Understanding Trans Adoption – My Personal Journey
Posted on March 30, 2017
The first step toward understanding trans adoption was, for me, the awareness of how little I knew about it. Slowly, I got to understand it better through talking with adoption agency workers, attorneys and trans men and women themselves.
I became more proficient with the vocabulary of gender: I am cisgender, a person whose gender identity matches the biological sex I was assigned at birth. Transgender, or trans, is an adjective used to describe a person whose gender identity does not match the biological sex they were assigned at birth. According to National Geographic, gender fluid refers to someone whose gender identity or expression shifts between man/masculine and woman/feminine or falls somewhere along this spectrum.
I wanted to know more about how trans individuals created families through adoption during or after transitioning. These are largely unchartered waters and trans adoption is a relatively new phenomenon occurring officially over the past four years or so.
I talked with Diana Fletcher, the Supervisor of Case Management and Outreach at Friends-in-Adoption, an adoption agency located in Vermont, and New York. She works closely with The Human Rights Campaign, America’s largest civil rights organization working to achieve LGBTQ+ equality.
HRC has an “All Children-All Families Project (ACAF) working with agencies like hers, to establish best practices for LGBTQ+ adoption. HRC certifies agencies wishing to guide clients through trans adoption. A newly formed HRC ACAF panel was formed to look at the “ethics, trials and tribulations” surrounding people who define themselves as trans in the adoption world.
I spoke with Beth and Jamie, a couple who have adopted. Jamie is a trans man. I wondered what their experience was like and especially whether they had been open about their status when they talked to expectant women wishing to place their babies.
Beth and Jamie searched for an agency that was trans friendly and they found one. But, while the agency was accepting, they did not have much experience guiding clients through a trans adoption.
Both Beth and Jamie were certain they wanted an open adoption. They knew they could pass as a straight couple, but were determined to be honest about themselves. They wanted their child to grow up knowing about Jamie’s change of gender and felt the birthmother should know as well. Since the adoption was to be open, as almost all domestic adoptions are, it would not be at all unlikely that the child would talk with his/her birthmother about Jamie’s transition from being a woman to being a man.
The social worker who did the home study was insensitive. She asked Jamie if he had undergone “the surgery.” Jamie, who has been a trans activist for decades, responded, “My genitals have nothing to do with my parenting ability!”
Last Fall Beth and Jamie were matched with a 16-year-old pregnant teenager, Emily. The adoption agency began pressuring the couple to tell Emily right away that Jamie was trans. The couple delayed telling her out of fear that they might be rejected. Finally, at their match meeting, they told her.
Emily took the news without skipping a beat. She said she felt comfortable with Beth and Jamie becoming the baby’s parents—gender was not an issue for her. The couple felt relieved, the social worker seemed surprised and the adoption went forward.
The fear of rejection that a pre-adoptive couple can have before talking candidly to a pregnant woman about a gender change that occurred or is in progress is common among trans men and women trying to adopt. Trans adopters are likely to encounter prejudice along the way: they are trying to adopt in a social/political/cultural environment that can be hostile.
But the lens of adoption is ever-widening. In the 1950s it was the norm for a birthmother to place her baby without ever seeing the adoptive parents. Adoptees were not always told that they were adopted. From the 1970s onward open adoption became the norm: expectant couples and adoptive couples met and developed relationships. Now adoptees often grow up knowing their birthparent(s). Hopefully trans adoption, too, will become an increasingly accepted way to grow a family.
For more information on trans parenting options, download Path2Parenthood’s free handbook, “Family Building for Transgender Men and Women: A Guide to Becoming a Parent.”
Carolyn Berger, LCSW is Founding Board Chair of Path2Parenthood, and Chair of its Adoption Advisory Council. She has a private practice that focuses on fertility, adoption and all family building options.