Faces of adoption in the Bay Area / Forming and finding families / A valentine named Nora / For gays and lesbians, adoption is extra complicated
When San Francisco lawyer Jim Emery talks about his 5-year-old daughter, Nora, he sounds pretty much like any typical beaming dad.
“She’s very outgoing, very interested in other kids,” he says. “She’s an organizer. If there are five kids around, she’ll suggest a game and give them roles.”
Proud papa? Sure. But typical? Not altogether: Nora’s other parent is Emery’s life partner, Charlie Spiegel. The two men, who met in 1984 and united in a 1991 commitment ceremony, adopted the girl through a private process when she was born on Valentine’s Day, 1997.
Spiegel, 43, and Emery, 42, are one of a booming number of lesbian and gay couples — estimated between 6 million and 9 million nationwide — raising children.
Although experts see increasing societal acceptance of the phenomenon, such couples face a dense, daunting tangle of legal and social issues on the path to parenthood.
The lack of legal recognition of gay unions and of the lesbian and gay family structure can undermine essential rights such as hospital visits and, in the case of separation or one parent’s death, child custody.
And although states such as California allow second-parent adoptions — the type most widely used to legitimize lesbian and gay families — others, including Florida and Mississippi, do not.
Added to the burdens faced by lesbians and gays are those faced by prospective adoptive parents. In 2000, Spiegel and Emery had a second child placed with them, but after a week the boy’s birth mother wanted him back — something that was within her rights to demand.
And the first birth mother with whom the couple were matched in the mid- 1990s, before they found Nora’s mother, changed her mind when the child was born.
“That was an unhappy scene,” says Spiegel, the executive director of Our Family Coalition, a Bay Area nonprofit organization serving lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people raising children.
Still, says Joan Hollinger, the director of child advocacy at the Boalt Hall School of Law at the University of California at Berkeley, when it comes to gay and lesbian parenting, American society is beginning to show “quiet acceptance.”
“In individual case-by-case circumstances, when people have gone to court asking for recognition, we’re making enormous progress for the betterment of these children,” she says.
For many gay advocates, the recent declaration by the American Academy of Pediatrics that that children with lesbian or gay households should have “two fully sanctioned and legally defined parents” is further indication that mainstream institutions are accepting such families.
“I think it’s going to help a great deal, especially outside the metropolitan areas,” Spiegel says. “I think it also means, to some extent, that every pediatrician across the United States can be consulted on this issue.”
For Emery and Spiegel, wider political considerations have played out against a backdrop of play groups, hiking and canoeing trips, school drop-offs and bedtime songs.
The pair seems to have been destined to be parents. On their fourth date, the then-New York University School of Law students, both in their mid-20s, attended a daylong seminar on lesbian and gay parenting. Later that year they started living together and in 1989 relocated to San Francisco.
The couple attended more parenting courses and hired an adoption attorney. They were matched with the woman carrying Nora, who insisted the three not interact until the day of the girl’s birth. Spiegel and Emery met the woman at a Hayward hospital, where they spent three days getting to know her and the infant.
“After that, the birth mom left (the hospital) in a taxicab with flowers, and we went back upstairs with Nora,” Spiegel says. “And we burst into tears.”
Discharged from the hospital on a Sunday night, the family returned to a home piled high with baby necessities — diapers, formula and so on — left by friends.
“And I ordered Chinese food to be delivered,” Spiegel says. “I thought, ‘We can’t parent on empty stomachs. Whatever we’re about to do, we’d better be full.’ ”
Emery took a three-month leave to be with Nora. He says being a new dad brought out sides of himself antithetical to who he was at work.
“It wasn’t analytical thinking,” he said. “It was needing to be empathetic and to fulfill the needs of this baby who couldn’t talk, couldn’t think, couldn’t reason. It wasn’t arguing in front of a judge and convincing him of something.”
For Spiegel, the experience of being a parent so far has offered its unexpected pleasures — and here he, too, sounds like a typical dad.
“It’s been about as much work as we thought,” he says, “and twice as much fun.”