LGBT parents & transracial adoption

Note: The people in the banner photo above are not necessarily “queer parents.” They are all (except for one non-adopted ally) adult adoptees of color who came together at the ASAC Conference in Boston.

This talk probes the heart of the transracial adoption controversy, with an eye on adoption by lesbian and gay parents. It asks: What identities could white parents take on (or assume) when they become involved with transracial adoption? In what ways are their capacities to address issues of race and adoption presumed to be in place when the parents happen to be lesbian or gay? What other issues should be considered when matching lesbian and gay parents with adopted children? Whose interests are being served? Whose interests should be served?

I want to start off by telling you about some research I conducted with members of transracial families. When I interviewed white adults who grew up with transracially adopted brothers and sisters, I was very interested to see how they engaged with race. I wanted to investigate the impact of race and adoption on their identities as white people. We know what the research says about racial identity and self-esteem in transracial adoptees. What hadn’t been studied so much to date was the effect on white children in such families.

I wish I had time to present the whole study to you, because what these white non-adopted siblings had to say was quite eye-opening. After all, they didn’t make the decision to adopt; their parents did. So these non-adopted siblings, all of whom have either Korean or African American siblings (including biracial siblings), didn’t have to defend the decision to get involved with the controversy or explain their motivations. Suffice it to say that these siblings’ narratives covered the good, the bad, and the ugly aspects of transracial family life. For example, a few of them reported that they would certainly adopt a child of another race themselves, whereas others said they would never do such a thing. After seeing the heartbreak their parents went through, or the tribulations their siblings of color experienced, these non-adopted siblings had a much less favorable opinion of transracial adoption.

My reason for mentioning my dissertation research today is because of the small group of white individuals in that study who enacted racial identities in creative ways that broke with normative whiteness. These white siblings described feeling different from other white folk, and named their experience in unusual ways. For example, one woman said, “I know that I am Swedish American,  and that I have white privilege. But I am so immersed in African American social networks that culturally, I feel as much African American as Swedish American.” Another woman reported, “I feel like part of the transracial adoption culture. But what does that mean to someone who hasn’t experienced it?” Collectively, I refer to this group of white siblings as transracialized (Raible, 2005). This was the group who did pay attention to race, who early on moved beyond color-blindness, who took their heads out of the sand long enough to notice how their siblings of color were being positioned in particular ways, and how they were being racialized. The racialization happening to their siblings had significant effects on their identity development, not to mention on interactions at home.

I have written about how all of us could learn from the experience of these transracialized white siblings. For example, we could all take a lesson on the importance of interracial friendships, which were a common thread that contributed to the process of transracialization. The non-adopted siblings, in effect, took their parents’ word that race-mixing was a good thing in their family, and took it one step further: race-mixing should be a viable option outside the home in the real world. Sadly, what they had to say about their efforts to form cross-racial friendships and about interracial romance was poignant, if not heartbreaking. Yet in getting involved with interracial friendships and other social networks, these white adults developed sophisticated understandings of race and the ways racism operates. Their ability to understand whiteness in new ways enabled them to act as more dependable allies to their Korean and black or biracial brothers and sisters. I came away from this study of the white sibling experience concluding that we need to help more white folk to become transracialized. If white individuals are going to adopt children of color, in my view, they should be transracializing like these courageous and knowledgeable allies.

Turning now to the issue of lesbians and gays and adoption: In observing in the last decade or so increasing numbers of queer folk stepping forward to adopt, it has been interesting to listen to how they talk about the transracial adoption option. It has also been interesting to watch how some agencies have welcomed the emerging visibility of lesbian and gay parents as an untapped potential market. I’ve heard it argued that LGBT parents have an almost innate sensitivity to diversity issues since they are members of an oppressed minority. There’s an appealing logic to the notion that queer adults would be especially sensitive to marginalization, of being positioned as the Other, in families and at school. It makes a certain sense that queer adults, therefore, would make sensitive and compassionate parents to kids of color. Right?

While more and more LGBT folk are adopting—and anecdotally at least, it looks like many of us end up adopting kids of color—a troubling development has emerged, to my way of thinking. In plain terms, it feels as if in the effort to form “gay families” and have those families recognized as legitimate and equal to other families, lesbian and gay parents have privileged their own equality above other concerns.

