15 | Trans-Racial Adoption & Identity

Meet Our Guests

Nate Peterson was adopted in the early ‘90s along with his younger brother by two men looking to start a family. A few years later they adopted a little girl and not stopping there, they adopted another little girl to complete this family of six. Nate and his siblings identify as African American and his fathers are white.

Johnny Cole received his M.A.T. from State University of New York at Cortland and B.S. from Boston University. Johnny is a proud member of an interracial family, built with love with his husband and their two adopted children and three adopted cats. Currently working as a high school administrator, he previously spent more than a dozen years in the classroom as an English teacher, working at both urban and suburban schools in the Boston area. Johnny also teaches graduate level courses with Initiatives for Developing Equity and Achievement for Students (IDEAS) focusing on the impact of race and racism in educational settings.

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Episode Transcript

Emily: Today I am excited to dive into a topic that impacts and enriches the lives of many LGBTQ families — transracial foster care and adoption. So to start the conversation, let’s look at the numbers. There are almost half a million children in the US foster care system, about 100,000 of whom are available for adoption right now. Over half of children in foster care or children of color. States are required to recruit foster and adoptive parents who mirror the population of the children in care. And we know from research that more than a third of same sex couples raising children are racial and ethnic minorities. We also know that same sex couples are more likely than different sex couples to foster and adopt. Seven states have passed religious exemption laws, permitting adoption and foster care agencies to discriminate against LGBTQ children and youth in their care, as well as LGBTQ potential parents. So all of this reflects this reality. LGBTQ people and their children are of all different races and ethnicities, and we’re seeing real threats to youth and families within the foster care and adoption system. It’s a really timely conversation, and part of our community that we’re talking about today. So here with me to talk about their own experiences in transracial adoptive families and the importance of seeking out community and identity are Johnny Cole and Nate Peterson. To start us off, I’m going to ask each of you, how did your family meet? Can you kind of tell us your family story? So Nate, would you share some of that story now?

Nate: Yes, of course. Well, back in the early nineties there were two men looking to adopt little boys or little girls and they had gone to something called a match party. And the way the match parties work out, you’d be in little groups, kids that were looking to be adopted would go to these events and they’d be like parties at a playground or a picnic area type of deal. One day my brother and I were lucky enough to be able to be invited to one, and when we were there, we stumbled across two men that happened to be sitting down in the seats that we needed to sit in. So we asked them to move over. And this moment we asked them to move over, they had told us that that was the moment that they knew that we were going to be their children. So they worked to make sure that they were able to adopt my brother and I.

Emily: Second time hearing that story — still love it. So Johnny, would you share meeting your family and bringing your Kiddos home? What was your story?

Johnny: Sure. So my husband and I, we started looking into expanding our family after we got married in 2004 in Massachusetts, shortly after the Judiciary Branch allowed us to get married. We started looking into adoption for a variety of reasons. We looked at all the different options of having a family, including surrogacy. As two public school teachers, we weren’t really in a position to afford surrogacy. And as we looked into adoption, we really liked the idea of bringing home a child who needed a forever family. So actually we had some friends that had done some international adoptions and we looked at a couple of agencies and found that those avenues were pretty much closed to us at the time. It was sort of an irony of being in Massachusetts where we were legally married, and a lot of the countries that did international adoptions, you basically had to lie to these countries because they wouldn’t outright allow adoptions from gay couples. And so it had to be a single parent adoption. And the agencies that we looked at wouldn’t basically wouldn’t lie on the application because we were legally wed in the state. So we also faced some discrimination along those lines. We were told by a couple of agencies that because with private agencies, you write a birth letter, a letter to the birth parent and they have a big hand in choosing the parents of their children, that a lot of birth moms just chose not to go with gay men. We found that that’s often quite the opposite is true that a lot of birth mothers who are hoping to put their children up for adoption actually preferred it, to have gay men adopt because then there’s no other mother in the child’s life and they get to be the mother. So for a variety reasons, we ended up looking at the public foster care system and as we learned more and more about it, we just really loved the idea of it. It just seemed like a really good move for our family. We thought socially, consciously, it was a good thing to do for our community. And so we enrolled in a class, we had to take an eight week class. It was three hours a week. My husband and I called it the ‘scare you away from foster care and adoption’ class. I mean, they gave you every sort of really scary scenario. And at the end of it, we were still standing there. We were like, let’s do this, we’re ready to do this.

