What’s A Gay Or Lesbian Parent To Do?
Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of articles by Annie Tobey regarding a high-profile parental rights case in Richmond.
As amazing advances like in vitro fertilization arise, as adoption avenues open up to more people, and as alternative families are more accepted, people who long to become parents are becoming more creative in their approach. Single women and single men, lesbians and gay and straight, are becoming parents, devoting their time, money, and love to intentionally bring a child into their lives and raise him to be the best he can be. Let’s honor their rights, too.
If we rush too quickly to the side of all non-biological parties—gay or straight—then biological parents and adoptive parents face the risk of losing parental rights because someone becomes close to their child, or because they accept a lover into their lives. Single parents become hesitant to open up their hearts and hearths to others, knowing that the others could later claim rights to their child. Forget the U-Haul, unless it comes equipped with a pre-nup.
As informed gay rights activists, what can we do? How can we respect the child, the legal parent, and the partner?
First and foremost, we should absolutely continue to demand equal rights. We can’t be judged by the same standards if we don’t have the same opportunities. Marriage and/or civil union; adoption; second-party adoption: these should be equal for all. There will always be disagreements between people acting as parents, and such disputes are not unique to the LGBT community. If we can all play in the same sandbox with the same rules, we can act and judge more objectively.
Second, we should expect legal battles to be waged on objective standards. On rare occasions when subjective standards such as the child’s best interests must be used, they should have obvious, significant measures. When subjective standards take precedence over objective legal measures, the battle becomes costly, and not all parents have the resources to fight. The questions become fuzzy and the answers easy to fudge: How much time did the person really spend with the child? What did they pay for? Was their bond close? How close? Who says so? Is the child at harm? How much harm? By whose judgment? And the outcome becomes even more dependent upon whose lawyer is best, who is the most convincing, and who kept the best records.
Third, we as individuals should live consciously, aware of what is rightfully ours and what is not, and act accordingly. When parenting a child together, partners should work to establish legal rights for both as early in the child’s life as possible, through second-party adoption or co-parenting agreements. These actions not only provide protection in case of a breakup but also in case of one partner’s death or other emergencies.
If a legal parent doesn’t want to cooperate with sharing legal status, the partner has a choice: end the relationship or build a bond with the child, for however long it may last. I know of two situations, one lesbian and one straight, where the (acting) stepparent sadly but graciously stepped aside after a breakup, knowing that the ultimate decision belonged to the biological parent. One parent encouraged visitation, the other didn’t.
In the current Henrico case, the partner could have fought for her legal rights at the onset. As she entered a relationship with a woman who was in the process of conceiving through IVF, she could have requested a co-parenting agreement. If the mom had given her that agreement, they and the child might have been spared such a lengthy and expensive court battle. If the mom had not agreed, the partner could have recognized that the relationship with the child could end at the mother’s whim—and either withdrawn or enjoyed the time she had with the child.
Certainly, this concept is very unromantic, as are prenuptial agreements, but as the Russian proverb says, “Trust but verify.”
In the New York case Debra H. v. Janice R, Judge Graffeo of the appeals court gave a clear opinion that reflected all three of these suggestions: he put straight and gay couples on the same level; touted the benefits of having legal standing and the pitfalls of using subjective standards; and placed responsibility on the partners to act early to establish their legal rights. In his opinion, Judge Graffeo advised the importance of having adoption in place, which “guarantees that standing to seek visitation or custody will never hinge on an after-the-fact dispute as to whether the other party’s relationship with the child was sufficiently close or had been fostered by the biological parent. Under [an earlier New York case], when a romantic relationship ends, whether the parties were same-sex or heterosexual partners, a hearing to determine who is the child’s legal parent is generally unnecessary as the parentage issue can readily be determined as a matter of law based on objective genetic proof or documentary evidence. Thus, protracted litigation on the standing of a party hoping to obtain custodial rights or visitation is avoided, which further promotes the settlement of these issues rather than the contentious litigation that is all too frequently harmful to children.” (Remember? “Time, money, and emotional turmoil.”)
Fourth, both parties should do what’s best for the child. They should set aside personal petty squabbles and vindictive attempts to control the other person and consider the child first.
Sometimes ongoing visitation and custody are right, especially if both partners “conceived” of the child together. When I broke up with my ex many years ago, we agreed that our children would benefit from having two parents, and one thing we never fought over was visitation. Cooperative parenting really wasn’t that hard.
Sometimes, however, ongoing visitation and custody are not best, based on the partner, their relationship with the child, or other family needs. Decker said in an NBC 12 interview, “If I felt [CM] was a suitable role model and a person I wanted in my life or around my child, she’d still be here.”
Gay rights activists, take note: What’s best for the child isn’t necessarily what’s right for the community! There are those who believe that LGBTs should consider the needs of the community first, their children second. However, no fit parent should ever be expected to put anything but his child’s best interests first.
As hard as we fight for equal rights, let’s remember that gay rights are in truth the same as individual rights—liberty and justice for all. Such objective standards are the basis for lasting freedom.
Annie Tobey is a freelance writer and editor living in Richmond, Virginia. For six years, she’s shared her philosophical passions through V Magazine for Women, combining love for life, the diversity of women, and a celebration of success in all its forms, on the printed page and online, now at www.MyVMagazine.com. She also shares her joie de vivre as a travel writer at www.ActiveWomanTraveler.com. She welcomes freelance opportunities for writing and editing, helping businesses present a polished written message that builds a quality brand. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Wednesday, the NBA released its first collection of LGBTQ Pride teeshirts featuring the logos of all 30 pro basketball teams. The line is a collaboration between the basketball league, the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) and TeeSpring and was released in celebration of LGBTQ Pride Month. This is the first time an [...]June 9, 2016
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