Point of View

Gay families in NC forced to be legal strangers

March 20, 2014 

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My partner, Craig, and I are North Carolina natives who have been together 20 years. Together, we are raising our 12-year-old son whom we adopted from the North Carolina foster care system.

Craig and I work. We pay taxes. We care for our son. We vote. We go to church. We’re friends with our neighbors. We support our son’s soccer team. Yet we’re not treated like other families.

In North Carolina, gay couples like us who want to have a family and raise children together face a tremendous obstacle: Under state law, only one of us can be a legally recognized parent to our children. What this means for my family is that our son, on paper, has only one legal parent – Craig – while I, despite being an equal parent in heart, mind and reality, am a legal stranger.

Every time I take our son to the doctor, pick him up from school or get him from camp, I have to be sure to have copies of our power of attorney out of fear that someone might question my relationship to my own son. When I once had to take Craig to the emergency room in the middle of the night, I was terrified because I forgot our legal papers. Our son was 7, and Craig was incapacitated, so it was a time of pure fear and worry. Thankfully, the ER staff was very professional and understanding, seeing a family in need, but we have no guarantee that that will be the case every time.

If something happens to Craig, I have no legal relationship to our son, whom we’ve raised together most of his life. Would a judge grant me custody and eventually let me truly adopt him? Or would he go back into foster care?

It’s for these reasons, and many others, that we have joined five other North Carolina families headed by loving and committed same-sex couples in a federal lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union that challenges North Carolina’s ban on second-parent adoptions, where one partner in an unmarried couple adopts the other partner’s biological or adoptive child.

Last summer, we amended that lawsuit to seek the freedom to marry as well.

Craig and I want to get married, to have all of the rights, responsibilities and stability that go with marriage. Marriage would allow us to be equal parents to our son and provide our family the legal security we deserve. Our case is about ensuring that all parents can protect their families. We can all agree that children are better off when they grow up in secure and loving homes. When it comes to second-parent adoption, the only question is whether these children will have two legal parents who can protect and care for them.

Our legally recognized marriage would only strengthen our family, our commitment to each other and our ability to jointly care for our son.

Our son has asked us when we’re getting married. He knows that parents who love each other get married, and he wants that to happen in his family. And we want to give him that, and for our family to have all of the protections, obligations, responsibilities and equality that civil marriage carries.

Our case was filed in federal court in Greensboro in the summer of 2012. Since then, we’ve been waiting for a decision. All across the country, marriage bans and anti-gay laws are being struck down as unconstitutional, support for the freedom to marry grows by leaps and bounds, and loving and committed families are being made whole. While we wait, our family is simply living like any other – going to work, going to church, taking our son to school and soccer practice – but with fewer legal protections and a great deal of uncertainty.

Shawn Long and his partner, Craig Johnson, live in Wake Forest.

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