Charlie Spiegel began his career in real estate law, but a passion for helping people in the LGBTQ community and others navigate the complexities of getting married and forming families — whether through adoption or surrogacy — inspired him to move full time into family law over a decade ago. The founding Executive Director of Our Family Coalition, the San Francisco-based attorney received the organization’s Groundbreaker Award in 2017 for his lifelong advocacy on behalf of LGBTQ families.
We chatted with Charlie about what couples considering adoption or surrogacy can expect, how they can prepare for what he calls a “marathon of sprints,” and how the LGBTQ adoption and surrogacy landscape has changed over the years.
“The sheer joy of adopting and raising a child is more than I could have ever imagined.”
How has your personal experience influenced the work you do today?
My experience is not everyone’s experience, but my professional and pro bono interests have been largely influenced by my personal life. In my first year of law school, I was in a gay male relationship, and I went to an event sponsored by Lambda Legal that talked about how gay people can have children. That was 1984, and it opened my eyes to what could be possible. For me and my partner, it took more than a decade before we were ready to adopt. We went through three adoptions, and though the first and third were not successful placements, in between we did adopt our daughter on the day she was born in 1997.
Has marriage equality made adoption easier for same-sex couples?
If you are a committed couple wanting to adopt, being married does carry certain benefits. That said, while the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 decisions created marriage equality in all 50 states, it did not create parentage equality. Different states have different parentage and adoption laws, and some states are more welcoming than others.
With adoption and surrogacy, you need to be aware of the laws in the state where you reside, as well as the laws of the state(s) where the child may be born. For example, the date the birth parents’ decision in an adoption becomes final changes from state to state. This period is generally a few days to a few weeks; good advice from a lawyer in the relevant state(s) will tell you what variables can extend or shorten the time period when birth parents have the right to change their minds.
What is the biggest misconception surrounding same-sex adoptions?
Most modern adoptions are “open,” which means the birth mother, or first mother, is ultimately making the placement decision. One big misconception is that she will not choose a gay couple. Gay people often think they are going to be the last to be picked, but it’s often the case that birth parents will choose gay parents over straight parents. For example, for two men adopting, a mother may be reassured that there will never be “another mother.”
I would also tell anyone looking to adopt, gay or straight, that the stories and advice from anyone who adopted more than two years ago should be questioned for their relevance today. The landscape changes rapidly, and lately in a potentially negative way for couples looking to adopt. The number of adoptions has gone down in the U.S., and international adoptions, which have always been more limited for gay couples, have become even more difficult.
Can you recommend some resources for people navigating adoption or surrogacy?
There are multiple national networks. One is the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys. Its website has information for getting up to speed on different kinds of adoptions, and it is a resource for parents looking for attorneys in their state who concentrate in adoption and surrogacy. Another good one is Men Having Babies. It’s set up for men doing surrogacy, but they are one of the best resources of neutral advice and experience for anyone considering surrogacy.
Any last advice for people just starting the process?
You can explore multiple channels — adoption, surrogacy, fostering — simultaneously. If you think of this process as a decision tree that is sequential, it will set you back time-wise. Any process of having a child is going to be a marathon of sprints. Think about the different ways you can keep moving forward.
Personally, it turns out I had a good understanding of the work that adopting and raising a child would be. What totally surprised me? The amount of sheer joy that it has brought is at least four times what I could have ever imagined!