Hollie Seeley and Christy Allen have been together for seven years, own a home in Denver and are raising two kids. So they were disappointed last fall when Colorado voters joined the bandwagon of states that ban same-sex marriage and civil unions. But the couple won a measure of vindication this spring when Governor Bill Ritter signed a bill making Colorado the 10th state to allow gay and lesbian partners to adopt children as couples instead of restricting parental rights to one partner. Now Seeley can legally adopt Allen's biological daughter Amelia, 2, and Allen can adopt Seeley's adopted son Foster, 1, and this ability to become more like other families delights the couple. "Being able to give our children that kind of legal, two-parent security," says Seeley, 36, a medevac nurse, "means more than being able to marry."
It also means a lot to the bill's opponents, who fear that legalizing gay partners' parenthood is tantamount to legitimizing their couplehood. Both sides recognize the paradox: some of the same states that have rejected gay marriage are endorsing gay adoption. After winning constitutional amendments in 11 states to ban gay marriage in 2004, conservatives put gay adoption in their crosshairs last year--and misfired in every state they targeted. Since then, they have continued to suffer legislative defeats in states like Arkansas, which banned gay marriage in 2004 but earlier this year saw a bill to prohibit gay adoption die in committee. Only Florida denies gays and lesbians the right to adopt under any circumstances.
But the gay adoption boom may be less about support for gay rights than it is about the urgency of finding homes for abandoned children. There are as many as 120,000 in the U.S. waiting to be adopted. After Congress ordered states in 1997 to move faster to find more families willing to take in these kids, "child-welfare organizations banded together to get legislatures to allow any qualified parent to adopt, irrespective of sexual orientation," says Rob Woronoff, gay and lesbian program director at the Child Welfare League of America in Washington. The movement got a boost in 2002 when the American Academy of Pediatrics said the "health, adjustment and development" of kids adopted by gay parents were no worse than those of kids placed with heterosexuals. By 2006, a Pew Center poll found, support of gay adoption had risen from 38% in 1999 to 46% and opposition had fallen from 57% to 48%.
While adopted children in gay and lesbian homes were scarce a couple of decades ago, they now number 65,000, or more than 4% of adopted children in the U.S., according to a new study by the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Washington's Urban Institute. Almost 2% of the nation's 3 million same-sex households include adopted children--and that growing pool, the UCLA study estimates, currently saves U.S. taxpayers as much as $130 million a year in costs for, say, keeping children in foster or institutional care and recruiting adoptive parents for them.
Gay advocates say they feel such data help account for another Pew poll finding: opposition to gay marriage dropped from 65% in 1996 to 51% last year. The trend is heartening to gay activists who believe that as acts like Colorado's give gay and lesbian couples the opportunity to showcase their worth as partner-parents, the laws will help erode resistance to same-sex matrimony. "We now have a better chance to prove people's fears wrong," says Allen, 39, a painter. Ellen Kahn, family project director at Washington-based Human Rights Campaign, one of the nation's largest gay civil rights organizations, agrees. "It definitely makes it easier to make the argument that gay marriage would bolster family life," she says.
Still, most acknowledge that a big reason Colorado's law passed "was that it wasn't [designed as] a gay-adoption bill. It was a second-parent adoption bill" that also allows unmarried heterosexuals to adopt jointly, says Colorado adoption attorney Seth Grob. "It was presented predominantly as child-friendly, not gay-friendly," and therefore ran less risk of alienating potential supporters than gay marriage does.
That approach has frustrated opponents like the Roman Catholic Church--some U.S. dioceses have stopped adoption services altogether rather than comply with state funding rules that require them to allow gay adoption--and the conservative, Colorado-based group Focus on the Family. Bill Maier, Focus' vice president and chief psychologist, insists the practice "hurts children because it intentionally creates motherless or fatherless families," and he accuses child-welfare agencies of "a real biased push to normalize same-sex parenting." He adds, "I don't see any shortage of heterosexual parents willing to adopt." Although they say it's not linked to the anti- gay-adoption effort, Focus and other conservative Christian groups have begun their own adoption drives. Amen, say adoption experts. "We need more qualified parents, period," says Woronoff. On that point, at least, everyone seems to agree.