Fostering Family Values
The Capitol morals posse targets gay-parent families
Jeff Lutes waited with hundreds of others last Tuesday night to testify against one of a handful of anti-gay bills under consideration in the 78th Legislature. On this particular measure, which would prohibit the placement of foster children in gay or lesbian households, the articulate, soft-spoken Austinite wanted to testify both as a parent and as a therapist with mostly gay clients.
It never occurred to Lutes that, midway through his presentation, he would be singled out and berated by the chairman of the House committee conducting the hearing. Perhaps it was the lateness of the hour or the emotions wrought by the spirit of the bill, but Lutes' testimony touched a nerve, and Coppell Republican Rep. Ken Marchant pounced on the opportunity to blow off steam.
"Mr. Lutes," the veteran lawmaker said sternly, "the last 10 witnesses have come close to lecturing 52-year-old men about what we believe and what we don't believe and how we ought to think and how we ought not to think. I feel like you're talking down to me. I feel like you are lecturing me." And he said the other members of the committee felt the same way. "They feel like they're being lectured, talked down to, and somewhat threatened," he said.
Lutes suddenly looked small standing before the dour, well-dressed committee members peering down from the dais. He tried to sound an apologetic note. "I can't hide my emotions about this. ..."
"I don't see any emotion at all with you," Marchant shot back. He added, "I'm not sure exactly why it struck me this way."
If there had been any question where the committee chairman stood on HB 1911, it became clear at that moment -- 1:48am Wednesday -- that it didn't matter what the remaining 70 people on the witness list had to say about a piece of legislation that most had already described as cruel, hateful, crazy, mean-spirited, and generally unnecessary.
There was a reason the bill had been assigned to the State Affairs Committee and not the more appropriate Juvenile Justice and Family Issues Committee, where a Democratic majority dims the future of two related bills. State Affairs, 7-2 Republican, was certain to be more welcoming to this legislation, for in this session of the new Republican majority, it is the committee most devoted to the conservative social agenda. With this committee, the most that the gay rights lobby could hope for was that the bill would remain pending (and thereby die) and for the moment that appears to be what has happened -- to the at least temporary chagrin of the bill's sponsor, Rep. Robert Talton, R-Pasadena. (Perhaps to compensate for its inaction on Talton's legislation, the committee quickly voted out favorably Sen. Jeff Wentworth's version of the "Defense of Marriage Act," SB 7, replacing Rep. Warren Chisum's HB 38 -- both would forbid recognition granted by other states of same-sex "civil unions.")
Affairs of State
The postmortem assessment of the hearing held that four of the nine committee members had already committed to a "no" vote and that a total of seven members, however conservative, did not want to vote at all on a bill this controversial. Despite that sense of relief, gay rights leaders fear that Talton and his right-wing posse may still try to force the issue, prevail upon the GOP committee members to toe the party line, and drive the bill to the House floor for a polarizing record vote. There is also the possibility that the bill could appear out of nowhere on the House floor, as a surprise amendment to another bill, if Talton can find one.
The timing of the hearing was bad to begin with, at least for the witnesses; the bill was placed -- following a pattern characteristic of House committee procedure this session -- at the tail end of a very long agenda, guaranteeing that testimony wouldn't start until late in the night. The representatives' nerves were already frayed after a long and, on the face of it, rather unproductive day in terms of moving bills -- most of the afternoon had been devoted to arcane and occasionally angry debate over HB 1567, which would permit a long-embattled nuclear-waste dump in Andrews County. Yet nearly 300 people, many with kids in tow, had driven to the Capitol that afternoon from Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio to testify against the bill. Committee members appeared more concerned about the number of hours they had already put in on the House floor, and now, according to the chairman, they felt "threatened" by weeping mothers and other displays of emotion.
That's what the committee should expect whenever children's welfare is at stake, says Suzanne Bryant, a family-law attorney whose adoption caseload picked up dramatically after the filing of the anti-gay family bills. "People are desperate," she said. "When I explain to them that there's plenty of time, that the bill hasn't gone anywhere yet, they say, 'but can't we go [to court] next week?' I've had people on the phone crying, saying, 'I'll feel so much better once we have this legal protection.'"
