In May 1995, Ontario became Canada’s first province to allow gay and lesbian couples to jointly adopt. Other provinces followed suit, and, today, gay and lesbian adoption is the new societal norm in communities across the country.
But the journey has not been easy, as David McKinstry knows first hand. For 21 years, he navigated discriminatory agencies and an ever-evolving legal landscape, first to adopt a child and then to secure co-parenthood with his husband, Michael Rattenbury.
David and Michael started a new chapter in the expansion of gay and lesbian rights in Canada, overcoming cultural barriers and numerous court battles to become first gay couple to successfully co-adopt.
Adopting as an openly gay man
David began pursuing parenthood in the 1980s, when Canada’s legal system was just beginning to recognize the need to extend protections and equal rights to gay and lesbian citizens. No gay or lesbian Canadian couple had ever adopted a child.
Same-sex marriage was not yet legal, so although David was in a relationship with a man named Nick, he applied to adopt on his own – and found he was pushing the envelope by doing so. “I was told unequivocally by many agencies in B.C. that I didn’t have a hope in hell as a single man,” says David. Eventually David and Nick hired an attorney to help navigate the process.
With her help, they moved to the home study phase. Social workers asked questions David believes no heterosexual couple would ever be asked – and even implied the couple wanted young boys for sexual grooming. One social worker asked, “At what point in the sex act do you put a condom on, before or after precum?” Then, “Who’s top and who’s bottom?”
Nick and David came close to adopting in 1995, finding a pregnant mother who chose the couple as her unborn child’s adoptive parents. But Nick succumbed to AIDS shortly thereafter. Just a few weeks later, the mother suffered a car accident and lost the baby. Despite the loss and disappointment, David continued to pursue parenthood.
When David met Michael, the couple pursued international adoption. The Canadian government approached David to serve as a test case for international adoption to openly gay men. The test failed. Although Canada had approved him to adopt, thirteen countries rejected David’s application because of his sexual orientation.
“I got 13 letters back saying: We don’t give to [gay men].”
It wasn’t until a second round of applications went out – with no mention of his sexual orientation – that David was approved to adopt a child from India. So now he just needed to find an orphanage in India that was willing to let him adopt. In January 1998, he boarded a plane to India and visited more than 20 orphanages until he found one that was willing to help find him a child. He returned to Canada and, after three long months of waiting, received a phone call from the orphanage: they had a boy for him to adopt.
Now it was up to the Canadian government to process his paperwork. Finally, in March of 1999, David returned to India to meet the son he’d been searching for since the early 1980s. He named the boy Nicholas, after his first husband.
Meanwhile, David and Michael were in for another surprise. While they were waiting for Nicholas’s adoption to be finalized, a woman named Susan and her son visited Woodhaven, the country lodge David owns and operates. The pair had been stopped at the airport en route to Disneyland for what would have been their last vacation together – she was dying of AIDS. The airline prohibited her from boarding.
Early one morning during their stay, Susan told David, “I know why God didn’t let me go to Disneyland,” she continued. “I need you to adopt my son so I can go in peace.” Two weeks later, 4-year-old Kolwyn moved in with David and Michael at Woodhaven. David became co-guardian to Kolwyn and adopted him after Susan’s death.
Co-adopting as an openly gay couple
By 1999, David and Michael had achieved their dream of becoming parents. There was only one problem: on paper, only David was a parent. David's had been the name on every document throughout the adoption process. He appeared alone for interviews; Michael remained on the sidelines during home studies. When the boys’ adoptions were finalized, David alone was listed as parent.
But David and Michael felt the winds of change had come their way. For example, in May 1999, the Supreme Court of Canada equalized benefits for same-sex couples. The couple decided it was time to pursue parental rights for Michael as well. “I wanted us to co-adopt, in a way legitimizing our couplehood and our future parenting our sons together,” says David. They took their case to court, and, after several challenges, won legal recognition of Michael as father to Nicholas in 2001. Michael formally co-adopted Kolwyn shortly thereafter.
The positive outcome of these cases was not only a win for David and Michael’s family but for same-sex couples across Canada. David and Michael’s success attracted attention, catapulting them into the spotlight. Papers across the country covered their story. VisionTV filmed a documentary about their battle for adoption equality.
“Our boys loved having all the attention of newspapers calling, their photos in the paper,” says David. He and Michael also had opportunities to share what they had learned, receiving calls from gay couples across the country. David says, “It was almost as if we had an encyclopedia of information for these people that we had to garner on our own.” They shared the names of lawyers, social workers, and others who could be trusted to advocate for gay couples seeking to adopt. David chronicled his 21-year journey in a book he titled “Swimming Against the Tide.”
Kolwyn and Nicholas are now in college, and David and Michael continue to mentor parents wishing to adopt. They are currently hoping to connect a couple with the orphanage where David met Nicholas.
Though their journey often seemed impossibly difficult, David says he’d do it all over again just the same. “I knew there were children out there waiting for me,” he says. “I know I was destined to be Kolwyn's and Nicholas’ father.”