Alex Blaze

Miss Manners responds to letter about a family with two dads

Filed By Alex Blaze | December 04, 2009 11:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Media
Tags: gay families, LGBT, Miss Manners

Here's part of a letter in Miss Manners' column this past Wednesday:

Dear Miss Manners:

My partner and I adopted a child three years ago. He has become a happy, silly, active, loving child.

When we were going through the adoption process, the topic of being a "conspicuous family" was discussed. As two men with a child, we fall into that category.

Several times over the last couple of years, we have been verbally attacked. Twice we have been in a grocery store when someone informed us that we were not a "real family." On one of these situations, we were even told that we were condemned to hell!

Another time, when I was having breakfast out with our son, I was discussing children with a woman who was there with two of her own. The conversation was casual and amiable. When I mentioned "my partner" in the conversation, she started shouting at me, "You're evil! You are doing that child a great injustice!"

The dad wants to know how to react to such people. What do you think? Official response after the jump.

A gentleman of Miss Manners's acquaintance was once subjected to a barrage of unwarranted insults. Outraged on his behalf, she asked why he did not trouble to defend himself.

His reply (and please forgive the inelegance for the sake of vividness) was: "If someone is throwing up on you, you get out of the way. You do not stay around to examine what is coming up."

There is nothing you can say to people who, whatever they may think, see fit to hurl crude insults at you, even in front of your son.

A stiff "I'm sorry you feel that way" is all you can utter before turning your back.


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a great huge 'fek off' would come out of me.

something about their being a neanderthal who couldn't possibly understand comes to mind as well.

Mo Rage

I would tell them to eat shit and die. Politely, of course.

I have been walking away all my life. Are we supposed to stand up for ourselves any time soon?

Deanna

Well, I had one response ready to go, and then I noticed that you wrote, ah, clever Alex, that this was only "part of a letter." So I went over and read the entire thing.

Which evokes a much more complex response.

I was originally going to write that no one seemed to be thinking of the child. In other words, "Miss Manners" seemed to forget that the child in this case was probably thoroughly traumatised by these incidents, and the first order of the day should be to sit down and explain to him that the world is full of people who suck, are mean, are nasty, and that there's no rationalising with them, and this is what they believe about their two dads and, of course, he knows too well that none of it is true and that they love him. And he also needs reassurance that his two dads are not in any danger from these idiotic and clearly unhinged people. And *then,* she should have added what she suggested as a response. I would suggest an additional sentence like, "You have no right speaking to me like this in public, and if you can't control yourself, I suggest you stay at home." Vicious, angry, and clearly insane homophobes need to know we're not above speaking back firmly and of knowing our rights.

But here's the part of the dads' letter that, frankly, sickens me:

"Our son's birth mother was a heroin and cocaine user during her pregnancy. She had the presence of mind to realize she couldn't take care of him and chose us as his adoptive parents.

We didn't decide to adopt to "save" a child, but the fact is, we will probably be able to give our son a much better life than if he had stayed with his birth mother."

Why is this even part of the letter? The fact that they bring it up tells me that they probably did in fact adopt in order to "save" a child. And that they're not above using the child's history when convenient. I want to be sensitive to the issue; this has to be a tough and agonising situation that they face over and over again, one shared by many gay parents. And it isn't always easy to be nuanced in these situations.

BUT: I'm constantly appalled by the way so many adoptive parents and gay parents more so than others pull out their children's history in order to prove, what, that they're such saints for having rescued their children from horrific lives? Yes, perhaps, it's true that the child is in some ways better off. But the whole "I adopted a child and thus saved him/her from a life of destitution from a cocaine addict mother" is deeply embedded in this incredibly problematic and racialised discourse around women who "choose" to give up their children. The research of Dorothy Roberts (Northwestern university), found in the book Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare and many of her other pieces, goes into this in more detail.

But for now, I would probably turn to the dads and say, "I hate that you have to go through this with your child in public, and here's how I think you might be able to cope with what might be a lifetime issue. But, by the way, when are you ever going to stop using your child as your personal proof of sainthood? At some point, your child needs to just be your child, not a certificate of sainthood or an award for recognition as "Gay Parents Are Not Just Good, They're Better Than Any Other Parents Because They Rescue Children from Crack Addicts."


