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After a year with the boy, Houton wanted to adopt Oscar.
But he couldn't. Houton is gay.
Since 1977, homosexuals have been expressly banned from legal adoption in Florida.
Although foster guardianship, which gays can obtain in the state, is meant to be short-term, the tie often lasts for years. According to the Florida Child Adoption Association, 3400 children up to age 18 are in the state's custody. The vast majority of these kids are at least five years old and have abusive backgrounds that have caused emotional and behavioral disorders. As a result, they are often harder to place. If a child is matched with an individual or couple willing to take on the inevitable extra work, long-term foster relationships are acceptable. But child-welfare experts say adoption is ideal to make both guardian and child feel ultimately secure in their bond.
Houton is now an expert on the gay-adoption ban. Florida is the only state that prohibits adoption by all gays. Mississippi and Utah have laws banning adoption by same-sex couples, which is slightly different but has the same effect. "I'm just disgusted to live in a state that blatantly refuses to recognize my civil rights. This is not about a suit, really; it's about someone seeing what Oscar and I have undeniably."
To Oscar, Houton became simply "Dad." The nurse took care of the boy when he got sick, read to him every day, hugged him when he was afraid, took him to the beach to play, and disciplined him when necessary. Oscar, still a very shy child, doesn't respond when asked about his biological father, who sees his son for extremely rare "five-minute cameos," Houton says. Last year, Oscar Sr. agreed in writing to relinquish his parental rights, say Houton and the boy's grandparents. Oscar Sr.'s whereabouts are unknown. A phone number Fanny and Jimmy Williams provided to contact him is disconnected.
"We're very glad that Doug wants to have Oscar," Fanny Williams says. "That boy has had a great upbringing with him. My son at first didn't tell me that Doug was gay 'cause he thought it would trouble me. But I don't care about none of that. I don't care, either, that Doug is white. What matters to me is how well Oscar is looked after. I tell ya, that child'd have a very hard time if somebody take him from Doug."
Adoption seemed the best way to quell Houton's nagging fear that someone could remove Oscar. Indeed, if a straight person were to apply tomorrow and pass all state Division of Children and Family Services interviews and background checks, Houton's custody could be revoked without warning.
While Houton searched for a way to keep Oscar, the Florida ban received little media attention. But as with many taboo political issues, a celebrity's disgust with the law has recently drawn attention to it. Talk-show chatterbox Rosie O'Donnell, who owns digs in Miami Beach, pulled an Ellen last month. Very methodically, O'Donnell opened her closet door. She first outed herself in a best-selling memoir, Find Me, last month, then last week sat down for some prime-time tell-all with Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters. Despite the soft lighting and touchy-feely vibe of the interviews, which aired on ABC, O'Donnell didn't hold back telling America how she feels about her adopted state's law.
"If you think heterosexuals make better parents than homosexuals, I have 500,000 pieces of evidence to show you that heterosexuals are not always great parents. Virtually all of the children who are in foster care were taken out of heterosexual homes," she told Diane Sawyer. "Sexuality is not a precursor to good parenting. What you need to be a good parent does not have anything to do with sexuality. Anyone, if Governor Bush or his brothers disagrees with me, then I invite them to come spend four days with me and my kids. They'll change their mind."
But O'Donnell has done more than give the ban lip service. She is working with the American Civil Liberties Union to help overturn the law.
In 1999, at a time when O'Donnell was still gushing over Tom Cruise on her show, Houton and two other gay couples who wanted to adopt became part of a class-action lawsuit filed by the national branch of the ACLU against the State of Florida.
But the lawsuit wasn't the ACLU's idea. A man in a situation similar to Houton's instigated it. Miami pediatric-AIDS nurse Steven Lofton wanted to adopt an HIV-positive boy who had been born with traces of cocaine and marijuana in his body.
Lofton, who had been a foster parent to many other children, including some with HIV, gained legal guardianship when the boy, now ten, was two months old. Lofton is the only parent the child has ever known. "It was really Steven who helped us start formulating very carefully how to approach the issue again," says Leslie Cooper, a Gay and Lesbian Rights Division attorney with the ACLU's national branch. The intense relationship between Oscar and Houton added heft to the suit.
The lawsuit, which contends that the law violates homosexuals' 14th Amendment guarantee of equal protection, is the third attempt to overturn the ban in the past 12 years. Those cases, all brought by the ACLU, were tried in South Florida state court; each fizzled out during a lengthy appeals process. The last one, which ended in 1997, involved a Fort Lauderdale woman whose adoption papers were thrown out by an agency. The case made it to trial court but was shot down, and the woman declined to appeal.