Johnny: Then there’s a home study process and then we had basically decided that for our first child we wanted to adopt an infant if possible. We were told by a social worker that it would probably be a year or two before that would happen. So we started very slowly getting ready, getting the house ready and whatnot. And about six weeks later we got an email that the baby who would become our daughter had been born and was at Boston Medical Center. We went down and met her and brought her home a couple of days later. It was a whirlwind process. We often joke that we did not get the nine months that most families get to prepare for this thing. We had about 48 hours, thinking we had two years to prep. I remember meeting her for the first time and I look at the pictures of that day and we talk with our daughter who just turned 11. It was an amazing experience. About a year and a half later, we started the process again to expand our family, not knowing that our son had already been born. There was a shift in leadership for the Department of Children and families that oversees foster care and adoption in the state. And whereas when Cassie was born, the social workers were allowed to place her in a pre-adoptive home even though she technically wasn’t up for adoption. They did what was called concurrent planning, which meant the social workers were allowed to say, I’m pretty sure that this case is going to be an adoption case, even though on paper it was reunification at the time, with the biological family. When Amir was born, our son in 2008, the commissioner at the time said basically, you couldn’t place any children in pre-adoptive foster homes until all biological options had been exhausted. So he was actually a year old before he was free for adoption. And we met him at a year old. We got the news that he was up for adoption and that he’d been matched with us. And that was a pretty amazing experience to meet this one year old who physically was very advanced, running around already and it was a pretty great day. We met his foster parents and went out to dinner with them and met him and it’s another great day. And we celebrate the adoption day for our kids every year. The date that we actually legalized the adoption. And my daughter was just telling me the other day after her birthday, she was like, well, my adoption day is coming up June and it’s basically another birthday. So I’m looking forward to that. So here we are. My son is nine and my daughter’s 11, and it’s been amazing.

Emily: What has cultural and racial identity looked like or how has it developed in your family?

Johnny: So we actually check a lot of boxes in my family. My husband is white, I am Asian, my mom was born in Indonesia, my daughter’s black, and Amir, our son, is Latino – half Dominican, half Puerto Rican. So it’s really interesting thinking about a racial identity and culture and how that’s developed. Even just for me as an adult and my husband as a white man, I look at my own sort of racial identity as having been eclipsed by my sexual identity growing up. And you know, as much more focused on what does it mean to be gay and growing up gay and coming out. It really wasn’t until I went into education and started looking at the implications of race on education and the achievement gap and all of those things that I started thinking about my own identity a little bit more. And then it wasn’t until Cassie came into our lives and then we really did some homework and thought about what is it going to mean to raise a child that has a different race than either my husband or myself. And I really started to come to terms with my own identity. I think that what’s important keeping in mind about trans racial families is that as parents, we have to do the work for ourselves before we can provide a safe foundation for our children. Even my husband as a white man has had to grapple with a lot in terms of his privilege and his existence within the power structures in our society in order to really understand what it’s like to parent two children of color.

Nate: For my family racial identity has developed in different ways due to the fact that my siblings and I all identify as African American and my parents are white. And it’s more so like everything that we grew up doing, I was kind of the first one in the family that had to go through the expanse of, Hey, I’m leading my black siblings. And then also having to deal with how to relate things that my white pants are telling us so we can all have a good family unit.

Emily: So what is a favorite memory that you have of celebrating your family’s multiracial or trans-racial identities?

Johnny: When my son was in kindergarten and my daughter was in first grade and only a year apart in school, he had to do a family portrait collage and it was really fun cause when he brought it home, he had picked four different colors of paper for our skin colors. And it was pretty exciting to sort of see him be able to articulate what our family looks like and that it was still a family and that artistic way at five years old. And we still have that. This is on kids’ minds. There’s a lot of research that says that very young children recognize race. We can find power in it, which I think he was doing, which was really exciting. So I always remember that.

Nate: My parents always tell me that when I was smaller, I think maybe five or six years old, I’d gone in this school and I had to do a family collage and I had put what I thought had made up my family and what I thought made me – and I put Irish. And I’d gone in and hand this paper in and the teacher was like, oh, I think you got this incorrect. And my parents had to come in to explain that because he had two white parents, he thought that they had made up him as well and that he thought that he was part Irish. So they always keep that little picture at home. And at one point I thought that I was Irish.