Let me add: This kind of reaching for sainthood is not peculiar to gay parents; straight adoptive parents do it all the time. But it is becoming a predominant feature of the cultural discourse around gay adoptions.

I also want to add: As difficult as it can be to restrain oneself in these situations, I don't think engaging angrily with homophobes who aren't afraid to be such in public is either good for the parents or for the children in question. That's a lot of verbal animosity and hatred on all sides for a child to have to absorb. If she/he is present, she/he needs to be taken out of the situation and needs help processing what just happened. With luck, your kid will reach a stage where they can laugh at or deliver a savvy response on their own.

There are many types of adoption processes, so please do not generalize about the reason a child is adopted. Yes, some people go to places to "Select" their future child. Others willingly accept who is offered.

After you get the child, you tend to talk about how you obtained your child. Then you are asked about the birth mom and why she offered the child up for adoption. After awhile, you tend to offer the whole story instead of being constantly prodded for more information.

I will not give you our story bout the Birth Mom's story because you seem to be the type that will complain we had some ulterior motive. The simple reason is my partner desperately wanted a second child and after IVF didn't work the second time, we chose to adopt and accepted the first child that was offered to us. That was after waitng over a year for a Birth Mom to choose us. But when asked, or when seeing a doctor or other medical personnel, we do tell them the whole story so they do not make a wrong assumption, medical or otherwise.

Deanna,

I very much appreciate you sharing your story. But please note that I'm not making a blanket condemnation but specifically talking about the cultural discourse around such adoptions.

Yeah, that was my first thought too. Forget about how to react to those homophobes -- figure out how to respond to their child. I grew up as that child, lucky not to run into blatant homophobia like that more than half a dozen times, but still felt rather traumatized by it.

It's not uncommon for children who are straight (or not identified as LGBTQ yet) to feel some sort of responsibility to protect their parents from such homophobia. While admirable, it can be a heavy burden to bear, especially when as a child you must fear for your parents' physical safety.

Talk with the child, reassure them things are okay, that their physical safety is not in danger (or if it is, safety plan what they should do in a dangerous situation). Talk with them about mean people, and how there are many more nice people than mean people and that you can scoff at or pity the mean people who are ignorant, want to take out their own personal frustrations on others, and are incapable of acting appropriately in public. Maybe connect them with other folks who have LGBTQ parents (COLAGE is a great resource) who can talk to each other about how to respond in such situations.

Oh, and about the adoption stuff, yeah, they are definitely connecting to the "saved" mythology. By referencing it, they are guaranteeing that's what most folks think. It's rather annoying, assuming that the birth mother is trash for the rest of her life, that it's impossible to get clean. One of my childhood friends was addicted to meth (or heroin I can't recall) when she was pregnant -- having a child is the thing that finally turned her life around and she and her child are both doing rather well these days.

Hey Tobi,

Regarding your friend, oh, gosh, I wish we could hear more stories like that. Or even stories about how kids with parents who aren't completely perfect don't end up getting ruined. I mean, how many people do we collectively know, with seemingly perfect parents in perfect surroundings, who were actually being psychologically/physically/sexually abused? Admittedly, yes, drugs are one end of the spectrum and potentially lethal with a kid around, but the whole racialised and classed dynamic around kids and parents...

One of my best:
My boyfriend and I were walking down the street holding hands. Two women were walking towards us. One of the women stopped right in front of us, blocking our way in front of a crowded coffee shop sidewalk cafe'.

"You two are disgusting!", she said. "Don't you have any respect for other people who have to look at this filth?"
"God bless your friend," I loudly said.
"What?" She was confused.
I smiled-"Not many people would walk around with a nosy sanctimonious bitch like you."

The people at the cafe' applauded and we walked away, still holding hands.

