In 1987, the New Hampshire Legislature targeted gay people as unfit for parenting

Last modified: 6/29/2013 11:59:01 PM
Allowing gay couples to adopt or raise foster children, the state senator said, “is like putting a pound of roast beef in a cage with a lion. You know it’s going to get eaten.”

Those words, from then-state Sen. Jack Chandler, capped a front-page news article in the March 13, 1987, Concord Monitor. The New Hampshire Senate had voted to ban gay people from parenting foster or adopted children. It was the most restrictive law in the country.

Gay couples couldn’t become adoptive parents.

Gay couples couldn’t become foster parents.

A quarter-century later, New Hampshire and the rest of the country have changed remarkably. Although good statistics are scarce, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that 538 same-sex couples were raising children in New Hampshire in 2010.

When my husband and I moved to the state, the ban was already history, having been repealed in 1999. But as we progressed through our adoption journey, we occasionally heard echoes of the debate, still reverberating in a state that has undergone massive political shifts.

A fearful spring

In 1987, I was in elementary school in the Midwest. And New Hampshire – at least as depicted in the pages of the Monitor – was also in a different place. It was defined by an outspoken conservatism.

And it was watching the beginnings of a terrifying plague.

Running through the pages of the paper is one frightening acronym. AIDS. The stories pop up again and again. Just a week after the state Senate passed the adoption ban, the Monitor reported that the first drug for treating AIDS – AZT – had been approved.

In other stories that spring, then-Surgeon General C. Everett Koop gave an extensive interview about his role in informing the public on the AIDS threat. A surgeon injected himself with an experimental AIDS vaccine. Then-Gov. John Sununu tried to institute mandatory AIDS testing for couples who planned to marry.

The Monitor itself was different. In an editorial calling Chandler to task for his language, the paper nonetheless called the gay adoption ban “a delicate dilemma.” Even the word “gay” is absent from much of the Monitor’s reporting. In its place: the clinical, slightly sinister “homosexual.”

But what of the bill itself? Originating in the House and sponsored by Rep. Mildred Ingram, it faced delays after members questioned whether it was constitutional. They asked the state Supreme Court to weigh in.

The court ultimately ruled, 6-1, that the Legislature could go ahead. “In general, we accept the assertion that the provision of appropriate role models is a legitimate government purpose,” wrote the majority, which included future U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. The opinion, issued May 5, also noted that “it is not our business to inquire into the wisdom or desirability of the Legislature’s choice.”

The House passed the bill May 7, by a margin of 202 to 155.

“I’m not against homosexuals,” Ingram said then, according to the Boston Globe. “They are adult people. They made their own choice and the only one they have to answer to is their maker. They can go on their merry way to hell if they want to. I just want them to keep their filthy paws off the children.”

‘A quantum leap’

By the time a repeal bill came up, a dozen years after the adoption ban was enacted, much had changed.

It can be difficult to remember now, but the AIDS epidemic itself – the very thing that swirled in the background of the 1987 ban – was one of the first times that gay men were portrayed humanely and sympathetically in mass media.

The move wasn’t immediate, and it wasn’t uniform. But by 1993, the Tom Hanks AIDS drama Philadelphia could be released, and do major business. The film made it to tiny El Dorado, Kan., where I saw it with my mother. It was the first time I had ever seen a gay person depicted onscreen.

A generation of activists, trained to advocate for new drugs and treatments, began to turn their energy elsewhere as the ’90s turned into the 2000s. Gay rights began to be defined as a civil rights struggle.

A state representative named Ray Buckley introduced the repeal bill in 1999. Sexual orientation had been added to the state’s nondiscrimination law a couple of years before, so this seemed like a natural next step. Buckley said at the time that he expected to have to reintroduce the bill year after year until it passed.

That wasn’t the case.

On March 18, 1999, the GOP-led House passed repeal by a broad margin, 233-123. Democrats and many members of the Republican leadership voted to rescind the ban.

“I’m the reactionary, and I’m supporting this bill,” Hopkinton Republican Rep. Stretch Kennedy said at the time. “It is reasonable and right.”

House Speaker Donna Sytek voted against repeal, though. While much had changed between 1987 and 1999, she still didn’t think the change made sense. Gay parents, she suggested, would automatically cause problems for children.

“It’s not because I have any problems with people who are gay,” Sytek told the Monitor, “but because I am against putting a child who already has problems in a home where they are subject to ridicule.”

The state Senate took up the bill April 22. The vote there was 18-6, with no one speaking against it.

“This is a quantum leap from the days of old,” Buckley said. “Now, young people growing up in New Hampshire can say: ‘This is a state that respects me and loves me, because it’s a state that embraces diversity.’ ”

By the time Gov. Jeanne Shaheen signed the repeal into law, on May 2, the Monitor didn’t even cover the event. A brief from the Associated Press did the trick.

Into the future

When my husband and I moved to New Hampshire in the mid-2000s, we simply knew New Hampshire as one of the few, mainly Northeastern, states that both barred discrimination against gay people and allowed them to adopt jointly.

And as New Hampshire extended civil unions for gay couples (starting in 2008) and then full marriage rights (in 2010), the days of debates about gay parenting seemed further and further away.

That’s certainly the perspective of Caroline Glennon and Ginny Tsirimokos, who work in the adoption program of Child and Family Services in Manchester. Glennon manages the program, and Tsirimokos is the adoption home study coordinator.

When I chatted with the two in March, they remarked on how unremarkable same-sex adoption seems now. What was everyone so worried about? What did everyone think was going to happen, anyway?

“It’s almost hard for me to remember when the state didn’t allow us to have same-sex couples adopt.” Glennon said. “We always felt strongly that parents are parents. Being gay or straight, it didn’t matter.”

And that shift isn’t just among those wanting to adopt. It’s among birth mothers, who are considering which adoptive parents to pick.

“It is rare for a birth mother to exclude looking at gay profiles,” Glennon said. “They’re very open to all families.”

What happened in New Hampshire before 1999?

“I think they just knew” not to ask, Glennon said. “Which is really sad. I honestly can’t remember anything specific. Perhaps there were individuals who came who just knew to present themselves as a single parent.”

Despite changes in public attitudes, there hasn’t necessarily been a newfound surge of interest in adoptions from gay couples.

“I haven’t noticed any spike in it,” Tsirimokos said. “People have been inquiring all along.”

Support isn’t universal, of course. U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte vocally opposed same-sex adoption when running for her seat in 2010.

And awareness isn’t universal, either. Not all prospective gay adoptive parents even know that New Hampshire law treats them the same as their straight counterparts.

“We do still have people calling saying, ‘Okay, I have one more thing to tell you,’ ” Glennon said.

(Clay Wirestone can be reached at 369-3305 or


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