Gay married, with children

Before I name all the reasons I think same-sex marriage is not necessarily as progressive as some people think it is, let me begin by confessing something that even some of my friends don’t know: I am gay-married (it’s the married, not the gay part, that I’m partially in the closet about). So I am on some level glad that President Obama came out in favor of same-sex marriage, but, like Lauren Taylor at the Washington Post, I’m not exactly doing a happy dance.

While I was delighted to have and be a “domestic partner,” I got married reluctantly. Getting gay-married was the only way I could figure out to get benefits for my partner and to adopt my youngest child. One of the things we don’t say often enough is that most of the laws and amendments preventing gay marriage also stand in the way of second-parent adoption.

While I think making marriage the foundation for distributing health care benefits and adult protection is reprehensible, I was certainly going to do everything in my power to ensure that my family got what I believe everyone deserves–access to reliable, high-quality health care and enforceable rights to interact with public institutions on behalf of the child I am raising. And that meant marriage.

I found it fascinating that Obama said that one of the things that affected his take on this issue is that he knows gay people who are raising children, and so do his daughters. To a significant extent, I think, the question of gay marriage is centrally about the raising of children, for its supporters among LGBTQ folk, for its Christian Right opponents, and even for the judges writing decisions about it. (Many conservative evangelicals claimed initially that gay adoption–which Obama supported–was going to be the wedge issue of 2008, just as gay marriage had in 2004. But Bristol Palin and her out-of-wedlock pregnancy made the whole adoption thing very complicated, and they started tripping all over themselves.)

LGBT folks who are not bio-parents seek second parent adoption because they need to be able to:

–register children for school, register them for sports, pick them up from daycare, meet with teachers and guidance counselors, develop IEPs for children with disabilities

–take their children to the pediatrician, therapist, or other professional appointment without being questioned or challenged

–visit their children in hospitals, rehab centers, juvenile detention centers, and all the dreadful places children can wind up

–cross national and state borders with their children, and take them on airplanes without running the risk of facing kidnapping charges

–obtain birth certificates, court orders, vaccination records

–be treated as parents in custody procedings or dependencies

Adoption confers these rights, and marriage makes adoption easier–or, in many cases, possible. One of the side effects of the various anti-gay marriage amendments and statutes is that most make second-parent adoption impossible. But non-biological LGBT parents in states without access to legal adoption have the same problems that a lot of other people who are raising children do, people like:

–grandparents raising children

–adults raising siblings, cousins, and lots of similar configurations

–stepparents who don’t or can’t afford to adopt step-children

And so on. Since no state allows a child to have more than two legal parents, most children would have to be legally severed from a bio-parent for folks situated like these to adopt. Many anthropologists and sociologists talk about how common the informal circulation of children is in the Black community, or Latin America. But few notice how white and middle-class and US the practice also is–but we call these multi-parent arrangements “blended families.”

Gay marriage, and gay adoption, helps these folks not at all.

Furthermore, gay marriage and gay adoption, by bringing some (particularly white or wealthy folks) into the “marriage and family” fold, sometimes does work to further marginalize all the people who don’t have a legal relationship to the children they raise. Even more, to the extent that adoption provides a “safety valve” for the finances of state foster care systems–which are hugely expensive to maintain–it allows states and case workers to sometimes take children from their welfare moms, the single moms struggling with addiction or mental health issues that they might otherwise leave in their families. State foster care systems are surprisingly stable in size. When they begin to get too big, policy makers begin to talk about “family preservation.” Gay adoption is a way to make foster care systems smaller and more sustainable.