When I was a kid my Mother donated a few cans to a food drive. As she was dropping them off, the woman who was working the food drive, who lived in our neighborhood, asked "is that all you can afford?" My Mother smiled and said "Have a good day" and we walked away. I was furious and asked my Mother why she didn't tell her off. My Mother said that she was clearly an unhappy person and unhappy people like to drag others down with them. By not reacting the way she expected, she didn't get the satisfaction. As an adult, I now see the how much sense that makes but holding your tongue is not easy to do. I commend you if you can!

Regan DuCasse | December 4, 2009 4:40 PM

Hi YASMIN,


I think I'm trying to get a better understanding of your devil's advocate style of opinion.
The 'reaching for sainthood' label you place on adoptive gay parents.
Someone here can correct me if I'm wrong, but wouldn't it be hard NOT to be that way, given the circumstances?

It's an understandable defensive posture I think gay parents are more forced to develop. In looking at the way the anti marriage/anti gay debate it's ALWAYS about the lie that gay people threaten children and even a committed and heroic act like adopting a child is described as for sinister agendas. Straight adoptive parents get no such indictment EVER.

But I can agree with you that getting the child away from such an ACUTE attack and reassuring them and teaching them some good comebacks is fair.

Usually, I'm pretty good with such things, but once I got caught off by just how vicious a bigot was willing to be, no matter WHAT I did.

I'm in a mixed marriage and I have relatives of mixed parentage from during a time when such pairings were rare and the same risks of public abuse were likely.
But what I'm talking about happened about 10 years ago.
My husband is white and I'm black.
We were in a line at Costco in Burbank, CA. A woman and her friend and a little child were ahead of us and had gotten their groceries through.
My husband was looking off at this moment, and walked away because we'd forgotten something, so he missed it.

The woman with the child (little blue eyed girl about 3yrs old) had turned around and looked from me to him with the stink eye. If looks could kill...
So just as politely as I could I said 'good morning' she didn't respond, but her stink face got stinkier.
But the little one, just as sweetly said good morning back to me.
At that point, the woman's friend was walking off. But that woman yanked the child around hard fit enough to dislocate the shoulder and when the child cried, she hit the child hard in the face!

The checker even said Oh MY GOD! And neither of us could believe what we were seeing.
I REALLY wanted to go bitch/I/ will/ beat/ the shit/ out/ of/ you/ on that prejudiced skank.
That's the first time I've been left so flat footed about what to do. And feeling horrible that I didn't know how to act, or more quickly.
My husband and I have no children, but imagine if our child had witnessed this bitch hurting HERS?

A sweet little child abused in front of me like that, even though I was polite.

NEVER again.
The situation haunts me once to remind me to be more committed than ever that no public abuse will happen on my watch.
EVER. AGAIN.
Sometimes not manners, nor walking away is going to cut it.
I know better what to do.
But still...

Hi Regan,

I absolutely see your point, and yes, I'm in agreeement with: "It's an understandable defensive posture I think gay parents are more forced to develop. In looking at the way the anti marriage/anti gay debate it's ALWAYS about the lie that gay people threaten children and even a committed and heroic act like adopting a child is described as for sinister agendas. Straight adoptive parents get no such indictment EVER."

I think it's absolutely all of that, but I think we as a community need to be far more conscious about how we deal - or don't deal - with matters of race and economic inequality when it comes to adopting. We forget about the race(s) of adopted children when we simply talk adoption, but then use their race when we want to justify why we should be able to adopt and the rhetoric is often something like: "No one else would adopt five Black children" (pretty close to what I've read on occasion).

The reasons why gay parents often adopt children of colour are multiple and complex, and a lot of that has to do with the difficulty of adoption, period, when entire states or even countries might forbid gay parents from adopting.

That being said, I would want to ask these parents: "If this were your birth child, would you ever remind him/her, or keep telling the world, about how lucky they were to be parented by you?" Yes, there are birth parents who do that, but I think we can agree they're the worst kind of parents.

I guess I would want to know: Do these parents think of the long-term effects on these children, growing up and knowing that they're supposed to be undying grateful to these people who probably don't look anything like them to begin with (let's be blunt: crack addict is code for person of colour, and a lot of adoptive gay parents tend to be white) and who further alienate them with all these implicit narratives about saving and gratitude? I just don't think it's a healthy environment for kids.

