Last Wednesday I described the many different types of parenting and family arrangements we now have in the Philippines (and other parts of the world): solo parenting, surrogate parenting, families with adopted children, blended families, multiple families, and families headed by same-sex couples.
Many of the arrangements are often done extralegally, meaning without going through legal processes. The arrangements will often work out, but in other cases, the absence of legal protection can make the parties, especially the children, vulnerable.
For example, because divorce is not allowed in the Philippines and legal separation and annulment are expensive procedures, couples will sometimes just break up, each going their own way and even starting new relationships and families. In such situations, there is nothing clear about who will support the children, who has custody, who has visitation rights.
Informal adoptions also carry that problem. I know a woman who is still recovering from the trauma of losing an adopted child. Single, she took on the responsibility of taking care of a nephew from birth, giving him the best in life including private schooling. When the boy turned seven, the father (her brother) decided he wanted the boy back, to raise with a second “wife.” (The quotation marks are used because he is still legally married to the first wife, the boy’s mother, who has also gone on to a second “husband.”) My friend could do nothing. The boy now struggles with living with a stepmother, a still absent father (who works elsewhere), a new environment using a language he cannot speak, and a public school education.
We need laws that formalize guardianship and parenting arrangements, and more. This is where the controversial same-sex marriages come in.
I will describe a situation that is based on a couple I know—two lesbians who have been together for almost 10 years, raising two informally adopted children, both taken from poor families but without legal papers. I have told them they need to go through legal adoption but they observe, rightly so, that it takes years to adopt, with many expenses…and they wonder if the Department of Social Welfare and Development can be unbiased in assessing their capability to adopt, because both of them are quite “butch,” very “tomboy” in appearance.
Because the children are not legally adopted, they cannot be registered as beneficiaries of the two women for PhilHealth, for social security, or for private insurance. Schools can question them when they are enrolled, although this has not happened because they simply say they’re “aunts.” Some schools actually won’t even admit the children because of policies that don’t accept “irregular” children, meaning those of parents who are single, adoptive, separated, or divorced.
The lack of legal options also applies to their own ability to care for each other. If one partner falls seriously ill and needs to be admitted to hospital for emergency procedures, the other cannot sign consent forms. They love and have cared for each other, but as far as society and the law are concerned, they are invisible, if not outcasts.
As I pointed out in last Wednesday’s column, the issue here is not so much of “same-sex marriages” as of society providing mechanisms to protect all kinds of relationships between two consenting adults, as well as between individuals who parent and the children.
I know the “homosexuality is a sin” issue keeps coming up, but who is to judge here? We have many gays and lesbians who sacrifice their careers and lives to care for elderly parents. How convenient that societies never question their competence and capability, never use the label “perverts” to block them from doing so.
“Oh, but it’s different with parenting; they might molest their children.” Really now. Look at the courts clogged with cases of fathers raping their daughters, stepdaughters, nieces, granddaughters. Should we then ban all heterosexual men from marrying, and from raising children?
We will see more variations around marriages and parenting not because societies are becoming lax and “liberal” but because they are becoming more compassionate, recognizing that for the longest time, men and women, men and men, women and women, have taken up the tremendous responsibilities of caring for relatives and for children.
Our laws have evolved. We now extend social security benefits to single mothers (but not single fathers, as far as I know). Illegitimate children have the same rights as legitimate children. But what happens to all the other types of families and parent-child relationships already existing, and yet to come? The distinction between a “biological” and “adoptive” parent will become more complicated in the years ahead with “womb mothers”—those who bring a fetus to term, covered by a legal contract, and turn over the child to adoptive parents. (We have no laws for this arrangement in the Philippines.)
Biological parents, with one father and one mother, do not have a monopoly on the commitment to caring; in fact, we see too many biological parents who quite simply do not parent. Parenting is not instinctive; in fact, biology sometimes seems to work against some mothers who, because their bodies go through so much tumult, plunging them into deep postpartum depression, reject their newborn child.
Parenting is cultural, too, with society telling us not just how but also when to parent. Nancy Schepher Hughes’ “Death without Weeping” describes mothers in Brazilian slums who keep a distance from their children until they are about a year old, because infant mortality is so high and the mothers are in a sense avoiding the pain that will come with attachment. I have seen this phenomenon as well in our own urban areas, and the tendency to label the behavior as “neglect.”
Conservatives paint dire portraits of gay marriages leading to gay parenting—and, in a sense, they are right. But the result is not a descent into chaos and immorality but of a more caring society that allows all—heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, asexual—to participate more fully in society, including bringing up the next generation.
By rejecting same-sex marriage, society leaves same-sex couples to drift about without any legal commitment to each other, without social recognition and affirmation. Which is, of course, what conservatives want because they so hate homosexuals. (Please, dear readers, spare me letters trying to clarify that the Catholic Church only condemns homosexuality, and not homosexuals.)
This is why lesbians and gays have come out so passionately for same-sex marriage, wanting an assurance that they have the same rights as straight couples have to take care of each other, and their children.
One final point. Given that some 10 million Filipinos live and work overseas, we must face up to certain realities. In a few months, the Philippines will be the only country left in the world without divorce. In a few years, we will be among a small number of countries that do not recognize same-sex unions. How do we respond to the Filipinos who come back from overseas, divorced and with new families? How do we respond to our relatives coming home with a same-sex spouse, and with children from their same-sex union? Are we going to exclude them from our families and our social life?