Thursday 23 November 2017

'We just want to be recognised as a couple - the same as anyone else'

Together for 11 years, Fiona Clarke and Sheila King are one couple who would love to be able to get hitched, reports Anna Murphy

Fiona Clarke and her partner Sheila King with their baby Keelin, aged 18 months
Fiona Clarke and her partner Sheila King with their baby Keelin, aged 18 months

Anna Murphy

With divorce and cohabiting both on the increase, it seems that the majority of Irish people aren't all that bothered about marriage. But there is one vocal minority for whom marriage is still something to get excited about: those who aren't allowed to marry.

Fiona Clarke and Sheila King are one such couple. They've been together for 11 years and are parenting a child together.

Privately, they have made a life-long commitment to each other, but it is not something that is recognised by society.

"Despite our commitment to each other, our relationship isn't recognised as much as everyone else's," says Fiona. "Even when it comes to little things, like an application form for a bank, we have to put ourselves down as single because there's no legal status to say we are anything else. We do feel we've missed out on celebrating our relationship as well; on having it publicly recognised. We just want to be recognised as a couple -- the same as anyone else."

Arguments like this have already won the day in several countries where gay marriage is now legal, starting with the Netherlands, which introduced same-sex marriage in 2001. Since then, same-sex marriage has also been legalised in Belgium, Canada, Norway, South Africa and Spain, along with two states in America.

For years, the Irish gay and lesbian community has been lobbying for the right to marry, and earlier this year the Government went some way towards meeting their demands.

The Government's planned civil partnership bill means that gay and lesbian couples will be able to register their relationships with the State for the first time and avail of greater protection in areas such as pensions, inheritance and tax.

While much of the proposed legislation is being welcomed by the gay community, they do point out that it is still falls short of giving gay and lesbian couples the right to marry.

"The proposed bill will resolve many of the pressing concerns for lesbian and gay couples -- concerns such as immigration, home ownership and succession rights, and that's very significant," says Brian Sheehan, Director of the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (GLEN).

"It will also give an element of status and value to lesbian and gay couples for the first time. But civil partnership isn't marriage, and the right to marry is still an outstanding issue."

While the civil partnership bill has received broad acceptance from almost all quarters of Irish society, this outstanding issue of same-sex marriage is proving to be more contentious.

The Iona Institute is an Irish organisation that seeks to promote marriage and religious practice. Its director David Quinn argues that it is not discriminatory to restrict marriage to heterosexual couples.

"Same-sex relationships cannot produce children, and this is why it is not discrimination to treat heterosexual relationships differently from homosexual ones. They are treated differently because they are different.

"It is the children sexual relationships produce, as distinct from sexual relationships as such, that has always made such relationships a special interest of society. It is sound, rational public policy for the Government to strongly favour marriage in its current form. It is also sound policy to give other forms of relationships certain protections, but it makes no sense at all to make any of those other forms of relationship almost equivalent to marriage. To do so is a triumph of tolerance over reason."

But while gay and lesbian couples cannot biologically have children together, they can and often do co-parent children together. However, these sorts of parenting roles are not dealt with under the proposed civil partnership bill and civil partnerships will not provide any right for same-sex couples to be considered as joint adoptive parents.

For Fiona Clarke and Sheila King, this is the biggest drawback to civil partnership. "Last year, Sheila and I had a baby daughter," Fiona explains. "Although we parent her equally, Sheila actually has no legal connection to her. I am Keelin's biological parent, and the father is not involved, so legally Keelin only has one parent. Sheila and Keelin are actually 'strangers in law' and the new civil partnership bill will not legally recognise our family."

"There is a total lack of legal rights for same-sex parents and it is a really critical issue at the moment," says Brian Sheehan of GLEN. "We believe there are mechanisms for establishing a legal connection between both same-sex parents and their child without extinguishing the rights of biological parents -- this can be done by extending guardianship, for example, to include another parent. There is currently no provision for a person who may have been involved in parenting a child from birth."

While Sheila welcomes other aspects of the bill, she is deeply disappointed that it doesn't address parenting issues.

"Other elements of the bill are fantastic, but there's no point in leaving children out of it," says Sheila.

"It's not against the law for gay couples to have children but the law does nothing to protect those children. I legally have no connection with Keelin, which puts us all in a vulnerable position. For example, if anything were to happen to Fiona, or between me and Fiona, I have no legal right to see Keelin. The law isn't protecting her rights because if anything were to happen to Fiona, then Keelin could end up losing me as well. That worry is always there, and we just take things one day at a time."

Fiona and Sheila do still intend to register their relationship as a civil partnership. It will give them some of the rights they feel they are missing, as well as an opportunity to celebrate their commitment. With hundreds of other couples in the same situation, Brian Sheehan expects that initially there will be a very high demand for civil partnerships. Despite the bill's perceived shortcomings, he expects much celebration once civil partnerships start to be performed.

"What's envisaged is that couples will go to a registration office, just like what happens currently for civil marriages. There'll be a ceremony of sorts where commitments will be made; in effect, there will be very little difference between a civil partnership and a civil marriage at the registration office. I think these ceremonies will be very strongly celebrated. It's very profound to commit in public to a partner -- marriage is something that is celebrated very strongly in Irish society and I think that we will celebrate civil partnership in the same way."

While some will celebrate these civil partnerships with all the semblance of a marriage, others are keen to point out that civil partnerships do not and should not equal marriage. Proponents of traditional marriage say this debate is about more than just a couple's desire for recognition - it's about the direction of marriage and of society.

"There are two main views of marriage," according to David Quinn. "One view is that marriage is a vehicle for private fulfilment and satisfaction. The second view is that marriage is a social institution in the sense that it isn't just about the couple but about their children as well.

"The institutional view of marriage is collapsing in Ireland in favour of the individualistic view, and that individualism is also feeding into the increase in divorce and cohabitation.

"If you take that individualistic argument to its logical conclusion, then the argument in favour of gay marriage gains strength. The main danger of this is the effect it has on children. The number of children not raised by their natural parents has doubled in the last 20 years.

"If you take the view that it is better for children to be raised by both parents, then social policy needs to put supports for marriage in place."

Fiona is Keelin's biological mother, but she is raised equally by Fiona and her partner Sheila. Fiona and Sheila would like to see the Government extend the right to marry to gay couples, and to recognise that they are both Keelin's guardians.

"The only way Sheila can have any formal guardianship of Keelin is if I relinquish mine," says Fiona.

"We made the decision together to have a child and we parent her together and equally. But if I were to die, my family would have more rights to Keelin than Sheila.

"It makes you feel vulnerable to be in our situation, and we'd like Keelin to have the legal right to both her parents. We got Keelin christened and it was lovely to have that kind of recognition and public ceremony.

"It would be nice for Sheila and I to be able to have that as well and get married. It all comes down to equal rights.

"After the new bill comes into law, Sheila and I will be able to be next-of-kin, but Sheila still won't be Keelin's legal guardian."

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