LGBT Issues in Intercountry Adoption Implications for Policy and Research

“Families Without Borders?
Adoption Across Culture and Race”
St. John’s University
4th Biennial Adoption Conference
New York City
13-4 October 2006

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) people have always been involved in the adoption community, whether as adoptive parents, adopted children, or adoption professionals, but until recently, that participation has been marginalized and nearly invisible.  In the last few years, however, the participation of LGBT people in the adoption process has increased enormously in visibility, raising important issues for all of the components of the adoption community. However, there has been little if any discussion of the complex issues related to the participation of LGBT people in intercountry adoption.  It is my purpose here to identify and explore some of these issues as well as to sketch out some important implications for policy.

I will begin with a definitional framework that can be used to guide discussion of LGBT intercountry adoption issues. Second, I will briefly survey the existing literature on LGBT adoption and outlining what I see as its limitations – limitations so severe, in my view, as to render the literature virtually irrelevant to a serious discussion of LGBT involvement in intercountry adoption.

Third, I will assess the infrastructure – or lack thereof – available to LGBT adoptive parents and adoptees and explore some of the reasons for the lack of resources available to the community.

Fourth, I will examine the vexed issues of intercultural identity that transracial intercountry adoption raises and address what may be issues specific to LGBT families.

Fifth and finally, I will offer suggestions for progressive adoption policy-making by US government entities (at federal, state, and local levels), governments of countries that are sources of intercountry adoptees, and adoption agencies.

LGBT: Definitional Issues

The phrase ‘LGBT’ has become standard within the community comprised of individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered. But the neat schema of four identities is belied by a complex and messy reality. One must begin by pointing out that three of these identities are based on sexual orientation, while one is related to gender identity and expression.

It is important to point out that virtually every pre-modern society, whether Western or non-Western, has had forms of behavior or even identity formations that anticipate contemporary LGBT identities.  There were homoerotic traditions and proto-transgenderal identities in Korea and throughout Asia, for example, before the coming of the West. In Korea alone, the historical record evidences at least four such traditions. First, there were the hwarang, the warrior elite of the Silla dynasty: young men who apparently dressed in long, flowing women’s robes and wore make-up, even as they composed a group of trained archers.[1] Second, there were the ‘boy-wives’ – teenage boys who were ‘married’ to adult men and whose marriages were recognized by their fellow villagers.[2] Third, the namsadang – touring theatrical troupes that included teenage boys who played women’s roles and who were often the lovers of their adult male colleagues.[3] And fourth, there were the paksu mudang – the male shamans who dressed (and probably lived) as women, performing the rituals and rites of the Altaic spiritual tradition that the forbears of contemporary Koreans brought with them into the Korean peninsula from eastern Siberia.[4]

Clearly, these pre-modern practices and identities differ significantly from LGBT identities in contemporary North America and Western Europe; but the significance of these precursors to contemporary identities will be made clear when I discuss how contemporary discourses of homophobia and transgenderphobia that shape government policy and practices by adoption agencies both in the United States and abroad.

As for those contemporary identities, most will take it as axiomatic that ‘lesbian’ and ‘gay’ refer to women and men who are primarily if not exclusively attracted to individuals of the same sex and ‘bisexual’ will refer to those who are attracted to members of both sexes. The term ‘transgender’ requires a bit more explanation.

There are as many different definitions of ‘transgender’ as there are transgendered people. But I will use ‘transgender’ here as an umbrella term to designate a population composed of individuals with a wide range of different gender identities and modes of gender expression. To radically simplify the complexity of this community, I will sketch out a schema that includes three distinct sub-populations. First, transsexuals: those individuals who seek or who have obtained sex reassignment surgery (SRS), both male-to-female and female-to-male. Second, those I would trem ‘the transgendered’: individuals who present fully in the gender opposite their birth sex at least part of the time; this category includes crossdressers (the term ‘transvestite’ is now considered overly clinical or perjorative and is less and less used as a term of self-identification), ‘drag queens’ and ‘drag kings.’ Third, those I would term the ‘gender-variant’: somewhat masculine females who none the less may still identify as women or girls and relatively feminine males who may still identify as men or boys. I contrast these three groups of individuals with another group whom I will term the conventionally gendered, who by and large conform to the gender norms and expectations of their society, and who constitute a majority in any society.

It is important to point out that many if not most transgendered people are heterosexual in some defining sense, even while some do identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. Finally, I would note the small but important category of intersex. Intersexed individuals are those who are born neither entirely male nor entirely female. The relationship between intersex and transgender is too complex to address here at any length; suffice it to say that when I use the term transgender, I’m referring to individuals who are born male or female but who exhibit cross-gender affinity of some kind.

