That's a Family

At times, telling a new friend or colleague that I am adopted feels strangely similar to "coming out" as a gay man. Sadly, revealing either bit of information can catch the recipient off guard and l

Feb 1, 2001 at 2:06 pm

At times, telling a new friend or colleague that I am adopted feels strangely similar to "coming out" as a gay man. Sadly, revealing either bit of information can catch the recipient off guard and leave him or her feeling I'm not the person they had always thought I was. After years of practice in being "out" as both gay and adopted, I have become more confident and direct in my delivery. But I have never understood why sharing the fact that I am adopted brings on such pained reactions.

"Oh I'm sorry," is a common reaction. As if I should feel bad that my parents made a 100 percent conscious choice? And even had to pay a humbling sum of money to bring me into their family.

I don't remember specifically when my parents told me I was adopted. Like being gay, it feels like something I have always known. As a matter of fact, maybe one of the reasons I have never asked my parents for details about my birth parents, which they probably don't know, is that they were always so open with me about how and when they adopted me.

Of course, this is not the case with many adoptees. Many adopted men and women, such as adoptions-rights activist Helen Hill, describe a very intense sense of shame, often learned from a family that kept adoption a secret.

I have to imagine it is the desire to erase that shame from her life that drove Hill to begin a controversial fight for adoption reform. Hill's fight to pass Measure 58, Oregon's new adoption-rights law, is chronicled in a three-part article, the first part of which appears in the Feb. 15 issue of Rolling Stone.

In a nutshell, Measure 58 opens adoptees' birth records, revealing the identities of birth parents. The concept is simple. But for many, the effects are profound. One man quoted in the Rolling Stone article puts it well: "Secrecy, deception, being covered in shame without any real idea of what you have to be ashamed of, those are the things that really destroy you inside. What adoptees understand better than anyone else is that knowing is always better than not knowing."

In principle, I agree with this man. I support the idea that everyone should have access to the full picture of his or her past. But I also believe your family is the people around you who support you and share in the triumphs and pains of your life, whether related to you by blood or not. Because I watch for support of this idea with a very personal interest, I have noticed a growing number of people openly sharing this point of view.

Named one of's gay "Best of 2000" list, The Kid: What Happened After My Boyfriend and I Decided to Go Get Pregnant: An Adoption Story is a touching and sometimes hilarious account of a successful open adoption of a son by sex-advice columnist Dan Savage and his boyfriend. In this book, Savage provides a frank and open exploration of his own coming to grips with a variety of familial relationships — from his relationship with his boyfriend Terry, to his own parents, his in-laws and even the mother of his new son.

Last year also saw the subject of new family values broached by the HBO production If These Walls Could Talk 2. One of three story lines in the show portrays a contemporary lesbian couple, played by Sharon Stone and Ellen DeGeneres, determined to have a baby. While sometimes cliché, the positive and almost jubilant tone of the story did a great deal for the profile of this very important issue.

Continuing the momentum, Lifetime jumped on the bandwagon with its new film, What Makes A Family, which premiered Jan. 22. The fact-based story of two lesbian moms, a baby and a love that survived illness, death, and Florida's homophobic adoption laws brings together Brooke Shields and openly gay actress Cherry Jones.

Mainstream media is not the only place we can learn about the families of all shapes, sizes and sexualities. Women's Educational Media, the organization know for producing It's Elementary, a documentary focused on elementary schools that teach students about differences in sexual orientation, has released a new film called That's A Family. The 30-minute film, which its producers hope to get into classrooms around the country, includes few adult voices and instead focuses on more than two dozen children who are in families that don't fit the traditional mother-father-biological-kids mold. There are kids whose parents are divorced, single or of different races. There are also adopted kids, kids being raised by a grandparent or guardian and children whose parents are lesbian or gay.

Although it has been hard to learn, one the lessons of my life has been to live truthfully and openly. And the more I grow, that has meant being honest not only about who I love, but also about the family that I come from, as I know it. I have also learned that, like a growing number of people, I subscribe to a more open definition of family. And I can choose my family from the people who give me what I need in my life. One young boy who tells his story in That's A Family puts it well: "You love each other and take care of each other. That's a family."

contact eric hunter: [email protected]