In Tennessee, gay couples can’t adopt, right? Well, it’s not that simple. The process for GLBT couples is often long, with extra and often invisible hurdles. While a heterosexual couple can adopt as a couple, one member of a same-sex couple must adopt as a single parent. A second legal process secures guardianship for the second parent. Further, many adoption agencies are religious, with doctrinal commitments that leave same-sex couples with few options.
Matthew Smith and Trey Darnell are like any other couple who want kids. "We both wanted to be fathers before we met each other," Matt said. "I always wanted to have kids and surrogacy just cost so much money and I put it out of sight, out of mind." As a couple, given the adoption roadblocks, their focus initially centered on surrogacy, often prohibitively expensive. In the end, however, research showed Matt and Trey that even "in conservative northeast Tennessee, adoption was possible."
But possible is one thing, realistic is quite another. As they moved to the first stage of the process, a home study, they faced cold facts. “No local social workers would even do the home study, not even from Knoxville,” Matt recalled. In the end, a social worker from Nashville agreed to make the 4-hour (each way) trek.
When they had an approved home study in hand, Trey and Matt finally revealed to family and friends their journey toward parenthood. “Our moms were so excited,” Matt said. “Both of them worried we’d never have kids, and Trey is an only child, so his mom thought she might never have grandkids.”
Concern for what lay ahead, clouded that excitement. This was, after all, just the beginning.
Matt and Trey needed an agency, and many refused to work with gay couples, while others refused to promote them actively to birthparents. In effect, as Trey put it, "They were willing to take our money, but not to work actively to place a child with us." Then came a rejection that spoke to every fear and internalized barrier: “birthparents looking to make an adoption plan for their child through Bethany are overwhelmingly looking for more traditional, married couples to place with.”
Disheartened, Matt and Trey traveled to Atlanta for an information session with the Independent Adoption Center (IAC), an agency recommended by the Human Rights Campaign. That weekend coincided with Atlanta Pride, and the discovery that IAC had a booth at Pride was a boost they both sorely needed. IAC represents nearly as many same-sex couples as heterosexual couples and would "promote [Matt and Trey] as a couple alongside others."
This helped Matt and Trey realize that they had done exactly what those social barriers promoted. "We were being harder on ourselves than we needed to be. We accepted the stereotype that it would be harder for us and that no family would choose us." Once they got past this internal block, Matt said, "Our experience showed us that there is a right birth family for every adopting family and reality wasn't nearly as hard on us as our own self-image. We came to terms with the fact that you don't have to be a traditional family to be the right family."
The couple proceeded to IAC's weekend intensive program about adoption and the legal hurdles, and then IAC helped them develop a "Dear Birth Mother" introducing themselves as a prospective family. Approval of this letter by IAC, a few months later, meant that Matt and Trey “went live,” were put through matching processes and submitted for consideration by birth mothers.
During the waiting game, the couple opened up about their path to adoption in the Johnson City Press. Though nervous about possible responses, the article led a local lesbian couple in the area who had already been through the process to contact them. They introduced Matt and Trey to a local attorney who would handle their case. Perhaps more importantly, they shared their experiences with adoption and parenthood with the young couple, and continued to be a source of support along the way.
Their path to adoption has been winding and expensive as many programs that help with the costs of adoption simply don’t help same-sex couples. Tennessee’s legal barriers make adoption harder for same-sex couples. Increasingly, however, national and local groups advocate for and work with same-sex couples in Tennessee.
Currently, there is at least one local agency, Jewish Family Service (JFS) of Nashville and Middle Tennessee, that will help same-sex couples through both the initial adoption process and the legal proceeding legalizing the second parent’s status. JFS provides adoption services to Jewish and non-Jewish couples.
Matt and Trey remain positive in reflecting on their experience. “We want people to know that it may be hard, but if you want it bad enough and work hard, there are ways to adopt. It may not be fair, but having to work this hard shows how much we want to be parents, and what we’re willing to put into raising a child.” Most of all, they want to share that, even in Tennessee, where the barriers are so high, if you put yourself out there and work for it, “you’ll be amazed by the support you get, the positives outweigh the negatives and keep you going.” If things are ever going to change in Tennessee, Matt believes we have to “keep spreading the positives about same-sex marriage and same-sex adoption: it’s a good thing and it’s attainable.”
All that positivity and hard work hasn’t been for nothing: if all goes well, Matt and Trey will be welcoming Baby T-Rex (it’s a nickname, we promise) home in the next couple of weeks!
Update: As we went to press, Matt and Trey told O&AN that baby Harper had been born and the paperwork filed. They are now proud fathers.
Follow Matt and Trey’s journey online and on Twitter
For more information about JFS visit their website.