This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

January-February 2011

Shut out of international adoption, aspiring queer parents face hard choices

Meghan Davidson Ladly

Some LGBT would-be parents find ways to thwart foreign bigotry—while others simply walk away

Illustration by Sylvia Nickerson

Illustration by Sylvia Nickerson

The test kitchen of the Bayview Village Loblaws grocery store in North Toronto is packed. Around 30 women and men sit clustered in pairs in a horseshoe, framed by the cupboards and counters lining the room. They are almost all white, aged 30 to 60 years old. Some small houseplants sit on the counter, the floor is the colour of cream of carrot soup, and the cupboards are dark green; the aesthetic is vaguely gradeschool. Orchestral pop floats in from the grocery store, while outside the window, one floor below, shoppers select their salad greens. Some of the couples talk quietly amongst themselves. Others wait silently with an air of anticipation. No one is here for a cooking lesson.

A cheery woman in an argyle sweater takes up her position in the centre of the chairs and begins to speak. Welcome to “How to Adopt.” This seminar, hosted by the Adoption Council of Ontario, is Adoption 101 for prospective parents interested in the idea but unsure where to start. The class outlines the various types of adoption and introduces attendees to parents who have gone through with adoption and who can speak about their personal experiences.

There are three types of adoption in Ontario: public, private and international. ACO executive director Pat Convery stresses that each kind of adoption offers its own challenges and rewards, and the route a couple or individual chooses to pursue depends on their own personal situation. What she does not say, however, is that some personal situations affect the available options more than others.

* Some names have been changed.

Growing up in her home country of Iran, Shirin* never imagined she would find herself in this situation. For many years, Iran promoted the virtues of large families. Shirin herself has many siblings. But now the Iranian government is thwarting her maternal ambitions. Shirin now lives in Canada and wants to adopt an Iranian child, but her birth country has declared her unfit. She came to the ACO meeting to learn about her adoption options, but unlike the couples here tonight, Shirin faces an additional obstacle. According to many countries, including Iran, she’s an unacceptable candidate because she’s gay.

Shirin is just one of an increasing number of queer women to pursue the option of international adoption, only to find that most countries classify them as substandard parents. Single mothers and lesbian couples disproportionately face barriers to international adoption because, not being in a heterosexual marriage, they’re classified as single parents. Many countries explicitly state they will not allow single women, or gays and lesbians, to adopt children, favouring a family structure that includes a mother and father. While some countries do allow single women to adopt, no other country among those usually sourced for foreign adoption, with the exception of the United States, permits openly gay women to parent their children.

International adoption is popular in Canada, with Canadian citizens and permanent residents adopting around 2,000 foreign children each year. Canadians apply to private adoption agencies licensed by specific countries to place children with parents here. Of the three types of adoption, international adoptions are the most expensive, costing parents $25,000 to $50,000 per child. The $85 that couples pay to attend sessions like the Adoptions Council seminar is just the beginning. Every prospective parent must undergo a “homestudy”—a series of in-home evaluations by adoption practitioners to ensure the applicants will be prepared and competent parents—as well as complete the mandatory adoptive parents training course known as PRIDE (Parent Resources for Information, Development and Education). While the Children’s Aid Society does not charge for these services, many individuals opt to pay the thousands of dollars it costs to go through private agencies, because it cuts down on wait times.

For many Canadians, the expense is worth it. International adoptions are popular because younger children are more readily available; at the very least there is a perception that kids up for adoption through the Children’s Aid Society may be older, part of a sibling group, or have special needs. With private adoptions, there is the risk that a birth mother will change her mind and an adoptive parent’s money and effort will be spent in vain. International adoption provides prospective parents with a formulaic stability. There is lots of paperwork, months of waiting, and usually travel abroad, but the path to parenthood is clear and understandable. Parental age is another factor: women who delayed having families, whether to pursue careers or for any other reason, face barriers within the domestic adoption process that can often be avoided with international adoption. Women over 50 are unlikely to be given an infant domestically, for instance, but several countries, such as Bulgaria, have higher parental age limits for infant adoption. Some women, such as Shirin, have a connection to a certain country or region and would like to adopt a child from that part of the world. For all these reasons, international adoption is an important option—and for many, it is a last resort after the domestic adoption process fails. Yet a growing subset of potential parents are being excluded by the countries where Canadians adopt from most. Almost one quarter of all children within Canada adopted internationally in 2008 came from China—a country that only permits heterosexual couples to adopt.

