Charlie Spiegel began his career in real estate law 35 years ago, but a passion for helping people in the LGBTQ+ community started 10 years earlier and led to a lifetime of volunteer advocacy on their behalf, primarily through the national gay rights organization LambdaLegal.org.
Over the past 15 years, with support from his First Republic banker, he created a legal practice to help LGBTQ+ people and others navigate the complexities of planning marriage through premarital legal education, forming families — whether through adoption, surrogacy or assisted reproductive technology (ART) — and when needed, consensually dissolving their marriages through more private divorce outside of courts while protecting their parenting and children.
As one of the founding Executive Directors of OurFamily.org, the Bay Area LGBTQ+ family organization, Charlie received that organization’s Groundbreaker Award in 2017, and a “Fammy” Award from Jewish Family and Children’s Services in 2009.
We chatted with Charlie about what couples considering marriage, adoption, surrogacy or other family-building methods can expect, how they can prepare for what he calls a “marathon of sprints,” and how the LGBTQ+ parenting landscape has changed over the years.
“The sheer joy of parenting my own child is more than I could have ever imagined, at least four-fold.”
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 are heavily influenced by my own personal life. In my first year of law school, I started a relationship with a male classmate, and within 4 months of meeting, we went to an event sponsored by LambdaLegal.org that talked about how gay people could have children. That was 1985, and it opened my eyes to being a gay male parent in ways that I (and my own parents!) previously didn’t think possible.
It took more than a decade before we were ready and able to adopt. While we eventually went through three adoptions, and the first and third were not successful placements, in between we adopted our daughter on the day she was born in Hayward, California, in 1997 when I was 39. Our daughter is now a college graduate with honors, and a fully employed human resources professional working in the Bay Area.
Has marriage equality made family creation easier for same-sex couples?
If you are a committed couple wanting to adopt or start a family in other ways, being married does carry benefits. While the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 decisions created marriage equality in all 50 states, it did not in itself create parentage equality. Happily, decisions since then have expanded the protection afforded to same-gender parents, at least at the federal level.
At the level of American states, different ones have different parentage and adoption laws: some are more welcoming to same-gender parents than others. Some of that is written state laws, and some due to the practices of local providers and professionals, that disfavor LGBTQ+ parents.
So with adoption, surrogacy and assisted reproductive technologies (ART) such as sperm or egg donations, you need to be aware of the laws in the state where you reside, as well as the laws of the state(s) or country where a child may be born if different from yours. For example, the period of time that a birth parent’s decision to place their child for adoption becomes final, varies by state. This period is generally a few days to a few weeks or a month; good advice from a lawyer in the relevant state(s) is essential to know 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/first mother or parents make the placement decision. One big misconception is that she or they will not choose a gay couple, but it’s often the case that birth parents will choose gay parents over straight parents. For example, a birth mother may be reassured that there will never be “another mother” when two men are the adopting parents. Or a birth mother who is the victim of coerced procreation may well prefer two women to adopt. Similarly diverse experiences can help a single person adopt as well.
I would also tell anyone looking to adopt, gay or straight, that the adoption stories and advice from anyone who adopted more than two years ago should be tested for their current relevance. The landscape changes rapidly, and lately in a potentially negative way for couples looking to adopt, as the number of adoptions overall has gone down in the U.S. International adoptions, which have always been more limited for gay couples, have become even more difficult for all prospective adoptive parents.
Finally, current events can have dramatic and unexpected negative consequences. Until the Russian invasion in 2022, women in the Ukraine served extensively as surrogates for the US and other countries’ intended parents’ pregnancies. The invasion led to devastating consequences for those women, for the intended parents and the children.
Similarly, it may well be a misconception that stricter limitations on abortions in the US will produce more babies available for adoption, and in my opinion, at a devastating cost for all involved. Finally, a recent spate of state laws targeting transgender people, put at risk both gender-non-conforming children, and transgender people seeking to be parents.
Can you recommend some resources for people navigating adoption, surrogacy or ART?
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 or ART.
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. I also recommend joining a LGBTQ+ parenting organization even before you have children, because they are such good sources of experience-sharing about having children in the first place. I recommend OurFamily.org in the Bay Area, and Family Equality Council nationwide.
Any last advice for people just starting the process?
You can explore multiple channels — adoption, surrogacy, ART, fostering — simultaneously. If you think of this process as a decision tree that is sequential, it may set you back time-wise. Thinking simultaneously about the multiple ways to build a family can keep you moving forward with at least one, and therefore be faster overall.
I also think prospective parents rule out foster care in situations where it may be appropriate: those are the children in real needs of forever homes, and placements come at no cost to the intended parents, or even with financial support of expenses such as the child’s health insurance. And remember that any process of having a child is going to be a marathon of sprints: throw yourself into each situation knowing one will eventually work, you just don’t know which!
Personally, it turns out my law school classmate and I had a good understanding of the work that adopting and raising a child would be. The surprise? The amount of sheer joy that it has brought to be a parent is at least four times what I could have ever imagined!