Growing up with two moms in the San Francisco Bay Area, I thought a family was defined by loud dinners, birthday parties, overprotective parents and unconditional love.
Then, when I was 7 years old, a girl in my class told me I couldn't sit with her and her friends because I wasn't a "real person." The reason? I didn't have a mommy and a daddy — so how could I possibly have been born?
My classmate hardly understood how babies were made, yet she was certain that a family couldn't be a family if it had two moms. Adults, of course, should know better. Yet, judging from a bill currently before Congress, at least some of the adults representing Americans in Washington don't understand that families come in many varieties.
The Child Welfare Provider Inclusion Act of 2014 would allow federally funded child welfare service providers in any of the 19 states where marriage equality is the law to deny adoption rights to same-sex couples without fear of losing taxpayer funding.
The bill, written by Sen. Michael B. Enzi (R-Wyo.) and Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.), never specifically mentions same-sex couples, but its intentions are clear. It would bar state governments that receive federal funding for child welfare services from taking any adverse action against an agency based on its refusal "to provide, facilitate or refer for a child welfare service that conflicts with, or under circumstances that conflict with, the provider's sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions."
In some of the states that allow same-sex marriages, faith-based providers have shut down rather than let LGBT parents adopt or foster children. This bill would provide those agencies with a loophole, allowing them to deny services to same-sex couples without repercussion. But cloaking discrimination in the language of "religious beliefs" and "moral convictions" doesn't change the fact that the law would be discriminatory.
The law's introduction is disheartening, especially at a time when so much momentum has built for more inclusive laws and policies. I know firsthand the harm that can come to families when laws are inequitable.
When I was 10, I learned that my parents had never gotten married, because same-sex marriage was illegal. That didn't compute. I had loving, dedicated parents, yet those in power were denying them the right to be a legal family?
The law also denied me a legal relationship with my non-biological mother. She was every bit as much a parent to me, but according to the state she wasn't my family, let alone my mom. In order for Judy to be allowed to adopt me, my birth mom, Teri, would have had to forgo all her parental rights, and even then the adoption would have had to be approved. It is alarming, in retrospect, to think that if Teri had passed away, Judy would have had no automatic legal right to continue being my parent. That changed in 1999, when the state allowed second-parent adoption in domestic partnerships, a reform upheld by the California Supreme Court in 2003. But in many states, such laws have not been reformed.
Freedom of religion is crucial. But it should never be used as a cover for discrimination, which is exactly what the Child Welfare Provider Inclusion Act would do. As many as 6 million Americans today have LGBT parents. These are real families entitled to real rights without loopholes. I hope a majority of the U.S. Congress will see this proposed law for what it is: a legislative assault on basic human rights — and on families.
And for those having difficulty figuring out what a family is, just ask any child raised by gay parents — we'll be happy to tell you.
Julia Bleckner is an associate in the Asia division at Human Rights Watch.