The question of what if anything ‘causes’ one to be or to become LGBT is one that provokes heated discussions whenever it is raised, but it is not one that interests me or is of any relevance to the issues at hand. I will merely point out that the assumption implicit in the question is that homosexuality, bisexuality, and transgender represent a ‘deviance’ from a ‘norm’ that requires explanation, itself a homophobic or transgenderphobic assumption.

I would also point out that to begin with a ‘disease’ model of sexuality and/or gender identity, as much of the literature on LGBT adoption does, is to prejudice the answer from the outset. And so I will simply stipulate that homosexuality and bisexuality are natural variations in sexual orientation that occur in all societies and in many non-human species as well, just as transgender represents a naturally occurring form (or set of forms) of gender variance found in all societies as well as in non-human species. There can be no serious consideration of the policy implications of LGBT adoption issues that begins from any other premise.

The Big Lacuna: The Lack of Relevant and Rigorous Research

The lack of any sustained examination of the participation of lesbian and gay individuals and couples – let alone openly transgendered individuals – to adopt from overseas that constitutes one of my biggest concerns. In the last decade, as LGBT individuals and couples have increasingly participated in adoption, a vast new literature has opened up to study the role of parents’ sexual orientation in the raising of adopted children. However, this relatively new literature is likely to be of little help to those at this conference for the following reasons.

First, the burgeoning literature on adoption focuses almost entirely on domestic adoption within the United States. In my research for this paper, I came across not a single full-length journal article on LGBT issues in intercountry adoption in a reputable journal whose focus was policy-oriented.[5] It should be clear to everyone working in the field of adoption that findings from studies on domestic adoption cannot simply be applied to the field of intercountry adoption, because intercountry adoption involves additional layers of complications of all sorts, legal and otherwise.

Second, the literature on LGBT adoption issues focuses narrowly on the sexual orientation of parents, ignoring issues of gender identity; in other words, the existing literature includes virtually nothing on the role of transgendered parents in adoption, even domestically, let alone internationally.

If there are significant obstacles facing gay and lesbian individuals and couples from participating in intercountry adoption, the obstacles facing the transgendered are even greater because of the way in which transgender is constructed in medical and legal discourse in the United States and elsewhere. Unfortunately, studies of gay and lesbian parents (adoptive or biological) rarely take into account the special challenges of transgendered parents.

The social construction of transgendered people through a medical model of transsexuality must surely constitute one of the biggest potential challenges to openly transgendered individuals who would seek to adopt (domestically, let alone internationally).  While the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1974, the introduction of the diagnosis of gender identity disorder (GID) into the DSM-IV in that year implicitly labels all transgendered and gender-variant people as mentally ill.[6]

GID has already been used against transgendered parents in custody disputes. GID may also be an issue for how parents — whether LGBT-identified or not — react to adoptive gender-variant children. The APA currently  is considering whether to retain GID in the DSM-V, but there can be no doubt that any would-be adoptive parents who are transgendered certainly face an especially serious impediment to such adoption because of the GID diagnosis. However, I am not aware of any examination in the literature on intercountry adoption of the impact of the diagnosis on the ability of openly transgendered would-be adoptive parents either here in the United States or in other countries to adopt from abroad.

Another problem with much of the existing literature – both ‘pro-gay’ and ‘anti-gay’ – is that it conflates sexual orientation and gender expression, both that of parents as well as children – and thereby seriously compromises the ability of the researcher to draw firm conclusions. For example, many studies will use the term ‘sexual identity’ without recognizing the ambiguity of the term, which can refer either to the sexual orientation of the individual (in these studies, usually the child of lesbian or gay parents) of his or her gender identity (i.e., whether or not that individual identifies as a boy or a girl).

Not surprisingly, few of these studies examine the impact of gay or lesbian parents on the gender expression of their children. One of the few exceptions is the report of the Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health, 2000-2001, of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which concludes that

The gender identity of pre-adolescent children raised by lesbian mothers has been found consistently to be in line with their biologic [sic] sex. None of the more than 300 children studies to date have shown evidence of gender identity confusion, wished to be the other sex, or consistently engaged in cross-gender behavior. No difference have been found in the toy, game, activity, dress, or friendship preferences of boys or girls who had lesbian mothers, compared with those who had heterosexual mothers (p. 341).[7]

The lack of linguistic precision and conceptual rigor in the literature – both the ‘pro-gay’ and the ‘anti-gay’ literatures on LGBT adoption – should be a matter of considerable concern to adoption professionals.

A special preoccupation of the literature on LGBT parenting is the question of the influence of the sexual orientation of the parents on the sexual orientation and/or gender identity and expression of their adoptive children. Indeed, the burgeoning literature funded by the religious right seems quite obsessed with this question. Paul Cameron is the leading figure in this homophobic literature, much of it funded by the Family Research Institute.[8] Such ‘research,’ driven by an ideological agenda, aims to demonstrate that gay and lesbian parents influence their children’s sexual orientation toward homosexuality.