Many lesbian, bisexual, and trans women dismiss international adoption, because of its near impossibility for them and also because they object to their sexual orientation being treated as a liability. Some queer women, however, view these discriminatory policies as just one more problem they have to solve in order to adopt. These women opt instead to conceal their sexual orientation and go through the rigorous application procedures closeted, and in many cases they successfully adopt children from countries that discriminate against LGBT individuals.

As for Shirin’s plan, she is unsure of her options. She is a tall, fit woman with rich brown eyes and a few smile lines around her mouth. She has a discernable accent when she speaks. Shirin looks younger than she is, but in her late thirties she knows her options for adoption are narrowing. “I never admitted it to my family,” she says, “but I want to have children.” She wants a baby, preferably a healthy one, and while a child from the Middle East is no longer a possibility, there are still other alternatives open to her. Shirin does have one advantage; she may be gay—but she is also single.

There are 83 contracting states to the 1993 Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoptions. In the nearly two decades since the agreement was concluded, it has had a profound influence on international adoption for LBT women.

Designed to safeguard the interests of children and to combat child trafficking, the convention has changed how countries regulate adoption in several significant ways. Under the convention, keeping children within their own families or countries is prioritized. Foreign adoption is considered a last resort, to be taken only when all other domestic options have been exhausted.

“It’s taken away some of the worries that adopting families would have,” says Pat Convery, meaning that certain key questions are answered: “Was this child actually legally relinquished? Did the parent have every opportunity to parent the child? Did they really look to make sure there were no family members? Was there for sure no money that changed hands in those areas that would be illegal under Canadian law?”

But while the Hague Convention has been a positive measure for inter-country adoption in general, it has also made it more difficult for queer women to adopt. The U.S., as the only source country that permits openly queer parents to adopt, used to be a haven for many LGBT and non-LGBT would-be adoptive parents. Since signing onto the Hague Convention, however, more emphasis has been placed on securing domestic adoption for American children in need of homes.

More than the Hague Convention, however, it is countries’ own value systems that pose the largest obstacles to queer Canadians adopting abroad. Chris Veldhoven is the Queer Parenting Programs Coordinator at the 519 Church Street Community Centre in Toronto, and he teaches a seminar to would-be fathers entitled Daddies & Papas 2B that explores the topic of adoption among other parenting models and family creation practices.

“The screening tools for some countries are becoming more explicitly heterocentric,” says Veldhoven, “so it’s much more difficult for people to find a country that will officially welcome someone and not discriminate on sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Historically, Veldhoven says, lesbians led the queer community in adopting, but increasingly gay male couples are also looking to adopt. Despite domestic legal victories that prevent discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, there remains a stigma surrounding single men (or “single” men) adopting kids. Within inter-county adoption, this stigma is magnified. Single women may find their international adoption choices limited, but their situation is still better than that of single men—few countries even consider male applicants.

Elizabeth’s house is on a quiet street in the east end of Toronto. It sits across from a park where kids are playing, despite the grey morning sky. Birds chirp from the trees. Inside, the living room is cozy with wooden floors and little purple coffee tables on which Elizabeth serves tea.

When Elizabeth adopted her daughter in the late ’90s, she knew many other lesbians who were exploring adoption. But none of her other gay friends were adopting from China; Elizabeth was able to do so because at that time the country had not yet banned single women from adopting. She began her homestudy process in late 1995 and had her daughter by the summer of 1997. Most of the girls up for adoption in China at the time were there as a result of the one-child policy and, unlike in many other countries, were from poor families rather than ones with drug and alcohol problems, which meant the babies were more likely to be healthy. The adoption process was well regulated; China seemed like the ideal country to adopt from.

