When Zack, a white gay man, began the adoption process with his husband last year, they both expected to wait at least a few months for their application to move forward. So it came as a bit of a shock when it took less than a week for them to learn about Asher, the Black newborn they would eventually bring home to Washington, D.C.
“We wrote the first check to the agency and hit print on marketing materials to birth families on a Sunday. Wednesday we got a call [saying], ‘A child has just been born in Texas, can you get on a plane?’” Zack, who asked that his last name not be used to protect his family’s privacy, told Rewire.News in a phone interview earlier this year.
The average length of time for an adoption between starting the process and having a child is six months to one year, according to one agency. But after arriving in Texas and meeting the newborn’s birth mother, Zack and his husband were making arrangements to prepare to bring Asher back with them.
Zack’s experience moving quickly through the adoption process is part of an apparent trend of birth parents selecting gay men more frequently as adoptive parents than other queer couples, according to Michael S. Goldstein, a private adoption attorney in New York state. “We find our gay male couples do better than our gay female couples,” said Goldstein, referring to how quickly they get matched with a child. Given the lack of information on trans, gender nonconforming, or bisexual parents, it’s unclear how this part of the LGBTQ community is affected by these trends.
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Goldstein, who has worked since the 1980s on more than 3,000 adoptions, noted that while all his couples are eventually able to adopt, “the men tend to be able to adopt faster. The women are able to adopt eventually.” Zack says he’s even heard anecdotally from people in the field that gay men might actually be adopting faster than their straight counterparts. “We know straight couples that have waited quite some time,” he explained.
Adoption is a complicated process, rife with gender, class, and racial dynamics, and political shifts may only make the environment more challenging for those navigating the process. In a context where half a million children are in the foster care system, and an estimated 2 million GLB people are interested in adopting, there is a lot at stake in how these dynamics may evolve. This is especially true given the growing number of state-level regulations designed to limit LGBTQ adoption.
In previous reporting, Rewire.News has elaborated on the political landscape facing LGBTQ adoption, and in particular the mounting threats on the ability of LGBTQ individuals to parent through foster care and private adoption. Those threats include new rules about how birth certificates can or cannot be amended or changed when an adoption takes place, regulations about who can adopt or foster, and new processes for gaining approval to be a foster or adoptive parent.
“With the increase in religious exemption laws, nine states now allow taxpayer-funded child welfare programs to discriminate based on their religious beliefs,” Marty Rouse, national field director for the Human Rights Campaign and himself an adoptive parent, explained in a phone interview with Rewire.News. These programs are agencies that work within the foster care system to place children with foster and adoptive parents. Rouse expects to see an increase in these type of laws in the next few years, signaling that it might become even more difficult for LGBTQ people in certain states to foster or adopt through the foster care system, with or without the gender dynamics apparently at play.
The Dynamics Shaping Who Gets to Parent—and When
There are two main ways to become an adoptive parent: through the foster care system or through private adoption. People choose to adopt through foster care or private adoption for many different reasons, but each avenue comes with its own unique challenges.
In order to adopt, a person has to get a license from the state, usually completed by working through the agency. That process includes a home study, medical histories, extensive evaluations of themselves and their home environments, background checks, and references from friends and family. Religious exemption laws can create a scenario where an LGBTQ person might not be able to find an agency willing to certify them as an adoptive parent, a situation that would disproportionately affect people living in more conservative states.
Ellen Kahn, director of the Children, Youth, and Families Program at the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, says the majority of agencies are actually friendly to LGBTQ people. “It may not be the agency down the street or in your immediate zip code, but there is an agency out there who will be happy to have you, be completely welcoming and will treat you fairly because they really need families.”
While prospective parents in either a private adoption or foster care adoption go through similar processes to become certified as adoptive parents, the matching process can be very different. In a private adoption, the family of origin can have a role in deciding which family will parent the child. In the case of foster care, the staff working at the agencies makes those decisions.
But regardless of who the decision maker is, public attitudes toward LGBTQ people with different identities can have an impact. Acceptance of LGBTQ people has been on the rise over the last few decades. According to a 2017 survey by Pew Research Center, “63 percent of Americans said in 2016 that homosexuality should be accepted by society, compared with 51 percent in 2006.” LGBTQ adults also reported experiencing that shift: “About nine-in-ten (92 percent) said in a 2013 Pew Research Center survey of adults identifying as LGBT that society had become more accepting of them in the previous decade.”