Conversely, a good portion of the literature seems to have been undertaken as part of an attempt to show that the sexual orientation of LGBT parents has no influence whatsoever on the sexual orientation – or gender identity or expression – of adopted children.[9]

But the literature of the religious right also purports to show that LGBT parents influence their adopted children in ways that are detrimental to their well being, beyond the sexual orientation of their children.  As Leslie Cooper and Paul Cates argue in Too High a Price: The Case Against Restricting Gay Parenting (New York: second edition, American Civil Liberties Union Foundation, 2006),

Cameron is someone who has devoted his career to demonizing gay people, disseminating papers through his organization, the Family Research Institute, that purport to show that gay people pose every conceivable threat to society, including stealing, domestic violence, child molestation, and even murder…

According to reports published by other social scientists, Cameron has been discredited by the scientific community for scientific dishonesty: he was dropped by the Board of Directors of the American Psychological Association for violating the Ethical Principles of Psychologists… (p. 30)

But it is important to point out that while the shoddy research methods and obvious ideological agenda of the literature of the religious right may undermine its credibility among serious researchers, organizations such as the Family Research Institute (the ‘research’ arm of the Family Research Council) wield enormous influence with members of Congress and state legislatures, many of whom rely on the support of the religious right for their election.[10]

There are, of course, numerous studies that marshal evidence to show that the quality of parenting provided by gay and lesbian parents is not related to their sexual orientation.[11]

In March 2006, the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute released a report, “Expanding Resources for Children: Is Adoption by Gays and Lesbians Part of the Answer for Boys and Girls Who Need Homes?” In the report, its author, Jeanne Howard, examines existing laws, policies, and practices related to adoption by gay and lesbian parents, and concludes,

  • Against a backdrop of increasing public acceptance, social science research concludes that children reared by gay and lesbian parents fare comparably to those of children raised by heterosexuals on a range of measures of social and psychological adjustment.
  • Studies are increasing in number and rigor, but the body of research on gay/lesbian parents is relatively small and has methodological limitations. Still, virtually every valid study reaches the same conclusion: The children of gays and lesbians adjust positively and their families function well. The limited research on gay/lesbian adoption points in the same direction.
  • Though few states have laws or policies explicitly barring homosexuals from adopting, some individual agencies and workers outside those states discriminate against gay and lesbian applicants based on their own biases or on mistaken beliefs that such prohibitions exist.
  • Laws and policies that preclude adoption by gay or lesbian parents disadvantage the tens of thousands of children mired in the foster care system who need permanent, loving homes.

The Donaldson Institute’s report also makes four important recommendations:

  • Move to end legal and de facto restrictions on adoption by gays and lesbians. This includes working to expand co-parent and second parent adoption, as well as revising agency policies and practices that may impede their consideration as an adoptive resource.
  • Develop clear statements in support of such adoptions, recognizing a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach disadvantages parents and, ultimately, their children. And develop contacts with the gay/lesbian community in order to engage in genuine, informed outreach.
  • Help workers, supervisors, and agency leaders examine their attitudes and beliefs about gay and lesbian parenting, while affirming the value of these families by including them in outreach, training materials, and parent panels.
  • Conduct research to inform the development of resources, training, and support to improve post-adoption success. And work to include and educate children in the process, recognizing that they may encounter prejudice if adopted by gay parents.

The Donaldson Institute is also spearheading an important new initiative, “Improving Knowledge and Practice in Gay and Lesbian Adoption,”which is intended to:

…provide a review of the current state of knowledge and recommended best practices in adoption by gay and lesbian parents.

The Institute has announced that this ‘white paper’ will be available in winter 2007 and is designed to be part of a broader project, not yet funded, to expand the Institute’s previous research on the subject.

The Donaldson Institute’s “Expanding Resources for Children” and its forthcoming white paper represent significant steps forward in addressing important aspects of adoption by lesbian and gay parents.  But there remain significant lacunae.

Third among these lacunae, there has been no rigorous or extensive examination of the challenges arising from the transracial intercountry adoption of children by LGBT parents either in the United States, Europe, or elsewhere. To the extent that the existing literature on non-LGBT adoptive parents does examine the issue of transracial adoption, the focus is primarily if not exclusively on how the white identity of European American parents affects the psychological development of non-white children. There is a paucity of studies of cases where parents of color adopt children of color, where there may be a difference between the parents’ racial and/or ethnic identity and that of their children. But there has been no attempt of which I am aware to examine the issue of transracial and/or transculturaladoption in cases involving LGBT parents.

