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.


Oh, what a tangled web we weave

“I was playing in the local park when I was a little girl, probably about 5 or 6 years old. An old wino was in the park, and when I got close to him I saw he’d got his willy out and was masturbating, not that I knew what that meant at the time. I thought this was funny. The man didn’t really take much notice of me, or of my giggling. To me this was not really any different from any of the other hundreds of things I was seeing for the first time. I went home and told my mum about the funny man, and what he was doing. All hell broke loose. Suddenly something which was funny became something wrong, and very scary. The police were called. I was dragged off to the park to identify the man. I was confused, and couldn’t understand why everyone was so angry. I was much more damaged by the aftermath than I’d been by the incident. I learnt that there are some things that you shouldn’t tell people about if you want to stay safe.”

So ran the story a friend of mine told me several years ago. This was before our even more heightened sensitivity to children, sex, abuse and the like over the last 20 years or so. My friend’s experience might well have been even more troubling had it happened today. One can imagine the plethora of professionals that would nowadays be marshalled in such a case. Just in case you are in any doubt, I am not suggesting that masturbating alcoholics in public parks within sight of little girls are something to be encouraged, nor that a different child might not have reacted with the amused curiosity that my friend did, and might instead have been troubled and scared. But I am saying that our reaction to children and sex, and the “professionalisation” of our response, are problematic in themselves, and maybe more so than the incidents they purport to protect children from.

On the Today programme on Radio 4 this morning a father recounted the terrible consequences of his 12-year old son’s “inappropriate sexual activity” with an 8-year old girl. Once again, let me make it clear that 12-year olds fumbling in the knickers of 8-year olds is not something that we should be entirely sanguine about, or treat as purely matter-of-fact. But just as in my friend’s case, the consequences that this father described seemed as if they were at least as damaging, and probably very much more so, than the incident which sparked it all off. They were certainly longer lasting for the young boy concerned, who clearly had no idea what forces he was unleashing.

What’s happening here? I firmly believe that our society is totally fucked up about sex. We are a mass of contradictions. On the one hand we have sexualised almost everything that moves, from selling perfume to shifting newspapers devoid of any actual news. On the other, we are more censorious about sex than ever before, and nowhere more so than when it comes to our kids. But even there, the contradictions are manifold and extreme. We have almost pre-pubescent models; we sell bras to little girls who have nothing to put in them; we have make-up for 6-year olds; and at the same time children who are fascinated – as they always have been – with each others’ bodies are no longer exploring the world, but abusing each other. Adults comforting young children who’ve fallen over in the street had better have been through an enhanced CRB check before they offer to “rub it better”. This is madness.

We’ve arrived in a place where simultaneously sex has permeated every pore of our society, and yet where our guilt about it has reached alpine proportions. We want to sex-up our children, and yet pretend that children are pristine asexual beings cocooned in a sentimental innocence. I think that this is wonderfully and ironically captured by the weasel words we use to describe those things that lie at the heart of our dissembling and self-deception about sex, and especially about sex and children. The boy whose father spoke so eloquently on the radio this morning was accused of “inappropriate” sexual activity. What the hell is that? What would be the “appropriate” sexual activity in such circumstances? Is a child fumbling in the knickers of another child “sexual activity” at all? I’m not at all sure that it is. Words like projection come to mind.

We’re weaving this tangled web because we’ve practised to deceive. To deceive ourselves about children. To deceive ourselves about sex. To deceive ourselves about the sexualised society that we’ve created. And above all, to deceive ourselves that we now have a modern, open, and mature attitude to sex. We do not.

A great gulf fixed?

When I embarked on this series of posts on race and culture I mentioned that one of my motivations was that my own son is mixed race. There’s been a lot of writing about the consequences for mixed race children of their racial and cultural background. In the case of white British/black afro-Caribbean children, it’s commonplace to note that their skin colour (although one issue is the vast range within this specific mixed race group from almost “white” skin tone, hair type, and facial features to distinctly “black” skin tone, hair type, and facial features) frequently “obliges” them to identify as “black” as a consequence of the racism that they endure in Britain. They are then often faced with greater or lesser hostility from the black community that they are identifying with, since mixed race is sometimes seen to be a product of racial disloyalty on the part of their black parent. I don’t think it’s very useful for me as a white man to speculate on this and the other interpretations of mixed race experience that are in circulation: perhaps one day my son will reflect on his own experience in this area, and that would be a blog worth reading.

On the other hand, I have seen fewer reflections on the experience of being a parent to a mixed race child, and on that at least I can claim to have an authentic perspective to offer. Well, actually it’s a bit more complex than that: I can’t see things through the eyes of a black father of a mixed race child, nor of course those of a mother of any race. There is no doubt that these different permutations produce fundamentally different experiences, and I for one would be fascinated to hear from people who’ve been through one of the others.

However, back to what I do know. As I write this, my son’s handsome, moody image looks out at me from a photograph I took of him when he was 16. People often say they can see my likeness in him, but I find it very difficult to do so. (Which is lucky for him, I suspect!) But even the most confident of those observers of the father in the son would probably not say that “he looks just like you!” My son is I think fairly well towards the “black” end of the white-black spectrum of mixed race possibility, and no-one would look at him and think, “White boy.” It is simply not possible for him to look like me in the way that sometimes children really do look like younger versions of their fathers. I don’t make this point to illustrate a problem, but rather to illustrate a difference. Whether or not it’s ever a wise thing to do, I cannot think of my son as “li’l me.” There is indeed some sort of a gulf fixed between us.

I’m not attempting to enter into my son’s head, nor to claim any understanding of his journey, but it I think it’s an observable fact that his primary identification is as a young black man. He’s always kept both black and white friends, but as he’s got older his real friendships have always been with black boys. His tastes in music are undilutedly black. Listening to his rap music, and watching him move his head in that rhythmic and distinctively black way as the rapper waxes eloquent about niggers and bitches, is to observe a world in which I have no part whatsoever. Many black parents would also baulk at the imagery and language of rap artists, especially in their frequently blood-curdling attitudes to gays and women, but that’s not the distance that I’m describing. Those black parents might find their son’s musical enthusiasms distasteful, but not alienating. My son, if he so wishes, can refer to himself as a nigger as many black people do in their everyday speech. It’s hardly a linguistic place to which I can accompany him. Here at least, the gulf is both fixed and great.

As is often the case, it’s not the big things that always resonate the loudest; trivial though it might be, my son and I can’t go to the same barber. But there are some big things that do. I can’t get stopped and searched, or pulled over when driving, just because the copper thinks I’m black and probably thus also a criminal. Not that I want to be at the arse-end of the police’s institutional racism (and no, it hasn’t been dealt with or swept away) but it also means that I can’t empathise when it happens to my son. I can’t walk with him. And I know he feels it.

So the dynamics of mixed race life are not neutral or evenly distributed between the opposite poles of the “dual heritage”. To be mixed race may not necessarily mean being black, but it sure as hell means you’re not white. It’s as if the black and the white bits are not on the same plane, so that the fluids of identity cannot flow with equal ease to any place on the continuum. Rather, there’s a relentless gradient that flows inexorably towards the black pole. When my son mixes with his mother’s family, he’s still clearly also in  his own family. But when he mixes with mine, notwithstanding that they love him and cherish him, he’s a visitor from somewhere else.

My head tells me that this is all a part of racism, it’s a consequence of history and of injustice. It is not my fault. It is not my son’s fault. But my heart tells me that it’s aching nonetheless. I so much want that gulf to be removed, rather than to have to reach out across it. I want to be close to my son. But I cannot be. And it hurts.