February 16 2012 5:00 AM ET
That Chandler Burr remembers even the tiniest details of March 30, 2011, does not come as a surprise. The former New York Times scent critic established himself in journalism's upper echelons through his obsession with subtlety, parsing the delicate balance of jasmine, rose essence, and Sicilian bergamot in the world's rarefied perfumes. The details of this day one year ago — the number of the Delta Air Lines flight he was supposed to be on, the departure time from Bogotá, Colombia, and its arrival time at JFK International Airport in New York — are seared into his memory, because it's the day his adopted young sons, José and Angel, were taken away from him after Burr told an adoption official that he is gay.
Why Burr revealed that he's gay has not been clear in most media reports on the case, which sparked a national debate in the Latin American country, spilling over to the U.S. talk circuit, on LGBT people adopting children.
"I noted to her," Burr says of his conversation with Ilvia Ruth Cardenas, a top administrator with the Colombian government's adoption program, as they were finalizing the necessary documents, "that they have 30,000 children waiting to adopt, and it breaks your heart to see them in the [adoption centers], to see their photos, to hear their stories. And I asked her to please rethink their de facto policy of forbidding LGBT parents from giving these kids the homes and love they need. I said, 'You know me, you know I'll be a good parent, I'm gay.' And she immediately freaked out."
Cardenas called the U.S. Embassy, ordered that the boys' passports and adoption emigration visas be destroyed (American officials complied), and then began the process of nullifying the adoption of two emotionally traumatized kids who had been abandoned by their parents in a village 200 miles northeast of the capital city.
Two days later Burr flew back to the United States alone. He returned to Colombia in December after a civil rights attorney took his case pro bono and CNN documented his attempt to get his sons back. The story was front-page news throughout the country, heavily debated and inescapable. "After a long, long battle with some terrific, insane, hilarious legal shenanigans, and a lot of agony, the boys were returned to me," Burr says. This despite vehement opposition from the Roman Catholic Church: Colombian bishop Juan Vicente Córdoba told El Tiempo that Burr's "disorder of sexual identity" is troubling because "he will receive two children at an age when they may be attractive to him, which could be a temptation."
Burr says the boys arrived back in the United States with him on December 15, 2011 — at 6 a.m., to be exact. But now there's a new chapter to the already harrowing saga. The district attorney in the city of Bucaramanga, where Burr adopted the boys (now named Joe and Brian), has brought a criminal case against the writer, accusing him of fraud and perjury. Officials continue to attack the adoption in court on procedural and administrative grounds. Colombia's Supreme Court has agreed to hear el caso de Chandler Burr later this year.