Do white LGBT parents show greater ability to provide a nurturing environment for transracial intercountry adoptees than white non-LGBT parents from similar backgrounds? The literature does not tell us. There are those who would no doubt like to believe that LGBT parents, being themselves members of an oppressed ‘minority,’ might bring more empathy and a greater capacity to address such identity issues to their parenting, but the white-dominant LGBT community has laid itself too often open to charges of racism and ethnocentrism to enable anyone to make such an assumption in favor of white LGBT parents without empirical evidence to support it.[12]

Fourth, the existing literature contains no extensive studies of adoptive children who as children or who later as adults identify as LGBT and the consequences of LGBT-identified children being raised by non-LGBT adoptive parents.

Fifth, existing studies of LGBT parents have limited survey samples – limited both in terms of numbers and in terms of demographic diversity. Such studies are also skewed heavily towards lesbian couples, most of whom are white and middle-class.

Sixth and finally, while there has been considerable discussion about the participation of LGBT parents in adoption, there has been very little discussion about adoptees who come to identify as LGBT as children or adults. The vast and exponentially growing literature on the suitability of LGBT people as parents and the debate over whether the sexual orientation (or perhaps the gender identity) of such parents can influence the sexual orientation (or possibly the gender identity) of their children has no counterpart in the study of children who may be LGBT themselves. In fact, the question of whether or not non-LGBT people are suitable parents for LGBT children is simply never asked, at least not in any venue of which I am aware.

One could argue that the obsessive focus on the sexual orientation of LGBT parents merely reflects the institutionalized homophobia and transgenderphobia of the adoption industry; but the lack of attention to LGBT children may also reflect the relative indifference of much of the LGBT community to this issue as well.

Lack of Infrastructure & Resources for LGBT Children: The Discussion That Has Not Happened

My second concern is the lack of support structures to address the specific needs of LGBT adoptees and of adopted children questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity. Such a paucity of resources may simply reflect the lack of resources available to the LGBT community as a whole. Unfortunately, the welfare of LGBT intercountry adoptees vis-à-vis their sexual orientation or gender identity is simply never mooted. Such lack of attention may be said to reflect not only homophobia and transgender phobia, but also a form of ageism (or ‘adult-ism,’ to use a word popular among youth activists) in which the concerns of the adopted children and youth themselves are not taken into account.

But LGBT adoptees are not only ignored as children; they are ignored as adults as well. LGBT intercountry adult adoptees may have much to contribute to discussions of LGBT adoption, intercountry and domestic, but their voices simply are not heard. In part, this may be because of the institutional apparatus that structures discussions and debates about LGBT adoption issues, both domestic and intercountry.

No adoption agency of which I am aware currently has staff committed specifically to issues of concern to LGBT adoptees. No government agency at any level in any country that I am aware of has staff committed specifically to issues of concern to LGBT adoptees or funds studies focused on such issues. And while the last few decades have seen the emergence of a community of adult intercountry adoptees – pioneered by adult Korean adoptees in the 1990s – organizations formed by adult intercountry adoptees do not focus their attention on LGBT issues, even if some of those organizations are LGBT-friendly and welcome individual LGBT members.

Perhaps the most significant initiative to create a framework for adoption in international law is the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Cooperation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption. Drafted in 1994, the Hague Convention was incorporated into US law through the Intercountry Adoption Act of 2000, signed into law by President Bill Clinton on October 6 of that year. Needless to say, neither the Hague convention nor the US statute makes no explicit reference to the rights and needs of LGBT parents or LGBT adoptees – hardly surprising, but yet one more indication that there is no framework in US national or international law for discussion and adjudication of LGBT issues that arise in intercountry adoption. While there may be a handful of the 66 states that are signatories to the convention that might consider supporting LGBT-inclusive language, as of October 2006, only a handful of Northern European countries currently explicitly permit adoption by lesbian and gay individuals or couples.

Unfortunately, LGBT community institutions are not structured in a way that facilitates or supports the participation of LGBT adoptees in the discussion of LGBT adoption issues, especially intercountry adoption issues. For example, LGBT community centers and LGBT advocacy organizations focus their efforts primarily on LGBT adoptive parents and would-be adoptive parents. To the extent that LGBT organizations have youth programs, those programs do not focus primarily on issues specifically of concern to adoptees.

Ironically enough, even when LGBT advocacy organizations talk about the availability of homes for difficult-to-place children, they do not talk about LGBT children; they usually talk about HIV-positive children (who of course are no more likely to be LGBT-identified than other children).

Conferences organized by LGBT organizations also do not foster discussion of LGBT intercountry adoption issues, let alone discussion of LGBT intercountry adoption issues by LGBT intercountry adoptees themselves. Creating Change, the annual conference of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF), has been held every year for over three decades, and yet, workshops on adoption issues are rarely scheduled. To my knowledge, there has never been a workshop or session specifically devoted to a discussion of intercountry adoption issues.