In debates over gay adoption, this has been fairly explicit: there has been an emphasis on the role of gay people in taking “hard-to-place” children–the children of impoverished single mothers, usually–who would otherwise “languish” in foster care, where they would be a burden on the public purse. In Massachusetts in 2006, for example, Catholic Charities, which had actually been placing children for adoption with gay people for nearly two decades, announced its intention to seek an exemption from state anti-discrimination statute in order to begin banning gay people from adopting. In the firestorm that ensued, Catholic Charities ended its role as an adoption agency,and proponents of gay adoption reminded everyone of the crucial role of gay people in taking “hard-to-place” children, telling stories like this one about a lesbian couple who took in “Jesse” at the age of 10: he had “been to six schools, could barely read and was in special education. He’d lived in a homeless shelter with his drug-addicted birth mother and in eight foster homes.”Even as impious and un-earnest a commentator as Dan Savage (author of the weekly syndicated column “Savage Love”), wrote in the New York Times about a white gay plaintiff in a Florida case to legalize gay adoption in that state and his three African-American kids, two of them HIV-positive. “Gay and lesbian couples in New York, New Jersey, Oregon, Illinois and other states that allow them to adopt are not snapping up all the available babies or even the ”best” babies. It is an open secret among social workers that gay and lesbian couples are often willing to adopt children whom most heterosexual couples won’t touch: H.I.V.-positive children, mixed-race children, disabled children and children who have been abused or neglected.” Although Savage has the good grace to put the cringe-worthy ‘best” babies in quotes, there is no escaping the social calculus to which he points us—second-class parents, second-class children, and an argument for gay adoption that relies on the ways that “good gays” will relieve the state of a burden.

The gay marriage cases, too, have been fairly explicit in making the argument that the goal of gay marriage is help states, although the argument is usually that it keeps children out of foster care or other state institutions. In the opening lines of Goodridge, the Massachusetts gay marriage ruling, the court began by affirming that the decision is as much about children as it is about couples: “For those who choose to marry, and for their children, marriage provides an abundance of legal, financial, and social benefits.” A few pages later, it affirms the interest that the state has in organizing people into married couples, arguing, “Civil marriage anchors an ordered society by encouraging stable relationships over transient ones. It is central to the way the Commonwealth identifies individuals, provides for the orderly distribution of property, ensures that children and adults are cared for and supported whenever possible from private rather than public funds.” From the point of view of the state, the function of the family is to privatize dependency.

The 2008 California Supreme Court case that affirmed the legality of gay marriage (before the ballot initiative reversed it), In re marriage cases, positioned gay marriage quite similarly (although less succinctly):

Society is served by the institution of civil marriage in many ways.  Society, of course, has an overriding interest in the welfare of children, and the role marriage plays in facilitating a stable family setting in which children may be raised by two loving parents unquestionably furthers the welfare of children and society.  In addition, the role of the family in educating and socializing children serves society’s interest by perpetuating the social and political culture and providing continuing support for society over generations. Furthermore, the legal obligations of support that are an integral part of marital and family relationships relieve society of the obligation of caring for individuals who may become incapacitated or who are otherwise unable to support themselves.

And in a footnote here, it makes the argument for the privatization of dependency even more explicit:

Although the legal system has shifted its focus from families to individuals, society still relies on families to play a crucial role in caring for the young, the aged, the sick, the severely disabled, and the needy.  Even in advanced welfare states, families at all levels are a major resource for government, sharing the burdens of dependency with public agencies in various ways and to greater and lesser degrees.

And this critique was the heart and soul of the Beyond Same-Sex Marriage statement of 2006, and of Nancy Polikoff’s Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage book and blog.  LGBT activists and intellectuals have put forth a sustained argument for not making gay marriage the center and focus of queer activism. Marriage, they suggested, was a poor substitute for a social safety net.

Couples and children need access to state institutions and public benefits. But I’m less than convinced that marriage is the way to do it.


