I recently spoke with April Dinwoodie and Kim Paglino of the Donaldson Adoption Institute. It was a good discussion but, despite my pressing, I did not receive direct answers to three critical questions I had asked earlier.
Our conversation was similar to interactions I have with lawyers on cases where obvious disagreements exist but, for the most part, we agree on many of the basic facts, remain cordial if not friendly to each other, and retain a solid understanding of all of the relevant issues. Such conversations are almost always circular, people agreeing on certain fundamental things but not necessarily staking out anything more substantive. This approach, while understandable, sometimes reveals more after first glance, particularly if direct answers to posed questions are avoided. It is as if you define things by the absence of color or content, the same as if you draw a moon by coloring an indigo sky around it, leaving a blank white orb on the page. It is through the emptiness of an answer that we sometimes obtain the truth.
And here’s what I can cull from that blank white moon in front of me now:
Donaldson cannot commit to unrestricted OBC access for all adult adoptees, unequivocally, without compromise. If Donaldson could, it would just say it. But it won’t. Instead, Donaldson’s answer is purposely fuzzy and pliable. And this is consistent with how Donaldson has viewed the fight for unrestricted OBC access in the past as well as how it views its new legislative “leadership” role on the issue today: not so much as a staunch and uncompromising civil rights and legislative advocate for adoptees but instead a facilitator of a flexible approach that could resonate well with “all members of the extended family of adoption.” It is a think tank and collaboratist approach, and think tank is a phrase that April and Kim specifically used in their conversation with me and in their most recent blog post. There is nothing wrong with a think tank—Donaldson has produced solid thinktanky things, like testimony and research and policy papers that many of us have used in political and legal advocacy. But is Donaldson committing to lead on adoptee civil rights by maintaining a firm and uncompromising political and legislative stance, specifically whenever compromise is pursued? No. Donaldson is not committing to that. Not only has it never committed to that, but it can’t.
Donaldson’s specific interest in adoptee civil rights is facilitating compromise. I don’t doubt that adoptee rights is within the scope of Donaldson’s interest—it’s part of its mission, along with serving all people involved or affected by adoption. But what is its specific interest in this project? That’s somewhat hard to say, unless you talk about “deliverables.” For deliverables it relates to two primary things: 1) creating a “free, technologically advanced online hub” for advocates and 2) “uniting” advocates and allies around a broad rights-based understanding of adoptee rights. That all sounds great for deliverables, the things that you promise to do. But getting at those deliverables, at least for Donaldson, necessarily means diminishing the voice of one large group of advocates: those who are rightly and adamantly opposed to any compromise on OBC access rights. If Donaldson cannot itself commit to an uncompromised rights-based legislative position but nevertheless defines its interest as uniting all advocates around such a framework, then what is the unifying factor? Access within context? Rights but not rights?
After all, DAI staff, projects, and operations are approved by and accountable not to adoptee rights activists but to the Donaldson board of directors, one that is made up specifically to represent all interests in adoption. Again, nothing wrong with a broad umbrella of interests; perhaps it can lead to more collaboration, particularly with those outside of adoption and involved in equal rights advocacy.
But what does collaboration look like, ultimately, if the bottom line on OBC access legislation remains wide open and fluctuates according to “contextual factors” and “complications?” It looks like this: compromise is acceptable because it fits within the interests of those specifically acknowledged at the table or, more specifically, to those whose interests are about getting something done, no matter the real and lasting impact that the actual something may have on adopted people. Donaldson’s specific interest is to open a safe space for that sort of compromise. There’s really no other way to interpret its commitment, especially when you look closely at the language from its most recent response.
Bastards in the Room. The most revealing paragraph in Donaldson’s recent response to my questions—and the one most worth unpacking— is this:
We will never turn our backs on advocates who strive to reach the goal of unrestricted access to OBCs yet are stymied by a variety of contextual factors that have made this challenging in many ways. We choose not to be ignorant to the complications that exist, respond with support, and seek to work in encouraging ways with our brothers and sisters in adoption to provide tools that can aid advocates in reaching the goal of unrestricted access. There is enough bullying going on in the world these days; the adoption community need not participate as this only further complicates the work that we all so deeply believe in.