There was a workshop on adoption issues at the Creating Change conference in Atlanta in 2000, but the focus was on transracial adoption, primarily in the domestic sphere, with virtually no attention to intercountry adoption. The focus was also exclusively on the sexual orientation of the parents rather than on that of the children. The workshop actually provoked something of an uproar, as some youth attending the workshop were offended by a comment made by a white woman in the audience about issues of transracial adoption. Some also took offense at the title that Paula Ettelbrick (the lead organizer of the workshop) had given to the workshop: “I’m White, But My Children Aren’t.” While I did not attend the workshop, I did witness the vilification of Paula Ettelbrick by some conference participants later in the conference, with some individuals denouncing her publicly as a racist for having organized the workshop. But what struck me about the absurdly exaggerated response to the workshop on the part of a few of the attendees was that critics of the workshop and its organizers themselves were not (as far as I could tell) adoptees themselves.

Ironically enough, given that the fiercest critics of the workshop were youth themselves, they made the same infantilizing assumption implicit in the organization of the workshop, namely, that transracial adoptees were all children and that there were no transracial adoptees present at the conference who could speak for themselves. And so the uproar generated by the workshop produced more heat than light, with neither the workshop nor its aftermath providing room for adult transracial (whether intercountry or not) adoptees to speak for themselves and to articulate issues facing transracial and/or intercountry adoptees growing up in families that may or may not be headed by an LGBT individual or couple. Possibly because of the uproar at the 2000 conference, there has been no workshop on transracial adoption held at Creating Change since then, and none on intercountry adoption.

The LGBT community has advanced to the point that it now has an organization specifically devoted to advocacy on behalf of LGBT families. Family Pride’s motto is “equality for LGBT parents and their families.” In May 2006, Family Pride held the “Real Families, Real Facts” conference in Philadelphia, which it billed as “the first-ever academic symposium on LGBT-headed families” (Family Pride news release, 26 March 2006, While adoption did not constitute the exclusive or even primary focus of the conference, it was the most important theme at the symposium, and adoption by LGBT couples and individuals dominated discussion throughout the workshops and plenary sessions. In many ways, “Real Families” was a ground-breaking event, but the conference did not feature a single workshop or plenary session devoted solely or primarily to intercountry adoption, and discussions of adoption were focused almost exclusively on the domestic arena. The conference also did not feature presentations by any LGBT-identified adult adoptees (at least speaking as such), nor did it explore the issues faced by LGBT adoptees as children or as adults.

Through no fault of the organizers themselves, the conference also focused primarily on the concerns of lesbian mothers and lesbian couples, secondarily on those of gay fathers and gay couples, and not at all on those of transgendered individuals or couples. The executive director did tell me that she and the Family Pride staff did try their best to do more than simply to tack on the ‘T’ in ‘LGBT,’ but without success: they could not identify more than a few transgendered individuals to invite to speak, and the few whom they did invite were not able to attend.

And so the 2006 Family Pride conference in Philadelphia underscores both the progress that the LGBT community has made in addressing LGBT adoption issues as well as the enormous gaps in research and careful examination of outstanding issues that continue unaddressed.

Currently, neither adoption community institutions nor LGBT community institutions provide the infrastructure for intercountry and transracial adoptees to actualize LGBT identities in the context of multiple oppressions. Adoptee groups – whether run by parents, agencies, or adoptees themselves — tend to focus on issues of racial, ethnic, and national identity while largely ignoring questions of sexual orientation and gender identity. Conversely, organizations run by LGBT organizations largely focus on the homophobia and (trans)genderphobia faced by LGBT parents and/or their children. Only by consciously constructing support structures that address both sets of issues will the needs of LGBT adoptive parents and LGBT-identified adoptees be met.

Currently, several American states (most notably, Florida) have moved to restrict or to ban LGBT people from adopting, spurred on in many cases by the religious right. There is an almost obsessive focus in debates about LGBT adoption on the question of identity formation — specifically, whether or not LGBT parents influence the sexual orientation (or gender identity or expression) of their adoptive children. The focus on that causative question has led to the development of a burgeoning literature on identity formation that is largely advocacy-driven — by both supporters and opponents of LGBT adoption — and the findings of this research have been used or misused not only in debates over adoption but also in debates over same-sex marriage, and so the implications of the debate over LGBT adoption extend far beyond simply the issue of adoption itself.