As a gay parent, it goes without saying that I am all for equality. At the same time, as an anti-racism advocate with a long-standing interest in and commitment to ensuring the rights and welfare of children of color, I am very concerned that the issues of race in adoption may be overlooked and overshadowed in the rush to increase LGBT legitimacy and visibility. As a transracial adoptee activist and educator, I have worked too long—for more than three decades now—to chisel away at the hegemonic white privilege and overarching sense of entitlement that many white adopters bring to their quest to become parents. I have insisted, and will continue to insist, that parents who adopt kids of color must attend to race, and understand its enduring impact on their children’s identities, well-being, and chances of survival.

As a multicultural educator, I use a social justice lens to make sense of race and adoption. I understand why getting white parents, in particular, to take race seriously often feels like an uphill battle. And so I’m always looking for allies, and when I can’t find them handily, I work to convert them. What I have come to understand is that transracially adopted kids need staunch allies who will stand with them against the double whammy of race and adoption, and all the issues that come with those intersecting discourses that work to privilege some and disadvantage others. Transracial adoptees need allies who have got their back, who are on their side, who will roll with them when the proverbial you-know-what hits the fan.

So for me, when considering whether a gay or lesbian parent would be a good match for a kid of color, the first thing I ask is, are they white? And if they are, fine; now tell me how they have transracialized their white identities. How have they demonstrated that they can be true effective allies to their adopted children of color? By the way, that’s the same question I ask of any potential adoptive parents, gay or straight, white or people of color.

As a child, I was adopted by a wonderful family. Even so, I grew up in what I refer to as Whitesville. So I know firsthand the fatigue that sets in from enduring a Whitesville childhood. I won’t take time to break it down for you here. If you want to know more, you can read all about this elsewhere on my blog. The fundamental question for adoptive parents of kids of color is this: When will your child get a break from being the obviously adopted child? This goes to the heart of the race issue. When parents and children don’t racially match, everybody can tell the child was adopted. Furthermore, for a brown child to be plunked down in an overwhelmingly and oppressively racist white environment where that child serves, in effect, as the diversity experience for her family and her neighborhood, for her school and her religious community, is emotionally taxing and psychologically exhausting. For many of us, never-ending racial and cultural isolation took a huge toll over the course of our childhoods, resulting in what I call transracial adoption fatigue.

The issues often boil over during the tumultuous years of adolescence. I see too many families that fail to figure out how to support each other through these challenges. I meet too many adult adoptees and adoptive parents who no longer speak to each other, who have become estranged, and who have given up in sadness and frustration, because the social worlds they inhabit are simply too different—and more importantly, they are at odds with each other. The privileges that white adoptive parents inherit come literally at the expense of their children of color—and in many cases, of their children’s first families and communities of origin. When the privileged and the under-privileged share family ties, sometimes love is simply not enough to hold them together when the going gets rough, and when transracial adoption fatigue sets in.

For white same-sex couples that adopt kids of color, the issues become even more pronounced. It comes down to visibility. Transracial adoptees—and some of their white non-adopted siblings—often talk about feeling hyper-visible, always on display whenever they go out as a family unit. Members of transracial families know that the stares, the curious questions, the offhand remarks that get directed at our families are legion. Many of us as transracial adoptees wanted nothing less than to become invisible, to fade into the woodwork so people would stop staring and asking about why we don’t look like our parents or our siblings. We wanted people to stop quizzing us about where we’re from. My research with white siblings similarly told me that they are tired of having to explain the racial differences between them and their siblings, and having to constantly anticipate questions like “Is that your real sister?”

Contrast the children’s yearning for less visibility in response to the hyper-visibility of transracial families to the desires of lesbian and gay parents, as a community, to become more visible, more legitimate, and more accepted. I’m suggesting that the desire among lesbian and gay adults to be more and more “out” stands in stark contrast to the experience of transracial kids, who live with visibility fatigue, from being forever on display and in the public eye as members of families that don’t racially “match.”

The question we have to ask ourselves is this: Whose interests are being served? Yes, transracial adoption gives many kids a new loving family, and all kids deserve that. But don’t all kids, especially those who have already been wounded through early traumas and the loss of their first family, don’t these vulnerable children deserve to be raised in environments where they can blend in and have some respite from the fatigue and the racialization that affects their development at every step of their journey to adulthood? Again, the fundamental question, from a social justice perspective, is: Who is adoption for– adoptive parents? For birth parents? Or for adopted children?

