Families are not factories

// 5 December 2011

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My parents have been married for thirty years. I grew up in a semi-detached house in a suburb, one of three kids. The only surprise in the set-up is that we don’t have a picket fence. It was a Tory government’s wet dream of an upbringing.

nuclear family.jpg

Somewhere along the line, though, something went wrong. The conveyer-belt churning out endless, identical replications of this ideal kinship model hit a snag, shuddered and stopped. It turned out one of the slightly-more-than-2.4 kids was queer and at least one of the others didn’t really give a damn about marriage. Our predicted stable, nuclear futures wobbled as reality, in all its glorious diversity, failed to conform to ideology.

Thank god, then, for the government, who have announced the return, albeit in diluted form, of Thatcher’s Clause 28. Children in free schools or academies will in future be receiving heterosexist brainwashing instead of Sex and Relationships Education. Perhaps they can halt the cultural decline in straight people buying into holy matrimony by literally legislating for its ideological imposition?

How obnoxiously weird that a practice designed to institutionalise the exchange of women-as-commodities should, in 2011, be being brought back as if it’s the only excellent kinship model. Over one third of marriages end in divorce, we know that only about 50% of people get married anyway – why do conservatives insist on touting the myth that marriage provides a stability that other forms of relationship don’t? Could they actually believe it, or is this a Dorries-esque way of grooming the next generation’s prejudices against the rights of those who threateningly queer the picture?

Against all the evidence suggesting that other relationship models are also great, we are hugely invested in the ideal of marriage, in particular, in the importance of marriage to women. Popular, mildly-misogynist TV shows Don’t Tell the Bride and Four Weddings (both guilty pleasures, I admit) speak to this, camping up the ‘greatest-day-of-her-life’ aesthetic until it is too absurd to take seriously. Unless you’re Michael Gove, who presumably resolved to bring back Clause 28 during the Don’t Tell the Bride adverts.

Given how much pro-marriage marketing we receive, perhaps it is not surprising that our common cultural conception is that it is vaguely ‘best for children’ if they grow up with married hetero-parents. The viciousness of anti-single-mother rhetoric, returning time again to narratives of blame and failure, only compounds this problem. The government spectacularly fails to consider the possible impact of such negative socialisation on children growing up in single-parent households.

No matter. It is best for children to be brought up by married heterosexual couples , apparently, because two parents provide more stability than one. If an extra parent is so great, why wouldn’t it be better to have more than two? Why not four? Or ten? Why don’t we bring children up in communes, as envisaged by our feminist foremothers?

I want to know why a marriage certificate makes a difference, if it is not just to get couples bogged down in financial commitments to each other so that they can’t separate. I’d like to know, moreover, how it could be better for children to grow up the company of two parents who would really rather have gone their separate ways, and why it is thought to be right that parents abnegate those – potentially eighteen – years of their lives ‘for the sake of the children’. I’d like to know why gender is presumed to make a difference to that equation, why God is genuinely believed to have given a shit about anybody’s chromosomes.

Clause 28 is a case of cart-before-horse. There is nothing inherently better about nuclear families except the belief that they are better (coupled with tax breaks). If the children of hetero-marriages turn out to be better adjusted, whatever the hell that means, than those from other families, we need to look at the ways in which the former set of children are systematically culturally privileged and change the system accordingly. To conclude that marriage is best and should be preached to kids is question-beggingly circular. It perpetuates the cycle, excluding those who can’t or won’t fit.

I have seen at first hand that a heterosexual marriage can provide a stable upbringing in which children can grow. But I would contend that if there is anything about my orientation which would prevent me from bringing up kids in just as good a manner, it is the attitude of Gove and co, who, through Clause 28, will attempt to make sure that the society my children will grow up in will be even more full of hate than the society we have now. Thanks Gove, you utter wanker.

Image by flickr user the|G|™ shared under a Creative Commons license. Image is polaroid-style showing a sign on a pink background with stick-men representations of a man, a woman and a baby.

Comments From You

Troika21 // Posted 6 December 2011 at 8:23 am

Where are small government conservatives when you need them?

sianandcrookedrib // Posted 6 December 2011 at 10:38 am

Great post Ray.

As someone who grew up in a two mum household, with a dad and step mum too, under section 28 (i was born in 1984) i am furious about this turn of events! Suggesting that marriage is better than any other way is harmful because it ignores the reality of children growing up with different families, it makes them invisible and it others them. As i say over and over again – the issue isn’t gay families or single parent families, the issue is other people’s homophobia and prejudice, and insitutionalised homophobia andd prejudice that this move promotes.