“I felt like it would be a clean process,” she says, “and that I would be adopting a child who otherwise wouldn’t have had a family.” Elizabeth is in her 60s now and has been with her partner for over 20 years. In addition to her adopted daughter, they have a biological child together. She is a strong-framed woman with short hair that is a mixture of dark and lighter shades of grey. She sits with her legs crossed in jeans and a black cardigan, her purple shirt matching the frames of her glasses. Going to China without her partner to collect their daughter was difficult. “I really had to censor myself all the time,” Elizabeth says. She went with several heterosexual couples from the same agency and struggled with the urge to be honest about her sexuality as everyone bonded over the experience of meeting their children. The trip lasted two weeks.

“My deal with myself, when I actually went to China,” she says, “was, no matter what the circumstances, I would not reveal my real self and real situation.”

Elizabeth pulls out photo albums of pictures from her trip to collect her daughter. She reminisces about the time abroad and gushes about her daughter: “Isn’t she adorable?” she coos, and indeed, she is.

Elizabeth found her social worker through a referral from friends who were adopting as out lesbians domestically. She says she felt comfortable with the social worker that conducted her homestudy but won’t talk about the experience of closeting herself. She feels unable to confirm or deny whether she lied about her sexuality for the evaluation process. Regardless of her evaluation, Elizabeth was adopting from China during the best possible period for LBT women to adopt from that country: before China declared it would no longer permit single female applicants. In 2007, the country amended its requirements so that all single women were forced to sign an affidavit swearing they were not gay. “If you were a single woman you had to write a letter saying you weren’t a lesbian,” says Elizabeth, taking a sip of tea. “That would have been a huge crisis for me if that had been the case when I was in the process. I don’t know what I would have done.”

Paradoxically, as social equality for LGBT individuals has strengthened within Canada, international adoption has become more difficult for queer women. Adoption practioners who conducted the homestudies of lesbian or bisexual women 10 or 15 years ago might have been willing to take a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” attitude; if they thought someone would make a good parent, they could opt to keep a parent’s sexual orientation out of their homestudy report. That’s significantly less likely to be the case today.

“If you’re going to be out and you have to have your homestudy done by a domestic social worker, they’re not as willing to censor anymore because of the ethics of it,” says Veldhoven. “In the face of decreased homophobia domestically, social workers are saying, ‘Now we have to be true about your family configuration because we don’t want to hide it, because you shouldn’t have to hide it.’ But for many countries internationally you do hide it.”

The process of the homestudy itself has also changed considerably over the last decade. Jackie Poplack is a social worker who has been working in the field for four decades and has been an adoption practitioner, which includes conducting homestudies, for the last 14 years. According to Poplack, homestudies have become much more standardized and involve a lot more verification than they used to. Poplack has worked with queer couples seeking children and says that for social workers, looking the other way is not an option. “I’m going to be 100 percent honest and if I have a question or concern I say it,” she says. But for prospective parents who are single, there’s a certain degree of plausible deniability. In her years as a practitioner, Poplack has had one or two clients who said they were heterosexual, and who might have believed that themselves, but who she thought could have been gay. When it comes to homestudies, she acknowledges that, regardless of sexuality, people will try and smooth over any aspects of their character that they think will diminish their chances of securing a child.

Lisa is one woman who hid it. In 2005, she adopted a baby girl from Haiti. She was closeted to her social worker, so the woman classified her as heterosexual on her homestudy report. Lisa was single, so while there were some fridge magnets to remove and books to hide, there was no life partner to implausibly pass off as a roommate. Today she is wearing blue jeans and an olive T-shirt with “garden hoe” written across it in black letters. As she sits sipping her mug of coffee, she smiles, talking about the process of adopting her daughter, who arrived in Canada at nine months old and who is now happily enrolled in grade school with no idea of the half-truths her mother told to secure her.

“My goal was to never lie,” says Lisa, picking her words carefully. “But not necessarily to say everything.”

The Sherbourne Health Centre sits at 333 Sherbourne Street in downtown Toronto, a massive structure of glass and concrete with wood accents elevated from the road.