For me, adoption is always first and foremost about meeting the needs of children. When I adopted my son as a gay man, way back in 1987, and my second son in 1991, I adopted intentionally as a single father. Having grown up on display in Whitesville, I promised neverto do that to my kids. Protecting them from that hyper-visibility meant, for me, that I would adopt as a single dad. Had I adopted as part of a same-sex couple, that added layer of visibility would have felt too selfish and been too much of a burden to load onto my already vulnerable children. In saying that, I’m not trying to judge anybody who has made other choices. I am just sharing my thought process as I set out to meet my own admittedly selfish desires to become a father.

In closing, let me say that the identities I would hope that lesbian and gay parents would assume would be transracialized ones. I would hope that parents would be so immersed in interracial social networks filled with adult friends of color that they would have built-in coaches and allies to turn to as they raised their transracially adopted kids. The capacities that I would look for if I were a social worker deciding whether to place a brown child with queer parents would refer to (1) sensitivities to difference and (2) experience with navigating racism. I would want to know: Does this parent understand that the darker a child is, the less able the parent will be to provide a buffer between racism in the environment and their vulnerable child? When their 14-year-old black son is accosted by the police as he walks home through their own neighborhood after dark, when that young man-child is told to lie face down on the sidewalk and is treated roughly as a dangerous criminal, does this parent understand that telling the officer that his moms are nice white lesbians isn’t going to protect his self-esteem? Nor will it automatically afford him better treatment at the hands of this, or any future, racist cops. It is certainly not going to prevent racial profiling from happening in the first place—or, sadly, from happening again.

My point is simply that the social worlds of white parents and their adopted kids of color vary significantly. As much as we think we are sheltering our children from prejudice and protecting them from bigotry, it still happens to them, and we may not even know about it. They won’t necessarily tell us, even though we have drilled it into their heads that they can tell us anything. When adopted children of color grow to adolescence in Whitesville, they may or may not tell their parents about racist incidents as they happen. Especially if they are met with disbelief or made to feel that they are exaggerating or being “too sensitive,” you can imagine the effect that can have on how they feel. You can also probably imagine the gap that begins to yawn ever wider as teenagers continue to be slammed by racism. In my own case, I recall vividly how it felt to go from being more or less accepted as a cute and cuddly curiosity in my neighborhood to becoming feared as a pubescent, young black male with muscles and a menacing frown, not to mention a mind of my own, intently surveying the racial social landscape.

The capacities social workers should be looking for, then, are competencies in understanding race, the ability to teach brown children about racism, the ability of parents to provide children with mentors and role models who look like them, and the capacity to listen supportively as allies when racial incidents happen. If gay and lesbian folk can do all that, then I see no reason why more of us should not adopt waiting kids of color who need loving families. But please let’s go into transracial adoption with our eyes wide open, and let’s keep the children’s needs front and foremost in our minds, even as we work to fulfill our well-intentioned fantasies to become parents and to build strong, proud, and valued families.

11 thoughts on “LGBT parents & transracial adoption

  1. There is so much wisdom in this . . . thank you so much. I am really chewing on this concept of transracial fatigue – and how to avoid it for my adopted children. I appreciate what you had to say about “transracializing” white siblings. While I’ve never had a name for it, this has definitely been a goal for our non-adopted children, and I certainly hope that being an ally is something that they are passionate about.

    I continue to be appreciative of your writing and the way it makes me think . . . and change.

  2. as ever, an excellent piece of writing and thinking – thank you (as a gay, white adoptive mother) thank you and please keep writing about this

  3. DAMN you are good. You are articulating things my daughter cannot, but to which she reacts all the time (my son is much more internal so his emotions are seldom on display.)

    As a white non-adopted sibling of a TRA I do not feel I was transracialized by the experience but I was made highly sensitive to issues of race, since it was my brother upon whom the N word was used in an all-white community. If someone dissed black people I knew they weren’t dissing me, but they were dissing a family member.

    I was very leery of adopting transracially because of his suffering. It was a confluence of dynamics that turned me around, much of which I cannot share publically for my kids’ sake.

    As an invisible member of the queer community, I now understand why my daughter is a) so homophobic and b) relieved that we appear to be straight. She knows her dad used to be “girl” and she only ventured telling a friend once, was disbelieved, and now keeps the info private.

