April 27, 2012

Parenting Without Papers

[Editor's Note: We are SO excited to bring you ANOTHER amazing out faculty blogger, Dr. Jules Odendahl-James.]

At the end of February, I spoke at the Duke Together rally against Amendment 1 on the West Union Plaza. I was there to talk about the harms this discriminatory amendment poses for my family, which consists of myself, my spouse of 17 years, and our 7-year old daughter. {You might have seen us the “Make it Better” video that Duke Together released at the end of March.} That event in February, I’m almost ashamed to say, was the first large campus event where I spoke openly about being a gay parent and my most palpable emotion was fear--fear that by being visible I was putting those I love at risk not to mention myself.

Earlier on that same February day, I was a participant in a “Know Your Rights” training facilitated by NC Dream Team as part of STRANGER: A Festival of Hospitable Acts, a civic engagement project sponsored by the Duke Center for Civic Engagement and the Department of Theater Studies. The Dream Team typically reserves this training for undocumented students, workers, and their families but agreed to facilitate a version of their workshop to help us understand more personally the range of emotional, physical, and legal issues faced by North Carolina Latino/as. There were some dominant themes:
• Fear -- of exposure, of entrapment, of discrimination, of loss of everything one knows and holds dear.
• Resolve -- to speak out for fair business, legal, and educational practices in relationship to immigrants old and young, those with papers and without.
These young activists are unwilling to hide, remain silent, and hope for others to change a dysfunctional system. Their resolve also what puts them at risk; however, it’s a risk they feel compelled to take. If they don’t, who will?

I began to imagine myself in the shoes of our facilitators. No, I do not risk arrest and deportation if I am pulled over for a traffic violation. No, police officers typically do not single me out on the street and ask my name, to see some ID, or demand to know “What are you doing here?” No, I do not worry about my ability to get through a day without being accosted, my workplace raided, or being torn, summarily and without legal counsel, from my family and sent to a place I do not know as home.

And yet, I can be denied access to and the ability to direct care for my child or my wife, if we have to seek medical care in a county or from a facility where the staff refuses to acknowledge me as a parent and a spouse. In 2010, I lost my legal standing as a same-sex, “second” adoptive parent via a summary judgment from the NC Supreme Court in Boseman v Jarrell. So did hundreds of others. I am now dependent upon benevolent schools, doctors, and employers to accept me as a mother despite that ruling. If something were to happen to my spouse, despite the many costly legal documents we have in place to protect ourselves, a member of her extended family could step in and argue for a blood tie to the child I have raised. And I would have to rely upon the mercy of the court for custody.

The immediacy of the fear is absolutely different for LGBT and Latino/a North Carolinians, but the risks for living “without papers” (be they birth certificates, valid Social Security cards, or adoption decrees) is shared. And, while I am fortunate that Duke University provides benefits to its LGBT employees and their families, my position is provisional. My temporary access to the generosity of this employer adds complications and, admittedly, has influenced my willingness to be public and vocal about LGBT equality.

As I sat in the “Know Your Rights” workshop, I was reminded of an exchange that happened at a Race to the Ballot town hall. Race to the Ballot was a statewide marathon in which EqualityNC staffer Jen Jones ran from city to city appearing at public forums to talk with citizens about the ramifications of this legislation. At a meeting in Boone, a supporter of Amendment 1 demanded to know how one speaker, a lesbian non-birth mother, could legitimately consider herself a parent. “Did you and that woman conceive your child?” He was visibly shocked at her answer of “Yes,” and at her question of him. “Can you see that I am the mother of that child? I was there at her birth and have raised her. Can you believe that she is as much mine as your children are yours?” “No,” he responded with blunt honesty, ”I just can’t.”

It is this refusal to recognize LGBTQ North Carolinians as equal that Amendment 1 will enshrine into the state constitution. This is more than just an issue of semantics about marriage; it codifies a particular religious morality as a rationale for discrimination. It not only prevents relationship recognition for both unmarried gay and straight couples, but also makes it impossible for North Carolina law to conceptualize of such unions for the foreseeable future. Without legal standing as full subjects, any and all rights and responsibilities to partners, communities, and institutions are rendered inconceivable.

On my most pessimistic days, I think this is the unspoken endgame when it comes to LGBTQ individuals, as well as un/documented, Latino immigrants in North Carolina: to make invisibility not a temporary survival strategy, but a permanent legal position from which we have few, if any, means of recourse. On other, more hopeful days, I think of how much the fight to defeat Amendment 1 has galvanized and connected seemingly different communities and encouraged people to come out, to see themselves and make themselves seen as complete subjects in the face of the law. Resolve in the face of fear can no longer be a dream -- it must be a reality.

To learn more about The NC Dream Team visit their website. To learn more about Duke Together and other statewide organizations fighting Amendment 1 visit our website. [Photo Credit: Justin Cook, Commitment NC Project]


  1. I really like your use of dialogue and anecdotes to anchor this post. Also, I just genuinely appreciate this content because I've never thought of LGBTQ couples as falling under the "without papers" category, and it's an important parallel to other 'undocumented' folks' struggle. A neat way to continue this growing idea of 'intersectionality' on the blog.

    Also, FACULTY! You are too cool.

  2. Your family is amazing and represent exactly what America and North Carolin should cherish in the definition of marriage.