d) Family, relationships and marriage
On dads and knights
This keynote address was given at the inaugural national Gay Dads Australia conference in Melbourne on 18.9.10
In a letter to his friend Robbie Ross, Oscar Wilde wrote “it is the duty of every father to write fairy tales for his children”.
He was referring to the much-loved tales of tragic princes and selfish giants he had written for his two sons, Cyril and Vyvyan, although he could just as easily have meant the Irish folktales he had heard from his parents as a child in Dublin, and even the larger-than-life tale that was his life.
As we know now, that tale ended in tragedy for Wilde and his family. After Oscar was gaoled for sex with other men, his wife left taking their two sons. They even changed their name to avoid association with him. He never saw Cyril and Vyvyan again.
Much has changed since then.
The criminalisation of sex between men seems a distant memory. Some of us here today can barely remember a time when we were not legally protected from discrimination.
Laws in all Australian jurisdictions now provide spousal entitlements to same-sex partners in de facto unions and/or civil partnerships.
No longer do gay men have their children taken away from them when they come out. If and when sexual orientation is still raised in custody disputes, often out of desperation and always foolishly, the Court rejects it as irrelevant to the capacity a dad to continue to care for his child.
Like the criminal law before it, family law is now blind to sexual orientation.
But is it enough for the law to be blind?
As society’s tolerance of gay people grows, so do the opportunities for us to be who we want to be.
No longer are we so strictly limited by ghettos, by stereotypes, by old laws, by old prejudices, and by other people’s preconceptions.
More and more gay men I meet expect to have the same life choices as other Australians, including the choice to marry, to live in country towns, to play A-grade sport, to donate blood, to become civic or business leaders, and, most of all, the choice to become fathers.
Gay men are becoming fathers in many different ways.
Some share parenting with a female friend or couple. Some seek to adopt the children they already care for, including their foster children. Some arrange to have children through surrogacy either in Australia through an altruistic arrangement with a friend or family member, or through a commercial arrangement overseas.
How gay men become dads depends on the circumstances in which they find themselves. But one thing is certain, no longer is the only route to family life through a heterosexual relationship this is wrong for all concerned.
Unfortunately, as is too often the case, the law has not kept pace with changing attitudes, expectations and family structures.
Because the law in most states does not allow same-sex couples to be assessed as potential adoptive parents, children who would benefit from adoption by gay foster parents or a gay step parent are left with less legal security and protection than other children.
Because the law in some states does not recognise altruistic surrogacy arrangements, children born to two dads from such arrangements also have less legal recognition and protection.
Children born through commercial surrogacy seem to be the ones the law lets down most. I have learnt from dads whose children were born overseas through commercial surrogacy that, depending on the country in which they were born, these children sometimes have the name of the surrogate mother and her partner on their birth certificates rather than the names of their actual parents. Some children have no names on their certificate at all. It’s as if they really were delivered by a stork or found in a pumpkin patch. But the reality is much grimmer than that. These children and their parents are in a precarious position in relation to the law.
Clearly, it is no longer enough for the law to be blind to our sexual orientation. It’s high time the law took notice of two-dad families and gave to the children and parents in these families the equal legal recognition they deserve.
The question, then, becomes how to achieve equal recognition?
The tentatively-named “Gay Dads Alliance”, which helped organise this conference, has developed a campaign for equal recognition that is one of the most thoughtfully conceived and well planned I have ever seen in Australia.
The campaign has a clear law reform focus.
I’ve mentioned just a few of the many different areas of law and policy that need to be reformed before gay male parenting is equally recognised. They include adoption and surrogacy which are generally matters for the states and territories.
But in my experience campaigns for equality can lose focus if they try to change too many laws at once. This is a particular problem if the aim of the campaign is to change attitudes as well as laws, something I’ll return to in a moment.
A single over-arching law reform, from which the others flow, makes sense as a campaign focus for Gay Dads Alliance.
For this reason the campaign aims first and foremost to reform that section of the Family Law Act which presumes the partner of a child’s biological parent to be that child’s other parent. This presumption currently exists for the male or female partner of a woman who has a child through fertility treatment. The presumption must be extended to include the male partner of a man who has a child through surrogacy.
I’m also glad to see that GDA’s campaign includes obtaining rigorous legal opinions and the establishment of an independent inquiry into gay dads and the law.
You and I may know something of the law and its impact on gay dads and their kids, but most people do not. No campaign for the reform of family law in Australia has ever succeeded without an official inquiry into what that reform means for all concerned.
Today, I add my voice to the voice of GDA by calling on either the Australian Law Reform Commission or the Australian Human Rights Commission to initiate an inquiry into gay fathers and the law.
The law reform aspects of GDA’s campaign are well thought out. But what really inspires me is that GDA clearly understands a campaign to change laws is never just about changing laws, as important as this is. It is also about changing hearts and minds.
The greatest obstacle to achieving legal equity for gay dads and their children are the myths that still swirl through the minds of those who oppose or are conflicted about gay men parenting.
