This week’s Huffington Post Gay Voices RaiseAChild.US “Let Love Define Family” installment highlights the journey of a couple from Florida who overcame discrimination to successfully adopt and who are currently fighting for the right to marry.
Florida may be known as “The Sunshine State,” but many of its LGBT citizens who want to marry live under a dark cloud. Nevertheless, there have been breaks in the clouds and brighter days are ahead. Thirty-eight-year-old Vanessa Alenier, an assistant general manager for tradeshows and special events, and her partner Melanie Alenier, 35, an insurance agent at State Farm, are currently plaintiffs along with five other couples and Equality Florida Institute in a lawsuit challenging Florida’s ban on same-sex marriage. Although the fight is far from over, the couple is overjoyed that the marriage ban was ruled unconstitutional yesterday in Key West; the ruling by Circuit Judge Luis M. Garcia, however, applies only to Monroe County.
But this is not the only legal challenge they have faced as a family. Five years ago, like many other couples in long-term relationships, they decided they wanted to raise children. But Florida law prohibited all gay men and lesbian women from adopting, a categorical ban that had been in effect since 1977. They were discouraged by the cost and complications of alternative insemination, but it appeared to be their only option.
Then, as they put it, “fate intervened.” Less than a month after they decided to move forward with researching their next steps for insemination, they received a call from the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF). An extended family member of Vanessa’s had given birth to a boy and DCF told her the baby would go into foster care unless a relative was willing to take him.
“Without a doubt in our minds, this was our child,” said Vanessa. She contacted a very helpful worker at DCF. Within a day, a judge granted her hospital visitation rights. The couple quickly prepared their home for a baby and a mandatory home inspection, and shopped for the requisite supplies: diapers, bottles, formula. Within five days, they were ready to receive the baby in his newly decorated nursery. On the ninth day, the judge granted custody to Vanessa.
Kinship adoption -- adoption by extended family members, even if they are LGBT -- is commonplace and supported in some states, so the couple hoped for the best.
“Every day since bringing Ethan home, we knew adopting him would be an issue,” said Vanessa. “We hoped that even though there was an adoption ban in place against gay people, we would be an exception since he was our blood relative. But we started completing the adoption paperwork, and we came across a question that stated ‘Are you a homosexual?’ If you are, under the Florida statue you cannot adopt.”
The women filled out the paperwork, but left the question blank for several weeks as they struggled with their consciences. Finally, they decided they could not lie. Consequently, DCF told the court it would not allow Vanessa to adopt.
It took two years of legal battle and a lot of money before Vanessa ultimately won the right to adopt. On Oct. 27, 2010, the Third District Court of appeals ruled in her favor. Their court case, supported by the National Center for Lesbian Rights, set a precedent that now allows lesbian and gay couples to adopt in the state of Florida. Melanie successfully adopted Ethan in January 2012 through the process known as second-parent adoption.
However the struggle to protect their family continues. Currently, the Aleniers are pursuing marriage as further legal protection for their five-year-old son. “We want the same protections every other married couple has,” said Vanessa. “Also, we would never want Ethan to feel his family is not equal to others. If we were to marry out of state, Florida would still not recognize our marriage."
The Aleniers are proud of forming their family through adoption, carrying on a family legacy.
“Ethan is third-generation adopted,” Vanessa explained. “My father was adopted by his parents, then when he married my mom he adopted me and, of course, Melanie and I adopted Ethan. Maybe one day Ethan will do the same.”
Melanie says becoming Ethan’s parents has been the most rewarding experience of their lives.
“The love we have for our son is amazing,” she said. “The best part is watching him grow and learn every day. And the love he gives back to us with his hugs and kisses or the random ‘I love you, Mom.’”
Ethan is an active, outgoing, and engaging little boy.
“Ethan loves to play sports, be outside with friends, and play in the pool,” Vanessa said of their son. “He is very intelligent and kind to others. He loves his mommies. I am most proud when I see him proud of himself or when he accomplishes something he’s worked hard at.”
Vanessa and Melanie don’t see themselves as heroes, but as ordinary people trying to live ordinary lives in the face of unwarranted discrimination.
“We are your normal, everyday, average lesbian couple,” Vanessa said. “We can only hope to make the world a more equal place one day at a time."
Corinne Lightweaver is the Communications Manager at RaiseAChild.US, a national organization headquartered in Hollywood, California that encourages the LGBT community to build families through fostering and adopting to serve the needs of the 400,000 children in the U.S. foster care system. Since 2011, RaiseAChild.US has run media campaigns and events to educate prospective parents and the public, and has engaged more than 2,200 prospective parents. For information about how you can become a foster or fost/adopt parent, visit www.RaiseAChild.US and click on “Next Step to Parenthood.”