That, plus the implication that these women who "give up" their children are just the worthless dregs of society who don't deserve to have children anyway. There's long and murky history behind how poor women of colour, especially Black women, are compelled by the state to "give up" their children - and giving up usually means being compelled to do so because the state will otherwise withdraw all other support.

I think adoptive parents and the community as a whole needs to think more intentionally and consciously about the racial and economic dynamics of cross-racial adoptions. And I know from watching folks who've gone about it more consciously (sometimes by involving the birth parents, and always by never using their kids as badges of honour) that we don't have to fall into these rhetorical traps.

And about the incident you witnessed - traumatic on so many levels, I imagine, and I would be dumbfounded too.

Regan DuCasse | December 4, 2009 8:18 PM

Hi Yasmin.
Thank you so much for your response. I'm actually a child of a difficult step parenting situation. My mother died when I was young, and my father married her younger sister.
My father died when I was 15 and I'd never gotten along well with my aunt/step mother. She often gave me the grip about being grateful to her. Something that I found rather tiresome and abusive.

I have many cousins who have come from serious, fatherless dysfunction. For three generations. My generation has problems with drug abuse and child abandonment.
My same aunt/stepmother has stepped in often to try and help her nieces.
She even adopted the first children (a boy) one of my cousins had at the age of 16.

I also have several gay friends who have adopted children. Most of the children were of color because literally they WERE the children with the most urgent need, less people willing to take them and the most difficult to place because of age or damage from drugs or abuse.

Most of the people who criticize the adoption of children by gays and lesbians, haven't been too swift in adopting these children either.

Look at the family portraits of any of the most notorious opponents of gay equality and they are traditional and nuclear alright, but none of them have been so generous and willing to be DIRECTLY involved in the lives of the children they are talking about.

I find it interesting that straight people like this don't think themselves unqualified or dangerous to GAY CHILDREN because they won't believe or engage the concept of gay children.
Another pathological contradiction regarding who should be raising children and who is best for them.

At any rate, your point is well taken. We have thousands of children being born to parents who don't want them. And the neocons won't admit they don't want those children either.

These same conservatives out there, critical of and running interference against good gay parents doing right by their responsibility to the children they DO have, see no terrible irony in the fact that they can't MAKE heteros do the right thing.
And have no solutions from what results from that.

When people are publicly hurtful to me, I either say nothing but stare them down or ignore it. I used to fight back verbally (I love to argue) to the point of ridiculousness on all parts (I am a bit ashamed of some things I've said in the heat of the moment) and it never really worked out. So I say, save your breath, they are not really listening to the words that are coming out of your mouth. So use your body language to speak for itself and leave it at that.

Rick Elliott | December 5, 2009 1:36 AM

I've come up with a strategy that helps my sense of satisfaction.
--When a woman denigrates my being gay I respond, " You know one major theory why some men are gay is that they have domineering mothers who skew any male model they may have. I do hope that you don't have/haven't had any male offspring."
--when it's a man, "You know one theory why men are gay is that they have absent fathers as role models. I hope you don't have/ haven't had male offspring."
It's really fun to see their astonished expressions when they contemplate the role reversal.

Yasmin, you keep stating that you are not generalizing, but the same refrain keeps being repeated.
I am an adoptive gay parent. My husband and I have a son who is now 3 1/2 years old.
Deanna was very much on target in describing so much of the process that goes on when adoptive parents try to discuss their family.
We interact with a community of adoptive families - and the majority of families are mixed racially (in every possible combination.)
The community I refer to has @ 40 families who get together once a month - we started almost 2 years ago with about 7 families.
And this group is only a small percentage of the gay/queer adoptive community here in Boston.
I could also refer to many families I know in SF, in NYC, in Dallas, in the Midwest...
My husband and I are white, as is our son. But the numerous families we know all take very seriously the issue of culture, race, of the adoption itself.
Your harangue sounds so ill-informed. As if it was only conceptual, rather than reflecting a real world environment.
It is very late, and I am probably not expressing myself very well.
But the families I know personally are so acutely aware of the issues you mentioned.
Your portrayal of gay adoptive families as not acting "intentionally and consciously" is insulting to the majority of families who do just that.
You would be welcome to come and visit with my family, you would be welcome to attend a monthly 'brunch' and meet the diverse group of families who are all working diligently - who are all working with intent and consciousness of all the many factors that affect an adoptive family.
And our number one priority is our children.
Adopting is not an easy process. I'll take your word that there are these numerous gay families out there who adopt so they can "save" a child. Or that there are many gay adoptive families who never consider the issue of race, of class, of gender.
But I will be honest with you - I have never met a family like that.
How many of these hypothetical families have you known personally?
(and again - it's late, I'm tired, sorry for the rambling nature of the reply.)

