LGBTQ parenting year in review

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2019 saw many challenges to LGBTQ equality, but there was still some progress. Let’s review the parenting-specific news of the year.

Some Setbacks

The Trump administration’s Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) was perhaps the biggest antagonist of the year. HHS began in January by granting South Carolina a waiver so that federally funded adoption and foster care agencies in the state may discriminate based on a person’s religion, LGBTQ identity or other factors that do not fit with the religious or moral beliefs that the agency espouses.

HHS proposed another rule in April that would abandon the collection of data related to the sexual orientation of youth, parents and guardians connected to the foster care system, except when a caseworker knows that this is related to the reason a child was removed from their home. LGBTQ and child welfare organizations said the fuller data would have helped to serve LGBTQ youth more effectively.

In May, HHS finalized a rule that allows health care workers — from doctors to clerical staff — to deny medical treatment, information and services to patients because of the worker’s personal religious or moral beliefs, even if their institution takes federal funds like Medicare or Medicaid. The rule focuses mainly on abortion, sterilization and assisted suicide, which is bad enough, but it could also lead to health care workers refusing to serve LGBTQ people or their children, to deny them fertility treatments, treatment or preventative care for AIDS or HIV, or care related to gender transitions.

In November, however, just a couple of weeks before the rule was set to go into effect, three federal district courts in California, New York and Washington, said the rule was unconstitutional and completely vacated it. It remains in effect in other districts, however, and HHS could appeal the decisions.

On Nov. 1, HHS also issued a new rule that similarly would allow discrimination against LGBTQ people and others by all recipients of HHS grants, including foster care and adoption agencies as well as programs dedicated to youth homelessness, HIV, sexually transmitted infections and substance abuse prevention, among others. While 10 states — Alabama, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas and Virginia — already allow child service agencies to discriminate in foster care and adoption similarly, the new HHS rule would enshrine such discrimination at the federal level and extend it to the full range of HHS services.

The State Department also showed its anti-LGBTQ side. Two married, two-dad couples sued the department for refusing to recognize the U.S. citizenship of their children, born via surrogacy abroad, even though the parents are all citizens. These families join two other same-sex couples, each of which has at least one U.S. citizen parent who has been fighting the department over their children’s citizenship for several years.

On the state level, both New York and Rhode Island saw the failure of bills that would have more effectively protected families formed through assisted reproduction by offering cheaper and easier ways to ensure firm legal recognition of nonbiological parents. The New York bill would also have legalized gestational surrogacy — when the surrogate does not contribute the egg.

In Michigan, two same-sex couples filed a lawsuit against the state after two Christian adoption agencies rejected them with state contracts. In a March settlement, Michigan said it would require all state-contracted child welfare agencies to accept all qualified families, including same-sex couples. Then in May, one of the agencies sued the state in turn, claiming it had a constitutional right to be exempt from that requirement. A federal district court agreed with the agency in a September injunction, allowing it to maintain its contract while refusing to work with same-sex couples and unmarried people while the case is fully litigated.

In a separate case in April, however, a Catholic child service agency in Philadelphia was denied a similar injunction by a federal appeals court. That’s good — though the case could now be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the Michigan case could ultimately find its way there as well.

Signs of Progress

The Equality Act, a comprehensive federal LGBTQ civil rights bill, passed the U.S. House in May. It offers protections against discrimination in foster care and adoption as well as in employment, housing, public accommodations, public education and other areas.

More focused on children and family, the Every Child Deserves a Family Act was introduced in both houses for the sixth Congress in a row. It prohibits discrimination in foster care and adoption on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and marital status, as with past versions, but also bans it on the basis of religion; bans conversion therapy; directs HHS to assist states, tribes and agencies in improving services to LGBTQ and two-spirit foster youth; and requires HHS to collect data on the sexual orientation and gender identity of children and parents connected to the foster care system. The bill would counter many of HHS’ moves this year but looks unlikely to pass the Republican-controlled Senate.

The American Bar Association, the “national representative of the legal profession,” in January adopted a resolution that “Opposes laws, regulations, and rules or practices that discriminate against LGBT individuals in the exercise of the fundamental right to parent.” While that clearly didn’t stop HHS, it’s good to know that many of the nation’s lawyers view HHS’ moves as discriminatory.

On the state level, Connecticut, New Jersey and Oregon each enacted laws that extend paid family leave with broad definitions of who’s in a family.

The Oklahoma Supreme Court not only ruled in favor of a nonbiological mother in a child custody case in June but established guidelines for future cases, writing conclusively, “A nonbiological same-sex parent stands in parity with a biological parent.”

Arizona, in April, repealed an anti-LGBTQ law that had banned instruction in public school health curricula that “Promotes a homosexual life-style” or suggests there are “safe methods of homosexual sex.”

More than three dozen queer parents elected in 2018 took office in January 2019 at all levels of government. Additionally, in April, two lesbian moms were elected mayors: Lori Lightfoot in Chicago and Jane Castor in Tampa, Florida.

Financial giants J. P. Morgan and MassMutual each announced expanded fertility benefits to help LGBTQ employees start or grow their families. Among other features, these benefits are offered without requiring a medical diagnosis of infertility — useful for single people and couples who don’t have both egg and sperm.

In a major reversal of policy, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) in April said that children of LGBT parents may now be blessed and baptized in the faith and that same-sex couples in the LDS Church will no longer be considered “apostates,” although marrying a person of the same sex is still “a serious transgression.”

This was also another banner year for LGBTQ-inclusive children’s books in quality and quantity — too many to list here, but I’ve rounded up some of the best at mombian.com.

A Loss

Sharon Mattes, known as Sharon Bottoms when she fought to overcome anti-LGBTQ bias in a legal battle for custody of her son in the 1990s — a headline case for queer parents — died in February at age 48.

Looking Ahead

While it’s easy to get disheartened over the significant political setbacks, I hope we can take heart at the progress that has been made, even if it is less than we would like. Next year may be similar— but it is also an election year. We may never have a perfect candidate, but we can still vote for the one most likely to make a positive difference for ourselves and our families.

Wishing you joy and love this holiday season, and a more equitable new year for us all.

Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian (mombian.com), a GLAAD Media Award-winning blog and resource directory for LGBTQ parents.