France and gay marriage

Earlier this week, the long and fractious debate in France about “mariage pour tous” finally came to an end when the new law was ratified. Gay civil marriage in that country will soon be permitted. It’s been a tough ride. French society is pretty much split down the middle on the issue, and although support has grown over time, at least a third of French citizens are vehemently opposed.

France has for some time had the equivalent of British civil partnerships (called the civil solidarity pact, about as French a name for an institution as it’s possible to imagine), with the major difference that these arrangements are also open to straight couples. But marriage is a special institution in France, bringing with it a raft of rights and privileges, especially over money and property, that are not available to civil unions.

But above all, French marriage is about children. When I got married in France, notwithstanding that neither I nor my partner had the slightest intention of bringing any children into the world, and quite possibly not the means, either, most of the ceremony was about bringing children up, and the responsibilities of parenthood. The marriage certificate is contained in a dinky little book entitled “le livre de la famille” with special pages in which we could enter the details of our sprogs. To be honest, it reminded me of nothing more than the service history you get in the book that comes with a new car. Have a child, get your log-book stamped.

So in France, marriage is to do with children, and this is what has caused so much heartache and controversy. The right of gay couples to live together in legal union is not really at issue. What is at issue is that marriage brings with it the legal right to adopt children, and to seek “artificial” means to conceive them. I put that word in inverted commas because its meaning has become pejorative, but I mean it here in its original and literal sense: that artifice has to be used because the usual biological mechanism is not available.

As those who’ve read my blog before will know, I’m a supporter of gay marriage. In a secular society, it is no argument to say that God forbids or disapproves of gay relationships, even if He does, which I very much doubt. France has long celebrated and jealously guarded its secular constitution. All marriages in France are secular, and the church has no part to play in the legal process of marrying. For sure couples can, and often do, rush smartly from the mairie to the church, car horns blaring, to have their secular marriage blessed by the curé.

So in France there isn’t the problem that’s created in England by the fact of the established church, with its priests as authorized as secular registrars to perform the legals at a marriage. I’ve argued here before that if we could have a fully secularised version of marriage, then the arguments of the church in particular, and Christians in general, that gay marriage is an oxymoron, would fall away. In effect, I’ve been arguing that the position in Britain should be the same as that which already pertains in France. I believed that this clear separation between the secular and the sacred would make gay marriage an uncontroversial issue. Well, I’ve rarely been so wrong. The opponents of gay marriage in France have been involved in violent protest (albeit violence that has been disowned by moderate opponents) and if anything emotions run higher there than here.

No, it’s not gay relationships that are really at issue: it’s all about children. And I fear this is a much more thorny question. It’s easy to dismiss the opponents of the legal recognition of gay relationships as simply homophobic. Many of them are sincerely of the view that God’s disapproval is the basic issue, and that active gay relationships are sinful and that’s all there is to it. Regardless of their sincerity, this fundamentally religious objection to gay marriage is illegitimate in a society where only a small minority are actively religious. Even as a person of faith myself, I can see that this argument is irrefutable.

But the issue of children is more difficult. If someone argues that adoption by same sex couples, or the artificial conception of children for the benefit of same sex couples, is wrong because it’s against some God-given rule, then that is easily dismissed in the same way as the argument against gay marriage in principle. But that’s not what a lot of French society is arguing. The argument is about whether it’s in the best interests of children to be brought up in a same-sex family. Even more fundamentally, it’s about whether it’s right to procure children specifically in order to satisfy the wishes of same sex couples to have offspring. You do not have to be homophobic to ask that question. I have the same problem with surrogacy in general, as much for heterosexual couples as for homosexual ones. My concern is about the use of children to satisfy the desires of adults, when those children have no possibility of choice in the matter.

It’s a great pity that all these things have got so mixed up and intertwined. It’s unhelpful to try and unpick these difficult and complex matters by the use of name-calling. Because I have serious concerns about the issues of children and family life, that does not make me a homophobe. I am crystal clear that people of the same sex should be able to get married. I am not remotely as clear that this should automatically include the right to adoption or surrogacy. Maybe it should. But I’ll not be dragooned into agreeing that that’s the case merely on pain of being insulted.

