In a great number of ways, my last two years of high school in Hong Kong were quite different from my years of schooling in Colombia. For one, my Hong Kong school was much more liberal, and so were my fellow students. I remember that one day our teachers had organized a discussion on gay marriage and gay rights, for the school held a great deal of debates on all sorts of issues. That day, the opening speaker was a fellow classmate who told us about growing up having two female parents. Her mothers, it happened, were a committed lesbian couple who had raised her and cared for her in the same way that a heterosexual couple would have. My classmate loved both her mothers, just as they loved her, and she was happy with the way her family was. Furthermore, she was straight.
I decided to start with this story because a few weeks ago a related and controversial event took place in Rionegro, Antioquia. Earlier this month, a judge in that paisa municipality decided to grant custody of a girl to a committed lesbian couple. The child is the biological daughter of one of the women, and she has been raised by both of them since her birth, almost two years ago. Unsurprisingly, the case has opened the debate on adoptions and parental rights for same-sex couples.
Some could suspect that Colombia is an irrationally conservative place on issues like these, but they are wrong. There is a good number of NGOs and lawmakers openly trying to advance gay rights, and a 2007 decision by the Constitutional Court legalized same-sex civil unions. That is more than can be said of the great majority of American states, or of other Catholic but richer countries such as Ireland and Italy. Yet, that does not mean that social conservatives in Colombia have not been infuriated by this decision of the Rionegro judge. Monsignor Jose Cordoba, a spokesman for the Catholic Church, reiterated that their institution would not recognize families conformed by same-sex couples. Children raised in those families, Monsignor Cordoba said, “would not receive an adequate upbringing [and] will have problems with their sexual identity”.
On its side, the Instituto Colombiano de Bienestar Familiar (ICBF), a government agency charged with protecting the welfare of children and families, has decided to appeal the judge’s decision. ICBF director Elvira Forero claims that the decision violates the Colombian constitution as well as some legal statutes, in which adoption by same-sex couples is implicitly or explicitly forbidden. As a matter of fact, Article 42 of the Constitution states that the family, “the fundamental nucleus of society”, is established “by the free decision of a man and a woman to marry”. In addition, Ms. Forero claims that the Law of Infants and Adolescents does not allow gay couples to adopt.
These arguments have come under attack by gay rights advocates. Marcela Sanchez, from NGO Colombia Diversa, points out that the Colombian state recognizes and protects families that are headed by single parents, or those formed by siblings alone, something that goes in clear contradiction of the letter of the Constitution. Many Colombian families fall outside of the marriage-between-man-and-wife category presented in Article 42. Why should it be different for same-sex couples? Ms. Sanchez also maintains that nothing in the Law of Infants and Adolescents forbids adoption by gay couples. And she is right: article 68 of the Law states that the only requisites for adopting are 1) to be over 25 years old, 2) to be at least ten years older than the adoptive child, 3) “mental, physical, moral, and social competence”. More importantly, that same article states that spouses and permanent partners (i.e., those who live under civil unions) may adopt.
As the Law of Infants and Adolescents was passed in 2006, one year before same-sex civil unions became legal, it is difficult to know whether the drafters of the law were in favor of adoption by gay couples. The same thing could be said about the drafters of the 1991 Constitution, but I think that their definition of family makes it obvious that same-sex couples was a ‘no’ for them. Yet, another thing is even clearer: the Rionegro judge’s decision did not go against Colombian law or the Constitution. First, in spite of Article 42, marriage between man and wife has never been a necessary prerequisite for recognizing a group of individuals as a family. Second, the woman who was granted parental rights over her partner’s child fulfilled all the criteria for adoption exposed in the Law of Infants and Adolescents. This is precisely why the ICBF is wrong in its interpretation of the law, which means they should lose the appeal.
But of course, this issue goes beyond what the law or the Constitution say. It is obvious that for all practical purposes, as a matter of mere fact, the lesbian couple and the child have always conformed a family. And this remains true even if the Colombian government, the Congress, or all the judges in the world do not recognize it as such. The two mothers have loved and looked after their daughter just like it happens in any other family. It is both illogical and morally wrong to deny the girl her right to be under the legal protection of two parents, regardless of their gender, when the two of them are willing to share mutual custody.
As the story of my classmate in Hong Kong shows, growing up in a family headed by a gay couple is not the tragedy that social conservatives believe. Also, the fact that my classmate was not gay (and I would not have a problem if she had been) proves that children brought up by same-sex couples do not necessarily end up becoming gay themselves, contrary to what Monsignor Cordoba thinks. To be honest, it is rather ironic that a spokesman for the Catholic Church is concerned with children having “problems with their sexual identity”. See the plank in your own eye, I say.
One of the things I most appreciate about my experience in Hong Kong is that it opened my eyes to a whole new range of social realities I had not experienced in Colombia. To be honest, I was somewhat alarmed when I found out that my classmate had two mothers. Really? Was that possible? Could that work? But then I realized that if it worked for my friend, I had no valid reason to be against it. Very quickly I came to accept her reality and to embrace it. Soon after, the idea of same-sex couples raising children became so natural to me, that now I cannot remember why I was instinctively against that possibility in the first place. I am sure that Colombia will go through these same stages as it deals with this important issue. All the country needs is some time.