One set of myths is about same-sex parenting generally. Here I’m thinking chiefly about the notion that children do best when raised by their biological father and mother. This idea was elaborated to bizarre extremes in the recent NSW same-sex adoption debate with comments like this from one NSW MP,
"What happens when there's a thunderstorm in the middle of the night and the kid calls out for 'Mummy' and rushes in for a cuddle and there are two blokes in the bed? We don't call it a maternal instinct for nothing. That's why blokes can't have babies."
Statements like this clearly show what nonsense we are dealing with here. Someone is a good parent because of their personal morality and aptitudes, because of their personality as an individual, not because of their gender. But still the myth persists, I assume because a mother and a father is all most people know.
On top of myths about same-sex parenting generally, gay dads face an extra layer of prejudice because they are gay men. There is still a widely-held stereotype that gay men are all "promiscuous", hedonistic and general irresponsible and unreliable. I was amazed the following off-handed comment by a mainstream journalist in a recent mainstream newspaper article about gay and straight dating not only passed completely unchallenged but was made without any evidence as if it is a matter of incontrovertible truth:
“The heart of the matter is the fact that male homosexuality has a special relationship with promiscuity.”
Worse still is the myth that we are actually a threat to children. This is less overt nowadays but it is still widely believed. Just ask any gay male school teachers about the lengths they have to go to allay the unfounded fears of those around them.
Like the myths about same-sex parenting, these myths about gay men are patently untrue but they persist possibly because gay men remain a convenient “other” onto which the fantasies and fears of the majority can be projected.
In order to counter all this mythology the Gay Dads Alliance has a three prong strategy: research, visibility and messaging.
There is a mountain of solid empirical research showing children in the care of same-sex couples thrive just as much as their peers, and that the vast majority of gay men lead lives that are just the same as every one else’s.
To get this message out GDA is helping to highlight happy, healthy, well-adjusted two-dad families in the media. A perfect example of this was the coverage for this conference in last weekend’s Age featuring Wayne, Peter and their son Joshua.
It has also developed catch phrases to cut through all the cant and fear.
Take, “My child calls me a parent, why doesn't the law?”
These ten words speak to the fact that gay men are already fathers, that it is the child who suffers when his or her family isn’t recognised, and, most of all, that it is love which makes a family.
[I was reminded of the power of words last night when I was talking to someone who was in the US during the recent Proposition 8 debate. He said that among all the thousands of comments reported in the media the one that stayed with him was from a woman in a long-term same-sex relationship who spoke of the joy she feels every time she hears her partner's key in the door at the end of the day.]
When it comes to challenging out-dated stereotypes, never under-estimate the power of rigorous science, images of real people and words that speak to universal human experience.
In my life I have seen the most astounding changes of laws and attitudes, particularly in my home state of Tasmania. These changes were ultimately because the majority saw that the gay Tasmanians they once feared as alien and threatening are in fact no different to them and share with them the same aspirations and tribulations. Thanks to the efforts of groups like GDA, the same can and will happen for gay dads.
This brings me to the final element of the GDA campaign – people working together.
No great social reform has ever occurred through individuals or groups standing alone.
It is vital that gay men who are or who want to be dads come together in meetings like this one to find and share a sense of common purpose.
It is also vital that gay dads share the pursuit of this common purpose by reaching out to other groups concerned for LGBT equality and equality for diverse families.
Of course, there’s a limit. It is always a mistake to expect groups that are busy with their own concerns to take on yours.
For example, if those of us concerned with marriage equality had expected state-based LGBT rights groups to take on that fight when they had so much to do at a state level, we would have been frustrated and angry.
Instead, groups like Australian Marriage Equality and Equal Love were formed.
The most you should expect and want from other LGBT and parenting groups is that they are allies in your struggle, not that they should shoulder the full wait of it.
In my experience, change is always driven by those who need it most.
For all the reasons I have outlined I commend Gay Dads Alliance for the campaign it has developed and am honoured to be able to launch it today
But before I end there’s one more element of any successful campaigns for legal and social change that I would like to recommend to you all.
It is the least tangible but most important element of all – imagination.
Whenever we do anything that contributes to change – even something as humble as writing a letter to an MP, attending a meeting or recording an interview – we must at the same time imagine the lives which by our efforts will be lived more freely and happily.
We must see clearly the evils we face – not the people who oppose reform but the myths and fears which, for now, inhabit them.
We must see what is the truest good for which we fight – not just an amended law, not just an improved policy, but the love and loyalty we have for those close to us, those for whose happiness we would sacrifice everything.
We must see beyond the ordinary frustrations and distractions of our everyday lives to the wonderful, still-hidden world that is crying out to be born, the world we call a better tomorrow.
In other words, we must see what we seek to achieve and what we do to achieve it as a kind of fairy-tale that we are writing for our children.
In years to come when you retell this tale to your children, may the prejudice and inequities we face today be as fantastical to them as fiery dragons and mischievous elves. And may your children honour their dads who fought so hard for them, as the brave and noble knights they truly are.
[ Email This Article ]