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Doug Houton, who is challenging the legality of Florida's position, is now an expert on the gay-adoption ban. Florida is the only state that prohibits all adoption by 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," he says. "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, hugged him when he was afraid, took him to the beach to play, and disciplined him when necessary. Oscar, still a 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, according to Houton and the boy's grandparents. And today his whereabouts are unknown. A phone number Fanny and Jimmy Williams provided has been disconnected.
"We're very glad that Doug wants 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 his 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 Doug 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 a house on Star Island, pulled an Ellen last month. She first outed herself in a best-selling memoir, Find Me, then sat down in March for some prime-time tell-all with Diane Sawyer. Despite the soft lighting and touchy-feely vibe of the interview, 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 Sawyer. "What you need to be a good parent does not have anything to do with sexuality."
But O'Donnell has done more than give lip service to repealing the ban. She is working with the American Civil Liberties Union to help overturn it.
Back in 1999, at a time when O'Donnell was still gushing over Tom Cruise on her top-rated 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.
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 bloodstream.
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 [to] 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 lawsuit, which contends that the law violates homosexuals' Fourteenth Amendment guarantee of equal protection, is one of several attempts to overturn the gay ban in the past twelve years. Those cases, all brought by the ACLU, were each 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.
All of the cases failed largely because the state argued that two-parent heterosexual households were "healthier" and "preferable" to a home provided by a single gay person or a gay couple, although no credible studies or data were presented to bolster the argument.
The case involving Lofton, Houton, and another couple is now before the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals and is expected to be heard in Atlanta later this year. In August 2001 U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King ruled that "the best interest of the child is to be raised by a [heterosexual] married family." The ACLU appealed.
The state's lawyer, Casey Walker, intends to press on as well. The private attorney, from Vero Beach, tells New Times that Florida is reluctantly defending the ban. "This is a legislative issue, so the state feels more obligated to protect the integrity of the legislature," he says. "If this were a policy of the Department of Children and Family Services, the state might not be involved."