What is most extraordinary is the little-studied phenomenon of the policing of heteronormative identity and behavior by LGBT parents themselves, whose internalization of homophobia and (trans)genderphobia has sometimes had precisely the opposite effect that the religious right and opponents of LGBT adoption assert: LGBT parents are anxious to ensure the heteronormativity of their children in order to prove that they did not influence their sexual orientation. In fact, many gay and lesbian parents seem to take an almost inordinate pride in the heterosexuality and gender normativity of their children. While it is understandable that gay and lesbian parents under siege from the religious right may be concerned about public perceptions of the influence of their parenting on their children’s identities, one cannot help but suspect an element of internalized homophobia and/or transgenderphobia in the sometimes defensive reaction of these parents with regard to those questions of identity formation. To my mind, further progress may be measured by the extent to which LGBT parents become less self-conscious about any such purported influence on their children’s identity formation.

Lack of a Legal Framework for LGBT Intercountry Adoption

Some of the international agreements and guidelines that currently guide intercountry adoption include:

o UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

o UN Declaration on Social and Legal Principles relating to the Protection and Welfare of Children, with Special Reference to Foster Placement and Adoption, Nationally and Internationally

o The Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in respect of lntercountry Adoption

o Guidelines of the International Council of Social Welfare (ICSW).

In addition, there is a consortium of European Adoption Organisations (EurAdopt) that in 1993 agreed upon a set of ethical rules with which member organizations pledge voluntarily to comply:

None of these documents specifically address LGBT-related issues that arise in intercountry adoption, whether that of the sexual orientation or gender identity of the parents or that of the adopted children.

At the same time, a number of ‘sending countries’ (i.e., sources of intercountry adoptees) – most importantly, China – have sought to restrict or even to ban LGBT individuals and couples from adopting. In December 2006, the People’s Republic announced new restrictions on adoption that went into force in May 2007 that made explicit a ban on single individuals adopting from China – bound to make even more difficult adoption by LGBT individuals and couples.[13] The Chinese government added a host of new criteria to its requirements for would-be adoptive parents, even going so far as to include body mass index (BMI) above 40 percent as a disqualification.

No existing international treaty or convention addresses the issue of restrictions based on the sexual orientation, let alone the gender identity, of potential adoptive parents. Nonetheless, there is anecdotal evidence that some sympathetic adoption agencies have been ‘looking the other way’ when screening potential adoptive parents; but there is also considerable anxiety within certain circles concerning sub rosa practices (e.g., carefully choreographed home studies by sympathetic adoption professionals) that have enabled LGBT parents (both individuals and couples) to adopt even in the face of homophobic restrictions by US and foreign governments and adoption agencies.

With the recognition of same-sex marriage by Canada, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Spain, yet another layer of complexity may be added to the already highly complex set of issues related to LGBT intercountry adoption. As more and more same-sex couples cross national borders to get married in other countries, the legal status of the children they adopt – domestically and even more so internationally – becomes yet more complicated.

Here, too, the existing literature is woefully inadequate to address the issues that will arise from these situations. One feels therefore compelled to ask the question, do non-LGBT parents need help from adoption agencies, government agencies and/or LGBT organizations in providing a home environment that nurtures LGBT adoptees or those who are perceived as LGBT?

And still another question occurs to me, how does the adoption community help create international legal frameworks for addressing LGBT-related issues that arise in connection with intercountry adoption? This is a question that has as yet to be addressed by any national LGBT organization, though the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, Lambda Legal Defense & Education Fund, and other LGBT organizations are very active in attempting to construct legal frameworks at the national and subnational levels. One may hope that the Evan B. Donaldson Institute and other non-LGBT-specific adoption research and advocacy organizations with expertise in intercountry adoption bring that expertise to bear on this important question.

Transracial Identity Issues

While the legal ability of LGBT individuals and couples to adopt from overseas is under increasing threat, questions are being raised both within and outside the LGBT community about the suitability of LGBT parents to engage in intercountry adoption,

given that most such parents are white, middle-class, and US-born, while their adopted children are largely children of color from non-Western cultures. There are no longitudinal studies that examine the effectiveness of white LGBT parents in providing a nurturing environment for adoptive children of color (whether the products of intercountry and/or transracial adoption) to develop identities that enable them to successfully navigate multiple oppressions based on race, ethnicity, and nationality.

One of the most notable developments in the adoption world over the course of the last few decades with regard to intercountry adoptees has been the shift from an assimilationist discourse of identity to a multicultural one.  With the shift to a multicultural discourse of identity has come a proliferation of resources for intercountry adoptees to help them connect with their putative cultural heritage, such as the growing number of Korean ‘culture camps’ that Korean adoptees can now attend which simply were not available to the first generation of Korean adoptees. Needless to say, however, such culture camps do not provide any room for the exploration of feelings about sexual orientation or gender identity or expression.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the dominant discourse of adoptee identity was assimilationist, focusing on the ability of the adoptee (with the encouragement of adoptive parents) to shed all vestiges of the culture of birth in order to become ‘all-American.’  In the 1970s, multiculturalism replaced assimilationism as the dominant discourse governing discussions of adoption. The multiculturalist model represented a significant advance over assimilationism in valuing the birth culture of the adoptee, but multiculturalism is fundamentally compromised by the false dichotomy upon which it is based, a binary opposition between ‘American’ defined as white European American and the birth culture ‘othered’ as Asian, Chinese, Korean, etc. Such a model does not provide adequate

conceptual framework for adoptees to negotiate their subject position as members of a racial ‘minority’ in the United States and does not recognize the distinct identity of intercountry adoptees of color as being neither white nor Asian, African, or Latin American in the same sense as those raised in their cultures of birth.