I wrote about this a while back here: http://sianandcrookedrib.blogspot.com/2011/10/daily-mail-and-sunday-telegraph-and.html

timbutton // Posted 6 December 2011 at 1:06 pm

Hey Ray!

I agree with everything you say about marriage certificates. I’m reminded of Jody Mitchell: We don’t need no piece of paper from the city hall…

But the details of the “reintroduction” of Clause 28 are really much messier than we’ve realised. The Telegraph picked up on this a few days ago, but the Tories didn’t announce this policy a few days ago. Oh no!

The offending Clause 28 in the Model Agreement dates back at least to September (you can see this by downloading the document here http://bit.ly/lw43WW).

In fact, the Clause dates back quite a lot earlier. People seemed to first notice it, online, in about January 2011: http://forums.digitalspy.co.uk/showthread.php?t=1431512

Tracking back though some of their comments, you can see that the offending Clause occurred in documents signed in 2009: http://bit.ly/vzcGnE (look for Clause 42)… and then all the way back to 2001: http://bit.ly/vq4WxB (look for Clause 26).

We see the same Clause, copied and pasted, right from the days when it was first written, preceding the repeal of the original Section 28 (November 2003). No one has ever bothered to change it.

On the one hand, this is mildly encouraging: it means that Gove is not (probably) planning a reintroduction of Section 28.

On the other hand, it reminds us that the ghost of things like Section 28 can haunt us, long after the legislation is gone.

In this regard, the wording of the offending Clause itself is very telling. Here’s a further little anecdote.

In 2000, fearing that Section 28 would be repealed, Conservative-run Kent County Council implemented the following policy:

***the council shall not publish, purchase or distribute to children inappropriate material for any sex education, including the intentional promotion of homosexuality***

Section 28 was repealed in 2003, but Kent kept this policy until 2005. Finally, under pressure from the Queer Youth Alliance (http://bit.ly/uEDync), it was changed to:

***Our policies are opposed to the publishing or use of any inappropriate material in sex education and any material which is unnecessarily explicit, and is also opposed to role play in sex education. We will ensure that sex education values family and marriage as the foundation of a civilised society, and a firm basis for the nurturing of children***

These are go-to compromise phrases for those who want to say something homophobic, but aren’t allowed to do so. But Kent’s climb-down phrase is almost exactly the phrasing of the offending Clause for Academies, namely:

***The Academy Trust shall have regard to any guidance issued by the Secretary of State on sex and relationship education to ensure that children at the Academy are protected from inappropriate teaching materials and they learn the nature of marriage and its importance for family life and for bringing up children***

In brief: the wording is not new. It is the wording that people use to compromise with homophobes. It was introduced, in this manner, while Section 28 was still in force. It is still being copied-and-pasted now, from contract to contract.

Ray Filar // Posted 6 December 2011 at 6:00 pm


You’re absolutely right. I saw the 2001 document yesterday after posting this. Having said that, what I gathered from the telegraph piece was that these were pieces of wording designed for specific institutions (i.e. Bexley academy) – my thought was that what Gove has now done is to take the hangover accumulation of pre/post-section-28 wordings and officially extend them across the board?

It is terrifying that these under the radar bits of policy exist.

Lizzy // Posted 7 December 2011 at 7:56 am

Thank you so much for this post. My parents are going through a separation at the moment, finally ending a marriage which has hurt my mum very badly for as long as I can remember.

It hurts me to see the idolising of marriage in society, with no mention of issues such as domestic violence. Quite a large portion of my acquaintances have recently got married, many of them slightly younger than me (I’m 22). Having experienced the acute suffering of my parents’ ill-considered marriage, I actually feel somewhat insulted that my peers are taking the decision to wed so lightly. The mantra that marriage is wonderful led my parents down the wrong track, and the same mantra is happening among my peers now that I am in my early 20s.

I think that marriage can be a good thing, but when a woman (or man) becomes trapped in a marriage for whatever reason, it can destroy people. I am currently trying to navigate a healthy relationship with my boyfriend, and it is quite a challenge when the relationship model which I was exposed to throughout my development was so unhealthy.

Joannemlive // Posted 7 December 2011 at 6:01 pm

Great article Ray.

The Conservatives say that they are about the family and believe in supporting families. But this is a particular structure of family that they mean. They mean 2.4 children, as you have said.

Who can argue with saying that they believe in family?! Just that the Conservative idea of family is certainly the ‘family’ that you can box and recognise with marriage.

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