And finally, build a community. No one does big things by themselves. Right now, when people are scared, it’s easy to be cynical and say let me just look out for myself, or my family, or people who look or think or pray like me. But if we’re going to get through these difficult times; if we’re going to create a world where everybody has the opportunity to find a job, and afford college; if we’re going to save the environment and defeat future pandemics, then we’re going to have to do it together. So be alive to one another’s struggles. Stand up for one another’s rights. Leave behind all the old ways of thinking that divide us — sexism, racial prejudice, status, greed — and set the world on a different path.
Three days ago, former President Obama gave virtual commencement speeches to the class of 2020 high school graduates and to college graduates of HBCUs. He ended both speeches with a similar message of encouragement, bravery, and community. With his words in mind, I thought I would share some connections that I have been thinking about this year, which I believe could lead to an incredible opportunity for community, dialogue, and mutual understanding.
One of my favorite professors from my graduate school is a gerontologist who studies healthy aging for trans people and has done other work with the LGBT community, as well. In class, she would often draw examples from her own work to illustrate concepts or themes in social justice. I remember one story she told us in which the queer person exclaimed, “I was raised straight!”, when trying to explain the process of stepping into their queer identity. My mind immediately went to all of the times I have heard transracial adoptees say, “I was raised white,” when describing their upbringings. After this, I started intentionally thinking about the intersections between LGBT people and adoptees (beside the obvious that there are LGBT adoptees).
Adoptees and LGBT people are likely to be raised by parents who do not share their marginalized identity and cannot fully prepare them as children for the discrimination that lies ahead or assist them fully in their identity formation. As children, both adoptees and LGBT people may be punished for expressing their minority identity or raising questions around that identity. Adoptees I know who were adopted at an older age were reprimanded or discouraged from speaking their original language. Another adoptee I know was scolded for asking her parents, “how many pennies does it take to fly to Korea?” Adoptees may not be given resources or knowledge pertinent to their home countries and racial backgrounds. LGBT youth who may express gender preferences that don’t align with their biological sex may similarly be reprimanded by their parents or steered to perform differently. As such, LGBT people and adoptees both often feel that they have had to teach themselves what it means to be of that particular identity without family involvement.
The language around self-realization and ownership of identity for adoptees and LGBT folks is very similar. For LGBT people, the commonly used phrase is “coming out of the closet.” For adoptees, the term is “coming out of the fog.” This can be a very sensitive time for both groups of people, and coming out of the “closet” or out of the “fog” may be considered an affront or direct challenge to their parents’ religiosity. Some Christian denominations view homosexuality as a sin, explained in the Bible, and view people who engage in non-heterosexual relationships as sinners. Adoptees who are at a point of questioning the roles of power, privilege, race, and oppression in adoption and bring these thoughts home might be met with criticisms that they are “questioning God’s plan” and “divine intervention.” With these religious challenges, LGBT people and adoptees may lose parental and social approval unless they are willing to go back “into the closet” or “into the fog.” The disproportionate likelihood of fractured familial relationships forces both groups to create communities of their own.
More than coming out to parents, coming out of an identity and stepping into one’s true identity can be a vulnerable time in general, because how people in one’s wider social networks will receive the change is an unknown. For me, as I became more vocal, people I had known for a long time suddenly perceived me very differently and felt the need to comment and ask clarifying questions about my upbringing. I felt like telling people, “I’m still the same me, but I’m claiming this piece of me that I hadn’t been able to before.”
Trans Specific Connections and Adoptees:
Both transgender people and transracial adoptees know what it is like to inhabit a body that, at times, does not feel like theirs. The terms, “trans” and “cis,” come from chemistry and mean “this side of” and “the other side of.” In these contexts, trans is used to describe both groups’ mismatched physical presentation from their identity. While trans individuals may undergo gender reconstructive surgery, transracial adoptees must figure out how to align body and identity without surgery. Many transracial adoptees express feeling white – racially and culturally. In adoption groups, a common discussion topic is “that moment in which you realized you weren’t white.” Other adoptees cite jarring feelings each time they look down at their arm or in the mirror and are reminded that despite their upbringings, they are not white.
