Thursday, September 8, 2011

LGBT family law practitioners honor clients who are "pioneering parents"

At a luncheon today that was part of the Family Law Institute associated with the National LGBT Bar Association, twelve clients were honored for pursuing their right to raise their children through the appellate courts of states around the country. No one sets out to be a test case. But each of these clients was threatened with losing his or her child, and each kept going at great emotonal and financial cost, determined to keep that from happening.

The circumstances of the cases varied. Some won and some lost. And, as it turned out, some parents who lost in court nonetheless were able to remain actively involved parents. Some who won established great law for those who followed but did not get what they hope with respect to their own children.

For example, Michael Kantaras is a transgender man who married a woman who knew he was transgender. He adopted the child she was pregnant with when they married. And he consented as a husband to her insemination by donor semen and raised that child as well as his own. When the marriage ended, she argued that they did not have a valid marriage because he was legally a woman and therefore he was not the legal parent of the children. Although he won at the trial court, the appeals court ruled that, indeed, Michael was a woman and the marriage was not valid. The appeals court did not make a decision about the children, but Florida law made it unlikely he would obtain any ability to raise them. But Michael's story had a happy ending. Dr. Phil offered to provide the couple a family mediator, and through mediation they agreed to share raising the children.

On the other hand, in 1985, lesbian mother Sara Eaton won a stunning victory in the Alaska Supreme Court, which ruled that the trial judge was wrong to change custody of her son to her ex-husband. The court ruled that it was improper to rely on any real or imagined stigma that might come from the biases of others towards lesbian mothers. Language from that case has been cited in numerous other court rulings in the last 25 years. Well, Sara won on appeal, but when the case went back to the trial court the child had been living with his father for quite some time, and, on "best interests" grounds, the trial judge left the child there and gave Sara visitation rights. Sara appeared at the luncheon today with her son -- now 30 years old.

Several of the clients honored were nonbiological moms whose former partners tried to keep them from seeing the children they had planned for and raised together.

Credit for the luncheon goes to Deb Wald, chair of the National Center for Lesbian Rights National Family Law Advisory Council, for doing the lion's share of the work to make it happen.

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