Elton John has predicted “very difficult” times ahead for his 19-month old son Zachary, when the youngster grows up and has to deal with inevitable homophobia from schoolmates.
Speaking to the Radio Times, the legendary pop star said: “At school other children will say, ‘You don’t have a mummy’. We’ve come a long way, but there’s still homophobia and will be until a new generation of parents don’t instill it in their children.”
Zachary will also have to live with the burden of his father’s fame. “When he finds out,” said the singer, “he’ll look at me as if I’m bonkers. Being the child of someone famous is a huge ball and chain around your ankles.”
But for now, young Zachary is just getting on with the business of gradually growing up. 65-year old Elton has already introduced him to the instrument which made his name. He told the magazine: “I want music to be a huge part of his life. I sit him on my lap and he doesn’t bang the piano.”
Zachary, who was born to a surrogate mother, calls Elton ‘Daddy’ and Elton’s civil partner David Furnish, ‘Papa’. “It’s natural for him”, says the singer.
I can’t help but wonder about Elton’s thoughts on Zachary’s future: are they realistic or pessimistic? Most of us, I’m sure, would like to believe the latter, but research paints a mixed picture. On the one hand we have recent statistics from the NSPCC, which paint a rather bleak picture of schoolyard cruelty. According to these, almost a third – 29 per cent – of children and young people inEngland experienced bullying of various kinds in the year 2009-10, and almost half (46 per cent) say they have been bullied at some point in their lives while at school. Meanwhile, no less than two thirds (65 per cent) of lesbian, gay and bisexual young people report having experienced homophobic bullying at school.
But on the other hand, there is an intriguing study called Different Families, commissioned by the lesbian, gay and bisexual rights charity Stonewall into the experiences of children with lesbian and gay parents. According to this, while the possibility of bullying worries many such young people, especially when they move up to secondary school, many experience no such problems. Instead they wrestle with such issues as a lack of awareness amongst teachers and questioning from friends that may feel intrusive. They also report that when bullying does occur, schools do not always respond to it well.
One obvious conclusion is that gay and lesbian parents are still a novel concept for many, whether pupils or children. It also seems likely that children – whether consciously or unconsciously – make a distinction between schoolmates who are (or are perceived to be) gay themselves, and those who merely have gay parents.
Sadly, there has been bullying as long as there have been schools, and some children will always pick on those perceived to be different. But it is very encouraging to see that bullying is by no means a universal experience for children with gay parents, so perhaps Zachary will have an easier time at school than Elton predicts.
Elton entered his civil partnership with Mr Furnish on 21 December 2005, immediately after the Civil Partnership Act 2004 came into force in England and Wales. Civil partnerships grant participants exactly the same personal, financial and property rights as those achieved by conventional marriage. The introduction of this act was a very significant and practical leap forward for equality in this country. There were rumblings of controversy when the bill made its way through Parliament but it still passed onto the statute books.
Now that we have all had eight years to get used to the idea of civil partnerships, plans are afoot to introduce full marriage rights for gay people. Prime Minister David Cameron has announced plans to legislate on the issue before the next election, to the consternation of some more traditional elements within the Conservative Party. Despite the support of such prominent Tories as Boris Johnson, the PM is now coming under pressure to scrap the plans, with pressure group the Coalition for Marriage releasing a poll suggesting such a move would lose the party votes at the next election. By contrast, Lord Ashcroft has cast doubt on the poll, suggesting that relatively few voters actually have strong views on the issue.
Civil partnerships may grant the same legal rights as marriage, but of course they are not the same. They lack the social status, emotion, tradition and symbolism of the traditional union, and the extension of such rights to gay people would go a long way towards truly embedding equal rights in our society.
It might also help to remove the stigma which some might attach to the children of civil partners. Such a move would certainly make life much easier for the children of gay parents like Zachary and would surely be in their best interests, which I would suggest should be taken into account but appear to be overlooked in the current debate.
After all, it was not so long ago that the children of unmarried mothers were regularly teased and bullied!