Despite short notice, the gay rights lobby managed to mobilize an astounding number of people -- locals and out-of-towners alike -- to converge on the Capitol for the hearing. Organizers were caught off-guard when the bill was added to the State Affairs agenda on the previous Thursday night, as representatives began scattering for the long Easter weekend. Opponents suspect that last-minute scheduling was a strategic maneuver to circumvent organizing efforts. "We're going to mop the floor with our testimony," Randall Ellis, the executive director of Lesbian Gay Rights Lobby of Texas, promised before the hearing. He was right. For the most part, speaker after speaker -- gay and straight parents, social workers, lawyers, doctors, teachers, and preachers -- delivered compelling testimony opposing the bill; even a couple of kids ticked off a list of things they like to do for fun to prove that, even with two moms, they're pretty much like any other kids.
But the bill many had come to oppose was not quite the same bill Talton introduced to the committee that evening. As opposition leaders predicted, Talton offered a late substitute to better ensure the bill's survival in committee. The original bill sought to ban "any unmarried individuals" from becoming foster parents, but because of the whopping $15.7 million fiscal impact (due to the retroactive displacement of at least 2,252 children in 1,560 single-parent homes and group homes), the new version of the bill (not posted, but according to Talton) now targets only "homosexual or bisexual individuals," which Talton believes will alleviate the sticker shock.
It's unclear whether the narrower -- and more biased -- language of the bill will improve its chances of getting to the House floor. Some believe the opposition's tactic -- to round up large numbers to speak against the bill -- may have only served to help Talton's cause, given Chairman Marchant's distress at the protracted testimony. A gay-lobby day scheduled the day after the hearing was called off out of concern that it might further antagonize lawmakers. Meanwhile, LGRL leaders regrouped to map out their next offensive -- quiet, one-on-one lobbying. A previous effort in March turned sour when Talton, according to the Houston Chronicle, posted Dept. of Public Safety officers outside his office to ward off gay visitors; unconfirmed hallway rumors had one senator personally ordering a gay family out of his office.
"Better an Orphanage"
"It's like poking a caged animal with a stick," said one jaded observer of the risks associated with these types of efforts. "I'm afraid this won't do anything but stiffen their resolve." Yet the political calculations are complex -- it might also be true that legislators already inclined to oppose the bill might react against the absolutism of Talton and the bill's other supporters.
Indeed, State Affairs might well have wrapped things up nicely and quietly and passed HB 1911 forward had no one turned out to testify against it. Talton steadfastly refuses to talk to the press about his bill, as evidenced by the swipe he took at a TV microphone outside the hearing room -- the nightly news featured him running from cameras and reporters. But shortly after the Pasadena Republican filed the bill in March, he told the Houston Chronicle that he believes "a vast majority of people, especially in my district, feel the same way I do."
In Pasadena, maybe. But Talton's introduction of his bill last week drew loud groans from spectators when he defined homosexuality as a learned behavior -- "just like pedophilia is a learned behavior" (see "The Wisdom of Deacon Talton," p.28). Rep. Mike Villareal, one of two Democrats on the committee, asked Talton how his value system would figure into the state's No. 1 priority of placing foster children in caring, nurturing homes.
"Are you concerned that we're going to be holding this value of yours above this other priority?" he asked.
"I think," Talton responded, "that the most important thing that we can do with children is teach them the right way. Teach them the difference between right and wrong, and part of that has to do with social conducts and things that are acceptable and not acceptable.
"Quite frankly," he went on, "I don't look at ... homosexuals as parents, as such. We think of a parent as a mother and a father. ... And I would put that value above the value of foster care. Quite frankly, if it was me I would rather [leave] kids in orphanages as such -- this is where they are now if they're not fostered out. At least they have a chance of learning the proper values. Not that the kids will do that, but at least it's been presented to them right, and they're not learning what many of us consider improper conduct." (There are no orphanages in Texas, several social workers and attorneys later pointed out.)