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Race and adoption

I have touched on this issue before, but it has surfaced again today as the government publishes its new guidance to social services departments. The guidance states that “race should not be a factor” in adoption decisions provided that other welfare considerations indicate that the prospective placement is in the child’s best interests. Radio 4’s Today programme carried an interview with a black man who had been adopted by white parents who, he said, had struggled long and hard to overcome the racially informed objections of the adoption authorities. He was adamant that such considerations were entirely misplaced. His adoptive parents had provided him with a loving and stable home, which he compared against the horrors of being in care. He dismissed all ideas of there being such a thing as “black culture” on which he might have missed out, and stridently asserted that his culture was “English”. He ridiculed any other approach by sarcastically referring to the idiocy of suggesting that, because his antecedents were African, he should have been “running around in an animal skin wielding a spear”.

It’s not often that someone demonstrates so powerfully by their arguments exactly those dangers that they claim do not exist. I have rarely heard a more disturbing example of the emptying of cultural content, and the negation of identity. This man’s contribution also exemplified the dangers of extrapolating from one individual’s experience to a policy for society at large. It is not for me to say what would have been better for this man than the cultural annihilation that he appears to have suffered, and it’s clear that it is not his view that he has suffered at all. He is welcome to his point of view, and it is equally clear that the social and economic status of his adoptive parents have brought enormous benefits alongside this dubious cultural solipsism. But I do not believe that this man’s individual experience provides a sound, nor indeed a healthy, perspective from which to consider the fraught issue of inter-cultural adoption.

The argument is usually framed thus: that the need of all children to have a loving and stable home life is much more important than the politically correct concerns of social workers obsessed with race and culture. To this basis is usually added the fact that because relatively fewer ethnic minority parents offer themselves as potential adopters, the children’s homes that still exist are disproportionately populated by black young people for whom no adoptive parents can be found, but only because willing white adopters are forbidden from offering the family life those children desperately need. In this way it is suggested that concern about cultural identity is actually having the perverse consequence of discriminating against black children and blighting their lives in a way that white children are spared.

We need to cut through this Gordian knot with the knife of dialectic balance. The positions that claim on the one hand that cultural identity between children and their adoptive parents is the be-all and end-all of the matter, and on the other that all we need is love, are both wrong, simplistic, and inadequate. Denying the existence of a racially connected cultural identity is demonstrably wrong-headed and idealistic. It cannot be true whilst racism remains an everyday experience for black people in Britain; whilst application forms from Leroys, Abegundes and Mohammeds are routinely less successful than those from Peters, Philips and Davids; whilst fascists and racists still march on our streets. Simply leaving black children in an inadequate and damaging care system as if their cultural health was the only aspect of their health worth worrying about is equally wrong-headed.

What should we do? We should continue to try and attract parents from across the cultural spectrum to offer themselves as adopters. We should redouble our efforts to remove the stain of racism from our society. We should do something about the scandal that complacently accepts that being in care is somehow inevitably, inexorably damaging. It is not. What is damaging is a care system that underpays and undervalues its staff, that offers the work to the lowest bidder, and that treats children as clients to be “looked after” rather than offspring to be valued and developed. What we should not do is deny that culture exists, or that it is of any significance. We should not pretend that there is a single culture in this country called “being English”. We should not allow the privileged experience of one “lucky” black child adopted into rich, middle class society, to blind us to the realities that afflict the far greater number who are adopted in inter-racial families that then break down, or which do not adequately prepare those children for survival in Britain as it really is, not as we would like to imagine that it is.

Inter-racial adoption and gay children

Yesterday I ended up having an interesting, and somewhat robust, exchange on Twitter with Johann Hari, he of the Independent column, scourge of the Pope, radical atheist, gay activist, and thorn in the side of right-wingers everywhere. Although we have some very sharp differences of view – most especially on religion – I am normally very much in sympathy with his perspectives. I remember a particularly piquant dissection by him of the Conservative council in Hammersmith and Fulham and I couldn’t have roared him on with more enthusiasm if he’d been John Terry about to take his penalty against Manchester United in the 2008 Champions’ League final. Although, as on that occasion, I don’t always back the winner, of course.

