It has become almost impossible to get from cover to cover in an LGBT magazine without being confronted by advertisements that claim to assist the community in creating a family. Countless services declare their ability to make the process not only seamless, but also, in their glossy spreads, glamorous. Photographs of cute, giggling babies veil the serious side to starting a family.
And what are these advertisements offering? Rarely adoption. These agencies want to make money. Purchase a womb in the form of a surrogate, purchase some sperm, purchase a turkey baster (or rather, ‘insemination kit’); purchase pretty much anything one needs to create a baby. What gets forgotten, however, is the option of starting a family with a child that already exists. There is a danger of people who read these magazines getting the impression that adoption no longer happens. The gay press undoubtedly has a responsibility to recognise the fact that, due to their need for revenue, they are in danger of becoming responsible for a trend in expensive surrogacy and co-parenting arrangements when there are a great many children in care who need to be adopted. It is a particularly important issue to address, when the process is now simpler than ever for gay people.
In 2002, the Adoption and Children Act passed into law and it became legal for unmarried couples, including gay couples, to apply for joint adoption. The law came into effect in 2005. Since 2007, other laws have been in place which make it unlawful for any providers of goods and services to discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation. These continue to be protected under the Equality Act 2010.
Although gay men and lesbians will face a number of the same issues when thinking about starting a family, the obvious biological advantage that women hold means they are far more likely to go down the ‘natural’ route. Sadly, adoption is not always the first choice.
Gay men are more likely to consider adopting a child. Peter, 50, and David, 46, met in a London nightclub in 1997. Peter was living in Scotland at the time, but had been considering moving to London. Meeting David was the push he needed. After a few years together, the couple started to seriously think about starting a family. ‘Heterosexual contemporaries were starting to have kids so you start to feel that it is that time in your life’, Peter says. Over three years ago, the couple adopted biological brothers Carlos and PJ when they were six and two and a half years old respectively.
Now, sitting in a charming, secluded back garden in London, the kids were seemingly unperturbed by the conversations going on around them, and family life on a Sunday – birthday card crafting and pizza preparation – continued while these important issues were discussed.
‘Our boys are really comfortable with what “gay and lesbian” means; at times they seem to forget what it means and then at other times they seem terribly knowledgeable. It’s so present it’s almost not an issue,’ Peter explains. A question he frequently gets asked, although intentionally avoided in this interview, is what the boys call their adopted fathers. Asking this question is somewhat insulting to the children’s intelligence, as if by having the same name they won’t be able to differentiate between their fathers. For the record, both Peter and David are referred to as ‘Dad’. When Carlos isn’t feeling fussy about which Dad he needs, he simply calls ‘Dads’ from his bedroom.
Thanks to the aforementioned changes to the law, more and more couples are considering adopting children in order to complete their families. In line with the increase in civil partnerships, gay adoption has become more widely recognised and embraced. It also has the potential to make a huge dent in the number of children waiting to be adopted – many agencies have become aware that the gay community is an untapped resource. Although it is too early to see any significant changes, there is undoubtedly a hope that a continued increase in gay adoption could result in a dramatic reduction in the number of children in care waiting to be placed with adoptive parents. There are also particular reasons as to why gay people can make great parents. They often have a deep understanding of what it feels like to be labelled as an outsider or to feel marginalised, as children in the care system often feel. Research also shows that fewer children who are adopted by gay people go back into the care system than those adopted by heterosexuals. Peter believes this is due to the extremely careful consideration gay people give to their options before finalising their decision. Further studies show that children raised by lesbian parents grow up to be more socially aware, due to their own situation. Statistically, gay people also adopt a wider age range of children and are more comfortable adopting children of other ethnic origins. Peter notes that this may be because gay people are more used to mixing socially with people of other ethnic groups, as the main quality gay people look for in friendships and relationships does tend to be sexuality, first and foremost.
However, the process is not always without its difficulties.
One question which continually gets asked is that of role models. Concerns are often raised about whether a child can be brought up properly when there is a lack of a masculine or feminine role model in the household. Peter is concerned that this is a rather clever way of people simply hiding their prejudices. As he rightly points out, children pick their own role models, who are inspiring because of their own personal qualities and not their gender. This prejudice completely disregards one extremely common family unit – the single parent family. It also raises interesting questions with regard to the way single gay parents are viewed. Are they defined by their sexuality, relationship status, or both? There is no law preventing a single, gay person adopting a child.
