Fatherhood,
Activism
and the Law
 

Having arrived back in Berkeley after four years on a small Pacific island, I almost instantly found myself observing a drama that has also proven a volatile cultural war—the battle over gay marriage. As nearly everyone knows by now, the mayor of near-by San Francisco elected to authorize same-sex matrimony despite the California ballot proposition which the people of my very politically mixed state passed a few years ago specifically banning such unions. As other scattered towns in the US such as the village of New Paltz, New York followed suit, traditionalists armed themselves to the teeth for what promises to be an extended, pitched battle between forces of the future and the past, conservatives and liberals, lovers and opponents of same-sex unions. With Canada having instituted immigration benefits for partners in same-sex marriage back in 2002, the US is behind the times, but at least the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling (on my son Eli’s second birthday, February 4, 2004!) clears the way for gay weddings there through at minimum November 2006, the earliest date by which a constitutional amendment can possibly be instituted to stop the ceremonies.

To my mind, what we are seeing is a lot of people acting in their own interests while purporting to be acting from principles. San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom, exceeded in his profound affinity with downtown interests only by his immediate predecessor--the notoriously developer-addicted Willie Brown, can be relied on always to test the wind before tossing his kite up in the air. I can only applaud the San Jose City Council’s somewhat surprising decision to offer identical benefits to all married city employees, whether gay or straight, though again, so close to San Francisco, one can assume they also realize that they have a large gay and lesbian taxpayer base. Meanwhile, religious leaders and conservative do what they consider correspondingly necessary to pander to their own constituents, and Republican politicians adopt “San Francisco” as a euphemism for non-conformists of all stripes. To paraphrase, P.T. Barnum, no one ever went broke underestimating Americans’ tolerance for fellow citizens who dare to step outside the norm. Maybe I’m just an overly cynical middle-aged ex-hippie.

One of the issues I had with becoming a father is it turns out to be so demanding simply to do the musts that I find myself running out of time to meditate on where my life is going and certainly to keep up with issues in others’ lives. There is always the next thing that must be done—buy groceries, keep gas in the car, hold onto a job or in my case search for one, keep your children entertained and healthy, occasionally toss a word or two to your partner as you frantically rush by each other on your way to the next tasks. Of course, especially living as I do in one of the most hectic of areas, it’s not all that different before you have a child, but the addition to one’s family does tend to further crimp your time and further sap your energy. So in principle I feel outraged about the resistance to gay marriage. And in practice I just have a hard time sustaining the same level of focused, vociferous adrenalin I used to run with ease when I was younger.

Not that I’m complaining, mind you. I love being a father and there is nothing on earth that could induce me to trade it for my previous life. Right now we are in particular crunch time as we are buying a house in Berkeley (the prices are unbelievable), I am frustrated and feeling a bit vulnerable about my problem landing employment, we are trying to produce a companion for Eli, and many other things too mundane to bore all of you with.

I have served as a warrior in a variety of ways in my life, devoting substantial amounts of life energy to the struggles to advance men’s rights and to protect boys’ and men’s bodily integrity by stopping circumcision. I spent half a year doing human rights work in rural Guatemala with the peasants, visiting morgues, confronting Army officers in their bases over murders they had helped orchestrate, and the like. Could have easily lost my life somewhere in there, but I lucked out. Also worked as an immigration lawyer for several years, struggling to earn political asylum for immigrants, which amounts to roughly the supply end of the work I was doing in Central America. Slept on the steps of the administration building at UC Berkeley for a month to help stop apartheid. And so on.

One of my biggest struggles was the one I found myself embroiled in to avoid a literal battle—draft registration. I was born in 1960 and so was required to register for the draft and yet was unwilling to do so. I was also receiving financial aid on which I depended since my parents were unable or unwilling to fund my college education. So what did I do? I pulled off a tricky little end-around with the certifications you were required to file stating that you had registered or were exempt from registering. I hand-wrote an explanation regarding my failure to register into the card I received ever year, and never once did the university notice my unusual notation on the card and ask for further information. My financial aid continued to faithfully arrive until I left Harvard Law School in 1991.

Kudos again go out to what is currently perhaps our strongest and greatest fighting team, Fathers 4 Justice (F4J) of the United Kingdom. In December 2003, five F4J activists dressed up as Santa Claus and held a three-hour protest on a walkway above The Strand in Liverpool. Some 300 protesters participated in a similar event in central London, marching to the High Courts and the Houses of Parliament while 21-year-old drama student Darryl Westell—also dressed as Santa--spent his third day on a crane 140 feet above the offices of Children’s Minister Margaret Hodge. Ms. Hodge was later presented with a giant turkey and branded “Turkey of the Year” for refusing to change old child access laws which favor mothers.

In late January, registered childcare worker Jolly Stanesby braved cold weather for a full week sitting 20 feet above the ground on the Tamar Bridge that connects Devon to Cornwall. Mr. Stanesby carried with him only seven army surplus ration packs (how appropriate for this issue’s theme!), a flask of soup, some brandy and a sleeping bag. He then successfully clambered down and escaped without drawing police attention to himself. Then in the early hours of February 2, 2004, four F4J members took over the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, England. Dressed up as Batman, Robin, Superman, and Spiderman, these fine folks held up a banner that read, “Superhero Fathers 4 Justice—Fighting for Your Right to See Your Kids.” This act of civil disobedience eventually led to denial of public access to the bridge for part of the day and, combined with simultaneous actions by five members in London and four on Newcastle’s Tyne Bridge, drew national attention to F4J’s important and impressively successful campaign for fathers’ rights to access to their children and children’s rights to access to their fathers. Then early the next day, F4J members waged a successful graffiti attack on a Yorkshire law firm notorious for its father-hostile legal services to mothers, scrawling such messages as “F4J here to stay,” “child thieves,” and “parasites” in large purple letters on the building. Police have responded to some of these events with raids at addresses in London and other parts of England. Sounds like war to me!

