How Marriage Inequality Prompts Gay Partners to Adopt One Another

Heterosexist policies have historically pushed gay couples into what is essentially legalized incest

(Wikimedia Commons)

The queer community has been dubbed as "perverse" since long before gays were dragged from The Stonewall Inn and beaten for their orientation.

Because of historical opposition to gay marriage, long-term, same-sex couples have a history of adopting one another for legal protection—the arrangement Liberace promised Scott Thorson in Behind The Candelabra during one of the high points in their jewel-encrusted relationship. The adopting of one's partner was a direct response to laws for estate, taxes, and wills that have failed to recognize same-sex partnerships. But in fact, it's heterosexist policies that prompted many notably "deviant" couples from history to engage in what could be considered incest, essentially further "deviance."

As late as June 2013, a 65-year-old man legally adopted his 73-year-old partner in Pennsylvania for financial protection because marriage was not available to them. The couple told ABC News that they were primarily concerned about Pennsylvania’s inheritance tax, which could make one partner liable for a 15 percent tax on the estate (as opposed to 4 percent if they pushed ahead with adoption). Men of this vintage can't sit around and wait for marriage equality to show up, so they've legally changed their relationship from partners to father and son.

They're in excellent company. Robert Allerton, the wealthy son of the founder of First Chicago Bank, openly adopted his partner, John Gregg, in 1959 following a change in Illinois law that permitted adult children to be adopted. Gregg was a 22-year-old orphan who met 49-year-old Allerton at a pre-football game lunch at the University of Illinois in the decadent 1920s. Gregg was studying architecture when he wandered into the Zeta Psi fraternity house, to which many brothers had brought their fathers. On meeting his future long-term companion/legal father, Gregg famously said in 1984, "Robert Allerton was invited over there for lunch, and he didn't have a son and I didn't have a father, so we were paired off and lived happily ever after."

And live very happily they did, enjoying a nearly 40-year union that included lavish parties, traveling, philanthropy, and Gregg inheriting much of Allerton’s estate after he passed away in 1964.

Rev. Ralph Abernathy (left), Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., (center), and Bayard Rustin (right) leaving the Montgomery County Courthouse, February 1956. (Gene Herrick/AP)

Bayard Rustin, the civil rights organizer who imparted nonviolence credos to Martin Luther King Jr., also adopted his partner Walter Naegle for inheritance purposes. Arrested for "sexual perversion" in 1953, Bayard was described as "relatively out" as gay for the whole of his career. Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, the first African-American politician in New York to be elected to Congress, reportedly was so outraged by this that he threatened to spread a rumor that Rustin and MLK were lovers. As a result, King folded and cancelled a planned boycott outside the Democratic National Convention when confronted with the possibility of being "sullied" as queer.

The adoption process required Naegle's mother to sign documents disowning him, a request that understandably confused her, BuzzFeed reported. But despite being out as partners during the course of their 10-year relationship, Naegle was cited as Rustin's son in Rustin’s 1987 New York Times obituary.

"It hurt. It hurt a bit," Naegle told theGrio about the Times' obit. "At the same time, I understood that it was the policy at the time. And it was the reality. Bayard did adopt me legally. We were not able to get married at that time, of course." Nevertheless, the legal move granted Naegle the role of being the executor of the estate of Bayard Rustin.

Marina Cicogna, an Italian countess legally adopted her younger partner, Benedetta, out of a lack of other options. Italy remains one of the few countries in Western Europe that does not recognize same-sex unions of any kind.

For these couples, the financial and emotional risk of adoption is much greater than marriage in that one cannot "divorce" their adult adopted child. In a way, these legal commitments to one another trump even the intended longevity of legal marriage in that the bond is irrevocable. The law cements the partners as parent and child for life, thereby throwing a considerable wrench in the notion that LGBTQ individuals are too promiscuous to commit.

One of the many downsides of this arrangement, is of course, that one adult is cemented as the "the child." This in turn engenders an unhealthy distribution of power in same-sex couples. This adoption/partnership also requires one partner to sever important legal ties with living family members, just as Naegle had to broach with his mother. For same-sex couples with living parents, their family unit is considerably lessened.

It’s ironic that so many governments have historically incentivized queer individuals into situations of incest rather than legal partnerships. Similar tactics of people circumventing unjust laws in desperation are evidenced in the women who sought back-alley abortions, or of blacks who were forced to attempt to pass as white in times of deep segregation.

But as the debate over marriage equality continues to rage, states (and nations) in opposition should consider their own problematic contributions to the history of "deviant" sexualities.