CNN political contributor Hilary Rosen took what no doubt was a welcome step out of the media firestorm on April 16 to participate in a panel discussion at Manhattan’s LGBT Community Center.
Given the controversy she had spent nearly a week trying to move beyond, however, the evening’s topic –– “All Families Matter: A Conversation About Election Year Politics, LGBT Families, and What’s Good For Our Kids” –– was not without a certain irony.
Joined on the panel by Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, which carries out policy research, education, and advocacy, Rosen said, “There are a few things going on this week that almost prevented me from being here, but I came for Adam.”
She was referring, of course, to the stir caused by her comment on air that Ann Romney had “never worked a day in her life,” a flap she hoped to avoid talking about by saying she would not take any questions off the evening’s topic.
“Adam has devoted his life to us getting kids and building families,” she continued. “He sought me out years ago, after my then-partner Elizabeth Birch and I adopted kids, and gave me fortitude in how I told my own kids. I want to help the gay community fight the anti-gay adoption battle.”
Rosen said that Pertman recognized the connection between politics and adoption by gay and lesbian parents in 1999, when, in response to Rosen and Birch, who then led the Human Rights Campaign, adopting infant twins in Texas, right-wing radio personality Dr. Laura Schlessinger pressed then-Governor George W. Bush to pass a ban on such adoptions, igniting a firestorm of a different kind.
“The fact that one family trying to have kids caused such a stir led me to think about how much work gay and lesbian families still needed to do,” Rosen explained, recalling the crowd of pundits waiting for her and Birch outside the Texas courthouse where they went to sign the adoption papers. As a parent, she learned right from the get-go that just as her children were likely to pick up playground banter, they also ran the risk of absorbing homophobia they would hear in the media.
“What candidates say at the state and local level have real consequences… when they make a personal impact on our kids and families,” said Pertman. “And the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute has a real impact in the realm of LGBT families. We have worked to overturn gay and lesbian bans on adoption like the law in Florida –– and we do so from a research base –– but we’re a mainstream organization.”
A straight man with two adopted children, Pertman noted that each year, 135,000 children are adopted in the US. Most of those children come out of foster care, and LGBT parents adopt many older, special-needs children from adoption agencies, 60 percent of which accept applications from non-heterosexual clients.
He noted that today, most adoption professionals are too savvy to utter openly homophobic statements, leading to a “more insidious, secret club of discrimination.”
A gay audience member agreed with Rosen and Pertman’s warnings about the harm public figures cause when they make homophobic statements, saying he was able to quickly cite data that ended arguments among his adult family members and often found his teenage nieces and nephews quick to pipe up in defense of their uncle. But he was concerned that his younger nieces and nephews hear such messages in a different way.
“What I worry about is people in Middle America not knowing any gay people and wondering if this is how gays are,” said Pertman of homophobic stereotypes, later adding, “I know kids hear these things on TV, but now, they also see shows with positive gay depictions like ‘Glee.' This makes me hopeful.”
The discussion quickly opened up for audience participation, highlighting the wide range of experiences LGBT people have in adoptive families.
Playwright K.S. Stevens, who is working on “Big Excellent 20th Reunion,” a musical about adoption by gay and lesbian parents, was adopted along with her sister into a trans-racial family.
For Stevens, disclosing the adoption to her sister and her was not an issue; as she told Gay City News, “My sister and I looked different than our family, so we knew. But we never referred to them as ‘our adoptive family’ or anything.”
Stevens noted that the political chess match around gay adoption butts up against an age-old missionary notion of adoption as a way to save souls and grow the flock.
Pertman agreed, noting the Mormon custom of adopting kids to grow their church, but adding that missionary zeal is not always enough for children with special needs or who have experienced difficult early years.
“A lot of folks think they will take these kids to church and love will conquer all, and are getting very surprised with the issues they are dealing with,” he said.
The audience also included a lesbian couple of color who had their infant in tow. The mother who gave birth to the child had her partner’s fertilized egg implanted in her womb, but that process involved legal complications that remain cumbersome.
“My child is now not legally hers,” she said, “and we have to go through this costly adoption process for her to adopt her own biological child.”
Aspiring filmmaker Sharon Shattuck attended the discussion as part of her research for a documentary she’s at work on that was inspired by her transgender father.
And Ricky Cortez, a gay man adopted 30 years ago, is completing adoption of a daughter. He said that coming out and now having a child of his own have changed things in his conservative family.
“Before, they laughed at gay stereotypes, but now they defend me because they see that their granddaughter could be taken away if things don’t change,” he said. “It is about facing fear and changing. Her grandparents were hard-line Republicans, but three out of four changed their tune. One hasn’t, but he is not going to see her or influence her life.”
Despite Rosen’s intention to entertain only questions about adoption, the Romney matter did surface. Rose Arce, an out lesbian senior producer at CNN –– the network where Rosen is a paid political contributor –– was on hand with her daughter, Luna, and asked Rosen whether directing barbs at Romney’s family risked making gay and lesbian parents open to criticism about their families.
“I didn’t criticize Ann Romney’s family; the discussion starts and ends there,” Rosen responded tersely. “And our families have been subjected to critical discussion, evaluation, and legislation for years.”
Voicing frustration about the personal lives of LGBT people being fodder for commentary by public figures who demand privacy for themselves, she continued, “There is an insidious arrogance around politicians who think certain things have to be made public. The media shuts down blatant homophobia, but the argument is devolving to the state level, where they have control over judges, agencies, and family services.”
Rosen said that on the ground, education has to be done neighbor to neighbor, which is “a harder conversation to initiate, but is then more long-lasting.”
Pertman posed the question of whether the media has an ethical responsibility to talk more neutrally about LGBT families. Rosen responded that reporters are nervous around gay issues not because of homophobia, but because of a fear of “stepping in it” or getting caught up in political controversies raised by them.
“It doesn’t feel to me that adoption became a political issue until the LGBT community was doing it,” said Rosen. “Maybe I didn’t follow the issue until I was a parent, but I feel like it was a political issue with a little ‘p’ –– like disclosing, religion, etc., but not an electoral issue.”
Still, Rosen clearly wrestles with competing considerations on the question of pressing the media about balance in their reporting.
“Dr. Laura tried to ruin my family,” said Rosen. “But still, the whole ‘Get Dr. Laura off TV’ movement made me uncomfortable. I don’t like censoring anyone’s free speech rights.” She continued, however, “Every story has two sides, but I struggle when I think of hate speech being seen as a difference of opinion rather than what it really is.”
As demonstrated –– to cite one example –– by the ongoing battle in Virginia over whether private adoption agencies can bar gay adoptions on religious or moral grounds, the right wing continues to use the issue as a way of rallying its troops –– perhaps especially in an election year.
Any limitation on adoption by gay and lesbian parents, Pertman emphasized, “penalizes the kids, because potential parents are excluded without getting a chance to make the case or be vetted, so ultimately the kids are the losers.”
At least, Rosen noted, children’s issues lend themselves to expert opinion. The right seems convinced that for many, the equality of marriage access is a more potent gut issue to mobilize its side. Still, she said, negative images of LGBT families –– whether regarding the relationship of the parents or their raising of children together –– will only dissipate by everyone demanding respect for their families.
“I always hope that this will energize people to fight harder, but I worry that it will make people give up and hibernate,” Rosen said of the challenges everyone faces in their family lives. “We have to work hard to make sure that our families are protected.”