More recent polling, however, suggests a possible shift in attitudes toward LGBTQ people, potentially connected to the broader political climate that has emboldened those with discriminatory views of many marginalized groups. “For the first time since the survey began in 2014, non-LGBT Americans told pollsters that they’re less comfortable with their LGBT neighbors,” reported a January Washington Post article about the survey. “The number of LGBT survey respondents who told pollsters that they’d experienced discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity jumped by 11 points.”
In the private adoption space, the parent of origin’s preference for men over women may explain the gender dynamics at play. For example, a birth mother may choose a gay male couple as the adoptive parents so as to remain the only mother in the child’s life, said Goldstein. April Dinwoodie, a writer and adoption advocate who was adopted at 2 years old from the foster care system, has also seen this dynamic. ”In some ways, it’s somewhat easier for people to wrap their head around the fact that if there are two dads or two moms it doesn’t completely erase certain parts of the family of origin,” she told Rewire.News in a recent phone interview.
Everyone Rewire.News interviewed for this article—adoptive parents, advocates, and other people involved in facilitating adoptions—confirmed that this is a widely-acknowledged dynamic. Charles Coward, a Black man who adopted his son with his husband in July 2017, said in a phone interview with Rewire.News that “the process was a lot faster for us than others who have been on the agency’s website for years.” That included a number of straight couples. Coward’s son’s birth mother specifically requested a gay African American couple, and that was how their agency matched her with Coward. The process from approval to his adoptive son’s birth took just six months.
He offered a similar explanation to Goldstein for their fast experience: “Mothers who enter into an adoption plan don’t want their child calling another parent mommy.”
Another gender dynamic might be that a birth parent has a preference for a couple whose first choice seemingly was adoption rather than an option that results from infertility, as could be the case with lesbian or straight couples. “One of the things that our birth mother had stipulated was placing our son with a family that couldn’t have a child on their own,” Zack said. “We were just sort of the obvious couple that couldn’t have a kid on our own.”
Of course, this does not mean that all other queer couples end up waiting a long time. Laura Nelson and her partner Michelle Adams were clients of Goldstein’s 14 years ago when they decided they wanted to adopt a child. Nelson is white and Adams is African American. During a phone interview with Rewire.News, Nelson explained how they answered Goldstein when he asked about their preferences regarding the race of the child: “We would prefer a child of color, but we were happy to take any child.”
Their daughter is now 12 years old and is Black and Latina. Nelson recounts that they were surprised when they met with Goldstein and he told them they would likely have a child within six months. “But we’re an interracial gay couple?” Nelson recalled thinking. But Goldstein’s prediction turned out to be correct, and within five months their daughter was home with them.
Some explain these experiences by the growing acceptance of LGBTQ people by society, which is supported by the aforementioned polling. “The birth mothers choosing with whom to place their children are the Will and Grace generation,” explains Kahn. “They are a generation that overwhelming has much more favorable beliefs and attitudes towards LGBT people.”
But class also appears to shape decisions about who gets to parent and when. “I think there are some stereotypes of the gay community in general about being affluent, having access to a lot of things. Someone might think my child will have a good life. A lot of it is based on stereotypes,” said Kahn.
Race and Money: Two Complicating Factors
While these attitudes are typically based on stereotypes, financial means play a clear role in the adoption process. The cost of a private adoption can range from $25,000-$60,000, according to Goldstein. Where it falls depends on a number of factors: how much the agency charges (which could determine how much attention and support clients get, or how quickly things move), the state where you are adopting, what adoption costs an agency require adoptive parents to cover, and any other legal fees. When parents are choosing prospective adoptive parents for their children, they aren’t given the financial specifics on any couples beyond being told that their child will be well cared for, said Goldstein. But the fact that a family with two male parents is perceived as likely to do better financially than other couples because, presumably, no one in the family is facing a gender-based wage gap might influence ideas regarding gay male wealth and the choice of an adoptive couple.
It’s important to note, LGBTQ workers can face numerous forms of discrimination in the workplace, including being denied work in the first place.
Overall, private adoption is much more expensive than adoption through the foster care system, which is free or even subsidized by stipends for foster parents.
