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Tuesday 12 December 2017

Abroad

Aoife Carrigy asks if we are ready to grow up and give all Irish children equal rights, regardless of their parents' sexual persuasion, or would we rather keep pretending the world hasn't changed?

There's an old chestnut that allowing for gay marriage undermines the very institution of marriage itself -- as if straight people needed any help there, when we have the likes of Kim Kardashian batting for our team. But recently Pope Benedict upped the ante by claiming that gay marriage was one of several threats to the traditional family that undermined "the future of humanity itself". That's some stakes.

Clearly the Pope is not a fan of Modern Family, the family sitcom that has been sweeping up Golden Globes and Emmys for its hilarious take on the diverse forms many families take today. If he was, he'd understand that many gay people also want to have their shot at parenting, and are going ahead and having children by whatever means they can. And that they are no better or worse at it than any other upstanding members of society, heterosexual or otherwise.

A recent ESRI study revealed that one-in-three Irish families departs from the traditional model of a couple where both parents are in their first marriage. Instead, one third are headed up by lone mothers or cohabiting couples. Some of these mothers or couples were previously married, others not.

But while the number of Irish couples 'living in sin' quadrupled in 10 years, most of us still want to marry once children come into the picture to give them security.

Many homosexual couples are rearing children too, either through prior relationships or by whatever means are available to them. Many of these couples also crave the protection that civil marriage would offer to them and their children.

But neither civil marriage nor its security is on offer to same-sex parents. Instead civil partnership is on offer. But it does not grant the same rights to children nor rights and obligations to their parents. Instead it leaves these children in a legal no-man's land.

There are 169 specific differences between civil marriage and Civil Partnership, as defined by last year's Act brought in to deal with issues facing gay and lesbian couples. But when you focus on certain areas, the inequalities become stark.

As Moninne Griffith, director of the Marriage Equality campaign, puts it: "It's about one set of children being discriminated against because of the sexuality of their parents."

She explains that "in terms of kids, there's a gaping hole in the Civil Partnership Act -- the children of same sex parents are neither recognised nor protected by the State."

The Ombudsman for Children agrees. In advice to the Government provided last July, she stated: "It should be borne in mind that this is not a hypothetical problem. The omission of robust protections for the children of civil partners will have real consequences for the young people concerned."

These are real young people, real parents, real families. Some of their situations are complicated. But mostly they're very ordinary families, whose parents happen to be same-sex, whether they are raising children together from previous relationships or having children through assisted fertility.

One such family is Jenny Croke and Tracy Morrissey, both of whom were lone parents before they met. While Jenny's child is now a young adult, Tracy's boy Leon is 11 years old. The couple have been together for three years and are saving to marry abroad, perhaps in Portugal, where same-sex marriage is legal.

"If we marry in Portugal, at least we'd be able to say that we're fully married in the eyes of one country," Tracy says. "But it would only be recognised as civil partnership here. But if we had full marriage in Ireland, Jenny could become a legal guardian in the sense of becoming a step-mother, which would be great.

"Jenny is amazing with Leon. She really helps out financially as well, because I'm not working at the moment," explains Tracy, who was made redundant from Talk Talk last year, but is retraining in community development. "We're living our life as a family unit." Another such family unit is that of Gillian and Martha and their 10-month-old son Jack (whose names have been changed by request). For most of the 11 years they've been together, the couple have wanted children and last year Martha became pregnant with the help of donor sperm.

They don't want to settle for Civil Partnership, Martha explains: " It's an insult to families like ours that we aren't recognised as a family. Because marriage isn't available to us, Gillian and Jack are effectively denied any security or any formal recognition of their relationship.

"If I died the question of whether Gillian would be allowed to continue to parent Jack is a very real fear."

As Gillian is not recognised as next of kin, Jack could be taken into the care of the State or of a member of Martha's family. Equally, if Jack became very ill while in Gillian's care, she couldn't give consent to treatment.

Full marriage would give same-sex couples access to all the rights given to straight couples. It would also give their family circumstances an important legitimacy.

The current Programme for Government promises to explore "the provision of gay marriage in the context of the Constitutional Convention", which means it could be introduced through change of legislation or by referendum in the next couple of years.

Last year's Red C poll showed that 73pc of Irish people were supportive of marriage equality, which represents a steady rise from previous polls.

It seems that whatever is in store for the future of humanity, most of us want to behave with a little more humanity in the future. Hopefully one of these days we'll get the chance to say so.

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