A trans intern at my previous job told me about the term “dead names,” which refers to the birth name or given name of a person rather than their chosen name, particularly used in the trans community. Many trans people choose to rename themselves, which is often an early stage in the process of claiming their gender. In somewhat of a reverse order, transracial adoptees may choose to go back to their birth name if that information is available instead of being called by their adoptive name. I know several adoptees who have legally changed all or part of their name to their Korean names and other adoptees who socially go by names from their birth culture rather than the names chosen by their adoptive parents. In both of these cases, for adoptees and trans people, the power of choosing one’s name is about reclaiming identity. Both groups of people similarly experience difficult conversations in explaining the name change and potential pushback about it. Parents may struggle with the change of name because their child was named after a specific family member or with a specific intention behind the name. Both adoptees and trans people unfortunately must face family members who refuse to call them by their changed name and continuously disrespect the identity of the person they claim to love.
Another commonality between trans people and adoptees is waiting until their parents die to begin the true search for self. In my professor’s gerontological work, one theme she mentioned among trans people who waited to transition until mid or later life was waiting for their parents to die. Adoptees also often wait to search for their birth parents until after their adoptive parents die in order to avoid hurting their adoptive parents’ feelings. For trans people, waiting to transition means having less time in this life as their true selves. For adoptees, waiting means a higher chance that their birth parents have also died or are in worse health and having less time to develop a relationship with birth family if they are able to find them. For both adoptees and trans people, there are psychological consequences of prolonged, secret desires, internalized shame and guilt, and fears of not wanting to disappoint parents.
When looking back at their younger years, adoptees and trans people may both feel a sense of having had “stolen childhoods.” Trans folks may wonder what it would have been like to have been born in their correct gender, while adoptees often ponder what their life would have been like had they been able to stay in their birth country or birth family and who they would have become. Additionally, both groups may have had to deal with unwanted feelings of resentment toward siblings who were able to have what they couldn’t. For a trans woman, perhaps she wanted dolls like her sister when she was young or to wear dresses, but those items were prohibited due to her because of her sex at birth. For adoptees who have siblings who are biologically related to their adoptive parents, it can be hard to see such undeniable relatedness in physical features and hold longing for the same type of biological connection.
Limitations in Society:
Unfortunately, adoptees and LGBT people are limited in some similar ways. Both groups have elevated rates of substance abuse disorder and are at higher risk of death by suicide. For adoptees specifically, research shows that this population is about four times more likely than non-adoptees to attempt and complete suicide.
Another area of challenge for both of these groups of people is medical care (I personally believe that doctors’ visits are uncomfortable and infuriating for almost every marginalized group of people). Both LGBT people and adoptees may have to “come out” each time they change primary care physicians, which can be awkward and bring up feelings of anxiety. LGBT folks may not know how their caregivers will respond to their gender or sexual orientation and may feel that doctors dismiss their actual health concerns, and instead attribute health complications to being trans or to their minority sexual behaviors. Adoptees with Anglo names experience the discomfort of being glanced over in the waiting room when their name is called out or the awkward comments that follow, like “You’re not what I expected.” Adoptees are reminded continuously during doctors’ visits of their compounded losses of first family and medical history. As a result of this missing medical information, adoptees may be over or under-tested for certain conditions. One memorable interaction I had with a nurse during a routine physical was her nervously laughing after she had asked me a question about my family health history. She continued mid-laughter, “Oh, you’re adopted. Of course you wouldn’t know that!”
Adoptee status and LGBT status are also both invisible identities that may be situationally visible. In some cases, the minority status for both groups might be made visible — for example, when a same-sex couple holds hands while walking down the street or when an adoptive family with young adopted children eats a restaurant together. Oftentimes, young adoptees feel like family outings are a walking advertisement for adoption. In other situations, the invisibility of both of these identities means that adoptees and LGBT people must navigate figuring out with whom they may or may not want to share their vulnerable identity. The minority identities of adoptees and LGBT people may be unclear to people, and onlookers might try to figure out the situation for themselves, leading to awkward interactions. Gender nonconforming people may be met with an uncomfortable, “Thank you, Ma’am?”, as someone tries to guess or assume their gender. Adoptees, as adults, may also be put in situations where people try to guess or incorrectly assume their identity or position within a family. I have been assumed to be my grandparents’ nursing home caregiver, a teenage foreign exchange student, and most egregiously, my dad’s girlfriend.