Dinwoodie, who identifies as a transracial adoptee, points out that racism is also embedded in the adoption sphere—even the language people use has roots in slavery. People say “emancipated from foster care, and put up for adoption,” she said. “We know that slaves were put up on platforms when they were being sold. With an overpopulation of Black and brown children in foster care, we know that the racism that impacts people in society impacts this arena as well.”
Molly Rampe, founder of Choice Network Adoptions, a pro-choice adoption agency in Ohio, sees these dynamics as well among the women coming to her to explore an adoption plan for their children. “Many of our women who come to us come to us with no support system at all. They are coming to us in crisis. When you are in crisis and have access to resources and access to support then you have more options available to you. The white pregnant person has more access to opportunity and support.”
Goldstein has also noticed some patterns in the adoption process. The children who are available for adoption “are typically of color or mixed of color,” he explained, and the majority of adoptive parents are white. In 2017, there were close to 500,000 kids in the foster care system, with over 100,000 available for adoption, according to the federal Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System.
“What we find from our gay families is that they are certainly more open to children of color than our Caucasian [straight] families,” noted Goldstein. “Even white gay people.”
“It’s really different raising our son—who will be a Black man in America—which my husband and I have no experience being,” Zack said. “Having a child of a race that we didn’t have first-hand experience being would be more challenging. [But] we made that decision—that was something that we were willing and happy to take on and do. We were committing ourselves to figuring out the rest as we go.”
Healthy Identity Development
One of the reasons Zack and his husband decided not to state a preference around race might explain that openness among some LGBTQ couples. “Most gay kids are not raised by gay parents,” he said. “Gay kids are raised by straight parents. We all have experience being raised by parents that have raised a child of a minority that isn’t them. That at least gives us some insight into what that is like. To be an advocate and ally for your kid even if you’re not exactly like them. I hope that that will benefit us as we navigate the next five, 18, 40 years of his life.”
Dinwoodie has heard this perspective from LGBTQ adoptive parents as well. And while she says it’s a good starting place, she thinks that openness is not necessarily enough to ensure effective parenting across race, class, and cultural divides. “Personally I think that that’s a great starting place and a foundation from which to draw from,” she said. “But it would be naive to think that that experience alone would allow for a parent to fully embrace and parent a child of a potentially different race or culture.”
Instead, she advocates for education for adoptive parents, and believes that starts with the parents understanding themselves and their identities. “Part of this journey is really about healthy identity development for your child, and I don’t know if those equipped with a healthy identity as an adult are equipped.” She emphasizes that adoptive parents need to feel confident in their role as parents without negating the family of origin and their importance in the child’s life. “[If adopted kids] are missing parts of their identity, narrative, and biology, it’s really hard for them to be seen fully. It’s important to take the fairy tale out of this experience and make sure that we’re being real and brave and open.”
Something that has made this significantly easier in recent times is the move toward more open adoptions, dependent on how much contact the family of origin is willing to have with the adoptive family and child. All three of the couples Rewire.News interviewed are in some sort of touch with the family of origin—texting, emailing, and sending photos. The amount and frequency of the contact varies, but the relationships are there at least to some extent.
This is a departure from Dinwoodie’s experience: no contact at all with her family of origin until she sought it out as an adult. “It would have been transformational” to have been raised within today’s adoption norms, she said. “At that time there wasn’t even a shot at trying to navigate [a] relationship with [the] family of origin. It just wasn’t the way.”
The Struggle to Parent
All of the couples Rewire.News interviewed faced different challenges in the adoption process, but all also emphasized the joy that comes from parenting. “It’s absolutely wonderful—I’m loving every moment of parenthood,” Coward said.
But while public opinion may have shifted in the direction of support for LGBTQ parents, the legal and political landscape remains more complex and susceptible to shifts that could make it harder for these adoptions to continue, despite the real need for adoptive families of all backgrounds.
The fragility of the situation is not lost on Zack. On top of the cost of the adoption, they endured a long drawn-out legal process that cost them an extra $10,000: “It took us ten months to formally adopt him because the court system in Texas made us jump through a great number of legal hoops.”
And if it weren’t for the marriage equality decision that forced Texas to allow gay married couples to adopt, he explained, “we would not have been able to adopt our son.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misspelled Zack’s name.