For the third successive year, Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, will run a bill that seeks to allow gay and lesbian couples to adopt children, something they have been unable to do since 2000, when the state Legislature restricted adoption to single and legally married people.
Although Chavez-Houck’s bill had not been enrolled and numbered at press time, the representative said its 2010 incarnation would differ from the previous years’. This time, she said she will focus largely on an attempt to legalize second parent adoptions for same-sex couples. This is he practice in which the non-biological partner adopts his or her partner’s biological child. The emphasis on the right of all Utahns to determine who should raise their biological children, she said, might be easier for legislators to understand and agree with than the possibility of a same-sex couple adopting a child not related to either partner.
“What gave me some hope was a poll Equality Utah did last year,” said Chavez-Houck, referring to the statewide gay and transgender rights group’s survey of Utahns’ opinions on a number of gay rights initiatives just before the 2009 session’s opening. “[It showed that] while people were still struggling with supporting the concept of gay couples adopting, there seemed to be an affinity and understanding of parental rights when the question was couched as, ‘Would you support a second parent adoption if the other parent has legal rights to child?”
““I took that to heart and am very encouraged by the fact that Utahns see the inequity that currently exists when someone is a parent” and lacks any legal standing to support the child in his or her care, she said.
Chavez-Houck’s revamped bill comes nearly six months to the day after one Utah lesbian experienced exactly what that lack of legal standing meant. In July, a Salt Lake City 3rd District Court ruled that Gena Edvalson was a legal stranger to the three-year-old son she and former partner Jana Dickson had conceived before breaking up in 2007. Despite the two having signed a co-parenting agreement, the only proof of a same-sex or unmarried couple’s desires to raise children together that Utah law currently allows, Dickson was legally entitled to prevent Edvalson from seeing their child. After the ruling, Edvalson’s attorney Lauren Barros said she would no longer recommend co-parenting agreements to her gay and lesbian clients. Barros also served as council in the 2007 watershed case of Jones v. Barlow. Here, the Utah Supreme Court overturned a non-biological mother’s order of visitation and declared that such parents had no rights to the children they were raising.
Chavez-Houck, who knows both Edvalson and Dickson, called the case “a very heart-wrenching situation.”
“Whatever we can do to strengthen the law to help people in this situation I’m all for,” she said.
Despite Utah’s ban on adoptions by same-sex couples and its hostility towards non-biological parents, an individual in a gay or lesbian relationship still has custody over his or her biological children. This fact has allowed at least one male gay couple in Utah to avail themselves of a surrogate mother in their quest to have children.
Earlier this month, Rep. Christine Johnson, D-Salt Lake City, announced that she was carrying a child for two gay men, both of whom are friends of hers. The child was conceived with her eggs and one of the men’s sperm, thus granting that man legal rights to the child. Johnson has declined to name the couple and has thanked the state’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community for not trying to uncover the couple’s identity.
Surrogacy has been legal in Utah since 2005, when the State Legislature approved the Uniform Parentage Act.
Johnson said that she offered to be a surrogate mother when the couple told her they were interested in having children, given that adopting a child would be costly and highly unlikely if they remained in Utah. She became pregnant on the first attempt and is now five months into a healthy pregnancy.
Although Johnson said she has yet to meet any other surrogate mothers — particularly those in her unique circumstances — she has met several mothers who had considered carrying children for friends.
“It allows me to feel like less of an anomaly,” she said.
Although Johnson said she will remain in the child’s life after the birth as long as she and the couple are living close to each other, she stressed that the men’s names will appear on the child’s birth certificate, and that the child will be theirs for all intents and purposes.
“The first consideration is the fathers,” she said. “This is their child, their life and they get to determine my involvement.”
Although many Utah Legislators do not accept the idea of gay couples adopting children, Johnson said that she has received no negative feedback from her colleagues on Capitol Hill. “Even the individuals with whom I’ve gotten along the very least have come up and said, ‘How are you feeling?’” she said. “It’s been another opportunity to discuss our shared humanity, frankly. I’m sure there are people who are being silent respectively, and I appreciate that. I’m not unaccustomed to criticism of my lifestyle or my choices or my sexual orientation, so I feel well-prepared to counter any negativity with, I think, just an open conversation about why I want to do this and why it is right for me.”
And Chavez-Houck hopes to see the day that her bill is passed, and the need for same-sex couples to result to things as uncertain as surrogacy to be a thing of the past. Although she has not designated her renewed adoption bill as one of her priority bills this session, she stressed that she has done so only to devote more time to defending the gay and transgender-inclusive housing and employment nondiscrimination ordinances Salt Lake City passed last November—ordinances which might well face a challenge from a Legislature uncertain about whether or not they will grant “special rights” to gay and transgender people.
“I want to make sure that nothing becomes a casualty of the efforts that have already been won,” she said of the ordinances. “But I want the community to understand I’m never going to abandon this effort. I will continue to try and educate my colleagues about gay parents and why they should be allowed to adopt and the challenges [they face] in regards to second parent adoptions.”
The stories that she regularly hears about the way Utah adoption law hurts same-sex couples, and other so-called non-traditional families who are caring for children, is all the reason she needs to keep fighting.
“The stories come out of the woodwork like crazy,” she said. “I get very frustrated when people define parenthood and love and family in a certain way. Every family has value.”
She encouraged such parents and family members to talk to their representatives and senators about these challenges.
“I get very frustrated when my colleagues say my constituents don’t want me to support this legislation and I know there are families throughout the state being affected by the current law,” she said. “They need to see our families, and the extended families of children, the aunts and uncles, grandparents and friends who love these families. That’s who they need to hear from because I think they’re using other constituents as cover.”