Why is it illegal for some people to have sex in Equality Ireland?
We saw last week what a joyful experience it can be to smash discrimination, so let's liberate some more minorities
Published 31/05/2015 | 02:30
In the last few months, a lot of parents spoke publicly about the moment they found out their child was gay. And many of them admitted it was hard, certainly initially. And most of these parents gave one or both of two reasons for finding it hard initially. Nearly all of them said they worried for their child initially, because they thought life would be that bit harder for them as a gay person. This was nothing to do with their child, really, but more of a reflection on how the world can view gay people.
The second reason that many of them gave was roughly along the lines of how the hopes and dreams they had for their children were suddenly all changed. This is not to say that there was anything wrong with the new future faced by their children, but it was not the one they expected. And they had to adjust to that.
Let me stress very clearly here that I am not drawing any parallels in what I am about to say between gay people and people with a disability, but there are certain parallels for the process that parents go through when they have a child who has a different horizontal identity than them, rather than just inheriting their identity, vertically, from the parents.
Andrew Solomon popularised the notion of vertical and horizontal identities in his excellent book Far from the Tree. He explains it better than I could: "Often someone has an inherent or acquired trait that is foreign to his or her parents and must therefore acquire identity from a peer group. This is a horizontal identity... Being gay is a horizontal identity; most gay kids are born to straight parents, and while their sexuality is not determined by their peers, they learn gay identity by observing and participating in a subculture outside the family... So are conditions such as autism and intellectual disability."
For a parent, there are parallels between learning your child is gay and learning your child has a disability. When you find your child has a disability, you worry for them, or at least you worry about how the mainstream world will see them and treat them. You worry they will be bullied, set apart, that they will not be accepted, that they will face discrimination. And also, you have to readjust your hopes and dreams for your child when you find out that they are not going to be a carbon copy of you, which is what most parents secretly want.
When you find out your child has an intellectual disability, you immediately have to readjust your ideas about them one day getting married and having children, about their educational and career path, about pretty much every aspect of their lives. In reality, it is, of course, a far more difficult adjustment than hearing your child is gay. And again, I stress I am making no comparison between the two things.
We have learnt this past week what a wonderful thing equality can be, how it can enrich a whole society to stop discriminating against a particular minority. Even elements in the Church were forced to agree that our referendum added to the sum of human happiness.
Already, people have begun to talk about other battles for equality that lie ahead. Childhood poverty has been mentioned as one.
I am suspicious about the notion of everybody being equal. It is one thing to remove institutionalised discrimination against gay people, allowing them, in the process, to feel more validated and more accepted by society. This was a great example of how removing institutionalised discrimination can have a fantastic trickle-down effect. We have all realised now that the marriage equality referendum was not really just about marriage. It has changed forever how gay people will be viewed in our society, and it has changed forever how gay people will feel in our society. A lot of people have characterised it as a removal of the 'them and us' attitude. There may have been a perception before that 'we' were the heterosexual norm, and 'they' were the homosexual other. But what the last few months taught hetero people was that gay people are part of the 'us' too. They are our brothers, our sisters, our children, our parents, our friends and our colleagues.
But to expect everyone to be equal in every way is just as artificial a construct as discrimination or slavery really. It is an idea that human beings made up. It has no basis in nature really.
People with intellectual disabilities will never be truly equal. That is sad, but it is a fact. You could argue that no one will ever be truly equal. But people with intellectual disabilities are always going to be less equal than others. Would that we could grant them equality with just a referendum. But we can't.
What we can do is remove some of the institutional discrimination we put in the way of people with intellectual disabilities.
The last thing any father wants to think about when they look at their four-year-old is the prospect of her having sex some day. Slightly worse than that prospect is the thought that no one will ever have sex with your daughter. Slightly worse than that is the prospect that it is actually against the law for anyone to have sex with your daughter.
That is the case when I look at my daughter. If she ever meets anyone she loves, it will be a criminal offence for them to make love. Under, ironically enough, the same law that decriminalised homosexuality. This is just one of many things my daughter is not allowed to do under various laws that exist in this country. She will also face huge problems inheriting a home from us. My daughter is, under law, a lunatic, an imbecile, an idiot, feeble-minded, mentally impaired. Take your pick of the nice words the laws use. I prefer to call her Mary.
Under current legislation, if someone else in years to come is concerned that she cannot manage her resources, she may become a ward of court. This means she will face travel restrictions, will have to get permission to have medical treatment and cannot marry without permission of the court. Once she becomes a ward of court, she will not be able to stop being one unless she can prove she has recovered from her disability, which is not likely to happen.
Ireland signed up for The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2007, but, eight years on, we have yet to ratify it. Inclusion Ireland, among others, has been lobbying for the Government to replace the Lunacy Regulation Act (Ireland) Act 1871, with the 2013 Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Bill as promised in the Programme for Government. They say this would remove a major stumbling block to ratification of the Convention. It would also be a great blow for my kid's equality.
And then we would need to get her a right to a suitable education, a right to speech therapy so that she can enjoy the right to free speech and to have her voice heard, and all the other rights that she doesn't enjoy right now, and then we will be sorted. Personally, parents like me think this is the civil rights issue of our generation.
There's a long road ahead, but last week taught us that it will be a hugely enriching experience for society at large.