When the State Discriminates

Author Carlos A. Ball chronicles the stories of LGBT parents who have fundamentally changed how American law defines and regulates parenthood in this excerpt from The Right to Be Parents: LGBT Families and the Transformation of Parenthood.



Sandy Schuster and Madeleine Isaacson


In 1973, the National Gay Task Force — the organization cofounded by Bruce Voehler, a gay father profiled in Chapter 2 — began working with private child welfare agencies to find foster placements for gay teenagers in the homes of gay men in New York City. By the time the New York Times published a story describing the program in May 1974, about 30 boys aged 12 to 17, who described “themselves as homosexuals and who [were] unwanted by or unable to adjust to youth homes,” had been placed under the program’s auspices.  

In the early 1970s, gay organizations in several other cities, including Chicago, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis, worked with child welfare officials to place gay youth in the homes of gay men. There were also reported instances of foster care placements with lesbians, including one in Philadelphia in which “a 15-year-old transvestite male youth” was placed in the home of a lesbian couple.

In 1974, The Advocate, reported that the publicity engendered by the custody case of Sandy Schuster and Madeleine Isaacson — lesbian mothers profiled in Chapter 1 — led several lesbians and gay men in Washington state to seek foster care licenses. The applications, in turn, produced a backlash as conservative activists urged the state to adopt a regulation prohibiting lesbians and gay men from serving as foster parents. One of those activists, who led an effort to gather more than 7,000 signatures in support of the regulation in a little over two weeks, claimed that gay people wanted to serve as foster parents to get state money to “support their lifestyle,” as well as to make “contact with the youth of our country [in order to] drag them down to their sordid and sinful way of life.”

Although a coalition of progressive child advocacy organizations successfully lobbied against the adoption of the proposed regulation, they could not prevent some judges from refusing to approve foster placements in gay households. This happened in Vancouver, Washington, in 1975, when child welfare authorities attempted to place a 16-year-old gay youth with a gay couple after the boy had spent two years living in institutions. When a judge found out about the proposed placement, he called for a hearing in his courtroom to consider the matter. 

The administrators at the institution where the boy was living, as well as his social worker and a psychiatrist, testified that the child would benefit from the placement because the gay couple would be good foster parents and because there was no other family willing to take the openly gay boy into their home. In contrast, the local prosecutor’s office, which opposed the placement, repeatedly suggested to the court that there was a real risk that the gay couple would “role-model [the] child into homosexuality” by, among other things, having sex in front of the boy.

Several weeks after the trial ended, the judge issued an opinion ordering that the teenager be placed in the custody of the county juvenile detention facility until another family — a heterosexual one—could be found for him. The opinion explained that “it is not a proper function of the state to encourage and foster deviant behavior. If this [proposed placement] were followed to a logical extreme, state action could be rationalized in placing promiscuous girls with prostitutes or psychopathic youths with the mentally ill.”

Despite judicial rulings such as this one, the placement of foster children in lesbian and gay households continued through the late 1970s and 1980s. Supporters of these placements received a considerable boost when the American Psychological Association in 1977, and the National Association of Social Workers a decade later, issued statements urging child welfare authorities not to discriminate on the basis of parents’ sexual orientation in making foster care placement decisions.

Tags: Politics