Homophobia and Heterosexism to Adoptees

When Nancy Newton Verrier, an adoptive parent, suggests that adoptee lesbian relationships are motivated by the traumatic loss of their mothers in her discussion on “The Incest Taboo,” she does this within the context of homophobia and heterosexism to adoptees – a context where gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer people are marginalized as sick, wrong, perverted, and dangerous. LGBTQ adoptees may experience homophobia as threats to their physical safety, in addition to employment, housing, and healthcare discrimination due to sexual orientation and perceived gender identity.

Homophobia is a dangerous power dynamic of heterosexism – the values, beliefs, and behaviors that position heterosexuality as the norm, and ensure the subordination of married and unmarried women, lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, and transgender people whose gender assignment at birth or adoption is not the same as their gender identity. Within homophobia and heterosexism, the biological parent and child relationship is the only socially acceptable example of same-gender love that is not shameful if elevated above married partnership.

For LGBTQ adoptees who have been denied access to families of origin, internalized homophobia — the acceptance of fear and disgust with one’s own desires, identities, and experiences—can lead to low self-esteem and further isolation from their adoptive families.

When we teach love in terms of marriage and biological nuclear families, what do adoptees learn?

In my case, adoption facilitated self-loathing through verbal abuse from my adopters, and isolation within a white, conservative community where I learned to hate my Korean body and fear my queer desires. When I was 17 years old, I told my high school guidance counselor that I wanted to die.

After a series of failed mediations with my parents, I faced the legal and criminal failures of the adoption system that placed me into a white, middle class, married family who never left a physical mark when they called me “goddamnf***ingkid” and threatened to send me “back.” The guidance counselor made me agree to not hurt myself on the day she told me there were no more options to remove me from a violent home and family. I was almost 18, so I should just wait for it to get better.

“Your birth mother loved you very much, but God had a plan for you here.”

This was the first and fundamental lesson I was taught by heterosexism. With this simple story, intended to offer me comfort, I was led to believe that my birth mother was unworthy of her own flesh and blood. In this adoption mythology, heterosexism positions my first mother as an unmarried, young Korean girl. Through an act of self-hatred — surrendering me to adoption and internalizing the belief that married strangers were more deserving of her child than she was — she accessed my white adoptive parents love.

As I grew into a young Korean girl with adoptive parents who only knew how to love an honorary white baby, I accepted this worthlessness as my own. My body does not belong to me. My value is determined by my ability to please my adoptive parents, white people, and men. As early as middle school, I became hypervisible in the white suburbs of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I accepted intimidating looks and catcalls as validation for my attractiveness, rather than forms of racialized gender violence. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I experimented with heterosexual relationships and allowed myself to be consumed as an exotic fantasy to white men — the only method of survival taught to me by racist media stereotypes.

Do lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer adoptees matter in adoptee activism?

In South Korea, women may surrender infants and children to adoption due to stigma against unwed motherhood as a morally reprehensible act of selfishness. Adoptee activists are fighting in solidarity with unwed mothers to end discrimination against single-parent families that are targeted by social and economic injustices. As a queer adoptee who is part of the struggle for gender justice, the silence on LGBTQ experiences within the fight for broader definitions of family sends me a clear message. Adoptee activism does not include lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer adoptees. The adoptee community does not include me.

Some years back at The Rockabilly Meet Market – a community safe space for queers and their allies – KoRoot made history as the first allied adoptee organization in South Korea to publicly recognize lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, and transgender overseas Korean adoptees. For many LGBTQ adoptees, traveling overseas, engaging in birth family search and reunion experiences, and finding safe and inclusive housing is inaccessible.

Queer adoptees who wish to live in their country of origin must negotiate personal safety and barriers to finding employment, housing, and receiving competent healthcare. When KoRoot publically collaborated with a queer initiative, they acknowledged that confronting heterosexism, homophobia, and genderism is part of its work as an ally to overseas Korean adoptees.

In post-reunion with my family of origin — an exceptional experience to which only two percent of the estimated 250,000 overseas Korean adoptees have access — I have finally learned that no other person or family will replace the love that I am missing, which is my own self-love. As a bisexual woman of color, I have been socialized to believe that I am fat, ugly, sick, and stupid.

As an adoptee, I am told that I am lucky to be alive. All of us, straight people and non-adoptees included, experience the violence of heterosexism when we are denied self-love — an intolerable queerness within a homophobic culture where love is defined in terms of one man and one woman. For infants and children whose worth is undocumented and inaccessible prior to adoption, the destruction of self-love through loss and isolation within adoptive families and communities may have life-long consequences.

While white heterosexual love taught me self-hatred, queer communities have invited me to expand definitions of love, self, and family to accept my adoptee identity and experiences. Therefore, I believe that the active inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, and transgender adoptees is not only best practice, but it is also essential to adoptee liberation movements.