Aubrey,

I wasn't adopted, but I did end up as a person of color being raised by white lesbians (donor insemination). It's not the same thing at all, but I started exploring a lot of the issues that came up for me and began connecting with transracial adoptees as the most significant population of people of color raised by white parents.

I love my parents, yet they are no better on race issues than your average white liberal and they were certainly not thinking about race when they chose my donor. I once was hanging out with a large group of people of color with LGBTQ parents, the majority of which were adopted by white parents, and I mentioned I'd having difficulty knowing how to react when your parents say something racist and there was a large grown of acknowledgment from others who had the same experience.

I don't think anyone would adopt just so they can have their badge of honor, but we all know the white person with a friend of color, and in just the same way I've encountered white parents who trot out the fact they have a child of color as some kind of proof that they can't be racist. And one story that always hits me like a punch to the gut is the parents who tell their light skinned children of color that they are white as a way to try and duck the issue all together -- it's not as uncommon as it should be.

Some of these issues are common, but I certainly don't mean to imply it's everyone. I'm sure there are white parents out there who are really on top of their race politics and have good friends to school them on it, but honestly, I've never knowingly met a family like that. I can point to a dozen families I don't know well enough to say either way. Perhaps I should visit your group next time I'm in Boston.

I would highly recommend reading the anthology "Outsiders Within" written by transracial adoptees. You might also be interested in looking at http://www.transracialabductees.org/. It's more of an extremist point of view, but again, a point of view that some transracial adoptees felt strongly enough to put together a website around. You can get a few first hand accounts of family race dynamics that are not at all hypothetical.

I have always loved that Miss Manners, way back in the last century, when asked how does one respond to an introduction to a gay couple responded succinctly:
"How do you do?" "How do you do?"

I dislike intensely that the worst possible explanation is put forward to describe the gay dad's reaction. When you are a LGBT parent, adoptive or otherwise, you are barraged with insults and intrusive questions in the media, from strangers, schools, relatives, and of course from "queer theorists". You do become defensive and if that sometimes includes exasperatedly explaining once again that your child's birth situation was untenable, apparently you are seeking credit.

Yeah, right. How about some days, you're just tired?

It's disheartening at best to read these jejeune critiques of our families on this blog.

KevinV

I just replied to Tobi's reply to my reply to Yasmin, and now I want to quickly reply to you.
Basically, just yes, thank you.
Being a gay parent is not an easy task.
Being a parent is not an easy task.
We all fail miserably, every day.
But most parents I know try to learn from those mistakes.
And you are right - some days, you're just tired.
And I don't even have to worry about the onslaught from outside myself.
I insult and question myself as a parent constantly.
I really don't want to sound disrespectful to people's situations (I'm thinking Tobi right now), but parents fail.
And we seem to fail in those ways that matter most to our children.
I know my parents did with me.
It is a little sad that a letter to Miss Manners becomes the basis to find all LGBTQ parents inadequate.
The dad was asking a question about how to handle abusive criticism from non-LGBTQ people - and he was criticized just as much.
Well, I gotta go.
My 3-year old is tired of me writing at this computer.

