Gay and Lesbian Adoptees: Coming Out Again
by Patrick McMahon
I'm gay; I was adopted; I'm different; I was given up. Being gay is a part of who I am. Being relinquished and adopted is something that happened to me. Nevertheless, gay and lesbian adoptees do double-duty in the coming out department.
Twenty-three years ago I came out as a gay person. Although that is an ongoing process, no matter how out I am, I thought I was done with the big surprises. Twelve years ago I began to consider what being adopted really meant to me, leading to a search and reunion that continues to unfold to this day. As I began to search for my birth family, I realized I would "have" to come out again, or "get" to come out again, depending on the level of separation anxiety visiting on any particular day.
Surprised by my nervousness, it was many years before I realized just how much risk I had felt in coming out to my birth family. These new relationships were precious; the idea of being abandoned again because of an aspect of who I am-as natural as the blood connection in these relationships-was terrifying. Still, I applied the same standards to my birth family that I had grown to apply to anyone else close to me: I'm gay. Any problem with that is a problem with us.
My experience was positive, but during the past ten years of reunion, I've thought about these issues and talked with other gay and lesbian adoptees. Some experiences were not so positive. My friend Stephanie Weiner joined me in preparing and presenting a workshop on the issues unique to being both adopted and gay (a term I am using to include gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered).
We discovered it was difficult to delve into these issues without some understanding of the history of both adoption and the gay rights movement in the United States. In researching the two histories, we discovered an interesting pattern. During the 1950s, many of the first gay and lesbian organizations formed, leading to a civil rights movement twenty years later. During the seventies, many of the prominent adoption organizations formed, which led to an adoptee civil rights movement twenty years later. There is much to be learned by studying these patterns and previous movements.
Along with unearthing what little research exists on gay adoptees, we developed a survey that was sent nationwide. The survey explored a wide range of questions: Is there any relationship between societal messages about being gay and being adopted? Does the risk of coming out to birth family influence the decision to search, the search process, or the reunion? Does reunion with birth family and knowledge of genetic history affect one's perception or level of acceptance as a gay person?
The answers to those questions revealed some interesting differences in the process by which identity is formed. Coming to terms with being gay was seen, generally, as an external process because of the presumption of heterosexuality and the clear, all too often voiced condemnation of homosexuality. There is an established gay community within which one can form an identity, if one chooses to explore it. Coming to terms with being adopted, in contrast, was generally an internal process because of the presumption of blood-related families and the much more subtle shaming of abandonment. There are no "adoptee sections of town" to learn about, visit, or move to in order to explore what it means to be adopted. Societal messages of illegitimacy, shame, and second-class citizenship have quieted a bit over the past few decades, but still very much affect both people who are gay and who are adopted.
Overall, most gay adoptees we heard from felt it was important to be out to birth family, and as soon as possible. However, most gay adoptees, no matter what level of self-acceptance, closet status, or experience in gay civil rights activities, associated some risk in coming out to birth family, more than they would with anyone else at that point in their lives. The fear of rejection and abandonment, already a sensitive button for most gay people, is magnified in coming out to birth family.
We also considered what effect an adoptive family's acceptance of a gay person might have on a decision to search. Would a gay person who has not been accepted be more likely to look for a family who will? Would a gay person completely accepted by the adoptive family not want to "rock the boat?" Many gay adoptees said that the level of acceptance they experienced with their adoptive families was a factor in considering a search.
The nature versus nurture labyrinth is also more complex for gay adoptees. How much of who we are comes from genetics? Many gay adoptees expressed some curiosity to know their birth families not only to answer that question in general, but also to know if their sexual orientation might have been influenced by genes. Many expressed a deeper acceptance of themselves as gay, not necessarily because they were looking for other gay birth family members, but because of the absence of wondering about it.
Being gay and adopted creates some unique challenges, but it also can foster unique strengths. Most gay adoptees we talked to felt they had a greater sense of empathy and respect for individuality because of these challenges. Many felt a deeper sense of spirituality and creativity. And many had externalized shame by finding ways to tell their stories, and used any anger they felt to effect change through activism.
In addressing these and many other complex questions and ideas, both in the research and during the workshop, we conclude that it is essential to be open about sexual orientation with one's birth family as soon as possible. A support network is very important, both in the gay and adoption communities. If, when and how to come out is a matter of the heart, however. Coming out again is an inevitable issue for gay adoptees. Regardless of the choices we make or the outcomes, how we handle the issue can make us stronger.
Patrick McMahon is a writer, artist, and activist, born in Chicago, now living in San Diego, CA. He is currently working on a book, and has produced a line of greeting cards for those touched by adoption, and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.