Despite Talton's "pro-family" belief that a gay parent is an unfit parent, Austin's gay community is fortunate to have a large number of pro-family role models like Jeff Lutes -- the surprised target of Rep. Marchant's dressing-down -- and his partner Gary Stein, a teacher at the School for the Deaf, where their 6-year-old son Niko is enrolled. There's also Bryant, the family-law attorney, and her partner of 18 years, Sarah Goodfriend, a former Ann Richards appointee to the Public Utility Commission. They have two daughters, Dawn and Ting Lan, adopted in China. "We think we have the most beautiful girls in the whole wide world," Bryant exclaims jubilantly, with one eye on her kids playing in the back yard of their Pemberton Heights home. Ting Lan, who is 2, is the newest member of the household and the little sister Dawn has always wanted.
The Deaf Lead the Blind
When the anti-gay family bills were filed, Bryant says her immediate reaction was to take up arms, but she and Goodfriend's first priority was their children. "Anyone who wants a child and is going to be a good parent should be able to be a parent," Bryant says. "So when I saw these bills coming up, I knew we had just adopted our second child and our priority was going to be spending as much time with her as possible." So Bryant did the next best thing. She hired Dianne Hardy-Garcia, the former executive director of the Lesbian Gay Rights Lobby, to provide Capitol reinforcement.
Another couple, Sean Massey, a doctoral candidate in social psychology, and Loren Couch, a human-resources manager, are the proud new dads of a cherubic child named Alfie, now approaching his first birthday (see cover photograph). On April 15, they and 20 of their family members and friends gathered in court to witness a district court judge officially confirm the adoption of their son, who came into their lives as a tiny, 2-day-old foster baby, born a month prematurely. At birth, Alfie tested positive for cocaine -- but without addiction or other impairments. "It's such a great experience to be able to raise a child from birth," Sean said. "I would want to have another newborn, just because the experience is so amazing."
To become certified as foster parents, Massey and Couch underwent 40 hours of training on all aspects and challenges of caring for a foster child. "We were very clear up front that we were a gay male couple looking to do this," Couch says, "and they were really, really supportive. They said they had placed kids with gay families before and that there was no law prohibiting it as long as we did the training and they did the background check." Current state policy supports all qualified foster parents -- there are many more children in need than willing foster parents -- and indeed there are a number of gays and lesbians employed by state-regulated children's shelters and the state Dept. of Protective and Regulatory Services, the agency responsible for foster kids.
Since the state doesn't allow same-sex couples to adopt simultaneously, Couch will need to wait two to three months before he's eligible for what's called a second-parent adoption.
But Rep. Sid Miller, a sophomore Republican from Stephenville, wants to ban same-sex couple adoptions altogether. When he filed HB 916 in February, his office sent out a press release trumpeting the measure: "My bill protects the traditional family by requiring that two people who want to adopt a child be a different sex," Miller said. Passage of HB 916, he added, "will continue Texas' long tradition of supporting families, homes, and our traditional way of life." However "traditional" it may be to leave orphans unparented rather than place them with willing couples, the bill's chances of survival in the House Juvenile Justice Committee are considered slim.
Fortunately for Lutes and Stein, they cleared the second-parent adoption hurdle in 2001, thus ensuring that Niko has the protection of two "legal" parents. If Talton and Miller were to drop in on the Lutes-Stein household one day, they would probably find the couple having a lively sign-language exchange with Niko in their brand-new, spacious home on a woodsy lot near Oak Hill. Like Stein, Niko is deaf. That may have been the reason he was abandoned, at the age of 1, at a train station in southeast China, but it's also the reason that Lutes and Stein adopted him. "We do not view deafness as a deficit, like some people do," Lutes said. "We see [American Sign Language] as a beautifully expressive language and believe deaf people can accomplish anything they want in life."
