Features  Adopting difference

The Daily’s Jennifer Markowitz examines how Quebec’s queer adoption policies have taken baby steps to change the norm for a “happy family”

The state of Arkansas won a battle on Tuesday – a battle against a “gay agenda.” That’s what the Arkansas Family Council dubbed the state legislation that prohibits unmarried couples who are living together from adopting or fostering children. The not-so-secret motivation behind the 56 per cent approval was a desire to prevent homosexuals from becoming parents.

Quebec legalized adoption for same-sex couples and queer individuals in 2002, joining a troupe of provinces and American states. Although an increasing number of queer people apply for adoption in Quebec and an increasing number are approved, intolerance persists.

Quebec operates under a public adoption system, and according to those in the know, the province’s agencies are fair, and more accepting than many elsewhere in Canada and abroad. Yet hints of opposition still surface when homosexuals seek to adopt; heteronormative discourses dominate expectations people have for raising a family. Same-sex couples shake these norms, often successfully, but sometimes not. Seeing gays and lesbians as parents is still problematic to some agencies, especially those in rural areas or with religious affiliations. “I don’t think it’s unjust,” says Mona Greenbaum, a queer mother and director of the LGBT Family Coalition, a Montreal-based organization that advocates for the legal and social recognition of LGBT families. “There are problems, but I would not by any stretch characterize it as an unjust system – not such a strong word,” she says of trends she’s noticed in Quebec’s system.

Most Quebec agencies, Greenbaum observes, are on the right path – increasingly embracing queer parents, and collaborating with queer support groups such as Quebec’s Lesbian Mother’s Association and Papa-Daddy Group. But she points out that heteronormative expectations still command general thinking. The ideal match for many adoption agencies, it seems, is with “traditional families.” Greenbaum recalls attending information and training sessions at adoption agencies, surrounded by other hopeful parents-to-be, and feeling alienated as the agency representatives declared their paradigm: to place children in families with both a mommy and a daddy. “There is a discourse at training sessions that, to me, is very, if not homophobic, then strongly heterosexist,” she says. An expressed preference for heterosexual couples does not necessarily imply that gay and lesbian parents are then rejected, or even that there are overt biases against them; it only reveals insensitivity and a rootedness in convention.

Cathy Carroll, manager of the mixed bank program at Montreal’s Batshaw Youth and Family Centre, says that employees who present information sessions for Batshaw do not assess prospective parents. “Certainly there are some basic guidelines – clean criminal record, stable mental health – but aside from that, it really takes an in-depth investigation of the family; we look at the nitty gritty,” she explains. Every prospective parent, she says, is welcomed, and offered an equal opportunity. In the seven years that Carroll has managed at Batshaw, she has matched 15 to 20 same-sex couples with children.

While practice has changed, changing the ideology has been a slower process. “You’ll always run into someone who is having a hard time with this,” Carroll says. “[At sessions,] sometimes we get comments – ‘why would they let them raise a child’ – but I think generally people have gotten beyond that.” Rural agencies and those with religious affiliations are often less comfortable with gay or lesbian parents, and bisexual, transgender, and transsexual people are not explicitly named in most adoption laws, but are presumably included in most policies, as well as most biases. As minorities in an already marginalized group, bisexual, transgender, and transsexual people – who have identities distinct from gays’ and lesbians’ – are more likely to be further marginalized and discriminated against in adoption decisions.

The focus on placing a child with a two-parent family is legitimate; numerous case studies and research confirm that for adopted children, two parents are better than one. Particularly in a public system like Quebec’s, where children up for adoption often have many needs that require acute attention, agencies may be concerned about placing a child in a home with a single parent, which may not offer the same support as a partnered situation, suggests Dr. Lori Ross, a research scientist with the Women’s College Hospital Research Institute and the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto.

There is no strong evidence, though, that indicates queer couples are less adequate parents than heterosexual couples, and queer parents take offense to unsupported notions that suggest otherwise. Arguments against gay couples adopting assume that children require a mother and a father to grow up psychologically healthy, and that a child raised by homosexual parents is more likely to be homosexual as well. Such beliefs are upheld by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Child that states a child has the right to be free of political influence. “You hear that a [family with parents of the same sex] is not traditional, that it adds to a child’s difference…. It’s the same argument that used to be used with black or Muslim parents. But research just doesn’t show this,” Greenbaum says. “If they said something like ‘our first choice is a household with two parents [rather than one]’ some would still be offended, but research has shown that on average, children in single-parent houses don’t fare as well because the houses only have half the network.”

Still, adoption assessments by some agencies hold prospective homosexual parents to a higher standard than heterosexuals. Queer individuals looking to adopt have reported not being placed with a potential child without a concrete explanation, and despite a general expression of support for same-sex adoption on the part of the agency or worker, according to a study by Ross and other researchers conducted this year for the Health Sociology Review.

It’s impossible to detect exactly where such biases originate, particularly in Quebec, where adoption decisions are not unilateral. Decisions arising from a mixed bank – Quebec’s foster-to-adopt system – are filtered through the agency, a screener, and the child’s biological parents. Since most adoption placements are made using a best-interest decision-making model, homophobic child welfare workers, agency staff, or biological parents could potentially have a great impact on the way in which queer applicants are recruited, considered, approved, and supported as adoptive parents.