Arguably the most important development of the last decade has been the emergence of an adult Korean adoptee community. As the first generation of Korean adoptees comes of age, that cohort may provide a model of community-building for the emerging population of intercountry adoptees, regardless of their countries of origin.

The mentoring program that Also-Known-As (an adult intercountry adoptee organization in New York City) offers may be threatening to parents who fear a loss of control over the identity formation of their adoptive children, but that may be more useful for future generations of intercountry adoptees than the plethora of Korean culture camps and Chinese calligraphy classes that currently constitute the menu of choice for adoptive parents of intercountry adoptees in the United States. The development of a community of adult intercountry adoptees may presage the possibility of a significant shift in the power relations between and among the ‘three legs of the stool’ of the adoption community (i.e., parents, adoption agencies, and adoptees).

And yet, as noted above, there remain issues that no element of either the LGBT community or the adoption community has yet to address in any thorough and ongoing manner. In the vast literature on transracial adoption and the identity issues that it provokes, there is no discussion of whether LGBT parents are better equipped to deal with such issues as they arise in transracial adoption, let alone transracial intercountry adoption. And so I am prompted to pose this question for the adoption community: Do LGBT parents do better at providing a home environment that empowers transracial intercountry adoptees to come to terms with issues of identity?

To begin with, it seems to me that the first question provides a useful new research program for serious researchers in the area of adoption. In the complete absence of any rigorous and relatively dispassionate empirical research, I would surmise that LGBT advocacy organizations might be tempted to suggest that the mere experience of dealing with LGBT identity may make LGBT parents more sensitive to questions of identity and bigotry broadly speaking. And yet it should be clear that no matter how empathetic and sincere, most white LGBT people lack the direct personal experience of racism. While there are significant parallels between the experience of racism and that of homophobia (or transgenderphobia), there are also significant differences, and oppressions are not fungible or interchangeable. To state the obvious, white LGBT people remain white, no matter what experiences they may have coming out as LGBT.

On the other hand, the question must also be asked, are white LGBT people less capable than non-LGBT white people of helping transracial adopted children with dealing with the racism and ethnocentrism that they will inevitably encounter, no matter how ‘liberal’ and diverse their immediate environment? The answer is not obvious. Those white LGBT parents who are convinced that they understand racism because of their experience of homophobia (or transphobia) are of concern to me. Since we do not have any research on this issue – rigorous or otherwise – we are left to surmise. But I would not be surprised if this group of parents did not constitute a significant segment of the total population of LGBT parents.

It must also be said that as LGBT people of color begin to adopt in greater numbers that one cannot assume that they would necessarily be in a position to equip their adopted children to deal with the full panoply of racial and ethnic insensitivity and hostility that they may face growing up if the parents are of a different background than their children. After all, an adoption can still be transracial even if the parents and the child or children are of different communities of color.

The more complex situation may be where there is an interracial couple and/or adopted children from different racial or ethnic backgrounds. Let me cite an example. A good friend of mine, a white lesbian, became involved with an African American lesbian a few years ago. They now live together, along with the children of the African American lesbian from her previous relationship with another white lesbian. One of the two teenage boys is African American, while the other is white. My friend (the white lesbian) now refers to herself as the stepmother of the two boys. This recently blended family lives in a house in a relatively affluent and predominantly white neighborhood in Brooklyn, the same house that my friend once shared with her then-partner, a white lesbian who has since transitioned and now identifies as a transman (who, because of the bitter nature of their break-up is not in touch with anyone in the recently blended family). And so the complexity of the relationships in this new blended family – the product of an interracial lesbian divorce – defies easy categorization.

The growing literature on LGBT adoption does not address complex challenges facing all four members of this recently blended family, none of whom are the product of intercountry adoption.

When one introduces the element of transnational as well as transracial adoption, the complexity increases. For the foreseeable future, it is likely that most LGBT parents in the United States will continue to be relatively affluent, upper middle class white professionals, and so there are class issues as well as issues related to racial and national identity and to sexual orientation and/or gender identity.