Emily: Well both of your families currently attend or attended Family Week in Provincetown. Why is an event or a space like this in this community of LGBTQ families important to you and your family? What has it been like being around other LGBTQ families? And then teasing that out even a little bit more, spaces that are LGBTQ, multiracial, adoptive family spaces at Family Week or beyond. How are those spaces even different than just broader LGBTQ spaces?

Johnny: Our first year at Family Week was amazing. I think our kids were three and two at the time, maybe even two and one, I have to check the dates. What was really amazing for us was being a part of the majority for once in terms of our family structure. And I think looking around and seeing such a vast diversity racially too, was really important. As the many intersections of all of our identities exist, I’m constantly trying to be aware for my children in particular, the ways in which my sexual identity as a gay man is something that I can choose to share or not share and that my racial identity is not something that I can choose to share. That it’s something that people see when they look at me. And that that’s true for my kids too. And so something that was just kind of an amazing realization at Family Week, our first year was seeing our kids with the several dozen kids of color being raised by LGBT families and just thinking, in 20 years these kids are going to do some amazing work in this country and really shift the conversation around race and identity, just because of the diversity in which they are growing up. And I thought that Family Week was a really great space for them to nurture that side of them and understand that they’re not alone.

Nate: Yeah. I’m going to piggyback off of that. That makes you feel that we’re not alone. I think going to Family Week for almost 20 years now, the thing that keeps drawing me back is that I know that there’s a sense of community even outside of the community that I have at home. I know no matter what, I have a group of friends who identify with the same family structures. There’s no real explanation needs to be given because there are people out there that understand what we’re going through. So even the breakdown of going into smaller groups, I used to run workshops at Family Week with COLAGE doing race and different things within the family because I knew that having that breakdown of a group is instrumental to the growth of kids.

Emily: Well this is wonderful and it’s really great to hear that there can be really positive spaces. But the LGBTQ family community we know is not monolithic and it’s not perfect. So has the LGBTQ community ever disappointed you or let you and your family down in the past?

Nate: I know that for us, there was definitely instances in the sense of because we were foster children and then we were adopted through the foster care system, that people look negatively on our family versus getting a child maybe from out of the nation or being able to choose what the baby be like through donor insemination. So they viewed our family like, oh, you only went this route and you didn’t do the extra expensive way.

Johnny: Yeah, I bet. I think we’ve had similar experiences to Nate. It comes out in these microaggressions of – let me guess, where are the kids from, Ethiopia? And it’s like, nope, they’re from Boston and Worcester Massachusetts. And there’s sometimes there’s been a sense that’s not as posh as going the surrogacy route or international adoption or even private adoption. That’s been tough. I think it comes from just a lack of awareness around how some of those questions come out. And going off of what I was saying earlier about doing the work and our own identity as parents, I think that I definitely have had conversations with some white LGBT parents who I don’t believe have done the actual work to understand what it means to be a white person in this country at this time. And what is my white identity and what is my racial identity as a white person? And I think it’s really challenging to long term provide that positive racial identity for children of color when the parents haven’t really assessed where they are, particularly in terms of the power dynamic.

Emily: That’s really interesting. I hear discussions about how expensive many or some of the routes to forming a family are. So it’s really interesting that you hear almost a one-upmanship of ‘my child was this expensive or it took this long’.

Johnny: I think going on that too, I have to admit that it’s sometimes hard for LGBT friends, even heterosexual friends who go to tremendous lengths for IVF or for surrogacy and spend a lot of money on these things. It’s hard to reconcile as a parent who built his family through foster care, just to hear how much money is being spent when there are these kids that need families. You know, there’s so many kids out there that need families when our community is already, as you cited in your statistics, building their families through adoption and in such increased numbers compared to the general population. I wish there were more who explored foster care. I think that these kids are amazing. It’s very rare that you get those TV movie of the week versions of foster care. These kids, they’re pretty awesome. They want to be loved. They’re ready for adoption. They’re available.

Emily: So Johnny, your family got some media attention a couple of years ago because of a Black Lives Matter sign that you had in your yard. Through that experience you came out and you spoke a fair amount and you had put on your blog how your family discusses race, police violence, activism, discrimination. Has that changed recently at all?

