Queer Parents and Transracial Adoption

In observing over the last decade or so the increasing numbers of LGBT individuals stepping forward to adopt children, it’s been interesting to listen to how the talk about the “transracial adoption option” has morphed. For instance, it’s been fascinating to watch how some adoption agencies have welcomed the emerging visibility of queer 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. It makes a certain sense that non-hetero adults would make compassionate and understanding parents to vulnerable kids of color.

When it comes to transracial adoption, some people believe that LGBT individuals automatically make better parents. Their minority status, the argument goes, predisposes them to be more sensitive to the special concerns of adopted children of color. In other words, it’s sometimes argued that the capacities of queer individuals to address issues of race and adoption are already in place simply because the parents happen to be lesbian or gay.

This month’s column considers whether these presumed capacities do, in fact, hold true. I’ll apply a social justice perspective to wonder: 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?

As a gay parent, I adopted two African American boys from the foster care system. Over time, I came to think of my sons’ adoptions as transracial adoptions. When I first began the process of both placements, I thought I was pursuing same-race adoptions since I identify as a biracial African American. However, in conversation with my sons, I came to appreciate that their perspective on our family’s identity, not to mention our individual personal involvement with racial dynamics, were quite different from mine. My point in disclosing my own stake in the issue is one of transparency. While I share with my sons certain common experiences as African American males, I also recognize and must own the fact that I have benefited from the flawed child welfare system to which transracial adoption is inextricably linked. That system separates children and biological parents in the name of creating presumably better or more viable placements for vulnerable kids.

To set the context for how I view the intersections of LGBT adoption with transracial adoption, I’ll share briefly some research I conducted with members of transracial families. Hopefully, this sheds some light on the preferred qualities among adopters to be considered when assessing their potential to successfully parent transracially, if and when that becomes necessary. When I interviewed white, non-adopted 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. From over forty years of studies about transracial adoption, we have come to understand what the research says about racial identity and self-esteem in transracial adoptees. What had not been studied so much (before my dissertation research) was the effect on white children raised in transracial 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 transracially; their parents did. So these non-adopted siblings — all of who have either Korean or African American (including biracial) siblings — didn’t have to defend the decision to get involved with the transracial adoption controversy or explain their motivations. As unwitting participants in the grand social experiment, 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 consider adopting a child of another race, whereas others said they would never choose to adopt transracially. After seeing up close the heartbreak their parents went through, or the tribulations their siblings of color experienced, these intimately familiar non-adopted white siblings had a much less favorable view of the transracial adoption option.

While this summary of my dissertation research may strike some readers as too negative or pessimistic, there was good news about race and culture (and racialization) that emerged upon closer examination of the findings. The research highlighted how a small group of non-adopted individuals came to enact racial identities in creative ways that broke with normative whiteness. That is, a few non-adopted siblings described feeling different from other white people and named their experiences with race 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 just 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. This was the group that learned to pay attention to race, who early on moved beyond color-blindness, who took their heads out of the sands of denial long enough to notice how their siblings of color were being positioned in particular ways, and how their families were being racialized. The racialization happening to their siblings, and by extension to their entire family, had significant effects on their identity development, not to mention on intra-family interactions at home.

I’ve written elsewhere 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 emerged as a common thread that contributed to the process of transracialization. Transracialization didn’t happen just because they were raised with adopted children of color. The non-adopted siblings, in effect, accepted their parents’ word that race-mixing was a good thing inside their family and took it one step further: race-mixing should be a viable option outside of the home in the real world. Yet sadly, what they had to say about their efforts to form cross-racial friendships, especially about interracial romance, was poignant, if not heartbreaking.

However, 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, 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 members of interracial families to become transracialized. Particularly, if white individuals are going to adopt and attempt to raise children of color, they should be transracializing like these courageous and knowledgeable allies of transracial adoptees.

While more and more LGBT folk are adopting (and anecdotally at least, it looks like many end up raising 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. Incidentally, I put “gay families” in quotes because I honestly don’t know what a gay family looks like. Was I raised in a straight family? I don’t think so. And I doubt very much if my sons would tell you that they were raised in a gay family, just because their dad happens to identify as gay. A more accurate term that reflects how gay parents form families would be “gay-headed” families.

Even so, as a gay parent, it goes without saying that I stand for equality. At the same time, as an anti-racism advocate with a long-standing commitment to ensuring the rights and welfare of children of color, I’m 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’ve been working for more than three decades now to chisel away at the hegemonic white privilege and overarching sense of entitlement that many adopters bring to their quest to become parents. I’ve always 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 well into adulthood.