During the intensive screening process, gays and lesbians must demonstrate that their sexual orientation will not interfere with their ability to parent, and will not generate an unstable environment for a child. Sexual orientation should be a factor for every candidate; however, homosexuality should be noted in particular. While queer-sensitive adoption policies seek to redefine the norm, heterosexist views have not yet been dissolved. Homosexuality remains a deviation, and should be considered as one. Prospective parents’ homosexuality should therefore not be undermined, discriminated against, or ignored. As something that makes a parent different, it will undoubtedly make their family different as well. “They should screen us differently because we’re gay. They need to investigate anything that distinguishes you from the norm. It’s important to see how you are able to live with that difference…. In order to become parents, as a gay person, you must be very comfortable with the fact that you’re gay so that you don’t project an image of shame to your kids. [Screeners] have to see if you’re really out, if you’re really out everywhere, in every part of your life…. If you’re not comfortable with your sexual orientation then you’re not ready to be a parent,” Greenbaum says.

Before adoption for homosexuals was legalized, and still in places where it is not, gays and lesbians looking to adopt would often hide their homosexuality in order to be considered. Gay couples would apply individually, as single parents, and conceal their sexual orientation. In some cases, particularly for international adoptions, couples allied with supportive screeners who would help them through the process and withhold the truth from agencies. Regarding sexual orientation as something worthy of secrecy not only undermines its influence and attaches shame to it, but points to a regression in queer tolerance. “You can’t gloss over [sexuality] and just assume everyone is equal. You have to acknowledge it,” Greenbaum says. While gays and lesbians should not be discriminated against for deviating from the norm, their sexuality cannot be written off as insignificant – especially when it may be an asset for raising children, and especially adopted ones. “If they say it’s all the same, they are not understanding what we have come up against. I think it is negligent if you don’t make that distinction. If you’re gay, you’re in a minority position. Everyone has a difference.” Adopted children are already unique from children raised with their biological parents. Queer parents, who are used to dealing with difference, can be positive and supportive role models for adopted kids. “It’s logical that we can help give our children tools to deal with prejudices and discrimination and help them to see difference as something positive,” Greenbaum says.

Many social workers and psychologists in Quebec have not yet had access to research on same-sex families, but according to the Lesbian Mothers Association, over 100 social workers from most of the adoption agencies across Quebec have undergone a series of training sessions called “For a new vision of homosexuality,” which aim to dispel misconceptions and stereotypes about the capacity of gays and lesbians to parent, and the well-being of a child raised in a same-sex family.

Still, an increasing number of professionals working in social services are becoming aware of research on the children of gays and lesbians, which shows that they fare just as well as those of heterosexual parents. “We try and build with our same-sex couples [on the idea] that it is important for kids to have role models; they need to have exposure to many sexes. I’m sure there are some issues once a child hits school age, and kids start to question,” Carroll says. “But these are issues that I’ve never had. I’ve never gotten a call saying ‘this is beyond what I can handle.’” She says homosexual, bisexual, and transsexual parents provide some of the best homes. “Their hearts are around the parenting and not the legal aspect. They just want to parent, they really, truly want to have the experience of parenting and are not caught up in wanting to own the child,” Carroll says.

Having two parents of the same sex is still commonly viewed as a “problem” for a child; but Carol Cumming Speirs, a former associate professor at McGill’s School of Social Work who has done extensive research on various aspects of adoption, suggests that the gender or sexual orientation of adoptive parents may not be relevant to an adopted child’s well-being. Speirs explains that the separation of an adopted child from his or her biological parents is often one of the most traumatic aspects of adoption. Adopted children mourn the loss of and estrangement from their biological parents while the adoptive parents mourn that they are not raising a biological child. Needing to overcome these traumas, Speirs says, citing work from H. David Kirk, creates a “shared fate” between adoptive parent and child that is the basis for a new kind of bonding. Placing a child in a heteronormative family, then, is not necessarily conducive to a smoother healing process. “The prototype of [a family with a mother and father] is useful because it is the prototype that produced children and makes a family,” says Speirs, but it is not the most relevant factor when thinking about an adopted child’s welfare. For an adopted child, entering a family with two same-sex parents may even ease the trauma. There is no possibility of hiding the adoption, to delay the shared mourning; there is no opportunity for the child to wonder whether their adoptive parents are possibly their biological parents.

Ross’s study suggests that negative social constructs of queer people as parents influence some LGBT people to feel a lack of entitlement to parenthood. Dominant discourses still portray parents and families as heteronormative; people still have doubts about the well-being of queer parents’ children, and queer parent adoption is still illegal in several countries. But, Carroll notes, the formula for a happy family is changing, neighbourhoods are changing, and while homophobia and heterosexist modes of thought are still pervasive, they’re on the way out. She maintains that queer parents offer an equally welcoming home for adopted children and are equally equipped to be parents and to create healthy homes. She has observed one difference between homosexual and heterosexual parents – same-sex couples are more open to adopting diverse and special-needs children, or children with medical risks. “We saw a bigger spectrum for them in terms of the types of kids that they would take in. They are more open to having a diverse child,” Carroll says. “They really, really just want to parent and will do it at all costs.”

Same-sex adoption in Canada

In the early 1990s, Montreal’s Batshaw Youth and Family Centres first began to consider openly gay and lesbian applicants, placing a small number of children in such homes. In 2002, the Quebec government passed a law that gave couple and parental rights and responsibilities to gays and lesbians, making it legal for them to adopt in-province.

Still, many countries involved in international adoption will not adopt to openly identified queer parents. Bisexual, transgender, and transsexual people are not explicitly named in most adoption policies – even in Canada – but are presumably included in the prohibitions.

Ultimately, Ross says, “it really depends where you live and where you’re trying to adopt.”

Images by Nicole Buchanan