Karen Partanen and Julie Gallagher met and started dating in 2001. Soon after, they moved in with each other. In 2007, Gallagher gave birth to their daughter using donor sperm. Several years after that, she gave birth to a son. Partanen wasn’t biologically related to her children, but she fed, bathed, and clothed them. She cooked, cleaned, and looked after them. The kids call her “Mommy.”
Unfortunately, none of this mattered to a Massachusetts Family Court judge when the couple split in 2011. Partanen petitioned for full parental rights after the separation, but she was denied. The reasoning? She had never married Gallagher, wasn’t biologically related to her children, and hadn’t formally adopted them.
Most reasonable people would agree this was an unfair outcome. She was, by any fair definition of the word, a parent. But I’m sure many of us are thinking it, so we might as well address the giant pink elephant in the room: with so many legal protections available to LGBT people these day—namely, marriage and adoption rights—why didn’t Partanen ever take the steps to protect herself?
The short answer is: It’s none of our damn business.
Plenty of straight parents choose to forgo marriage for any number of reasons: some eschew marriage for the patriarchal roots of the institution; others don’t want the government to have a role in validating their relationship; some may simply not care that much, or never get around to tying the knot.
Many LGBT people share these reasons, among others: some simply refuse to be part of an institution that excluded them for so long. Others are irked that advocates prioritized marriage equality over other issues facing our community, like youth homelessness and the lack of national anti-discrimination protections.
The adoption process, too, isn’t always so simple—most family law experts agree that second parent adoption is the single best way for non-biological parents to shore up their rights, even more so than marriage. But it’s also a long, cumbersome process that can cost thousands of dollars. It involves interviews, site visits, and social workers. It can drag on for many months, even years.
It’s not shocking, then, that many LGBT couples—particularly when all is well and good in a relationship—put off completing the adoption process. Perhaps they’re prioritizing limited family resources on food, clothing, and school materials for their children. Maybe they’re miffed by the idea of having to undergo such an intensive and expensive process, all for the right to “adopt” a child they are already busy raising.
That LGBT people must adopt our non-biological children is also a double standard. Second-parent adoption process is without question an incredibly important tool, and one LGBT parents should take advantage of if they are able. But it’s not required, or even recommended, to unmarried fathers in heterosexual relationships, who automatically enjoy a legal presumption of parenthood. Why shouldn’t LGBT people enjoy the same right?
Fortunately, courts around the country are starting to raise this same question.
Just last week, Partanen won her appeal to the Massachusetts Judicial Supreme Court. In a unanimous decision, the court argued that, just as unmarried men in heterosexual relationships benefit from a “presumption of parenthood,” so should people like Partanen, regardless of legal and biological ties. This decision is part of an encouraging trend in courts around the country, which is helping to gradually expand the legal definition of “parenthood” to include non-biological and non-adoptive parents.
It might be hard to understand why some LGBT people—and LGBT parents in particular—choose not to take advantage of marriage and adoption rights we fought so hard to achieve. But true equality means having the option to form our families in whatever way we choose, and in a way equal to our straight counterparts. We’re getting closer, but we’re not there yet.