Separate Is Not Equal
May 17, 2009 will mark the 55th anniversary of Brown v Board of Education, the landmark civil rights decision of the Supreme Court that yanked the thread that eventually unraveled the legal basis of institutional racial segregation in the United States. In Brown v Board of Ed. the court distilled the arguments down to one simple principle: SEPARATE IS NOT EQUAL.
I just watched a video of SF Mayor Gavin Newsom, speaking at the Commonwealth Club, remarking about Brown v Board of Ed. and his support of gay marriage. He noted the upcoming anniversary of the decision and predicted that we will hear many speeches celebrating the principle that separate is not equal, by politicians who will then turn around and side step questions about marriage equity by talking about civil unions, a separate procedure designed for gays and lesbians. But as Mayor Newsom points out, SEPARATE IS NOT EQUAL.
Adult adoptees in California have experienced this type of inequality from the moment their adoptions were finalized and their records of birth, their original birth certificates, were sealed. As adult citizens, they are treated differently than every other citizen. They must go through separate processes to gain access to what every other citizen takes for granted and in the majority of instances the outcomes of their requests will be different than every other citizen because they will be denied. And this is unjust because SEPARATE IS NOT EQUAL.
Most of the adult adoptees I know who are working or who have worked to change the state laws sealing records will not benefit directly from their work, for the simple reason that most of them have successfully searched and made contact with their families of origin outside the law. This includes adult adoptees on the board of C.A.R.E., the sponsoring organization for California's AB 372. This speaks to the generosity of spirit of those who choose to devote themselves to the issue, and also speaks to how ineffectual these laws are. To discover our identities requires that we, otherwise law-abiding citizens, become outlaws.
Personally, I won't gain anything (as far as I know) from obtaining my original birth certificate from the state of California. My first mother's name was contained in a document in the possession of my adoptive parents. Even so, the state of California denies me access to a document containing information I already possess. Just who is the law protecting here?
This disconnect between legality and reality breeds a type of contempt and cynicism towards the law that feeds the rage some adoptees pour into their phone calls, letters and emails to legislators.
It all boils down to equal treatment. The issue of whether adult adoptees should be able to access their records of birth is not about their relationships with their adoptive families or their families of origin. Its about their relationship with the state of California, which currently treats them as separate, but equal. I am here to tell you this: SEPARATE IS NOT EQUAL.
And this is why the laws that deny adult adoptees equality of access to their records of birth must be overturned in California. Not because some medical or child welfare specialists recommend it. Not because we feel the emotional pull of reunion narratives. We must recognize the principle of Brown v Board of Ed., the same principle that is driving the efforts to overturn Propositon 8, the principle that SEPARATE IS NOT EQUAL, because it affirms the basic justice underlying all of our laws. We must make governance by law consistent with the realities and aspirations of its citizens, and in equal measure. Justice benefits everyone equally, just laws benefit everyone equally.
Now, we will be told that it's not that simple. But just as the US Supreme Court did in Brown v Board of Ed. , and just as Mayor Newsom did by decreeing gay marriage legal in San Francisco, we, as adult adoptees, must stand up and tell the legislators, in one voice, the simple truth: SEPARATE IS NOT EQUAL.
WRITE YOUR CALIFORNIA ASSEMBLY MEMBER AND THE MEMBERS OF THE ASSEMBLY JUDICIARY COMMITTEE TODAY! To find out who your Assembly member is, click HERE. Contact information for the Assembly Judiciary Committee is HERE.
Blees you, Justice Marshall!!