    As a transracial family that is obviously not biologically mixed, we get stared at constantly–despite living in a multi-racial neighborhood–by people of all colors. My daughter overcompensates by drawing attention to herself. When we are out together, she often engages the starers by shouting THIS IS MY MOM, THIS IS MY DAD. The only break she gets is at school, when we are not around. But when we show up, her friends stare and stare and say, “is J adopted?” My son, whose skin is very light, is less surprising to the world as our son and at the same time, is doing everything inside his head with only occasional questions that leak out.

    Adoptee fatigue indeed!

  4. You write about a subject (gay adoptive parents) I often wonder about, so thanks for that.

    Also, you’ve shed light on something that I hadn’t considered before. That I as an adopted person who’s white adopted by parents who are also white did not experience adoption fatigue. The topic of adoption only came/comes up when I bring it up.

  5. Your posts and writing never cease to amaze me. 🙂 I agree with everything you said, and the idea of same-sex couples adopting makes me feel a little uncomfortable because I think we adoptees stand out enough, already. It’s something I’m a bit afraid to confront on my own blog, but I do have some opinions about.

    Your mention of the experiences of non-adopted siblings has also sparked some interest in me. I have a non-adopted sister, and I’ve never *really* asked her about her experiences (she seems to get teary whenever the subject’s slightly brought up!). But it’s made me extra curious about her experiences… I may just have to have a conversation with her one of these days. 🙂

    Again, thanks for a great post!

  6. I agree with you. It’s about our kids needs, not ours. we moved for better schools and happily find more diversity and a mixed group of friends in our kids’ circles.
    But I wonder if all you wish for in white adoptive parents is really possible. I thought I was anti racist, I thought I was open and inclusive and had a diverse group of friends. But how could I deeply feel the reality of racism until I saw it relative to my own children? It shows up in so many subtle ways, I couldn’t even explain them all. It’s not about our rights as gay parents to adopt and form families, but when these rights are threatened, doing the job of parenting is also threatened.
    I agree that the experience of being gay is not equivalent to being a person of color. White trumps gay, and black or brown is harder. We joke that we are post-gay, but as parents and humans we need to embrace all diversity, race, family origin, family structure, all the ethnicities of Spanish speaking people, etc.
    I’ve learned from my experience as a gay person that I am tired of being defined by that, and I can expect of my kids and others that they don’t want to be defined by a single attribute either. That’s why it would be strange to live in a world where everyone is white like us, because in many ways they would not be just like us.
    Looking back, we shouldn’t have qualified for transracial adoption, but we have grown with the experience and it seems that is becoming more natural to be in a transracialized world.

  7. Your blogs are very insightful. I had always believed adoption to be a great thing, never have I seen the bad sides of it. But recently I have been learning more and more about the controversial sides of adaption, same race, transracial, gay, or lesbian. I grew up in a small town where everyone knows everything about everyone else. It is also a town, surprisingly, very transracially populated. Here, race does not seem to matter, everyone is friends with everyone else. Everyone blends. I have known a few adopted individuals but of the same race and transracially, they did not seem to struggle with identity, they blended with the culture of the town like everyone else. No one questioned them often or made snide remarks, they are just another member of a loving community. I strongly believe a lot of issues that come up between adaption, transracial adoption and gay/lesbian adaption has to do with the area in which you live and the atmosphere of the community. In bigger cities where more segregation of cultures appears seems to be where the most controversy happens, these groups are not melded together such as smaller communities may be. I realize, not all are like this but I have come to realize many are.

  8. I know I am coming to this discussion late, but we adopted our son from birth some 24 years ago and now I am facing that extreme bitterness from him, not for what we’ve done or not done, but for being white, being unable to understand, and isolating him from his people despite the fact we have always lived in an African-American community. He still live at home and receives my emotional and financial support without question, but the anger and hostility I am receiving and the constant barrage of his temper makes me question the decision I made to adopt a biracial child. I will say this, your comments gave me great solace in realizing I am not alone. Causes and possible development issues aside, I know we are not unique and I can stop kicking myself for what I may or may not have done wrong. Maybe in some cases it is the inevitable conclusion of the original decision. Or in the works of Freud, sometimes a cigar IS just a cigar.

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