‘I love being an adoptive dad’: Jack Ash on adoption, identity and Grayson Perry

Jack Ash tells Sally Donovan why he, his partner John and their adopted son Shea are appearing on Grayson Perry's Who Are You? tonight and what identity means to them

Jack Ash, his partner John and their adopted son Shea appear on tonight’s episode of Grayson Perry: Who Are You? on Channel 4. Sally Donovan spoke to Jack to find out why they took part in the programme and what identity means to them.

The piece of work that Grayson Perry created to represent your family is a pot called Modern Family. Were you pleased with it?
I was immensely pleased. I wanted to be a pot because it says something about being fragile but with a possibility of immortality, like all of our identities, no matter how constant they are. Even though our existence is impermanent, we leave something of our identity behind with our family and friends.

How would you describe your identity?
In a way my whole opus is my identity. I am a gender queer, bio man. I am a partner to John and we are both white. We live in a rural area on the south coast of England. Three and a half years ago we adopted Shea, who is mixed-British.

This year we adopted our daughter who is also mixed British. I have a birth daughter who is eight as I acted as a donor for a lesbian couple. I see my daughter regularly, but I wouldn’t say I am her parent.

What do you think the pot says about your family?
We are a modern family. We don’t confirm to the norm, even the norm for adoptive families. I think the pot represents Grayson’s power and ambition to place real people in establishment organisations. In many ways we represent what the world is becoming.

What drew you to take part in the programme?
We had long discussions about whether we should take part and whether or not our son Shea should be filmed. In the end we decided that it was a fantastic opportunity to show our son that he has been one of probably only a hundred portraits of a black male to appear in the National Portrait Gallery, and probably the only person who has two dads.

Has your identity changed since you became an adoptive father?
I love being an adoptive dad. I do it full-time. It’s me. It’s so full on and all-consuming. I may stop and reflect in the future when I go back to work, but right now I feel like a dad all the time.

How did you find the process of being approved to adopt as a same-sex couple?
John and I are far removed from most prospective adopters. We have complex identities and complex backgrounds. Some of the local authorities we approached didn’t see the positives in our complexity.

We ended up being approved through a voluntary agency, now part of Coram, and finding the most fantastic, radical social worker. She is an amazing woman and should be replicated everywhere.

And how about being matched with a child?
We waited for 18 months to find a match. During that time we enquired about a lot of children with complex needs. I know that during that time potential matches were blocked by social workers who had religious reasons for not wanting children placed with us.

We weren’t blocked for those reasons, something else, something small would be use as the official reason. It’s not talked about, but it happens.

The statutory guidance on placing BME and mixed race children has been revised by the government following concerns that race was preventing children being placed with suitable families if different backgrounds. Do you agree with the change in guidance?
The guidance is wrong. There is a risk of lack of scrutiny around needs and a risk of replicating past mistakes. There should be more real support for and recruitment of mixed and BME adopters, with different funding models, that support a child throughout its life.

What did you and John take into consideration before deciding whether you could meet the needs of your son?
We looked in great depth at whether or not we could meet Shea’s needs. We looked at the support available and what we could do to bring him up as a mixed race boy. Black friends have stepped up to be aunts and uncles.

We are raising Shea to consider himself mixed British and not mixed race. Race is a meaningless word. I’m not saying it’s the same thing, but as queers we are well-versed in the politic of identity.

And what have you found in terms of support for Mixed-British adoptees and their adoptive families?
The knowledge and support available is poor. Children are not seen as having complex needs and they do.

There is no UK-based academic research carried out on transracial adoption. Most of the studies and material available are American. The landscape around adoption and race is very different in the US.
I’d like the big charities and adoption agencies to have much more open and honest conversations about the challenges and the risks of transracial adoption and to put in place long term support for families. What support is available often just doesn’t fit.
I do want to mention a small charity called TTAG (Transnational and Transracial Adoption Group) who are working to support all those who have been adopted into a family whose racial origin is different from their own.
I’ve been pushing away at starting something for transracial adoptive families as there is specific work to be done. I’ve started a Twitter account and there is a loose network of families. I’m speaking about transracial adoption at the next BAAF conference. I want to do much more.

Can you give me an example of support which doesn’t fit?
Training available on transracial adoption is poor and there is little on offer. Another example is the Adoption UK forum which has driven me insane. It lumps in transracial adoption, both domestic and overseas (which are different) with religious and cultural adoption.

The pot that Grayson Perry produced to represent your family will be seen on television tonight and by visitors to the National Portrait Gallery. What do you hope that people take away from it?
I don’t expect other people to take anything particular from it, just to enjoy it for what it is.

Jack, John and Shea appear on Grayson Perry: Who Are You? tonight at 10.05pm on Channel 4

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