The new activism.
It was enough to strike terror in the heart of any parent. To support legislation to ban adoption and foster care by lesbian and gay parents, a right-wing organization took the unprecedented step of singling out one couple and their children as targets for political purposes. The group's method: sending a letter to every member of the Texas legislature challenging the lesbian couple's adoption of twins on the grounds that the children would be better off in a "traditional family."
The women in question were Elizabeth Birch, executive director of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay advocacy organization, and Hilary Rosen, president of the Recording Industry Association of America, a trade group. In the fall of 1998 the couple had arranged to adopt twins, who were born the following January 7 to a woman in Texas and whom they named Jacob and Anna Rosen-Birch.
"Hilary and I have always had gay rights issues in the forefront of our lives, but we have never had anything cut as close to our souls as becoming parents," Birch says. "The bonding process with your children is so deep that we would do anything to protect it from those who threaten it. What we did in adopting is a very private thing, and when the Right got ahold of it, it felt very mean and personal."
The Birch-Rosen adoption was indeed finalized, despite popular support for the anti-gay parenting bill. But the fear it caused the couple was familiar to millions of gay parents across America who seek legal and social recognition for their children. If Birch and Rosen--well-connected Washington power brokers--could be threatened with losing a child, it could happen to almost anyone.
Of course, there have always been parents who happened to be gay. But now their open embrace of home and hearth has taken on increasingly political overtones, extending their demands for equal rights to schoolhouses and day care centers, where gay activists have traditionally been outsiders. "It wasn't that long ago that gay parenting was thought to be a contradiction in terms," says C. Ray Drew, executive director of the Family Pride Coalition, a national parenting support and advocacy group based in San Diego. "Now gay people realize that they do not have to negate that part of their lives, and they are putting tremendous pressure on the system to accommodate their needs in raising children."
The politics of gay parenting has breathed new energy into more traditional gay rights measures as well. Many parents have taken on sodomy laws, which have repeatedly been cited to deny gay parents custody on the grounds that they are habitual lawbreakers. Antidiscrimination ordinances are increasingly seen as protecting not only the jobs of gay parents but also the health insurance that covers their children. National and state bans on marriage are sending many same-sex parents scurrying to find other means of legal recognition to formalize some aspects of their families.
While it is difficult to measure precisely the number of children raised by gay parents, most experts put the number well into the millions. Gay men and lesbians travel many roads to parenthood. Some are rearing kids from previous heterosexual marriages. Others, however, approached parenthood as openly gay or lesbian individuals or couples. They have planned families through means that range from biological coparenting with an opposite-sex friend to artificial insemination to adoption and foster care.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that gay parenting is booming. Gay churches and synagogues, for instance, minister to so many gay parents that they have opened child care centers for their members. Parks in predominantly gay neighborhoods like the Castro and Noe Valley in San Francisco and New York City's Greenwich Village overflow with gay parents and their children.
"In talking with doctors and attorneys, it's clear there are more gay parents than ever," says Kelly Taylor, founder and editor of Alternative Family magazine, a bimonthly publication for gay parents. "Lesbians have always been parents, but now men are increasingly interested as well. Many we've spoken to really did not believe they could become parents until recently." Taylor started the magazine shortly after the birth of her daughter in 1998.
Moreover, parenting has transformed ordinary gay men and lesbians into cultural warriors, changing the face of gay life and politics forever. "It's hard to believe that just a few years ago Michael and I were just a couple of queens living in a fabulous apartment in New York," says Jon Galluccio, who changed his surname to that of his partner, Michael, on the couple's 16th anniversary last year. "It has politicized us beyond our wildest dreams." In 1997 they won the right to coadopt their son, Adam, making them the first same-sex couple in New Jersey to be granted this right. On May 17 they finalized the adoption of another foster child, Madison. They are also planning to adopt Madison's 16-year-old stepsister, Rosa.
The political ramifications are far from clear, however. The new emphasis on family matters puts gays and lesbians on a collision course with the religious right, which seeks to define family in strict Leave It to Beaver terms: mom, pop, and a couple of kids. For instance, in a January 12 press release decrying Birch and Rosen's adoption, the Family Research Council, a Washington, D.C.-based conservative religious group, declared that "homosexual activists put their personal desires above the rights of these children to have a chance at normal family life with a father and a mother." Gary Bauer, FRC's former president who resigned to seek the Republican presidential nomination, has vowed to raise the issue on the campaign trail.
