When homosexuals adopt

As the nation debates whether homosexuals should be allowed to marry, millions of lesbians and gay men are already building families by adopting children. Has gay adoption gone mainstream?

Is it legal for gays to adopt?

In 21 states, yes—under certain conditions. New York, California, New Jersey, and Vermont permit adoption by same-sex couples. Other states permit gay individuals—but not couples—to adopt. Today, Florida is the only state that has an outright ban on adoption by both gay individuals and gay couples. Geographically, attitudes toward gay adoption reflect the culture war dividing the nation: Opposition remains strong in the conservative South and the American heartland, while in many cities, the sight of two men or two women pushing a stroller has become so ordinary that it hardly merits a second glance. “Since kindergarten, my moms were always in our school helping out,” said 14-year-old Ellie Wiener, who was adopted by two lesbians in Minneapolis. “It’s really not a scary thing or a big deal.”

How many kids live with gay parents?

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At least 2 million, according to the most conservative estimates, and perhaps as many as 14 million. Estimates vary so widely because gay parenthood is a new, rapidly changing frontier. For every gay person who goes through legal channels and adopts, there are others who become parents by conceiving children through in vitro fertilization and other reproductive technologies. Perhaps the most common situation is the “blended” family: After years of marriage, one parent gets a divorce, gets custody of the kids, and enters into a same-sex partnership. The new partner sometimes seeks custody through adoption, as a way to solidify the family. In about 20 states, courts sometimes grant these “second parent” adoptions. But most states still will not grant a same-sex partner the right to adopt a child they’re helping to raise.

Why does that matter?

Having legal status as a parent has both symbolic and practical implications. Take the case of Donna Colley and Margaux Towne-Colley, a lesbian couple in Omaha. Together, they’re bringing up a son, Grayson, born to Towne-Colley via artificial insemination. As one of the boy’s two moms, Colley would like to legally adopt Grayson. But Nebraska refuses to give Colley any legal recognition as the boy’s parent. That means he’s not entitled to benefits under Colley’s health plan. She can’t even sign a permission slip for a school trip. If Towne-Colley were to die, someone in her biological family could demand custody of Grayson, and Colley could lose custody of the son she’s helped raise from infancy. “Under the law,” said Colley, “I am a stranger to my child.”

Do gays make good parents?

The medical and child-welfare establishments say yes. Last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics joined the American Psychological Association, the Child Welfare League, and other mainstream groups in declaring its support for gay adoption. They all say that scientific research, though limited, has found no detrimental effects for the children. On issues like self-esteem, behavioral problems, and mental development, children of gays are no different from other kids, preliminary studies indicate. But some studies have turned up differences in gender behavior and sexual attitudes.

Are these kids more likely to be gay?

Studies have found no evidence of that. But kids who grow up with gay parents are more open-minded about homosexuality, and say they’re willing to consider that option for themselves. One often-cited study by the University of Southern California found that children of gays are more questioning of gender stereotypes. The girls, for instance, showed less interest in wearing frilly clothes. Another study found that boys with two moms were more likely to cook and to garden, and were “very sensitive to their own and others’ feelings.” Gay-adoption advocates say an environment that fosters examination of stereotypes, or that encourages a young person to discover his or her true sexuality, is a good thing.

Does everyone agree with that?

Hardly. To some conservative religious groups, even a hint that gay adoption has sexual-identity implications for kids is reason enough to bar the practice—at least until more is known. “In this day and age, where homosexual experimentation can lead to death from AIDS, it would seem to me that that’s taking a big risk,” said Bill Maier of the conservative Focus on the Family. Another group, the Family Research Council, says that “a mountain of social science, the world’s major religions, and common sense” all tell us that children have the best chance to thrive when they’re raised by a man and woman who are married to each other.

Is that true?

It may be, but for tens of thousands of kids without parents, it’s simply not an option. Most states have a backlog of unwanted children in foster care or in state institutions. Adoption agencies consider these kids “hard to place” because they have disabilities or because they’re black or Hispanic. Gay couples have been more willing to adopt these unwanted children. Laws that prohibit adoption by gays, says the American Academy of Pediatrics, “prevent these children from enjoying the psychologic and legal security that comes from having two willing, capable, and loving parents.”

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