The Family Flamboyant


Why two gay women looking to adopt had to come out twice—once about being gay and once about being Jewish.

by Marla Brettschneider

The excerpt below is from The Family Flamboyant, a book that tells the story of how a gay, Jewish woman and her partner (a rabbi) struggled to adopt two black children. She writes about this personal experience of having a “Jewish, multiracial, adoptive queer family” in order to explore “the layered realities that characterize families in the U.S. today.”

I am a professor at the University of New Hampshire, an activist, and a writer. My partner was at the time, among other things, the rabbi in the university town. We were Euro-Am Jewish dykes living in rural Maine with two adopted African-heritage children. I had often been asked to write about my experience in the adoption world. For many years, however, I had only been able to think in response: Where could I possibly begin? Folks often assume we faced “interesting” challenges being lesbians. What most do not seem to realize is that we faced as much resistance to our adoption plans because we are Jewish. Most people in the United States simply don’t want their biological kids to be raised by Jews. Because adoption is a big business, agencies in many states are therefore not going to waste their time taking on Jewish clients.

Queers generally seem to know that they might face obstacles creating families through adoption. I’ve tried to understand why most Jews don’t know the situation for other Jews. After all, Jews are doing a somewhat disproportionate amount of the adopting in the U.S. relative to our small percentage of the population. My research suggests that the reason has to do with the fact that most Jews who want to adopt children either utilize the services of Jewish agencies and/or live in cities or other places with large Jewish populations. The agencies they use generally know that Jews can’t adopt in most places, and the adoption workers therefore know to focus on the organizations that will work with Jews. Prospective parents are rarely informed of all the details involved in creating an adoption placement. Jewish prospective parents must also, therefore, not know the politics of anti-Semitism that frames their opportunities negotiated at the agency level.

With our “highly normative” profile (that’s supposed to be a joke…) as Jewish queers in a state with very few Jews, we were largely left to our own devices. I had to do the research to find the services and the available children out there, tasks that many Jews in cities can delegate to their adoption agencies. With a lot of research I found a number of agencies and brokers happy to work with queers, Jews, older people, those without tons of money, folks who had been arrested protesting at the Pentagon in the 1960s and were thus shut out of most of the adoption world for having a criminal record, individuals with some aspect of their health histories that sparked irrational biases of many state-paid social workers. Occasionally I found the kindness of a stranger along the way. These random moments of kindness significantly helped me to stay on course. I needed those moments badly because most of what I found in my foray into the adoption world was ugly.

Best interest of the child?

In late November 1998, we moved over the state border into Maine, a state where a gay person can legally adopt children. I called the Department of Human Services adoption office right away to get the process rolling. I wanted to be upfront from the start that we were gay to help avoid homophobic surprises later. A senior state employee then told me all the reasons that, although Maine does not discriminate, they would likely have trouble placing children with us. Every sentence she uttered began with the phrase, and I quote: “Although the State of Maine does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation,” and then proceeded with examples of why we would not be considered as fit parents for hypothetical little Janie, Dexter, Matilda, and Lewis.

I got concerned. I knew I needed to come out about being a Jew too. Same Response. “Although the State of Maine does not discriminate on the basis of religion,” we would not be considered fit parents. The woman further explained that it was her job to determine what was in the best interest of the child. Because there are no children in the Maine state system born to Jewish parents, her office would be left to determine what was a good fit. Because every child in the state system would have been, more or less, raised Christian, it was up to her to evaluate just how important Christianity had become to the child. Although (U.S.) Americans pride themselves on, in Thomas Jefferson’s words, “putting a wall of separation between ‘church’ (need I say more) and state,” U.S. institutions are de facto Christian institutions. Regardless of the religious background of the birth parents, any child in the state’s care will most likely have attended state-sponsored Christmas parties, been sent an Easter basket, been blessed by a Christian clergy member, been brought to church on Sundays, or received any manner of Christian instruction and influence. This means that she could potentially claim we were “unfit” parents for any child in the system.

Our chances looked bleak.

Queers find it difficult to adopt children due to a set of intermingling assumptions about who queers are, what we believe, and most especially how we live. Queers are still too often thought to be, for example, unstable, anti-“family,” predators of children, poor role models for the young, without morals or religion. On the score, contemporary stereotypes about Jews can often come together in a pro-“family” cluster. Some of the stereotypes of Jews in the U.S. are that we have strong families and “good” family values. WE are presumed to be smart, education-minded, emotionally stable, economically successful, drug and abuse free, traditional family oriented. This particular set of positively valenced stereotypes of Jews aren’t necessarily any more reflective of Jewish lives than are the clearly skewed queer ones. Even so, when it comes down to it, however, many Christians still would not want Christian children sucked into one of those “good” Jewish families. It’s like the straight people who give a lot of money to the AIDS walk but freak out if their kid comes home with a rainbow sticker on their car. Not for my daughter. Not for my children….

If you are interested in learning about the rest of Marla’s journey, you can read The Family Flamboyant: Race Politics, Queer Families, Jewish Lives by Marla Brettschneider (State University of New York Press, 2006).

About the Author

Marla Brettschneider
Marla Brettschneider is an associate professor of political philosophy, holds a joint appointment in political science and women’s studies, and is coordinator of queer studies. She is the author of several books, including Democratic Theorizing from the Margins (Temple University Press, 2007).

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