Possibly inspired by F4J’s stunning string of successes, protests have been breaking out all over the place. A group of 15 to 20 angry Dutch fathers involved in custody battles for their children peacefully occupied an office of the Dutch child protection agency on November 20, 2003, the International Day of the Child. Refusing to allow anyone into or out of the building, they hung banners from the office windows demanding fair treatment and justice and also a meeting with the Justice Minister and the child protection agency director. On December 22, 2003, a group of fathers calling for changes in Nebraska’s custody laws set up a picket line to call attention to their grievances, protesting outside the Douglas County Hall of Justice. On Christmas Day, a group of fourteen Vancouver dads erected a Christmas tree and pickets outside the Supreme Court of British Columbia to remind people that Christmas is a lonely time when you can’t see your children. The group faulted outdated family laws and biased judges for their problems with custody and access to their children.

Perhaps F4J’s impact is extending even further than we realize, as one safe house for battered men has reportedly already opened at a secret location in southwest England, with a second slated to open soon in northwest England. At the same time, I am very sorry to have to report that in early December, the British Home Secretary announced an extensive set of changes in domestic violence laws, further extending the potential for bad faith use of restraining orders by allowing them to be imposed even on men who have been acquitted of domestic violence accusations due to a lack of evidence! The reason I say “men” rather than “domestic violence defendants” is because the British government’s official announcement similarly discriminates against men despite the wealth of evidence of women’s at least equal involvement in spouse-bashing. (Elsewhere in this issue, you can read my review of lawyer Thomas James’ new book on this subject.) Furthermore, the government came right out and said, “Just because there isn’t enough criminal evidence to secure a conviction doesn’t mean the victim doesn’t need protecting.” Come again? What happened to the rule of law? Melanie Phillips notes in the Daily Mail, “This measure will destroy the very concept of innocence itself.”

As if that weren’t enough, on January 28, virtually on the eve of these major F4J events, the UK Court of Appeal handed down a judgment in the case of “Re: S” confirming that British courts will allow a mother to maliciously destroy the relationship between child and father and even though the child would be better off having contact with Dad, will bar the child from reuniting with Dad. The reasoning? Where Mom is so opposed, it will be even worse for the child if the court forces her to let the Dad back into the kid’s life.

Compliments to Pittsburgh police for arresting and charging a 38-year-old woman with falsely claiming rape by members of the St. John’s University basketball team. Turns out the gal willingly had sex with the athletes and then threatened them with rape accusations when they weren’t in the mood to meet her subsequent demands for money! Similar recognition is due a British Columbia Court of Appeal that upheld an award of custody to a father after the mother falsely accused the father of sexually abusing his young sons.

Further raves are due the American Civil Liberties Union, of which I was a member until resigning several years ago due to their neglect of men’s rights. I may have to reactivate my membership given their recent involvement in facilitating the release of 100 men in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania whom, according to the ACLU’s notice to the court, had been jailed for alleged nonpayment of alimony/support without being told they had a right to an attorney, thereby violating due process. The court has since agreed to provide adequate notice of impending proceedings and also to ensure the presence of legal counsel to assist all similarly situated people in the future. This success comes a year after the ACLU sued state court officials in Lawrence County, Pennsylvania for improperly jailing non-custodial parents.

Sometimes the news reads like satire. A Gender Recognition Bill has been proposed in the UK which will allow transsexuals to register for a new birth certificate in their adopted sex, and to marry in that sex. An eight-year-old boy was forced to enroll in a sex offender program after he pinned at least one female classmate and touched her breasts and genital areas while they were both at school. Equally absurdly, Staten Island has joined the growing ranks of jurisdictions opening “integrated domestic violence courts.” These tribunals permit “ex parte” testimony without being required to hear the defendant’s side of the story. Such courts will circumvent the protections of criminal law by reducing or removing the burden of proof and tossing out the previously sacrosanct presumption of innocence until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

As I settle into middle age, I definitely still have some fight in me. These sorts of battles still attract me and in fact I am preparing to wage war on a new frontier—working to form a Men’s Law Center with Marc Angelucci of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Coalition of Free Men

©2005 Steven Svoboda

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J. Steven Svoboda is founder and Executive Director of Attorneys for the Rights of the Child. He graduated summa cum laude from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1983, received a Master's Degree in physics from the University of California at Berkeley in 1985, and then graduated cum laude from Harvard Law School in 1991. He practices human rights law in Berkeley, California. His recent publications include "Prophylactic Interventions on Children: Balancing Human Rights with Public Health" in the February 2002 issue of the Journal of Medical Ethics (co-authored with F. Hodges and R. Van Howe) and "The Limits of the Law: Comparative Analysis of Legal and Extralegal Methods to Control Child Body Mutilation Practices," in Understanding Circumcision, edited by G. C. Denniston et al. and published by Plenum/Kluwer in 2001. He was invited by the United Nations to participate in the Human Rights Sub-Commission’s meeting in Geneva in August 2001, where he gave an oral presentation before the committee of experts whose written version became the UN’s first official document entirely devoted to the subject of male circumcision as a human rights violation. He was married in 2001 and has a son born in 2002. See www.arclaw.org

 



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