But gay parenting coincides with a broader reconfiguration of households and kinship. "The definition of family has been changing at an exponential pace, and you better believe the change is not just about gay people," says Pepper Schwartz, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington in Seattle. "More heterosexuals are having children through surrogates, there are more children of divorced parents, and there are more single moms and dads than ever before. The public is in the process of realizing that family is not its structure--it's what you make of it as long as there is a lifetime commitment to children."
In the meantime, however, lesbians and gay men are facing a backlash as the most visible--and most politically vulnerable --part of the changing family dynamic. "Frankly, gay parents are the weakest link among nontraditional families," Schwartz says. "The public is wary of the changes in the family, which is still seen as mom and apple pie. It's a lot easier to go after homosexuals than single moms."
It took the case of Sharon Bottoms to draw many Americans' attention to the plight of gay families. In her case the Virginia supreme court in 1995 upheld the 1993 ruling of a county juvenile court judge, which stripped Bottoms, the biological mother of a 2-year-old boy, of custody solely because she is a lesbian. In granting custody of the boy to Bottoms's mother, the judge ruled that Bottoms was an unfit parent because she had both acted immorally and violated the state's sodomy law by engaging in lesbian sex.
Other gay parents are determined to avoid Bottoms's fate. Like Birch and Rosen, the Galluccios were targeted by the religious right. On its Internet portal, FRC labeled the Galluccios "twisted" and listed them among the "bad of 1998." Jon Galluccio credits a January 13 Frank Rich column in The New York Times, titled "Family Values Stalkers," with stemming the personal attacks. "The public exposure showed how ugly they really are--attacking not just people but their kids as well--and they just couldn't deny it," he says. "We've accepted a public role, so we are ready for criticism. But don't dehumanize our children."
Even for people accustomed to political battles, parenthood dramatically raises the stakes. Many agonize over the potential that public scrutiny--to say nothing of the often viciously personal attacks--has to violate the privacy of their intimate relationships with their children. Daniel Zingale is a case in point. The executive director of AIDS Action, a Washington, D.C., AIDS lobby group, Zingale and his partner, Chuck Supple, adopted a baby boy in 1997. But Zingale declines to state his son's country of birth, saying it could open the door to challenges by antigay activists or the country's government, even though the adoption has legal standing in the United States. "By its very nature there is nothing more personal than a bond with a child," he says. "And we want to keep it that way."
Zingale says parenthood has changed his worldview. "When I heard about the murder of Matthew Shepard, I experienced it first as a parent and second as a gay man, whereas in the past I would have seen it primarily as a gay man who could be vulnerable to violence myself," he says. "I felt a kinship with parents who are concerned about the safety of their kids. I believe there is a commonality that transcends sexual orientation, and that will help us politically in the long run."
Although Galluccio sympathizes with those who seek to protect their children by staying away from the public spotlight, he says, "We knew from the beginning that we would have to be out in ways we could never imagine. I can't tell you how many times I've been at ShopRite with Adam in the shopping cart and someone will say, `Is it Mommy's day off?' and I will respond, `There is no mom. Adam has another dad.' Everyone wants to create a better life for their kids than they had. In our lifetime we want to see a world where kids of gay parents are accepted just like everyone else."
As one of the most visible activists in the country, Birch is also worried about the effect the publicity generated by her activism will have on her children. On many workdays she brings them into the HRC office in Washington, D.C., where the staff takes great pleasure in playing with them. But she will not allow the news media to photograph them. "I've admired the way the president and Mrs. Clinton have kept Chelsea out of the spotlight, and the press has generally been respectful of that," she says. "We want our children to make up their own minds when they are old enough about how public they will be."
For some gays and lesbians, parenting is the very thing that made them public figures. Stacy Jolles and Nina Beck say parenting has helped them overcome vestiges of their own homophobia. In 1995 Beck gave birth to a boy, Noah, who had a congenital heart defect. Jolles adopted Noah, who died in 1997. "I did most of my growing up as a parent," Jolles says. "We knew he was going to have a short life, and having to make life-and-death decisions for a child was a very sobering experience. We wanted to make sure that we're secure enough in our own identity as lesbian parents that we did not pass along any doubt to our child."
