Friday, August 23, 2013

My First Adoptee Rights Demonstration Experience

I only became aware of the Adoptee Rights Coalition (ARC) and their annual demonstration last year, and by the time I did, it was too late to plan a trip to Chicago. This year, I was ready—and lucky, because this year the National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL) was held in Atlanta, where I live.

Each year for the past six years, the Adoptee Rights Coalition has organized a demonstration outside the NCSL in order to raise public awareness of adoptee rights. Inside the conference, the ARC sets up a booth where volunteer supporters speak to the visiting legislators about the laws in their home states pertaining to adoptees’ original birth certificates (OBCs). Currently, only six states allow adopted adults total, unrestricted access to their OBCs: Alaska, Kansas, Maine, New Hampshire, Oregon, and Alabama. In every other state, there is some kind of restriction in place on OBCs. These restrictions include allowing birth parents to veto access (as in Illinois and Washington), blackout years during which OBCs cannot be accessed (as in Ohio and Massachusetts), and complete sealing of all adoptee OBCs across the board in many states.

I didn’t always know that so many adult adoptees cannot get a copy of their own, original birth certificate. I first became aware of the law in my home state of Ohio when I began the search for my birth mother (who I found without the aid of my OBC). And I’ve only recently begun to think of myself as an adoptee rights activist.

The Demonstration

On the evening of Sunday, August 11, I arrived to the official ARC hotel near the Atlanta airport, where I met up with my fellow Lost Daugher and ARC board member, Julie Stromberg. She introduced me around to others she knew who were hanging out in the hotel lobby socializing before the sign making party officially began. A group was gathered at one of the tables, busily folding wrappers printed with the ARC logo and website around Hershey miniatures. Interesting, I thought. But what does candy have to do with adoptee rights?

Karen Pickell, Julie Stromberg, and Carlynne Hershberger before the ARC sign making party

Everyone moved into a small, private room where the actual sign making began. The ARC provided pre-lettered signs along with markers that we used to color in the lettering or add our own verbiage. I chose a sign that read, “Why is my Identity a State Secret?” I colored it so that “Identity” and “Secret” would stand out. I wanted to make a clear statement that there is no reason who I am should be a threat to anyone. My identity is not something to be hidden away.

Regretfully, I had to leave the sign making party early; my seven-year-old would not have appreciated me being away from home on the night before her first day of school. I wish I would have had more time to talk with everyone who came in from out of town.

Adoptee Rights Demonstration, August 12, 2013
On Monday morning, I met up with my fellow demonstrators across from the Georgia World Congress center. We marched past CNN over to Centennial Olympic Park chanting, “You’ve got yours, we want ours” and “Born, adopted, sealed, denied.” At the park, our chanting was briefly silenced by local law enforcement authorities who instructed us on where we could and could not march and chant. We were confined to the sidewalk along one side of the park—not a bad spot, actually, as it was directly across from CNN along a well-trafficked street. Alas, no one from the esteemed news organization came out to speak with us. I’m betting they get sign-bearing protesters there often and probably ignore all of them.

We did manage, though, to snag an actual adoptee right off the street! He was from Alabama and didn’t know anything about these unjust laws regarding OBCs. We informed him that since he was from an open state, he could go and get his any time he wanted. He grabbed a sign and marched with us for a while. As ARC board member Claudia Corrigan-D’Arcy would say, “That’s how we roll!”

Adoptee Rights Demonstration, August 12, 2013

When the hour set aside for our demonstration passed, we headed back over to a designated free speech area across from the Georgia World Congress Center—the only other place we were permitted to chant. There, several of us spoke with honest-to-goodness legislators. And our own Julie Stromberg was interviewed by Atlanta’s local Fox affiliate, though to my knowledge, the footage was never aired. Still, at least Fox sent over a cameraman, which is more than I can say for CNN.

I headed for home Monday afternoon feeling both empowered and powerless—empowered by being enveloped in a group of people who agreed that adoptees should be able to get their own OBCs and by the rush from proclaiming that truth out loud to everyone who passed by, yet simultaneously powerless after being ignored by CNN as well as so many others out on the street. Was any of this doing any good?

The Booth

Prior to just a few weeks ago, I had no idea that the NCSL ran for nearly a week or that the ARC booth needed to be manned that long. When a call went out asking for volunteers to work the booth later in the week, I signed up, since I knew that most people would have returned home after the demonstration.

On Thursday morning, I met up with Claudia, Kara Albano, and Patricia Harte Neal at the Georgia World Congress center. As they led me down the many escalators into the bowels of the building where all the booths were set up, I was awed by the sheer number of activists and lobbyists vying for the legislators’ attention. This was our democracy in action.

Claudia Corrigan-D'Arcy, Karen Pickell, Patricia Harte Neal, and Kara Albano

I wasn't entirely sure how I would feel about the prospect of trying to persuade legislators until a representative from Virginia stopped over to grab a few pieces of candy from our table (ah, so that’s how the candy helps!) and kept one foot planted just long enough to hear the opening spiel about our original birth certificates being sealed—to which he replied, “Well, in some cases that’s a good thing, I think.” Before I could remember any of the facts I’d studied in preparation or any of the tips my booth mates had coached me on just minutes earlier, I was standing in front of him, looking directly into his eyes, saying, “Why? I’m an adoptee. Tell me why I shouldn’t have my own birth certificate.” I felt a surge of anger that made it impossible for me not to challenge him. Was I not a legal, voting U.S. citizen, just like him? Did I not have the same right to the document describing my birth that he had to his?

A discussion ensued between us (with Claudia jumping in) that touched on the conflation of abortion with adoption as well as the supposed promise of secrecy to birth mothers. I handed him copies of recent testimony on Ohio H.B. 61 given by Ohio Right to Life and Professor of Law Elizabeth J. Samuels, which I’m proud to say he placed in his bag in a manner that indicated he might even look at them later. I also shared with him some of my own story of reuniting with my birth mother. He wanted to know how my adoptive mother reacted to my search—a common reaction that makes us adoptees bristle. I was glad to be able to explain to him that both of my mothers accept each other, and that I do, indeed, consider both women my mothers. Of course, ultimately the fight for our original birth certificates is not about reunion at all. It is about our civil right to have access to the same information about ourselves that all non-adopted people have. But these questions about reunion in relation to adoptee rights will continue to be raised.

I’m pretty sure I didn’t change this legislator’s mind last Thursday, but I’m equally sure that I gave him something new to think about in relation to adoptee rights. We spoke to several other legislators that day as well as their spouses and other attendees of the conference, many of whom were very much in agreement with our viewpoint on adoptees’ original birth certificates, others of whom had never heard about it and, like the Virginia legislator, walked away with something new to consider.

At the end of the day, I felt as if I’d made a difference, albeit a small one. It’s daunting to think about having to repeat these conversations to so many legislators in so many states in order to accomplish the goal of unrestricted access for all adult adoptees. This is a fight requiring many mouths to spread the word.