Palm Beach Post photo


As the national debate about the shooting of Trayvon Martin ebbs, it strikes me that we in the U.S. are increasingly divided between those who see Trayvon as “somebody’s child,”  and those who see him as “not my child.” This is what Obama picked up on in his “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” And what Newt Gingrich, keeper of the right-wing Id, understood when he contorted that to say that Obama only cared about were Black children. It matters that the shooting of this unarmed African American child took place in a gated community–the location of defensive white retreat, the longed-for home of Black flight. It’s happened hundreds and thousands of times before, a police officer or a white man who claimed he was threatened (or woman, probably, but somehow I can only remember men), and we are made to understand that he justifiably felt threatened enough to kill the boy because he was holding a wallet or boisterous or drunk. But for some reason,  this time it wasn’t ok (maybe, cynically, because Zimmerman was a white Cuban), and the voices of those who mourned were not drowned out. Trayvon Martin got a name, a little brother, parents in the popular media, and all sort of young men said, “I am Trayvon,” and parents who didn’t know him mourned.

Although all sorts of unarmed Black young men have been shot by police or civilians, like Ramarely Graham in the Bronx last month, killed in his bathroom in an incident that remains murky–police say he was fleeing them, surveillance video shows him walking calmly–it’s been a long time since the killing of Black mothers’ sons has attracted this kind of attention. In fact, the only think I can think to compare it to is the death of Emmett Till, a fourteen year old boy who flirted with a white woman and was murdered in 1955 by local white vigilantes in Mississippi. His mother, like Trayvon’s, demanded that the world know that killing a Black mother’s son was a brutal, violent injustice that would not be quietly forgotten, and held a very public open casket funeral.  The event galvanized the emerging Civil Rights movement.

It is telling how many right-wing bloggers have insisted that the larger issue in the Trayvon Martin shooting is single motherhood, or, in the alternative, how important it has been to the Justice for Trayvon movement to put his two divorced parents on stage together. Both sides seem to be tacitly acknowledging that his death signifies differently if he has two parents who are grieving together; that mothers alone raise dangerous, violent boys, while two parent families raise innocent children whose shooting could only be unjustified and racist. President Obama did much the same thing with his “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon” speech, being daddy-in-chief and casting Martin as a child who deserved protection. The problem with this move, as I’m sure virtually everyone in the Justice for Trayvon mobilization is only too aware, is that it casts Martin as worthy of protection only by virtue of enclosing him within our ideologies of innocent childhood.

I remember when I first understood the visceral fear that parents of children of color often feel: sometime in the first year of raising my daughter, born of Mexican parents, who came to me when she was 11. It wasn’t any one thing, it wasn’t even a particularly egregious thing, but one day the slow accretion of thoughtless, unhelpful, or damaging things that teachers, social workers, and other parents had done to my child reached a tipping point. I flinched when a strange white person came up to my child, tensed for problems. I didn’t when a person of color in some similar role approached her. My anxiety wasn’t always well-placed, but it was often enough that it became a habit, a strange racial dis-identification that made brown and black folks the people I trusted more quickly and easily. About a year after she came to me, I said that to an audience, and I was stunned as one after another, white mothers of non-white and mixed race children came up to me and said that they felt the same way.

I learned two things from this. One, it is a powerful experience for white people to see racism through the lens of loving a non-white child. Two, it is depressingly common that children of color are treated so harshly by the world that it can cut through the denial of people who want to believe differently.

Somebody’s Children

I recently published a book called Somebody’s Children: The Politics of Transracial and Transnational Adoption. I chose that title for a nummber of reasons, but the main one was that I wanted to think about the mothers that often get discounted. When scholars and journalists and policy analysts write about adoption, they almost always ignore the birth mothers. When we talk about adoption from overseas, we refer to “orphans”; when we talk about kids in foster care, and why Black children should be adopted by white parents, we say they are “languishing,” waiting for an adoptive family. But the reality is, full orphans–those who have lost both parents–are quite rare, especially when you are speaking of infants and young children. When international aid agencies talk about millions of orphans, they mean those who have lost one parent. Almost all of the children who become available for adoption in or to the United States have parents or a parent. We just don’t want to talk about them.