That experience in turn prompted the couple to sign on as plaintiffs in Baker v. Vermont, a lawsuit seeking same-sex marriage in the state. The Vermont supreme court heard oral arguments in November and may issue a ruling by the end of the year. "Our marriage activism grew naturally out of the parenting experience," Beck says. "While we have legal parenting rights as the biological and adoptive parents, marriage would offer us further protection by allowing us to have our house in both our names, for instance. It would bring more stability to our family."
Despite the qualms of parents involved in politics, this is one battle gay rights activists are confident they will win in the end. Many gay leaders have a personal stake in the outcome as well. In addition to Birch and Zingale, Joan Garry, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, and Rebecca Isaacs, political director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, among others, are raising children. "Americans are very reluctant to interfere in personal decisions about parenting," Birch says. "They don't want the religious right making the decision for them."
Still, antigay groups are not the only critics of gay parenting. As lesbians and gays turn their attention to family rights, advocates of sexual liberation fear that the gay movement is losing its political and sexual edge. Michael Bronski, author of The Pleasure Principle: Sex, Backlash, and the Struggle for Gay Freedom, says that like heterosexual families, many gay parents give up active roles in the larger urban community for a cloistered existence in the suburbs. "I'm worried that gay parenting could drain energy from grassroots politics," he says. "There are so few people who are really active in the gay movement anyway, and I don't think that many parents really do get involved in suburban school boards or PTAs. Urban gay areas have been the heart and soul of gay life, and they are threatened by this trend."
The battle may ultimately hinge on which family structure is deemed best for children. On that score lesbians and gay men are bolstered by a growing body of scientific literature indicating the children of gay parents are just as healthy and well-adjusted as those raised by opposite-sex couples. A 1992 survey of the findings of 30 studies of the children of gay parents published in the psychological journal Child Development concluded that the studies were nearly unanimous in their findings that the children had developed normally. FRC and other conservative groups cite a 1983 study by the right-wing Family Research Institute that indicated children of gay parents were more likely to be gay themselves. But that out-of-date study is hampered by a small sample size and the reputation of its author, Paul Cameron, a widely discredited antigay researcher.
"The mainstream research shows that gay parents are as talented as any other parent," Schwartz says. "Voluntary adoptive parents, whether gay or straight, tend to be among the best parents because they really want to be parents. Children need to know that they are wanted. Once courts and legislators look at the studies rather than the stereotypes, it will make a big difference."
But surveys never tell the whole story. Beck is pregnant again. Like all parents who have lost a child, Beck and Jolles are experiencing a combination of trepidation and hope. But unlike nongay parents, they have special lessons they want to impart to their child. "I want our child to know that no matter what the rest of the world thinks," Beck says, "being brought up in a lesbian household is just fine and dandy."
RELATED ARTICLE: A YEAR OF TRIUMPH AND PAIN
While gay parenting disputes such as Mary Jo Risher's 1975 loss of her son to her ex-husband and Sharon Bottoms's 1993 loss of her son to her mother have been going on since the earliest days of gay liberation, you don't have to go back too far to see how much these battles matter. Just look at what has gone on in the past year:
JUNE 21, 1998: Jon and Michael Galluccio, the New Jersey couple who made history in December 1997 by jointly adopting 2-year-old son, are joined in a holy union.
JUNE 26: The Alabama supreme court removes a child from her lesbian mother, ruling that the woman exposed her daughter to a "lifestyle" that is illegal in the state.
JULY 30: The North Carolina supreme court says a man who admitted to haying sex with his boyfriend in their home could net retain custody of his two sons. Lawyers for both the mother and the father say the ruling crud affect all unmarried parents.
SEPTEMBER 21: A lesbian (identified as V.C.) who argued she was practically a parent to her ex-partner's 4-year-old twins is denied joint custody and visitation rights by New Jersey's superior court. Judge Philip B. Cummis says state law does not give third parties an automatic right to visitation or custody of a partner's biological children.
NOVEMBER 13: The Dutch government unveils proposals to allow same-sex couples to adopt children. To qualify, couples must have lived together for at least three years and have jointly cared for the child for at least one year.
December 18: Maryland's highest court rules that trial judges can make no distinction between heterosexual and homosexual parents when deciding child custody cases, saying focus should instead he placed on whether contact with a particular parent could he harmful to a child's well-being.
JANUARY 6, 1999: The Arkansas child welfare agency review board votes to make the state the second in the country, after New Hampshire, to bar lesbians and gays from being foster parents.
