Bastardy, History, Sealed Records and Activism

yelseal2I just wanted to take a few minutes of your time to discuss what may be, for some, an uncomfortable topic — perhaps several uncomfortable topics. So before you read any further, allow me to warn you that the following will likely contain multiple uses of the word “bastard” I am well aware that there are many adopted people who feel uncomfortable with the term “bastard”, and perhaps justifiably so, given the media’s (and in general, society’s) misuse of the term. By dictionary definition, a bastard is any child born outside the bonds of matrimony. The origin of the word and its use in ancient times bear not even a fleeting resemblance to the current negative connotation of the term. In ancient Ireland, under Brehon law, bastard children were accorded the same legal status, right of inheritance and eligibility for clan leadership as any child born inside marriage. It was not until Roman Canon law and Napoleonic law supplanted Ireland’s highly-developed and extremely progressive legal system that we began our slide toward “second-class citizenship.” Food for thought.

During the Middle Ages, heraldic symbolism included the “bar sinister”, adiagonal black stripe accorded to the coat of arms of an individual born outside marital bonds. Legend has it enemies would flee upon sight of a warrior carrying the bar sinister on their shield: “bastards” were known to be fierce and inexhaustible fighters and much feared. [Note: thanks to Tom of Know My Own for his research on the ‘bar sinister’]

In the US prior to the 1920’s, the original birth certificate of an adopted child was filed publicly; however, generally those certificates were stamped or noted as “illegitimate”. Post-1920’s, popular psychology held that all children should be reared under the “clean slate” theory. Moreover, there was a concerted effort by adoptive parents (particularly those with celebrity status) to eradicate this original birth certificate from public view and remove the “illegitimate” terminology. Sound reasoning — but unfortunately, state lawmakers chose to interpret this as not only removing the Birth Certificate from public view, but also from the parties privy to it: adoptive parents, adopted child and natural parents. That, in a nutshell, pretty much sums up the history of sealed records in the US.

In 1995, a group of dedicated US adoption activists were posting away on the alt.adoption newsgroup. One visionary half-jokingly signed a post with her name, followed by “Bastard Nation.” And with a phrase borrowed from the canon of Queer Nation, the gay rights organisation, a movement was born. The surest way to disarm or deflect negative wording is to take ownership of it. If you educate the unwashed masses on what a bastard really is, you diffuse the terminology and take away its sting.

Over the years, we’ve kept track of media use of the term and in one year alone, noted over 100 uses of the word “bastard” on the ‘Drew Carey’ show. ABC, prime time. And all of them negative uses: “You BASTARD!”, “I can’t stand that bastard…”, etc. That’s just one network, one show. And ironically, about a year later, I was submitting feedback on an ABC news show with an adoption theme and signed my post with my Bastard Nation State Director title. It was promptly auto-rejected by ABC’s website for ‘use of offensive language.’ So apparently it’s OK with ABC to air the word every night on the ‘Drew Carey’ show, with its negative connotation, but I cannot submit the name of a legitimate, not-for-profit org using the word!

Now on to a topic I’ve harped on before: activism.

Every individual on AdoptionIreland’s Mailing List has benefited at some point from the search, help, advice or legwork of some tireless volunteer (and I stress the word ‘volunteer’ — NO ONE here gets paid to do what we do). In my many years working in adoption reform, I’ve seen countless individuals join lists, seek help, get help, reunite, etc., then disappear. It becomes rather disheartening to see this behavior over and over again when I know that the help these folks have been given comes on the back of the hard work and sweat of activists who fight daily to keep public records accessible to all of you, whether in Ireland, the US or elsewhere. Our diligent angels here would not be able to cross-reference the Adopted Children’s Register, or pull a cert at Joyce House, if not for the concerted efforts of a dedicated few to ensure that the GRO keeps those files open to you.

I’m not asking everyone to become politically charged, or even an active activist, by any stretch! I know we all have lives, children, partners and what not to keep us busy 24/7. But what does it cost to type up a simple email or letter, throw a stamp on it and send it to your local legislator? There are at least nine US states and two provinces in Canada, plus the UK, with records-related legislation (good and bad) pending. Ireland’s own Adoption Bill is currently under revision and there’s plenty more room for your voices to be heard. Find out if one of those states or provinces may affect YOU at and find out what you can do locally. Take five minutes and submit an online postcard to renounce the treatment of women in Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries (one could be YOUR mother/sister/aunt/granny) at our online Postcard Campaign or comb through this website to get the latest news on where we may need your help. Please don’t just complete your search and then go away. We need your help to make sure that the next person who traces has access to the same information you did (or more).

Apathy is our worst enemy. Don’t let the media and the public continue to misuse the word ‘bastard’; don’t let lawmakers take away your dignity and relegate you to second-class citizenship. And the next time you hear someone use the term ‘bastard’ negatively, look ’em straight in the eye and say, “I was born that way…what’s your excuse?”