Across the street is Allan Gardens. People sit on benches and soak up the sun by the greenhouse. Squirrels play in the bare branches of the trees and scurry up the wrought iron lampposts that dot the grounds. Rachel Epstein’s office is on the second floor of the centre. Epstein is coordinator of the LGBTQ Parenting Network at the centre. The parenting course she designed, Dykes Planning Tykes, has been running since 1997.

In Epstein’s years of experience working with queer parents she has seen women closet themselves and get children. But today she is more pessimistic about the possibilities for LBT women to adopt from abroad.

“Basically, queers do not see international adoption as an option,” she says. More countries are selective about who adopts and who doesn’t, and choose heterosexual married couples over single individuals. Epstein worries about the personal toll exacted by denying your sexuality. “In the past, either you are single or you closet yourself. You closet your relationship,” says Epstein. “I mean, even single people find it hard to go closeted for this process, and it can be not just the adoption process but for a while afterwards.”

For a potential LBT parent, finding a social worker to whom she can be open about her sexuality—and who is willing to omit her sexual orientation from the homestudy report—is rare. How open a woman will be with her social worker is a crucial decision that can set her adoption back months if the wrong choice is made. If a woman chooses to be honest and the social worker is unwilling to lie, then the woman must find another social worker and start the process again. “It’s more feasible if you’re single,” says Epstein. “You don’t get defined by your sexual orientation in the same way and it’s easier to not talk about that.”

Indeed, there are those within Canada’s tight-knight LGBT adoption community who feel that the less said about queers and international adoption the better. Many blame U.S. media coverage of queer adoptive parents as being instrumental in China’s decision to ban single women from adopting. As awareness of the issue grows in diplomatic circles, they say, more consulates close their doors, shutting off the few remaining channels available for women seeking this route to parenthood. One Canadian adoption advocate refused to be interviewed for this article and strongly discouraged publishing any story at all on the subject.

There are no easy answers to a problem of such emotional, legal, and cultural complexity. For Canadian social workers, having to lie about sexual orientation in a homestudy report is a serious dilemma. “That’s unethical; I would never do that,” says Poplack. “It’s tough sometimes, because some of the rules you think are really unfair. I think we have to respect other countries—but it’s really crappy for gays and lesbians.”

Lisa made the decision to out herself to her adoption practitioner after her adoption was finalized and, as a social worker herself, she has spent a long time thinking about the ethical implications of her decision. “How do you reconcile that you are going against our Charter of Rights and Freedoms? Okay, it is the other country’s rules—but they’re homophobic and they go against our codes. Social workers haven’t been able to work it out in a way that enables most of them to feel comfortable,” says Lisa. “So the people who are doing it are like the people who work as social workers for Catholic charities and then pass condoms out under the table; they’re basically doing it very quietly, very silently, afraid themselves to come out.”

The Loblaws seminar draws to a close. Everyone stands to put on their coats, wrapping scarves around their necks. The music drifting in from the grocery store has changed to the Beach Boys. Shirin thinks she may not adopt. “I can’t lie about this fact,” she says. “The homestudy is going to be really one-to-one, close work between me and the social worker or case worker, and that is going to be based on trust. The person should know about me, should know about my past, should know about my family, should know about everything. How is it going to be possible to not say such a big fact?” She’ll do some more research and talk to a friend who is also looking into inter-country adoption, but she’s still skeptical. Shirin did not come out as gay until later in her life, and after being closeted for so long she doesn’t want to be in that situation again. “I don’t approve of it; to lie about it,” she says. “You should be honest.”

Lisa, however, is contemplating adopting another child from Haiti. She will need to find a new social worker, one who doesn’t know she’s gay. Then she’ll undergo another homestudy, closeted again, but she’s willing to do it for another child. “I think I’m a seasoned pro now at it,” she says. “I’ve guided other people about how to do it; I can do it myself again and I’ve been through it once so it’s not as scary.” When she thinks back to the emotional toll of concealing her sexuality the first time, she reflects, “I never really lost connection to who I was as a person; I was just playing the game.”

It is a game that Shirin and countless other queer women may simply decide not to play.

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