There are exceptions, of course. Increasingly, adoptive parents groups talk about the “adoption triad” of birth mother, adopted child, and adoptive parents. Those of us who are adoptive parents inevitably have to answer questions about where the little people and grown children in our lives came from–questions that come from adoptees and from the world around us. It used to be that we were routinely counseled to lie to our children. But we’ve learned a lot from groups like Concerned United Birthparents, which beginning in the late 1970s gave voice to birthparents’ experiences of losing their children, often under considerable pressure to relinquish their babies. Organizations of adoptees challenging sealed adoption records, like the Adoptees Liberty Movement Association and Bastard Nation also challenged us to tell the truth.

But these movements focused predominently on the mostly young mothers who relinquished babies in the U.S. (think Juno). People don’t talk much about birth parents when we think about foster care (one major policy book about foster care and transracial adoption was entitled Nobody’s Children), and even less when we are considering transnational adoption. I wanted to write a book that took seriously the racial justice, feminist, and international politics contexts and questions that surround how birth parents–usually mothers–find themselves in situations where strangers are raising their children.

One of the places the title of the book came from is the 1946 film, It’s a Wonderful Life.

It’s a Wonderful Life gets tagged as a sentimental piece of Christmas, but it deserves more credit. These days, as the middle class continues to lose its footing as the central piece of its wealth–home ownership–gets transferred to big banks as foreclosure, the story of the Bailey Savings and Loan ought to get our attention as the careful piece of social analysis it is. It also tells a story about children and survival. In a scene that defines the film’s moral compass, young George Bailey, confronted with a moral dilemma about whether to respect adult authority even when it is wrong and will cause harm, runs to his father for advice. His father can’t talk to him then, though, as he is in a confrontation with big banker Mr. Potter. When George enters the room, he is privy to this bit of conversation:

HENRY POTTER: Have you put any real pressure on these people of yours to pay those mortgages?
PETER BAILEY: Times are bad, Mr. Potter. A lot of these people are out of work.
POTTER: Then foreclose!
BAILEY: I can’t do that. These families have children.
POTTER: They’re not my children.
BAILEY: But they’re somebody’s children, Mr. Potter.

George leaves without asking his father his question, but learning the answer anyway: do the right thing by other people, and other people’s children even when authority tells you not to. It’s this lesson that allows George to grow into someone who could inherit the responsibility of running  the Savings and Loan, and, the movie tells us, in so doing he prevented Bedford Falls from becoming Pottersville, a place of steep class divides, alcoholism, exploitation and despair.

I feel strongly about community-based banking (my money’s in a credit union), but I also like what the film says about the “somebodies” and their children whom Bailey is not going to kick out of their homes.

A lot of politics in recent years has taken place under the rubric of how some people–especially mothers–don’t count. Welfare mothers, crack mothers, single-mothers raising the underclass. From Newt Gingrich suggesting we take the children of welfare mothers and put them in orphanages to sociologist Charles Murray talking about how single mothers are responsible for the downfall of white people. David Brooks of the New York Times wrote a column on Murray that was, among other things, designed to refute economist Joseph Stiglitz and Occupy Wall Street’s objection to the the 1% number, and the contention that it has been obscenely enriched in recent years. Instead, he suggested that 70% of us are doing okay, but 30% are really a mess–unemployed, uneducated, criminal. They are (surprise, surprise) the children of single mothers and those mothers themselves. (Charles Pierce at Esquire wrote a truly funny rejoinder if you want better reading.)

Fifty-six years after It’s a Wonderful Life, banking and the children of the poor are still surprisingly entangled.

It might seem like a reach to link the politics of impoverished mothers and children and international banking. But after ten years of thinking about adoption, I suspect that watching what happens, rhetorically, to mothers who don’t count tells us a surprising amount about politics of all sorts: economic, international, gender, race, immigrant, queer. That’s why I wrote the book, and why I’m writing this blog. I’m interested in the “somebodies” who don’t have children, of course. But I also think that “somebody’s children” give us a really powerful and interesting lens for analysis.