By Claire Brown
Since the 1950s, adoption agencies in the UK and America have acted as ‘gatekeepers’, deciding who is suitable to become an adoptive parent and who is not. Their decisions tend to be influenced by heteronormative and gender normative views, where the ideal family is still seen as a heterosexual couple who conform to the usual expectations of gender.
Those who identify outside of the expected norms are often seen as a second-best choice of family. As such, non-normative families are often excluded entirely, or fall to the ‘bottom of the pile’ in terms of choice of adoptive parents or foster carers (see Gailey, 2010). However, with the UK facing a constant shortage of foster carers and adoptive parents, this discriminatory approach must be reconsidered for practical as well as moral reasons.
Although we have seen an explosion of research into lesbian- and gay-headed families over the past 20 years, we still have a way to go to move towards true equality. There is a robust and growing mass of findings that demonstrates lesbian and gay adoptive and foster families provide care that is at least as good as heterosexual families. Some studies showed that lesbian and gay families offered adopted children some advantages, such as higher levels of emotional warmth and responsiveness to their children’s needs (for example, Golombok et al, 2013).
However, research has also found that many lesbian and gay carers feel the need to present their lives in a way that fits with expected gender norms (see Hicks, Goldberg (ed) and Allen (ed) 2013, p149-162). These findings beg us to ask the question; ‘have the majority really listened, understood and changed their minds?’ Or has the minority conceded under the weight of pressure to conform?
It can be argued that the dominant culture is not one of acceptance and equality; it has pushed lesbian and gay carers to make adaptations to their life, or at least its presentation, to fit the right mould.
We could follow the line of argument that such stereotyping is a natural and useful human process. Our brains are designed for efficiency and familiarity; to code, sort and store each new encounter based on an accumulation of our previous experiences. Novel practices and ideas that lack familiarity can bring us outside of our comfort zone. If stereotyping and making choices based on familiarity with our own experiences is a natural human process then what’s the problem? Where is the harm?
The most obvious harm can be seen through interactions between workers and lesbian and gay carers. Imagine having to politely answer a social worker’s questions with predictable responses that you know don’t accurately reflect you and what you have to offer a child. You also know this is the only way you’ll get through an assessment and approval panel. Imagine having to deny your identity as a bisexual person because you know your sexuality is often misunderstood and your best chance of being accepted is to allow yourself to be put into a neater box of ‘gay’ or ‘straight’.
Now imagine not even being allowed into the conversation. Imagine you are a transgender person who is told you cannot adopt or foster a child simply because you are trans. More likely, you will be given another reason for being turned down. It could be that the life and support network you have built as someone living within a subculture is deemed a little too alternative. It could be that the stress of the daily abuse you endure, and its effects on your mental health, is cited as a reason you are unfit to parent. It could even be that your very identity is not acceptable; how could a gender-fluid person possibly provide a child with the stability that they need?
Sadly, discriminatory views such as these can be masked by organisations that claim to be inclusive (Hicks and Jeyasingham, 2016). Legislation and policy can direct a ban on discrimination, but where it is still embedded culturally and structurally, it remains rife. Further, where discrimination is veiled, it is much harder to challenge.
The voices of those who define outside of usual norms of gender and sexuality will not be heard in adoption and fostering until the gatekeepers can open themselves up to listen to alternative ways of constructing families.
When we do, though, the possibility for positive change for children is huge. The UK has a constant shortage of foster carers and adoptive parents and is failing to meet the needs of thousands of children whose birth families are unable to bring them up. It can be argued that the restrictions we place on fostering and adoptive applicants are not fit for purpose.
Research and practice knowledge tells us that that some of the most important attributes of carers are nothing to do with gender and sexuality. Children need parents and carers who will accept them as they are, who have patience and adaptability in abundance, can keep their sense of humour through some dark and testing days, effuse emotional warmth and nurturance, and have high levels of resilience.
The ability to empathise with a child’s struggles with their identity and loss of relationships is too often viewed as a vulnerability rather than a strength. Acceptance and tried and tested emotional strength should be traits we are actively searching out in adopters and foster carers. As should difference; because if we’re aiming to effectively match thousands of different children, doesn’t it follow that we’re going to need lots of different carers to find the right fit?
Claire Brown is an adoption social worker who is currently studying for a PhD. Her research is a narrative inquiry exploring trans people’s experiences of adoption in England. Find out more about her research:
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