Niko's deafness might have presented too formidable a challenge for other potential adoptive parents, but Stein, who holds a master's degree in deaf education, knew just what to do. "At the orphanage in China," Stein explained through a sign-language interpreter, "they talked to him, but everything just went by him -- he couldn't hear a thing. So when he met the two of us, and he saw us signing, he was fascinated by that, and that's what I think he connected to immediately. I think he knew that was a visual way to communicate, and he picked it up very naturally and very quickly."
If wisdom and true family values prevail, Talton's bill will die unmourned in committee. But if HB 1911 does manage to escape both State Affairs and the Calendars Committee -- the last stop before the full House -- we can expect one hell of a fight on the floor.
Suffer the Little Children
Apart from all of its other negatives, the legislation would impose additional strains on an agency already overburdened, understaffed, and underfunded. There are currently 14,843 Texas children in foster care, which includes a portfolio of private residences, emergency shelters, and long-term facilities, and finding homes for these abused and neglected kids, many with physical or mental disabilities, is already, to put it mildly, quite difficult. One independent study conducted on two similar anti-gay family bills projected a $16 million cost to the state. Talton's revised bill at least does not have a retroactive impact, as did the two bills on which the study was based. But Carol Bennett, the Austin economist who performed the study for the LGRL in December (before Talton filed HB 1911), says that even without the retroactive impact, the costs would still be $10 million to $12 million. The bill would shrink not only the number of foster parents in the DPRS pool but also the number of people who provide overnight or short-term emergency shelter while caseworkers scramble to find placement for the children.
For the most part, the DPRS does a good job of investigating prospective foster parents before placing children in their care. But they don't track foster parents' sexual orientation, so it's hard to tell how many households would be removed from the pool. Witnesses at last week's hearing offered a wide range of statewide estimates -- from 6% to 50% -- of the number of gay and lesbian foster parents currently in the system.
But DPRS spokesman Geoff Wool doesn't care to hazard any guesses. Sexual orientation doesn't figure into the agency's home-study evaluation of a prospective foster parent. While caseworkers don't specifically ask, prospective gay foster parents typically tell, during the rigorous home-study process. The set of detailed questions asked of applicants during one-on-one interviews covers 18 pages. "We do get into a discussion about how parents' needs are met -- emotional needs, physical needs," Wool said. "So we do have information, but it's not something that we categorize, and it's not something that makes or breaks a placement, generally speaking." That would change under Talton's bill. "From what I can tell," Wool said, "the gay and lesbian issue would be the determining factor in placement."
Scott McCown, a former state district court judge in Travis Co., recalls his own questions about the issue of gay parenting during the early stages of his judicial career. Gay-parent adoption cases would periodically come before his court, and McCown, now the executive director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, had little knowledge at the time about gay-parent households. He wanted assurance that his rulings would indeed be in the child's best interest. "I went to the library and read all the research I could find on the subject," he recalls. "All the reputable studies show there is no damage to children who are raised in gay or lesbian homes, and there is no greater increase in the chances of a child becoming gay or lesbian. It's just like white children who are raised in black homes don't grow up to be black."
Moreover, all of the reputable research soundly debunks the right-wing presumption that gay men tend to be pedophiles. In fact, the studies -- and actual criminal court cases -- overwhelmingly profile pedophiles as white men who identify themselves as heterosexuals; many are married. This was precisely the point that Jeff Lutes was making in his testimony when committee Chair Marchant began his tirade. Gay rights leaders later pondered whether Marchant was reacting to Lutes' reference to white heterosexual men, or just in deference to Talton, who had just returned to the hearing room to check on his bill's progress.
Afterward, Lutes reflected on his strange, unfortunate encounter with Marchant. Like many other citizens who had turned out for the hearing, Lutes had never before addressed a governing body. He knew it would be intimidating, but the experience, he said, was a little unsettling. "I think it's ironic that we were forced to listen to Rep. Talton's offensive introduction of his bill," Lutes said, "but when it was our turn to defend ourselves they flipped the table on us and tried to make us feel like we were victimizing them."
Lutes paused a moment and laughed. "Strangely enough, I think it was a good experience," he said. "I think it will make me stronger ... and more determined."