Adopting identities

When it comes to gay adoption, everybody argues identity politics.

Kathleen Richardson

Topics Politics

The recent squabbles over gay adoption in the UK House of Commons and House of Lords (1) have touched on a range of issues: how long heterosexual relationships last in comparison to homosexual relationships; how many partners gay people have in relation to heterosexuals; and whether stigma will affect the adopted children of gay parents.

But the focus on the pros and cons of gay adoption has hidden the more significant issue at stake in the Adoption and Children Bill 2002: its emphasis on placing the child in an appropriate ‘cultural’ environment.

The overriding theme in the Bill is ‘the best interests of the child’. How are these best interests defined? Chapter 1 of the Bill states that the court and adoption agency must make a decision based on ‘the child’s age, sex, background and any of the child’s characteristics which the court or agency considers relevant’. It seems fair enough to consider these factors. But then the Bill goes on to state that: ‘In placing the child for adoption, the adoption agency must give due consideration to the child’s religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural and linguistic background.’

Those in favour of allowing same-sex parents to adopt argue that the ability of a couple to provide a strong, loving and supportive family should be the only criteria for assessing the basis of good parents. What is interesting, though, is that this is not the case – even for heterosexual couples or single people trying to adopt.

So much emphasis is placed on the idea of the ‘culture’ or ‘identity’ of the child that even married heterosexuals are considered inadequate parents in many cases. Discussions about adoption are dominated by multicultural notions that white people should not adopt black children, or that potential parents from one religious orientation should not be allowed to adopt a child from another.

Given that choosing the right cultural background for the children is accorded more priority than finding them a loving home, it is not surprising that the strongest argument in favour of same-sex adoption – ‘it only matters that two people love each other and provide a good home’ – failed to win the argument in the Lords.

The Adoption and Children Bill was proposed to address a serious problem affecting the adoption services. According to Lady O’Cathain, of the approximately 5000 children who become available for adoption every year in England and Wales, only a small percentage are adopted. The aim of UK prime minister Tony Blair and his aides was to expand the categories of people allowed to adopt so as to encourage more children to find homes.

But the issue is less that there are too few people to adopt than that there are too many restrictions on who can adopt whom. Even a reactionary like former Tory MP Lady O’Cathain, a strong opposer of the same-sex clause, pointed out to the House of Lords that: ’90 percent of would-be-adopters gave up or were turned down as the process lasted too long. Adopters were told “You are too poor, too fat, you live in too big a house or go to church”.’

The adoption process is currently so time-consuming and involves such rigorous selection based on characteristics like ethnicity and religion, that many married couples and single people cannot adopt or give up trying. While homosexual couples can adopt, as can unmarried couples, the problem is that only one of the couple is legally registered as the guardian of the child.

But as adoption is decided through local authorities, some local authorities are certainly more open-minded about gay couples than others. So Southwark Council in London launched a campaign advertising adoption in 2001 entitled ‘Never thought I could’, aimed at single people over 45, people who work full-time or are unemployed, and gays and lesbians.

Rather than indicating a backlash against gays, the conservative opposition to same-sex adoption reinforces the way in which multiculturalist ideas now inform the way we think about our relationships with one another.

These standards prescribe who and what people should be, rather than what they have the potential to become. And they prioritise a person’s background, rather than seeing that there is something inherently universal in different kinds of people – namely, the desire to provide a home for, to care and love a child.

Kathleen Richardson is studying for a doctorate at the University of Cambridge.

(1) See the House of Lords debate on the Adoption and Children Bill 2002

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Topics Politics


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