In this instance, the subject of our disagreement had nothing to do with religion, but to do with inter-racial adoption. The Children’s Minister, Tim Loughton, had been explaining the government’s updating of adoption guidelines to make inter-racial adoption easier, laying less emphasis on racial matching of adoptive parents and the children that they might adopt. Johann welcomed these changes and found “the idea that white adopted parents can’t understand black children bizarre. My parents were straight and loved me totally.” He went on to tweet “that I hate this idea we’re divided by chasms of race, sexuality etc. In fact we’re all pretty similar, and empathy can bridge the differences.” I wonder about two assumptions that underpin these sentiments, both of them controversial.

The first is that racism and homophobia (not an expression I would have coined myself since it implies that dominant heterosexual society acts out of fear rather than out of irrational hatred coupled with the power to impose that hatred) are equivalent in this context. Of course Johann is not arguing that racism and homophobia are the same, but they have sufficient “similarities” as he put it to be used as analogies when it comes to thinking about the ability of parents to reach out across the divisions of race and sexuality. The second is that “empathy can bridge the differences”.

What is wrong with these assumptions? I have the horrible feeling that I’m about to upset a lot of people whose opinions I respect, and whose sensibilities I have no wish to offend. But I simply don’t believe that the undoubted things that are common to racism and homophobia are sufficient to overcome the fundamental differences between them. Both lead to discrimination. Both lead to injustice. Both have elements of institutionalisation. Both are deeply, morally obnoxious. Both need to be challenged. Both have been taken up by fascists. But homophobia is not of itself routinely associated with social and economic disadvantage. Homosexuality is not inescapably visible across a street (and that is no reason why anyone should be pressured or obliged to avoid visible identification as gay.) And most importantly, homophobia has not resulted in the enforced migration of tens of millions, of their enslavement over hundreds of years, of the continuing economic oppression of whole continents. Of course there is such a thing as “gay culture”, but gay sub-cultures have always existed alongside heterosexual culture, and in some periods and in some places, have had higher, rather than lower, social status. Because all societies have always had gay members, there has always been a rapprochement to be arrived at. For sure, that rapprochement has often been at the expense of a bitter and disgraceful price for gay people, but there have been ebbs and flows throughout history. Racism in the modern western world comes from  specific social and economic events: the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the imperial expansion into the East.

So what? For this debate, I think these differences are critical. It is inevitable that gay children will by and large be brought up by straight parents simply because of arithmetic. It is normal in the statistical sense for this to be the case. And it is hard to see this as a “problem” that can be “solved”. What would such a solution look like? Being gay is, at least to some extent, a behavioural issue (sexual relations are surely a behaviour) in a way that being black is not. So I dare say that Johann is right when he says that heterosexual parents can use empathy to bridge the differences with their gay offspring. In a way, if empathy cannot bridge that gap, then nothing can. What else is there? No-one is suggesting that gay children are forcibly adopted by gay adoptive parents in order to experience a more sympathetic family milieu. None of this is true for black children being adopted by white parents. Gay children still have cultural ties to their straight parents. Black children do not have the same ties to their white adoptive parents.

But finally, the problem of inter-racial adoption is political, not developmental. It is political because, whether we like it or not, Britain is still a deeply racist country, and white British people are still largely ignorant about black history and black culture. It is political because race is inextricably bound up with economics and deprivation. It is political because relative to their numbers, disproportionately many black people in this country are disproportionately poor. These things cannot be overcome with empathy. You might think that getting adopted by rich white parents might be the simplest way out of these problems. But that would be to sell those children’s heritage down the river, and is effectively buying off their racial identity. You might as well offer gay kids money to act straight.

I do not believe that inter-racial adoption is morally wrong, and I know that it is often the least worst option for many children otherwise languishing in a damaging care system. But it is problematic, and trying to avoid it is not just political correctness getting things out of proportion. It is trying to ensure that at least black children are sustained in families that share their history, and their relationships to British society. When, and as, they grow up black kids need all the racial support they can get to deal with the racism that they will inevitably confront.