terms with all they’re hearing. What are the Irish people saying to them?”

All going to plan, Vivian Cummins and Erney Breytenbach will celebrate their 20th anniversary next April with a modest party and the formal Irish recognition of their marriage.