Additionally, both adoptees and LGBT people have had to and continue to advocate for their basic, legal rights. Questions of anti-discrimination on the basis of gender reached the Supreme Court last fall, and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was overturned in 2013 after much awareness-raising and advocacy. Korean adoptees have been the most politically active group of adoptees thus far and have successfully campaigned for dual citizenship in Korea, held national and international conferences, and organized professional journals. Adoptees in the U.S. have fought the right to their original birth certificates, which is slowly being realized across the country. Currently, adoptee activists in the U.S. and across the globe are advocating for the Adoptee Citizenship Act, which amends the Child Citizenship Act of 2000 (which amended the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965), in order to give undocumented adult adoptees retroactive citizenship. For adoptees and LGBT people, our very existences and right to be present in certain spaces is, at times, a political act. [Click here: for actionable steps you can take to support the Adoptee Citizenship Act]
Both LGBT people and adoptees challenge the definition of family. With the Supreme Court ruling on DOMA, the idea that marriage was limited to one man and one woman was invalidated. LGBT people who expand their family to have children challenge the nuclear structure of a family by showing that a family can have two moms or two dads. LGBT people also question the limits of family through queer theory’s use of alternative models of kinship. For example, in The Queer Art of Failure, Jack Halberstrom, argues that Dory from the Finding Nemo series is a queer character [I read Dory as an adoptee story: here] because of her disconnection from her family as a break with history, her memory impairment makes a romantic relationship with Marlin impossible, and the formation of relationships with Marlin and Nemo as her chosen family. The use of chosen family in queer circles defies biology as the definition of family.
Adoption, the act of legally taking another’s child and raising them as one’s own, also questions the limits, boundaries, and definitions of family and disproves the idea that family is purely based on biological kinship. At the same time, adoption also alters how many families one can have. While most people are born into a family and may go on to create a different family, adoptees are born into a family and adopted into another and may form one of their own later in life. Adoption challenges the connections of time, physical space, and memory in family and how relationships with people who are no longer present stay alive and change over time.
Another point of connection is, of course, that LGBT people may use adoption as a way to create their families, and when these groups of people are combined in a family unit, issues for both populations become personally relevant. Another avenue that LGBT people may use to expand their families is through the use of sperm or egg donors. Through this alternative method of family creation, another connection is created between adoptees and the children of LGBT parents and their mutual quest for answers about their missing biological parent/s. Adoptees often want to find birth parents and siblings and reclaim aspects of their original culture. The children of LGBT parents similarly may or may not want to know information about their donor and seek that information out, leading both groups to use similar technology or ancestry information sites like 23&Me.
I think back to the former President’s advice to build community and to look out for one another. I hope that adoptees and the LGBT community can do that for each other. Once I began thinking about the commonalities between these two seemingly disparate groups, the points of connection kept increasing. Reflecting on all of the similar experiences that LGBT folks and adoptees go through makes me hopeful that this can be a powerful coalition with shared interests and goals while recognizing all of the unique struggles of each group, as well.
How powerful would it be if we thought about all of the shared experiences and feelings between groups that on the surface might have little in common? Adoptees are a very small population, and it can take a lot to change the opinions or get the interest of people who are not affected by certain policies, structures, or environments. When we are able to think more broadly about the needs and interests of other communities, we might notice these types of similarities between groups. In these cases, an individual group’s issue turns into a human issue that affects X group, Y group, and Z group. I strongly believe that if we are going to make change, we are going to do it together. And that begins by finding the common ground and building community and coalition across identity.
*Feel free to add your own similarities that you think I missed in the comments.