Abbie Goldberg, Ph.D.

Abbie Goldberg Ph.D.

Beyond Blood

Traveling as a Gay Parent Comes With Extra Baggage

Expect the unexpected...and bring the birth certificate.

Posted May 07, 2012

Several weeks ago, two gay fathers who were traveling with their children claimed that they were “humiliated” by border officials who refused to believe that they were both the parents. The couple—Tony and Barrie Drewitt-Barlow, who have a registered civil partnership—described confronting “horrendous homophobia” when they arrived at Heathrow Airport with three of their five children According to an article in the Mirror, Tony, 47, said: “The woman asked who I was. When I told her I was their father, she asked who ‘he’ was, looking at Barrie. When I said he was my civil partner and also the children’s father, she sneered and said it was ‘biologically impossible’ for us to be their parents.” Added Tony, "It was horrendous—it made my blood boil. We travel abroad a lot and this has never happened.”

Unfortunately, the type of treatment that Tony and Barrie experienced can happen to any gay parent. True, gay parents who live in gay-friendly and progressive communities may never encounter anything close to what Tony and Barrie experienced—yet traveling outside of one’s immediate community can render gay-parent families vulnerable to unexpected scrutiny and stigma. While the mantra for any traveler in 2012 might as well be “expect the unexpected,” for gay parents, the mantra should perhaps be, “expect the unexpected—and bring your children’s birth certificates and other relevant paperwork with you.”

The reality is that few parents can avoid having to travel with their children at some point or another. Traveling with children presents anxieties for many parents. But for gay parents, anxieties may be heightened by the reality that many people—often those in positions of power (airport officials, law enforcement officials)—may not readily understand or accept their family relationships. Many of the gay adoptive fathers who I interviewed for my book, Gay Dads: Transitions to Adoptive Fatherhood, spoke to these concerns. For example, Tom, a gay man who had recently adopted a child with his partner, shared his awareness that “whenever you’re traveling around, two men and a baby, you have to have all the paperwork because depending on what state you’re in, they’re going to pull you over and not believe that this child is yours.” Barry, a gay man who was about to travel cross-country with his partner and child, said that he was preparing himself for “the frustration of having to explain our family situation. I guess I’m going into it expecting that I’ll have to carry around a birth certificate.” Gay men who had adopted children of a different race described anxieties related to both their sexual orientation and the multiracial nature of their family. They anticipated that their families might be “doubly scrutinized,” which in some cases prompted them to kick into self-preservation mode. For example, some men planned to “stay put” and avoid travel altogether “until absolutely necessary,” while other men made a point of updating their wills and other paperwork before traveling. As Don, a man who had recently adopted a child with his partner, told me, “Everybody’s told us, have the paperwork with you no matter where you go. You know, because two men driving around with an African American baby just doesn’t seem right to most people.”

So what can gay parents do to protect themselves? Lawyers recommend that gay parents update their wills, powers of attorney, and other paperwork before traveling (see, for example, this NYT article from last March). Even if a couple is married, this does not mean that they should not seek additional paperwork and protections. For example, it is recommended that for lesbian couples who have a child via alternative insemination, even if they are married, the “non-biological parent [should still] go through the legal procedures required for stepparent or second parent adoption as a precaution. This legal relationship will exist as a backup form of security if the gay or lesbian couples decide to travel to a state that does not recognize their same-sex legal relationship or the automatic parental rights arising out of it” (for more on legal issues, go here). So, traveling as a gay parent may mean extra baggage—but better to arrive at one’s destination securely than to risk damage along the way.