Today’s post is written by J-Le,  who blogs at The Twinkle in My Eye. She lives in Melbourne and has a two year old daughter with her partner.

Last weekend, masses of people around Australia protested about the Federal government’s inaction on marriage equality. This followed a Senate enquiry, initiated by Sarah Hanson-Young of the Greens, into the topic. And here I am writing about it on this rainbow families blog… but is marriage even a rainbow families topic? My instinct is that same-sex marriage isn’t primarily about families – indeed the Marriage Act itself makes no mention of children – but if you’ve been following the debate you’ll know that opponents of same-sex marriage have made it into a debate about families. And as rainbow family advocates, we can’t ignore this, regardless of whether we want to be married ourselves.

At the Senate enquiry hearing, the opponents were all Christian, as were some of the advocates for same-sex marriage, interestingly enough. The opponents mostly insisted their position wasn’t religiously-based (which is just as well because we do pride ourselves on being a secular society). Their position on marriage can be summarised by these direct quotes:

· “Out of all human relationships the union of a man and a woman is fundamental to our continued existence. (Australian Family Association)

· Marriage is not simply a loving, committed relationship between two people but a unique kind of physical and emotional union which is open to the possibility of life. (Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney)

· “It is possible and does happen for two men or two women to have a loving relationship. The question is not whether they love each other; the question is what is best for the children. (Australian Christian Lobby)

Clearly opponents of marriage equality believe that marriage is about families and children, and not about love and commitment between two people. They brush aside the obvious drawbacks of their argument – we allow infertile, post-fertile and couples with no intention of putting their fertility to child-bearing use to marry – with an argument along the lines of “even if they don’t have children, it’s sort of like they can, even if they can’t.” (I kid you not – read the transcript here ). They insist that a child is best raised by a mother and father who are biologically related to them. Single parents are “heroes”, but same-sex parents in committed relationships are wrong, wrong, wrong. They are in denial about the fact that gay people have children – always have, and always will, and these days in increasing numbers – and that the communities and governments of most Australian States have accepted this. They think that by disallowing same-sex marriage that children won’t find themselves being parented by two people of the same sex. They are forcing the marriage debate to be about what’s best for children, and this may be their downfall.

If indeed they are interested in what’s best for children, then it seems inevitable that the Federal government will one day catch up with the State governments who are one-by-one realising that children raised in same-sex relationships do not experience harm and should be given equal protection and recognition in law, just as the State governments are progressively doing in the area of assisted reproduction.

One of the opponents of marriage equality suggested that “law reform supported by the Australian community has given them (ie us) equality with de facto heterosexual couples.” And of course he is right. Our relationships are now recognised by the Commonwealth as being de facto, giving us and our children equal treatment under most Commonwealth laws (with the exception of marriage, adoption and surrogacy). But there is a danger in us settling for this level of almost-equality, because being unable to marry continues to place us on a tier below heterosexual couples. And this translates into family and social differences, which can be subtle but significant. We call each other “partner”, which has become an impotent word, equivalent to girlfriend/boyfriend, with none of the unspoken implications of wife/husband. Our partners can remain invisible to family and society. If one of us dies, we’re not considered to be a widow. And when our daughter asks why we’re not married and we tell her we’re not allowed, I fear we will be faced with one of those pre-schooler whines of “but why?” and we would be obliged to say that the government thinks our relationship is not important enough. And I hardly think it is in the best interests of our child to have her believe that her family is less important in the eyes of our government.

I don’t think marriage is about children. I think it is about commitment and love and I think that any two adults who enter into such a commitment voluntarily should be supported and their love celebrated. We’re not trying – to quote a Catholic bishop at the Senate hearing –  to “steal marriage” (yes, he really said that). We’re trying to embrace it. And I think the more visible our rainbow families are in the debate – showing that you don’t need to be in a heterosexual marriage to perpetuate the species, and showing that kids don’t need two opposite-sex married parents, both biologically related to you, in order to be a good and happy personthe weaker the opposition arguments become.

A few people have emailed me with this article in which a gay male couple is seeking access to a girl who is not biologically related to either of them. One of the men was a donor for the girl in question’s older sister, and the two mothers invited the two men to be part of both children’s lives.  Now the mothers have separated, and the men still want to be in contact with the younger sister.

It shows just how messy our families can get in the absence of legal recognition (or established community norms – if we lived in a culture where things were ‘done this way’ for millenia, that would help – but we don’t). This whole parenting thing is quite new for the gay & lesbian community. By quite new, I mean twenty or thirty years since gays and lesbians started having families on their own . Of course parents have always brought children from previous straight relationships to their newly gay lives, but as far as actually creating families goes,  we’re pretty much making it up as we go along.