From the field of multicultural education, I find it useful to apply a social justice lens to make sense of the intersections of race and adoption. A social justice education framework helps us understand why getting white parents, in particular, to take race seriously often feels like an uphill battle. What I’ve come to understand is that transracially adopted kids need staunch allies — of any race — who will stand with them against the double whammy of race and adoption, and all the attendant issues that come with those intersecting discourses that work to privilege some while disadvantaging others.

So, from an ally-seeking perspective, when considering whether a gay or lesbian parent would be a good match for a kid of color, the first thing I would ask is are they white? And if they are, fine: that doesn’t automatically disqualify them. But I would want to know, as white individuals, how have they transracialized their white identities? How have they demonstrated that they can be 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, after they express an interest in parenting children of color.

As a child, I was adopted into a wonderful, mostly white family. Even so, I grew up in what I refer to jokingly as Whitesville. I know firsthand the fatigue that sets in from enduring a Whitesville childhood. 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 watching can tell that the child was adopted. Furthermore, for a brown child to be plunked down in an overwhelmingly and oppressively racist environment where that child serves, in effect, as the diversity experience for her family, neighborhood, school, and religious community, it’s emotionally taxing and psychologically exhausting. For many transracial adoptees, never-ending racial and cultural isolation takes a huge toll over the course of our childhoods, resulting in what we might call transracial adoption fatigue.

Race and adoption issues often boil over during the tumultuous years of adolescence. I still observe too many families that fail to figure out how to support each other through these challenges. In my travels, 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 significantly, are really 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. Family bonds may be stretched to the breaking point 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 can attest 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 us why we didn’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 of adoptees similarly told me that they, too, grew tired of having to explain the racial differences between them and their adopted 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 adults, as a community, to become more visible, more legitimate, and more accepted. I’m suggesting that the desire among lesbian and gay adults to live their lives “out of the closet” stands in stark contrast to the experience of transracially adopted kids, who live with visibility fatigue from being forever on display and in the public eye as members of interracial families that don’t racially “match.”

The crucial question from a social justice perspective is this: Whose interests are being served? Yes, transracial adoption gives many kids a stable, loving family, and all kids deserve that, but don’t all children, especially those who have already been wounded through early traumas such as 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? To reiterate and expand on the social justice issue, the fundamental question we must ask is: Who is adoption really for – adoptive parents or birth parents? Or for adopted children?

For me, adoption must always be 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 never to do that to my kids. Protecting them from that hyper-visibility meant that I would adopt as a single dad. Had I adopted as part of a same-sex couple, that added layer of visibility — having to explain two parents of the same gender, not to mention the racial mismatch — would have felt too selfish and placed too much of a burden onto my already vulnerable children.

In saying that, I’m not trying to judge anybody who has made other choices. I’m just sharing my thought process as I set out to meet my own admittedly selfish desires to become a father. The main point to keep in mind is that my self-centered needs as a parent must take second place to the needs of young people who never asked to be separated from their original parents, and who entered the child welfare system (of which adoption is one part) through no choice of their own. To “celebrate” and keep alive a sentimental view of adoption as some benign happy event does a disservice to the emotional trauma all adoptees have experienced. As a parent who strives to become a better ally, I endeavor to keep the focus on adoptee experience, not on that of the parents.

In conclusion, 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 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) sophisticated sensitivities to difference and (2) lived 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, 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’s 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 queer white parents and adopted kids of color vary significantly, even though both parties are members of oppressed groups. As much as we might think we are sheltering children from prejudice and protecting them from bigotry, it still happens to them, and parents may not even know about it. Young people won’t necessarily tell their parents, even though conscientious parents may have drilled it into their heads that they can tell Dad or Mom anything. As adopted children of color grow to adolescence in Whitesville, they most likely won’t 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 young people of color start to feel.

The capacities that adoption social workers should be looking for, then, are competencies in understanding race, such as the ability to teach brown children about racism, or 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 individuals can commit to following through with these kinds of activities and developing these dispositions, then I see no reason why more of queer individuals shouldn’t be considered as potential adopters for waiting kids of color.

But, please, let’s approach transracial adoption with our eyes wide open. Let’s keep the children’s needs front and foremost in mind, even as adults work to fulfill well-intentioned fantasies to become parents and to build strong, proud, and valued families. Let us remember that parenting is a privilege and not a right. And that adoption is always a crisis intervention made on behalf of vulnerable children, not a service to parents. Adoption certainly shouldn’t be celebrated or romanticized. Rather, adoption should remain a last resort in the case of dire circumstances. If we keep these facts in mind, transracial adoptees would be better served. A social justice perspective can inform the ways we think about adoption in general, and not just the special case of transracial adoption by LGBT parents.

~ Dr. John Raible