JANUARY 7: Human Rights Campaign executive director Elizabeth Birch and her partner, recording industry lobbyist Hilary Rosen, adopt twin babies, Jacob and Arum. The adoption creates a flurry of protest by religious conservatives.
JANUARY 15: The Connecticut supreme court rules that state laws do not allow a child to be adopted by his biological mother's lesbian partner. In the majority's ruling, chief justice Robert J. Callahan says adoption of the baby by his nonbiological parent was in the child's best interest but that a court that makes public policy is not in citizens' best interest.
JANUARY 22: The Utah Division of Child and Family Services votes to bar unmarried heterosexual couples and gay and lesbian partners from adopting state-fostered children. The policy does not affect single parents or private adoptions.
FEBRUARY 8: Mississippi's highest court refuses to allow a 15-year-old boy to live with his gay father even though the teen's mother is now married to a man who has a history of violence and substance abuse and has repeatedly beaten her in front of the boy.
FEBRUARY 16: A Pennsylvania appellate court accepts the case of a woman who is seeking to adopt the biological children of her lesbian partner. Lower courts in the state have come out with inconsistent rulings on the issue.
FEBRUARY 17: Dozens of gay and lesbian couples and their supporters turn out at the Indiana statehouse in Indianapolis to testify against a proposal to ban gay adoptions only to find that the bill has been puffed because its sponsor said it was unlikely to pass as written.
MARCH 4: The Massachusetts supreme judicial court hears arguments regarding whether a lesbian can bar her former lover, whom she was with for 13 years, from seeing the 3-year-old boy the couple raised together.
MARCH 5: A New Jersey appeals court finds that V.C. now has a right to visitation after more than two years of legal battles. The case is likely to go to the state's supreme court.
MARCH 18: The New Hampshire house of representatives votes to end the state's ban on gays' and lesbians' becoming adoptive or foster parents. The ban had been in effect since 1987.
MARCH 22: Texas governor George W. Bush says he is opposed to adoption by gays and lesbians. The potential Republican presidential candidate says, "I believe children ought to be adopted in families with a women and a man who are married."
APRIL 9: A Texas judge questions the sexual orientation of two male roommates who have cared for a 3 1/2-month-old boy since his birth. A little more than a week later the judge removes the baby from the men's custody, apparently because he believes they are gay.
APRIL 19: A California court of appeals rules that a woman who helped her lesbian partner raise two children has no visitation rights since the couple broke up.
APRIL 21: The government of Alberta, Canada, introduces legislation that would allow gay and lesbian couples to adopt children.
APRIL 22: The New Hampshire state senate votes 18-6 to repeal the state statute that bars lesbians and gay men from adopting or becoming foster parents.
APRIL 23: An appeal is filed in a Texas custody case in which a district judge ruled that the Metropolitan Community Church is not acceptable for the daughter of a lesbian to attend.
APRIL 25: Preliminary arguments are heard in Jerusalem in the case of a woman seeking to be recognized as a coparent of her lesbian partner's child. Nicole Brenner-Kaddish legally adopted the child in California, but when the couple, who have dual citizenship, tried to register the child with the Israeli consulate as having two mothers, the government refused.
MAY 3: More than 100 people crowd into a room where the Texas house state affairs committee considers a measure that would keep gay or lesbian couples from adopting children or serving as foster parents.
MAY 3: New Hampshire governor Jeanne Shaheen signs a repeal of the state law barring gays and lesbians from becoming adoptive or foster parents. The repeal leaves Florida as the only state with such a statute.
MAY 11: A woman in Palm Bay, Fla., who paid for her former lover to be artificially inseminated asks an appeals court to let her fight for visitation with the girl she calls her "psychological daughter." Because Florida law does not allow adoption by gays and lesbians, Penny Kazmierazak was never Mile to extend any legal say over the 5-year-old child.
MAY 14: A man in Anderson, Ind., who fought against having his foster daughter adopted by a gay couple is charged with molesting the 9-year-old girl. Earl "Butch" Kimmerling, who was reported to the police by his wife, admitted to having sexual contact with the girl "many times" in the past year.
MAY 17: A New Jersey state judge agrees to allow Jon and Michael Galluccio to adept their second child, 2-year-old Madison Elena Galluccio.
Find more on gay parenting and links to related Internet sites at www.advocate.com
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|Title Annotation:||Elizabeth Birch and Hilary Rosen adopt twins, despite the efforts of an anti-gay group to legally block the adoption|
|Publication:||The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1999|
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