Tomorrow is “Blogging for LGBT Families Day.” Here’s my contribution:
The worst news recently for LGBT families was the decision of Maryland’s highest court that eviscerated the family of Janice and Margaret and their daughter, Maya. You see, only Janice legally adopted Maya. After the couple split up, Janice argued she was Maya’s only parent. The lower courts gave Margaret visitation rights as a “de facto” parent. Maryland courts had done this regularly since 2000. But the Maryland Court of Appeals decided that Maya had only one parent, and that Margaret was no different from a babysitter, neighbor, teacher, or relative. She would have to prove Janice’s unfitness or some other “extraordinary circumstances” in order to maintain her relationship with her daughter.
LGBT families are challenging conventional definitions of parenthood. Children are losing when the courts make narrow legalistic rulings that don’t reflect the child’s lived reality. So here’s my platform for respecting the families we create:
1) Stay out of court! Where were Janice’s friends when she was arguing that Margaret was nothing more than a babysitter? If Janice thinks Margaret is a bad parent, let her argue that, but if she thinks Margaret is not a parent at all, well even her closest friends should tell her she’s wrong. We all recognize as anti-gay the argument a straight parent may make that his or her now-gay former spouse shouldn’t get custody of a child because gay parents shouldn’t raise children. It’s time to recognize that using law designed for heterosexual families to argue that a gay parent isn’t a parent is just as bad. Unless one partner has been physically violent, a couple who can't resolve their dispute about custody and visitation should use a gay-friendly mediator to help resolve their differences.
2) We need new laws that do a better job of assigning parentage, and here are some proposals. They are only a start!
1. A semen donor is not a parent unless he has an agreement in writing to the contrary with the semen recipient. This is what most people intend when a lesbian uses a known donor, so it should be the default rule. But it also leaves room for recognizing the donor as a parent if the participants write that down. Last year the Kansas Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of such a statute.
2. The partner of a woman who conceives through donor insemination is also a parent of the child if both women agree at the time she will be a parent. That’s similar to the rule that applies to married couples, and there should be no difference if a couple is unmarried – same-sex or different-sex. Such a rule would have required a Massachusetts woman to pay child support for a child born to her former partner. Instead, she got to walk away from a child she participated in creating.
3. If a couple agrees to adopt a child but only one person legally adopts (something many states require), the other partner acquires “de facto” parent status immediately, with an equal right to custody and visitation and an equal obligation to pay child support. That’s a law that would have helped Margaret and Maya maintain their relationship, and as of 2007 it’s the law in the District of Columbia (DC Code 16-831.01).
Finally, marriage/civil union/domestic partnership isn't the law that's going to solve these problems. An unmarried heterosexual couple who has a child together are every bit as much the parents of that child as a married heterosexual couple. We need the same result for our families, but without the biological connection to both parents we need a different set of laws. Plus, in many states marriage only creates a "presumption" that the husband is the child's father. If it's a presumption that can be rebutted by showing the lack of biological connection, well...that still leave our families vulnerable.
Do you live in a state that allows second-parent adoption? Find out by contacting the National Center for Lesbian Rights or, if you are in New England, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD). Do it if you can! It's the best protection for your parent-child relationships...even if you are married, in a civil union, or in a domestic partnership.