Tobi,

I appreciate your comments.
You would be very welcome to visit.
Perhaps it is a function of the times. All of the parents to which I refer have children under 4 years of age.
And I know these families are well aware of their inadequacies in addressing all of their children's needs - and they reach out accordingly.
I think all parents are in some ways inadequate as a function of being a parent. Biological parents/children have their own set of issues.
Obviously there are tremendous issues whenever any boundary is crossed.
And I haven't read "Outsiders Within", but I know several of the families passed around excerpts in several of the online discussions.
And Tobi, excuse me for just noticing the remark - I don't mean to be insensitive to your situation, and I don't know your parents or you - but when you say the "average white liberal" you are displaying your own racial stereotyping.
I'm sure I would get criticized for saying this, but that attitude seems as racially insensitive as the racism you find so hurtful.
I don't want to get off on a tangent. Because all I was trying to address initially was Yasmin's broad generalizations, but Tobi, sometimes a person only finds what they expect to see. They are blind to anything outside their own horizon.
It might even be a function of 'knowledge' itself - but often our insights blind us. (to through in a little Paul deMan)
All the above said, I'll repeat - I'm sure many of the families I know would love to incorporate your experience into their own.
And maybe you could do the same.

Aubrey,

I'm certain that there are families dealing with the race issues around transracial adoption well, and it's likely I've met a few but haven't gotten to know them well enough to see it. I'm not ignoring that possibility, but was trying to point out the significance that I haven't heard those stories (and I've been looking) while I have heard lots of stories where it hasn't worked out very well.

As for the "average white liberal" comment, well, I don't intend for it to reference everyone, that's where the "average" part comes in. But I've had too many encounters to count with white liberals who care about racism and would be horrified to be seen as racist yet do subtle racist things all the time. They preface things with "This might sound racist but..." or try to hide racist perspectives behind flimsy excuses "I don't like hanging out with him, not because he's black but because something about him makes me uncomfortable" or pick on people of color with nitpicking arguments, "She might have a point but I just can't listen to her when she's so angry" or "We all have to work together so why do you keep dividing us by bringing up race?"

It's a distinct experience from dealing with out and proud racists. Often times they are well meaning, call themselves white allies, or even volunteer or donate to PoC issues. It's important for me to have a way to reference that type of behavior and it's important for me to be able to reference the frequency in which it occurs within white liberal spaces. I see that as distinct from stereotyping because I don't assume all white liberals behave that way -- I just might be more on guard do to past experiences.

My goal is not to ignore race and the cultural experiences our racial background bring but to be very aware of it. And while individuals respond differently to it, it's an unavoidable fact that white people in western culture experience training to internalize racism (people of color internalize it too, but the result is different). So when I reference that it is common among white folks to not be aware of the breadth and depth of their own trained racism, it's not because I'm being insensitive.

On a related note, even the most intentionally hurtful anti-white sentiment will not hold the institutional power necessary to be the equivalent of the racism that I decry. Even if you take the same words targeting people of color and turn them on white people, the result is not going to be the same.

Tobi, very nice letter. One of the best I have read from you. Children should be the center and should be the ones we look after instead of racing on to prove who is right. You are a very smart person and I do look up to you.
As for your friend who had the child while doing drugs, it doesn't matter what kind of drugs, your friend is the exception and not the norm. As you know I drive school bus for special needs kids and have driven quite a few who are now in foster care because of the mother being a drug user. The father, well just not there I guess. The mother never stops. I'm glad that your friend did, I would imagine because she has friends like you.
Thank you

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | December 8, 2009 8:02 AM

I think you have all beautifully explained why my partner refused my attempt to suggest adoption in Illinois for a special needs child in the 1980's. My partner has a PhD in child psychology from UCLA and is known among all our friends for his infrequent conversation. The man is quiet and enjoys listening to everyone else. On this occasion when I suggested the idea he had a three word response: "Are you nuts?"

I told him you have to be to want a child. Just as in Chicago where we worked for our local park on the advisory council and sponsored little league baseball. We are presently building a play area for children in our 880 unit condo building. We are far too old to have children, but to watch them and interact with their mothers is wonderful. We have 50 rug rats in our building if we have one. A play area is long overdue.

Oh, and tell the evil bitch in the restaurant that your child, young as she/he is, at least learned public manners.