Reflections on adoption by same-sex couples

The Proposition 8 debate has set me to thinking about the related issue of adoption by same-sex couples. In many places in the U.S., it is illegal for gay couples to petition for adoption, and all but pointless in still more. There is widespread disfavor for the idea, even among professed “anti-homophobes.”

I thought I might address some of the “anti” arguments here.

Gay parents as a “bad influence” on children, or otherwise less than ideal caretakers

There is the argument that homosexuality is just “wrong”—immoral, antisocial, etc.—and that this disqualifies gays from adoption just as other immoral or antisocial behaviors block heterosexual couples from adopting.

Assuming this view of homosexuality is correct, it seems odd to block adoptions on the basis that there is something “wrong” with the parents. For something is “wrong” with everyone. The oddness applies to adoptions in general: There is no parental “vetting” prior to natural conception and childbirth; nor can you have your children removed for doing most of the things that might block you from adopting. But perhaps the difference is a pragmatic one: We can’t regulate natural birth as we can adoptions; at least, not without creating harms that would outweigh those we aim to prevent. Perhaps—and I have some sympathy for this view—if we could, we would.

But such as it is: If there is something “wrong” with everyone, gay adoption could only be opposed if it amounts to something fundamentally wrong, and in such a way that seriously implicates child-rearing.

But where are the grounds for saying this? There is no evidence that children of gay parents are any less well-adjusted than any other children, adoptive or not. Indeed, in terms of relevant indicators like self-esteem and future “success,” when studies find a difference, it is that children of gay parents tend to “score” a bit ahead of the pack. This is probably for the same reason that minority and female workers who gain positions on the basis of affirmative action tend to outperform their white, male, “meriting” counterparts—they know they are expected to fail, and try doubly hard not to confirm the stereotype. It is the same for gay parents: They know every miscalculation will be wildly magnified; they have to wonderful just to be seen as average.

Gay parents as producing gay children

The argument that gay adoption will produce gay adopted children is not only unsupported by evidence—it is hard to see what would count as evidence, given the reality of “closeted” gays that do not lend themselves to census—but it also begs the question: Yes, if there is something wrong with homosexuality, an institution which produces it might be immoral. But that assumes there is something wrong with homosexuality. And this must be demonstrated, not just assumed. (This also goes for the argument that children of gay parents will inherit a basic tolerance of homosexuality in others, and that this in itself is a maladjustment.)

Children of gay parents will be traumatized by their peers

The argument that children of gay couples will be traumatized by their schoolmates has slightly more plausibility. Its appeal rests in the fact that it is technically compatible with high levels of sympathy to homosexuality. One could in principle be pro-gay, even gay, and buy into this. On the surface, it is merely a fear of everyone else’s homophobia.

However, recalling the previous paragraph, if the feared taunts or ostracization (or whatever) don’t register loudly enough to produced maladjusted children and adults, it isn’t clear what weight to give it. (Perhaps gay adoption represents a statistical “wash,” with the self-esteem boon of having very driven parents balancing out the liability of being extra-targetable.) Anyhow, while there are certainly cases of serious bullying against youngsters due to gay parentage—I mean, there have to be, right?—there is no evidence that the average child of gay parents is any more at risk for serious taunts than another child. (I suspect that, for kids, making fun of another’s parents is oftener something used for taunting rather than the reason for taunting in the first place.)

So there is a risk, I guess. But you have to weigh this against some other risks: There is the risk of maintaining homophobia as a social phenomenon—or at least, the contribution that a ban on gay adoption would make to this. When homophobia is “hard-wired” into social institutions, it makes a kind of civic argument in favor of it. The natural impulse to identify with dominant—indeed, one’s own—social institutions requires, cognitive-dissonant-ly, some story to rationalize the exclusivity of these institutions, which appears otherwise malicious and capricious. The moral (or otherwise) deficiency of homosexuals is the most available hypothesis.

This is to say that homophobia harms children also—indeed, far more children than the victims of homophobic taunting—and the adults they grow up to be. There is no warrant to assume the psychological effects of being homophobic (on the homophobe, I mean) are any less harmful than those of being racist. Well-settled irrational fears needlessly complicate and degrade human living. They are alienating, providing one more block against a sense of fundamental social identification or “at-home-ness” in the world of people. They also cause people to be stupid: “Big” bad ideas train one to accept bullshit and poor explanations, and must be accommodated in the individual’s whole web of belief by abandoning or “tweaking” any good ideas that might conflict with them.

(I also suspect, as Marxist scholarship on homophobia suggests, that homophobia and sexism spring from the same well and are mutually reinforcing: (Male) gays are denigrated because they are “like women”; but women are the most “like women” of anyone. (Ergo….) So even if the homophobe never meets another gay person, his relations with straight women are compromised.)

Finally, of course, there is the straightforward cost to the gay would-be parents who are witness to the joys of parenthood but excluded on the basis of something they know is inessential to the project. This is—it must be—profoundly alienating also.

At least, let’s agree that we are dealing with a tradeoff of values—not “protecting children” versus some other value, even, but rather “protecting children” in one respect versus “protecting children” in another respect. And avoiding bad things is not the only direction in which ethical behavior moves: If there is an imperative to keep children safe, there is alike an imperative to fight, actively, social ills like homophobia. Let us not pretend we are dealing with anything less than competing imperatives.

And let us not make too much of “the children.” One must consider children’s needs in the moral equation, but they are not an inquiry-stopper. For there seems no warrant for never doing anything that could possibly impact some child, somewhere, badly. Perhaps gay adoption should be viewed like a teacher’s strike, or right to strike; missing some school is in itself a bad thing, but may be “worth” the frying of bigger fish—better wages, a better world. Indeed, the child who misses school at one point will inherit this world, one that is in part the product of such class conflicts. Just as the child taunted for having gay parents will inherit a world that is in part the product of struggles for gay rights such as his own. Having openly gay parents—being targetable for it—contributes to a world in which it is easier for gay parents and their children alike to be themselves. And this is fucking worth something. It may be worth some taunting.

And consider: Every other adult life-choice is permitted to make demands on children: Career relocation plops them into unfamiliar, friendless schools and neighborhoods, divorce splits their home and allegiances, an early retirement cuts luxury income; why is gay parenting the only choice that cannot in principle be entertained to impose on children in any way?

The bottom line

Finally, critics of gay adoption need not just talk about the relative merits of gay versus straight parents. They must talk about the merits of gay parents versus the foster system—for these are the alternatives at stake in this debate. I believe people view gay adoption in terms of an analogy to childbirth: They imagine that gay parents are choosing whether or not to “have” children, such that if they choose—or are forced—not to, there are no real children brought into the picture; no harm, no foul. But adoption is not analogous to childbirth: The children are already there, and waiting, whatever gay parents choose or have chosen for them. And the straight couples can’t and won’t take them all. This is not to disrespect foster parents as a group—foster homes are better than the alternative of needing foster homes, while having none—but the program is necessarily unstable.

Even if you are a ravenous homophobe, is it reasonable to think that gay parents—that is, not just any gay parents, but gay parents that want the child, have planned in advance and jumped through many difficult hoops to get the child, and are vetted by the government as financially stable, well-adjusted, loving, and soforth—is it reasonable that having these gay parents poses worse than the vagaries of the foster program(mes)? (Come on, now.)

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