Courting Change: Queer Parents, Judges, and the Transformation of American Family Law

Courting Change: Queer Parents, Judges, and the Transformation of American Family Law

Courting Change: Queer Parents, Judges, and the Transformation of American Family Law

Courting Change: Queer Parents, Judges, and the Transformation of American Family Law


Winner of the 2010 Pacific Sociological Association Distinguished Contribution to Scholarship Award

A lesbian couple rears a child together and, after the biological mother dies, the surviving partner loses custody to the child's estranged biological father. Four days later, in a different court, judges rule on the side of the partner, because they feel the child relied on the woman as a "psychological parent." What accounts for this inconsistency regarding gay and lesbian adoption and custody cases, and why has family law failed to address them in a comprehensive manner?

In Courting Change , Kimberly D. Richman zeros in on the nebulous realm of family law, one of the most indeterminate and discretionary areas of American law. She focuses on judicial decisions- both the outcomes and the rationales- and what they say about family, rights, sexual orientation, and who qualifies as a parent. Richman challenges prevailing notions that gay and lesbian parents and families are hurt by laws' indeterminacy, arguing that, because family law is so loosely defined, it allows for the flexibility needed to respond to- and even facilitate - changes in how we conceive of family, parenting, and the role of sexual orientation in family law.

Drawing on every recorded judicial decision in gay and lesbian adoption and custody cases over the last fifty years, and on interviews with parents, lawyers, and judges, Richman demonstrates how parental and sexual identities are formed and interpreted in law, and how gay and lesbian parents can harness indeterminacy to transform family law.


The strength and genius of common law lies in its ability to
adapt to the changing needs of the society it governs.

In re Parentage of A.B.

In 1999, an Indiana social worker petitioned to adopt three children, siblings, all of whom had severe disabilities and had been in foster care for most of their lives. The adoption was near completion when the children's foster parents petitioned to stop the adoption of one of the children. They called their local pastor, rallied the community, and put pressure on the adoption board to disallow the adoption of the little girl by the social worker–and they were successful. The two boys were adopted by the social worker and were cared for by him according to their special needs, while their sister remained in the home of her foster parents. A year later, law enforcement made a terrible discovery: the girl, whom the foster parents had insisted on keeping, had been molested and sexually abused repeatedly by her foster father. Now her foster father is in prison, and the little girl is left in a broken foster home while her brothers miss her and ask their adoptive father why she couldn't come and live with them. He doesn't have the heart to tell them, it's because he is gay.

What is it that makes an adoption board, community, or judge balk at the thought of allowing a gay man to adopt a little girl, instead leaving her in foster care and separating her from her brothers? How is it that in Florida, where a movement auspiciously called “Save the Children” made it illegal for gay men and lesbians to adopt children, a father who . . .

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