In 2014 I was interviewed by ABC’s 20/20. I was searching for my birth mother. A producer came to my house and we did an on camera interview. He asked me the tugging at your heartstrings kind of questions like “Why do you want to search? How did it feel growing up knowing you weren’t biologically related to your family? What if she doesn’t want contact with you?” You know the kind of questions I mean. In Adoptionland we like to call them “Reunion Porn.” An aptly named expression. At the time, I had a search poster circulating online. I hated doing that. It was dehumanizing. I felt like I was prostituting the details of my life for all the world to see. But I did it. I did it because I wanted to find my mother. 20/20 didn’t even end up running my story because they felt I knew too much. I had told them I thought I knew who my mother was. I told them that if I was correct then she was dying from ALS and I didn’t want to add any more pain to her world. I was right, and they dropped the story.
Fast forward five years and here I am, an adoptee rights activist. Today I want adopted people to be treated the same as non-adopted people. Today I want all adopted adults to be able to get their original birth certificates (OBCs) on request, without any restrictions other than paying whatever fee is paid for a vital record. (You can do that only in nine states, and NYARC partner Adoptee Rights Law Center tracks those states and othes as well as tracks pending OBC-related bills). But our right to our OBC is not about searching. We don’t need an OBC to search. We are entitled to it as an equal right, to do whatever we want with it, including not even requesting it.
As a co-spokesperson for the New York Adoptee Rights Coalition, I have been contacted frequently by journalists and reporters who are looking to do a “personal” story about this issue. Lately, those requests use the Weprin/Montgomery Bill as the background to the story, and my initial reaction is excitement—media is good, right? We want the issue and our bill to get the attention of the public. Typically, however, I am disappointed when I realize that the reporter only wants to create a human interest “story” about search and reunion, complete with coming into adoptees’ homes, filming their photos and documents, and asking questions about what it means not to be able to “find” your parents. Human rights and adoptee reunification with birthparents aren’t the same thing, nor do they go hand in hand. They aren’t like peanut butter and chocolate, which mix well. Actually, mixing these issues together forms a reaction akin to mixing white vinegar with baking soda— it explodes. Confusing or conflating our human rights issue with reunion leads to legislators simply setting up some way to find a parent, such as confidential intermediaries or inefficient “reunion” registries.
Unless a journalist is going to report about how the Weprin/Montgomery Bill works, or about why current New York State law and the New York Adoption Information Registry are both discriminatory and ineffective, I typically pass on these stories after also talking to coalition members. We don’t need more rainbow and unicorn sob stories of adoptees who who long to find their people. That’s false equivalency. Not every adopted person wants to search. Not every adopted person wants the OBC. But every adopted person should have the right to obtain an OBC if they so choose. What they do with it is up to them.
Recently, a reporter from a local news outlet contacted NYARC. After several emails and a phone conversation with the reporter, he said he’d like to meet with an adoptee, film their family pictures, and ask questions about how getting an OBC would make the adoptee feel. He was clear that he was looking for people who have not obtained their OBCs or have not made contact with any parents named on them. I reached out to several of our supporters to see if anyone would be interested in being interviewed. Not one person said “Yes! Absolutely!” Instead they said things like “I don’t want to expose my life for all the world to see” or “what does coming into my house and asking me if I found my birth family have to do with OBC access?” Needless to say, I relayed this to the reporter. We haven’t heard from him since, and I assume an angle of equality for adoptees was not his focus.
So, what should you do if the media contacts you to talk about this issue? Find out specifically what the “angle” is and what specifically the reporter wants to get across to viewers or readers. If it is solely about dramatizing a reunion story, just politely say you are not interested but that you would be willing to talk about how inequitable the law currently is. It’s fine to say no to media requests, especially if it will hurt the overall effort to assure equal rights for all adopted people.
I’m not looking to reinvent the wheel here with a long list of other media tips. Rudy Owens, an author and adoptee rights activist, has already published this guide for reporters who wish to cover adoption-related issues. Refer the reporter to that. Or consult a list of resources and issues that Bastard Nation has already compiled over its years of advocacy, known as Bastard Bytes. Pick out an issue to suggest to the reporter or steer the reporter to that issue and away from the never-ending ineffective reunion stories.
But I will not—and NYARC will not—add fuel to the burning flames that rise out of conflating reunion with adoptee rights. Not going there. We’ve been burned by that too many times.
Annette O’Connell is a co-spokesperson for the New York Adoptee Rights Coalition. She is a New York born adoptee, in reunion since 2015, and has been active in the adoptee rights community since 2014.