In this debate over 'missing words', it's marginalised people who are most at risk

Some of our words are missing. Have you noticed? The Labour shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting, has, and he’s angry about it. Earlier this month he gave an impassioned interview for the BBC on Radio 4’s Political Thinking, raising the alarm about missing terms such as “breastfeeding” and “mother”, despite the fact that there is no campaign to remove these terms. Pope Francis has joined the chorus of discontent, warning of attacks on freedom of expression in the name of “cancel culture” and ideological colonisation.

Of course, some of us never had our own words to start with. We’ve had to create our own or reclaim terms that have been used against us; we’ve had to find alternatives to the dehumanising language of state and medical institutions. Those of us who are lesbian or gay parents, mothers or fathers, have found new words to help others understand us and make our lives visible and valid: othermothers, gaybies, co-parents, daddy and pappa, MaPa, mummies and mummas. Not bad, considering we weren’t even allowed to exist a few years ago.

The erasure of identities and roles is something that LGBTQ+ parents and families are intimately acquainted with. Until section 28 of the Local Government Act was repealed, lesbian and gay families were defined legally as “pretended” families that must never be promoted. Lesbians were often found to be “unfit mothers”, and some had their children removed by the courts. Gay men were regularly branded in the national press as inherent predators and child abusers.

Although section 28 was finally repealed in 2003 in England and Wales (2000 in Scotland), some of these attitudes still remain. In 2019, the then Labour MP Roger Godsiff said children of five years old shouldn’t be learning about gay parents. (By this logic, I would need to make sure my own children didn’t know about their parents’ existence until they were at least five years old.)

As a non-biological parent, I regularly have to deal with misconceptions and assumptions about what my role is in relation to my children, and how these children came into existence. I’ve sometimes even been asked whether I should have children at all. My wife and I are married and have two children, most recently a new baby. As the law stands, if two women in a same-sex marriage are married when one of them conceives a child via a private sperm donor, at a clinic or using IVF, both women are legally parents to the child, and the child’s birth certificate lists mother and parent.

Few people know what to call us, how to refer to our partners, how to invite us to functions, how to talk to us about our children, or how even to start conversation. I’ve been asked whether I mind that my wife presumably had to have sex with a man to get pregnant (she didn’t). We’ve had the awkward looks and conversations with health visitors and midwives about contraception, although this has been a lot easier and more informed with our second child than with our first. Professionals have phoned to congratulate the mother, as if I was completely unrelated to the child. I know health workers are just doing their best in an underfunded and overstretched context.

I know fathers are often left out of such conversations too, or services just don’t have time to check in with anyone but the biological mother. It’s an obvious feminist issue that so much pressure and expectation is put on biological mothers, many of whom are left alone and isolated, presumed to naturally know how to care for a newborn, without that same presumption extending to their partner. Partly this is a result of the scant parental leave that co-parents and fathers are entitled to (still only a statutory two weeks).

Shared parental leave, first introduced by the coalition government, means parents can take longer leave, yet less than 2% of eligible new parents are using this provision. Less than a third of eligible men now take any paternity leave. Gender stereotypes, macho workplace cultures, poverty pay, precarious work and the gender pay gap are all factors here. It is quite understandable, in the context of a heterosexual couple, why it may be an economic no-brainer for the father to go back to work first.

For co-parents, it can be even more confusing. My own workplace is highly inclusive, but the only option I have for listing my leave on my employee record and wage slips is still “paternity leave”. With my first child, I attended numerous social events while on parental leave. At baby groups, my difference stood out. I was usually not included in coffee pre-meets or chats. People looked at me awkwardly and avoided starting conversations altogether, perhaps because they didn’t know what my role was, what to call me, or how to address me or my baby. Women would talk over and around me about night feeding, nappy rash or spare wipes. Once I was asked if I was my baby’s big brother. I’ve even been asked whether the baby is mine.

This is what the erasure of words really looks like. It’s weird, embarrassed looks; it’s the feeling of marginalisation, whispers, bigoted remarks just loud enough to be heard. In this case it stems from the erasure of identities and families who fall outside the heterosexual norm. Those of us who were previously denied names and roles, who were imprisoned, medicated or institutionalised for daring to stick out, who were labelled as freaks or perverts – we are now making visible the lives, families and communities we have always built, and always been part of.

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