Johnny: Right. So we put up a Black Lives Matter sign. It was a summer where we just couldn’t do it anymore. The news reports were just so frequent about these unarmed African American people being killed in this country by police. So we put the sign up and an anonymous complaint from a neighbor came through the town. And we live in a predominantly white town in the suburb of Boston. I immediately told my husband, we’re moving, I don’t want to deal with this. My daughter, actually it’s interesting I think she was eight at the time, the first question she asked was, was it a white person that sent that letter? And I said, I don’t know, but I’m assuming it is. And I think that it was interesting having conversations with both kids around it. Cause we have always tried to engage them in conversations around race and identity openly, in age appropriate ways. So I remember thinking about the Lion King and watching the Lion King with our kids and how a lot of those villainous creatures in that film, the hyenas, have what we would call a African American vernacular in the film. And just having conversations with them like two or three years old about, isn’t it silly that the only people that that sounded like black people we see in movies are the bad guys in this movie. The white people aren’t bad. So we’ve always had those conversations early on. And so when stuff started to come to a head in our town with the Black Lives Matter sign and the media was coming out, it was pretty amazing for us to hear our eight and seven year old kids articulating why this stuff matters and why it was important to have that sign out there. As they’ve matured, we’ve matured the conversation and that’s been really great for us.

Emily: And Nate, were there conversations around race, violence, discrimination and activism in your family?

Nate: Yes, all the time. Ever since we were really small our parents let us know that hey, you’re equal to everyone but you may not be treated as well as you should be. So we were always introduced to the idea but they never told us we couldn’t do something. We were always allowed to explore in different worlds, but we were always told like, hey, if you come across the situation, it may happen but hopefully it will not. And we were always kind of prepared for everything that we went into. Both of my parents, one is an occupational therapist and the other’s a math professor, so they were both always educating us on different ways navigating situations and so on. And it was a predominant talk we had ever since we were small.

Johnny: And again, if I can just add in, I think that that’s one of the things that’s different in trans-racial families, that’s different from white families – it is a privilege that they can choose to have those conversations or not. And it’s not a privilege in our family. It is an imperative conversation that we have and that we are constantly talking about it in our families. I do a lot of work with educators around racial identity and how race and racism affects education. We’ll often ask people in the class, when was the last time you had a conversation explicitly about race? And inevitably the white folks in the class say I really can’t remember. And they have to the racking their brain. And the people of color in the class were like, this morning It’s a reality of our family. We use the analogy of left handed/right handed in the classes I teach. That being left handed is a little more challenging in this world. You have to find special scissors and you have to think about where you’re sitting at dinner time. It doesn’t mean that you’re less than a right handed person. It doesn’t mean that you have a less fulfilling life. It just means you have to work a little harder. That’s really the reality of LGBT folks in this country and of people of color.

Emily: For anybody who is listening to the podcast that is new to the foster care/ public adoption journey or is considering it or just people who are part of forming a trans-racial adoptive family. Do you have any final thoughts or advice for them?

Johnny: I think for me, I would just say, don’t be afraid of it. It’s an awesome ride and our family’s amazing and lean into the discomfort, particularly if the family is a white parent-headed family for example. It’s not impossible. I know plenty of white parents who have adopted trans-racially who are doing amazing things. My husband is one of them. Just lean into the discomfort. The way you get comfortable with things that are uncomfortable is that you practice them. With my students I use the analogy of, if you wanted to get better at shooting a hoop in basketball, the thing not to do is not play basketball. Right? Same thing with having conversations about race and identity and culture. If those things are uncomfortable, the thing to do to get better at them is to just practice them and have those conversations, particularly with your loved ones.

Emily: Nate, same question but maybe also if you wanted to open it up to maybe if we have anybody who is themselves an adoptee listening as well.

Nate: It was definitely a life changing experience. It opened my eyes to a number of different things that I don’t think I would have necessarily gotten to experience or do. As I’ve grown up, I have had to research more and learn more about how my adoption. I went into it and I’m learning about the different things that go into my genetic makeup and family structures as I’ve gotten older. I thought it was simple at first and as I’ve gotten older and learned more, it is opening up my eyes to the world that I came from and that I’m a part of and how everything comes together. And my brother and I, we both have this same biological family, so a lot of the research is done together and we learned about it together. And our parents, they’ve always said they’re never going to stop us or hold us back from wanting to explore that. They always tell us that we’re a family first. And I always reiterate the same thing, that this is my family and anything else is just kind of extra.