Regarding LGBT adoption, it is striking that there is virtually no discussion of certain issues that are arguably of greater importance to adopted children than those that have generated hundreds if not thousands of articles and endless debate. While so much time and energy has been focused on the question of whether or not gay and lesbian individuals and couples can be capable parents and whether as parents they influence the sexual orientation of their children, no one seems to have asked questions that seem to me to be the obvious ones for those of us interested and involved in intercountry adoption in some capacity – whether as adoption professionals, adoptive parents, or adoptees:

o What are the needs of LGBT adoptive parents seeking to participate in intercountry adoption?

o What are the specific needs of openly transgendered individuals seeking to adopt internationally?

o What are the current elements of a legal framework that can help regulate and structure intercountry adoption by LGBT individuals and couples?

o What are the needs of LGBT-identified adoptees – both children and adults?

The invitation to an openly transgendered Korean adoptee and transgender activist to participate and present at this important conference is a measure of how far the adoption community has come. The unanswered questions that I have posed in this paper show how far the adoption community has to go.

[1] Randy P. Connor, et al., Cassell’s Encyclopedia of Queer Myth, Symbol, and Spirit: Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Lore (London and Herndon, VA: Cassell, 1997), p 181.

[2] Gary P. Leupp, Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan (Berkeley, Ls Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1995), pp. 17-19.

[3] Encyclopedia of Homosexuality (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1990) , pp. 1332-1337.

[4] Connor, op. Cit, p. 260.

[5] In making this assessment, I am not counting David Eng’s two non-policy-oriented articles in Social Text and the Journal of Gender and Sexuality Studies. Neither article looks specifically at the role of the LGBT community in intercountry adoption and neither is policy-oriented.

[6] Pauline Park, “Are You a Gender Psychopath?:  Finding Common Cause in the Battles Against   Homophobia and Transgenderphobia,” Lesbian and Gay New York (5 November 1998), p. 16.

[7] Ellen C. Perrin, Joseph F. Hagan, Jr., William L. Coleman, Jane M. Foy, et al., “Technical Report: Co-Parent or Second-Parent Adoption by Same-Sex Parents,” in  Pediatrics. Evanston: February 2002. Vol. 109, Issue 2; Part 1; pp. 341-344.

[8] See, for example, Paul Cameron and Kirk Cameron, “Homosexual Parents,” Adolescence (31, 1996), which is typical of the literature of the religious right.

[9] See, for example, Susan Golombok and Fiona Tasker, “Do Parents Influence the Sexual Orientation of Their Children? Findings From a Longitudinal Study of Lesbian Families,” in Developmental Psychology (Vol. 32, No. 1, 1996), pp. 3-11. Golombok and Tasker conclude, “This study found that there was no significant difference between the number of self-identified lesbian and gay young adults from lesbian-headed families and from heterosexual-headed families…”

[10] See, for example, God and Country: Where the Christian Right Is Leading Us, December 2005/January 2006 special issue of Mother Jones).

[11] See, for example, Ellen C. Perrin, Joseph F. Hagan, Jr., William L. Coleman, Jane M. Foy, et al., “Technical Report: Co-Parent or Second-Parent Adoption by Same-Sex Parents,” in  Pediatrics. Evanston: February 2002. Vol. 109, Issue 2; Part 1; pp. 341-344. Writing for the Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health, 2000-2001, of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the authors conclude:

“Although gay and lesbian parents may not, despite their best efforts, be able to protect their children fully from the effects of stigmatization and discrimination, parents’ sexual orientation is not a variable that, in itself, predicts their ability to provide a home environment that supports children’s development…”

[12] Pauline Park, “Race & the Politics of LGBT Communities of Color,” in Lesbian and Gay NewYork (22 November 2001), p. 10.

[13] Jim Yardley, “China  Tightens Adoption Rules, U.S. Agencies Say” (New York Times, 19 December, 2006)


Devon Brooks, Sheryl Goldberg, “Gay and Lesbian Adoptive and Foster Care Placements: Can They Meet the Needs of Waiting Children?” (Social Work, New York: April 2001, Vol. 46, Issue 2; pp. 147-157).

Jeanne Howard, “Expanding Resources for Children: Is Adoption by Gays and Lesbians Part of the Answer for Boys and Girls Who Need Homes?” (Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, March 2006).

Wun Jung Kim, “Benefits and Risks of Intercountry Adoption,” in The Lancet (London: 10 August 2002, Vol. 360, Issue 9331, pp. 423-424).

Judith Masson, “Intercountry Adoption: A Global Problem or a Global Solution?” Journal of International Affairs, New York: fall 2001, Vol. 55, Issue 1, pp. 141-166.

John D Matthews, Elizabeth P Cramer, “Envisaging the Adoption Process to Strengthen Gay- and Lesbian-Headed Families: Recommendations for Adoption Professionals,” Child Welfare (Washington: Mar/Apr 2006. Vol. 85, Iss.  2;  pg. 317, 24 pgs).

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