Peter would also like to see an increase in the number of young gay people coming forward to adopt. There is a stereotype that gay adopters are slightly older, but in order to support the care system it is essential for people to realise that there is no rule saying that a gay couple must be older than a heterosexual couple in the same position. He is keen, as well, to make sure that people know there is no shame in the frivolous manner in which they might have spent their youth. Having a colorful social life, whether past or present, will not be used against prospective adopters.
Starting a family is a daunting prospect for anyone, but the idea of approaching the care system can be enough to push couples in the direction of surrogacy and co-parenting. Peter’s advice? ‘If you haven’t decided which parenting route to go down, don’t rule out adoption just because you think it might be difficult – it’s all difficult. I don’t think it’s terribly easy to organise a surrogacy or co-parenting arrangement.’ Peter and David even comment that the adoption process can be quite enjoyable. People often have a couple of years to prepare themselves for the arrival of a child: much longer than heterosexual couples who have conceived through conventional means. ‘I wouldn’t encourage anybody who isn’t sure they want to have kids, to have kids by any means. But if they have decided to have kids then, yeah, I would encourage them to consider adoption. I would encourage people who want to be parents to adopt – very much. It’s an amazing thing. There are so many kids out there who need a new start and a lot of kids aren’t getting it at all.’
So what do the adoption agencies consider? Some things go without saying. Security – financial and emotional – is important. Agencies are also keen to assess the support network that a prospective family might have. As Peter points out, whether this support comes in the form of ‘gay uncles’, the prospective parents’ biological family, friends, or exes, agencies are keen to ensure that support is available for when it is needed. Whether biological or adopted, if a child is ill and both parents need to get to work, there must be support available.
One quite major misconception that people hold is their amount of control in the situation. ‘You don’t get to choose. You don’t go to an agency and say “I want to adopt a boy and a girl.” It’s not like that. People are quite surprised that even after you have been approved and been linked to a child or sibling group, you don’t get to meet them or even get a picture of them until fairly close to being matched with them. As it gets closer you might get to see a little DVD or more pictures, but a lot of people don’t. It’s quite an unusual process and it surprises people,’ Peter reveals. A rise in celebrity adoptions has given the impression that there is an element of choice in the process, but this is not the case.
After months of preparation, the day will come when the child or children are due to arrive. Emotions undoubtedly run high, and Peter talks about how he felt at the time. ‘It was terribly exciting, just fantastic. Of course, you can’t leave the house for a walk late at night or just go to the shops when they’re in bed, but something about it is quite liberating.’ Peter had done some voluntary work with children, and the couple had both spent a lot of time with children of friends and family. After such extensive preparation, the process of the boys moving in felt ‘seamless’.
Peter is extremely pleased to note that their positive experience seems to have had a ‘ripple effect’ on others, influencing other couples to adopt who in turn influenced other couples, and so on. ‘That is a new phenomenon. It’s a gay adoption trend that has not been a notable feature within the recruitment of heterosexual adopters. It came as such a joyous surprise to us that even friends of friends of ours embarked on the adoption process in large part as a result of this chain reaction. Having the knowledge that you are legally entitled to apply to adopt children is one thing, but seeing other gay men, just like yourself, who are now enjoying family life as adoptive dads is another thing altogether. It’s a revelation and a great motivating factor.’
Following on from his own experience, one final piece of advice Peter has is to try to get firsthand experience. ‘It’s inspiring and useful to know other people who have adopted. What you get from other gay men and lesbians who have adopted is an idea of the kinds of hurdles you might face. Social workers can be very well meaning, but perhaps not experienced with gay and lesbian parents.’ This might lead to extra challenges, so it is useful to have a support network who can be there at those difficult moments.
It is becoming more commonplace, accepted, and embraced for gay couples to start families. However, adoption seems to be getting sidelined in favor of methods promoted by companies with the money to buy advertising space. Adoption agencies don’t have that weapon, and there is a real danger that gay people could bypass this route. With the recent changes in the law, the time is now for gay people to realize how fulfilling and exciting adoption is.