One of the things I love about the glbti ideal of family is this concept that biology is not absolute. We can create powerful, nurturing networks in the absence of legally binding marriages, without legal recognition of parenthood, with no religious framework for identifying godparents, and so on. I think it’s a wonderful idea that a child could have many parents – many role models, many ways to be…

However, I know I couldn’t create a family like that. Elisabeth and I have arguments discussions enough about how much tv the children should be watching, how to respond when they’re crying, and whether allowing them to eat chocolate cake is starting them down the road to addiction and obesity.  We’ve already started the schooling discussions (I’m tempted by home schooling; Louise is horrified). I can’t imagine how we would incorporate other parties into these daily negotiations.  I like to think we know our limitations.

I imagine that people start off with wonderful ideals. “We all love each other dearly, and a child needs a lot of love – let’s do it together.” From that point, all parties are committing to be in close contact for at least the  first eighteen years of the child’s life.  Eighteen years in which all have to know each other’s incomes, debate each other’s deeply held and unarticulated beliefs, and eighteen years to not fall out with each other. And eighteen years where no party will make major geographical moves without input from all the others.

According to the article, the men were named as “fathers” at the girl’s naming ceremony. I wonder if the women would have thought differently about that if they had been signing a legal document? As a “father”, I would expect to have some financial responsibilities; I would also expect to have a deep and ongoing relationship with the child. As it turns out, even without a legal document, their claim to “fatherhood” is being heard seriously.

A smart lawyer friend pointed out that there may also be something in their claim as “fathers” that gives their case legitimacy – that our culture sees it as a great disadvantage to not have a father, that even a non-biological one is better than nothing. She wondered whether they would be treated with more consideration than another “mother” would.

However, I am spending all my time at the moment arguing that biology is not everything – that it’s the intentions we make at the creation of a child’s life that create family. We need to take our commitments seriously. It’s tricky, I think, wanting to create wonderful new communities – we have the ideas but not always the interpersonal, social & conflict resolution skills to carry them through.

Same sex headed families are deeply radical. Day-to-day we may feel mind-numbingly normal, but we are not. Everything we do, we do with thought, and with limited stories of those who’ve gone before to build on. Often, we do spectacularly well. Our kids are gorgeous and content. But sometimes we muck up. We need to think beyond the utopian dream, to acknowledge our foibles and weaknesses and the immense complications involved in forging a new way of family.

This case, I think , is an example of why, in the absence of community reinforcers, we need legal recognition for our families. Whether a child has one or two or ten parents, they deserve to know, right from the start, who is making a commitment to be there for them for their whole life. And that is no small commitment – we, the adults, need to take this seriously when we are planning our families.

*Preface: I must emphasise that we collected approximately 200 letters in support of same sex parenting. The naysayers were definitely in the minority.

Today I went along to Brisbane’s International Lesbian Day function. PFLAG had kindly paid for us to have a stall to let people know about the same sex parenting & altruistic surrogacy campaign, and we spent the afternoon with a pile of pro forma letters to MPs, asking people to write to their own state Member while they were there.

A few people refused to sign, quite adamantly. “I’m having a terrible custody battle with my ex and I don’t think non-biological parents should have rights,” was the line I counted from at least four women. One woman stood by the stall for a couple of minutes, talking others out of signing. “Don’t sign this, it takes away the rights of mothers,” she told another passerby, who wandered off, confused.

I was flabbergasted at the time, and have been angry since. Lesbians and gay men are at a crossroads. We haven’t had recognition for so long, and in some cases this has worked in our favour. It was very pleasant to be on the single parents’ pension, even though I was in a relationship, for the first eighteen months of my children’s lives. In the lead up to June 30 this year, I heard of two couples who were moving into separate houses so they would not be considered couples and lose their welfare benefits. We are being forced to assess our relationships. In this relationship, are we truly interested in being interdependent? Or are we just living together because it’s easy? Are you Ms Right, or just Ms Right Now?

For lesbian biological parents in the states where our partners aren’t recognised (Qld, SA, Tas), it’s easy to cop out. We can make a decision to co-parent, then walk away.

Let’s assume that the ex-partner was terrible. Say she was violent, or emotionally abusive. You don’t want her having contact with your (joint) kids. I get that. We’ve all had partners we’d rather forget about. But when do we get to decide that they are meaningless in our children’s lives?

I know that the legal system leaves a LOT to be desired. I don’t doubt that the woman standing in front of the stall talking people out of signing feels like she has really been done over by the legal system. But she did choose to have a child with her horrible ex-partner. These are important decisions we are making, not throwaway ones. Straight women have children with f*@%wit men all the time. It’s unfortunate, it really is. And I know we choose these partners due to our own horrible childhoods, bad parental role models, co-dependence and socialised female roles. But the horrible straight men are still their children’s fathers, even when the parents separate.

These are kids we are creating. We need to think about the weight of the decisions we are making. If you choose to create a child with this person – whether they are biologically connected to the child or not – they are going to be in your life, and your child’s, forever. Yes, we will make mistakes. And that is where the legal system, mediation & counselling, with all their faults (and they are significant, so lobby to change those) come in.

And non-biological parents getting recognition is not “taking away the rights of mothers”. They ARE mothers. That is the point.