Although adoption by lesbians and gay men has become increasingly visible and acceptable, same-sex couples often still contend with legal and social discrimination throughout the adoption process. Particularly in the pre-placement stage (i.e., before a child has been placed with them), same-sex couples must often weigh their values and ideals against their desire for privacy, safety, and fair treatment (Matthews & Cramer, 2006). For example, many couples live in states where only one partner can legally adopt, thereby forcing the other partner to remain hidden through this important life transition. Even in states where both partners can adopt, lesbians and gay men must contend with the decisions of policymakers, court officials, and adoption agency personnel who may actively discriminate against same-sex couples seeking to adopt—despite research indicating that sexual orientation is irrelevant to one’s ability to parent (Tye, 2003).
In order to more fully understand the kinds of barriers lesbian women in particular face throughout the pre-placement stage of the adoption process, as well as the strategies they use to negotiate bias and discrimination, we explored perceived challenges and obstacles associated with the adoption process in same-sex female couples residing in the U.S. Using data from a longitudinal research project on the transition to adoptive parenthood, this qualitative study explored the perceptions of 35 lesbian couples (70 women) who were all in the process of adopting their first child and had not yet been placed with a child. The following research questions were of interest:
1. What challenges do lesbian women perceive in the adoption process? How do they experience these challenges (on a personal, affective level), and how do they negotiate these challenges (on a practical level)?
2. What adoption agency practices do lesbian women identify as positive or supportive?
Navigating Legal Constraints: Choices and Tensions
One important theme that emerged concerned women’s perceptions of tension between their own personal values and the socio-legal context of adoption. For example, couples were often aware that in order to adopt internationally, or in order to adopt domestically in a state that did not allow same-sex coparent adoption, they would have to hide the status of their relationship. Women described a variety of feelings about such “closeting.” For example, 31 women emphasized the importance of being “out” in the adoption process. They felt that hiding their relationship would compromise the “honesty and integrity” of their relationship. Often these perceptions impacted the kind of adoption women chose to pursue. Ten women explicitly stated that they were choosing open domestic adoption (which emphasizes open dialogue between adoptive and birth parents pre- and post-adoption) because they did not want to begin their families within the context of secrecy and deception. Open adoption allowed these couples to openly represent themselves to birth parents during the adoption process.
Four women described experiencing significant tension between their own strong valuing of openness in the adoption process and current legal barriers. These four women were all pursuing international adoption and found it emotionally difficult to have one partner remain closeted throughout the process. Ultimately, all four women came to question their decision to pursue international adoption given the stress and injustice of having to hide their relationship.
Similarly, nine women lived in states that denied coparent adoption, requiring couples to conceal their sexual orientation. Such legal discrimination frustrated these women, but they felt that such concealment was a necessary sacrifice in order to adopt. Additionally, 17 women described the importance of being out and honest in the adoption process, but unlike the nine women above, they lived in states that allowed coparent adoption and did not require them to closet their relationship.
Lastly, for nine women, integrity and the valuing of being “out” were not identified as important considerations in the process of adopting. Rather, financial considerations and a desire to adopt quickly and easily were identified as their greatest concerns in the adoption process.
Challenges and Barriers in the Adoption Process
In addition to legal discrimination at the state and country level, women also identified a number of challenges they experienced at the more immediate, local level. For example, 15 women described discrimination and insensitivity by adoption agencies. During the process of seeking out an agency, these women all experienced situations in which an agency refused to work with them. Many women also voiced uncertainty as to whether or not they were being discriminated against. Specifically, 21 women described experiences that left them feeling suspicious of discrimination, but they had no concrete evidence that they were being discriminated against based on their sexual orientation. Eleven of these 21 women believed that they might not be receiving the same kind of support from their agencies as their heterosexual counterparts. They were often aware of waiting longer than heterosexual couples to adopt, and wondered whether agency professionals were overlooking them and/or simply not working as hard on their behalf. Five of these 21 women suspected that adoption professionals had requested information from them that was not typically asked of heterosexual couples (e.g., reasons for a same-sex child; extensive information about sleeping arrangements). Finally, four of these 21 women felt that heterosexual couples were favored in their training groups or that their social workers were intentionally trying to give them the most difficult children (e.g., special needs children; drug-addicted children).
Strategies to Avoid Agency Bias and Discrimination
To prevent being confronted with discrimination at an agency level, many women conducted extensive research in an effort to find an agency that validated and respected their relationship. Women searched online, talked to friends, and spoke personally with agency personnel. Some women asked agencies for references of lesbian couples who had worked with them, while others visited adoption agencies to assess overt and covert displays of acceptance and non-acceptance.
Positive Agency Practices: What Makes a Supportive Agency?
Most women reported ultimately finding agencies about which they felt positively. Many women indicated that the most important thing an agency could do was to convey an attitude of inclusion and acceptance. For example, some women expressed that what they valued most about their agency was the fact that they were treated “the same as everyone else.” In contrast, other women liked that their agencies welcomed them as same-sex couples—appreciating and acknowledging this aspect of their difference compared to heterosexual couples.
Importantly, women identified tangible ways that agencies demonstrated their inclusiveness of same-sex couples seeking to adopt. Some women liked that their agencies explicitly stated their openness to same-sex couples in their materials. Others appreciated that images of same-sex couples were present on the agency’s website or in materials offered to prospective adoptive couples. Women also appreciated the fact that their agencies offered support groups specifically for lesbian/gay clients. Lastly, women noted the importance of agencies adequately informing same-sex couples of the unique challenges they may face in adopting (e.g., negotiating the laws of both their home state and the state of the birthparents).
This study indicates the important tensions that lesbian couples can experience throughout the adoption process. It provides insight into how some lesbian women must compromise their own desires to be “out” in the adoption process, and reveals the types of legal and societal discrimination that may limit the fulfillment of this desire. Importantly, these women suggest the need for specific types of supportive and affirming practices by adoption professionals that will be helpful to lesbian couples throughout the critical stage of the adoption process prior to placement. Further, these women emphasize the need for legislation to protect the rights of both adoptive parents before and after being placed with a child.
Matthews, J. D., & Cramer, E. P. (2006). Envisaging the adoption process to strengthen gay- and lesbian-headed families: Recommendations for adoption professionals. Child Welfare, 85, 317-340.
Tye, M. C. (2003). Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender parents: Special considerations for the custody and adoption evaluator. Family Court Review, 41, 92-103.