First, there is little mistaking that this paragraph cleverly does one thing: throws shade on a large number of adoptee activists who identify as vocal, adamant, uncompromising, in-your-face, no-backing-down bastards. And without saying so specifically, the paragraph obviously refers to Bastard Nation, the national adoptee rights organization that Donaldson keeps wholly and deliberately unacknowledged in all of its campaign rhetoric. Bastard Nation, and all those who believe strongly in uncompromised OBC access rights, are the real and actual bastards in the room.
Donaldson has another subtle message, also political and also addressed to adoptee activists who may agree with or find common ground with Bastard Nation. And that is this: if you believe staunchly and unequivocally in adoptee equality around access to an OBC—without compromise, without diminishment—then by definition you are “ignorant to the complications that exist” and have effectively “turn[ed] your back on advocates” who will accept access through compromise. That’s because Donaldson defines compromise—whether in the form of redactions, vetoes, date-restricted access, or any other tools that directly diminish adoptee civil rights—as valid responses to the “variety of contextual factors” that make adoptee rights legislation complicated. Finally, strongly disagreeing with compromise by opposing it—in online forums, in direct work with or against local advocacy groups, or by working steadfastly to defeat compromised legislation—is considered “bullying” within the adoption community.
One thing that Bastard Nation does—and is relentless in doing so—is refuse to give in to compromised legislation, at the beginning, at the end, at any point. Bastard Nation has been crystal clear about this position for more than two decades, and yet people go apoplectic when Bastard Nation actually holds fast to its compass and works hard to defeat compromised legislation. Does Bastard Nation always play nice in its own room? No, and I’ve been at the garbage end of that myself, calling them out before and vowing at least once that I would never interact with them again (ha, as if that mattered).
But where it counts—with legislators, with strategy, with political analysis, with positions, with the dogged and uncompromising pursuit of actual undiminished civil rights for all adoptees—Bastard Nation plays right. And playing right does not mean giving in and saying things that sound awesome but aren’t true. It means remaining dedicated and tough, calling to task advocates who mislead and obscure the truth or who sell out “adoptee rights” by marketing the language of those rights but delivering something far different. It means being involved in every debate, whether supportive or oppositional, and calling to task advocates who fuzz up the issues mushing medical history, search and reunion, and all the other extraneous and irrelevant factors into OBC access.
Bastard Nation has been the only national advocacy group to do this. Except now, and that’s perhaps what Donaldson and its yet unidentified allies are ultimately trying to do: without acknowledging Bastard Nation, it seeks to create a safe and alternative legislative space in an attempt to deter (and actually insult) all of the unwholesome, uncompromising, and ignorant bastards in the room. That is, the DAI approach is intended to weaken the strength of a no-compromise solution by throwing the legislative net wide open, discrediting the bastards, and remaining agnostic to damaging compromised solutions that result.
Donaldson’s fuzzy compromised message on unrestricted OBC access—in conjunction with a call to advocates and adoptees to rally around such a message—has real-world impact. Take Texas and Indiana, both interlinked. Advocates in Texas, consistently “stymied by a variety of contextual factors” otherwise known as “Donna Campbell,” appeared to shift course toward the end of the Texas legislative session by consistently floating an Indiana solution, one that involves birth parent consent and all the resulting vetoes and redactions. STAR, the advocacy group currently leading the efforts for OBC access in Texas, does not commit unequivocally to adoptee equality—i.e., like Donaldson, STAR refuses to commit up front to a no-compromise solution. This is not only something important to Bastard Nation but it is something all adoptees deserve, particularly when we are asked repeatedly to throw in our support.
When STAR’s bill began to languish in the Texas Senate late last month, STAR sent out a plea that asked people to sign a petition to bring Donna Campbell to the negotiating table. STAR did not reveal the specific why or whatfor of such a move, and it characterized it as a request for Campbell to join the bill’s sponsor and pass an unrestricted OBC access bill. Donna Campbell, however, is never going to agree to unrestricted access in Texas. Ever. But she has done one thing: speak positively about birth parent veto power, particularly the one in Indiana’s new law. So when STAR repeatedly floats an Indiana solution on Twitter for weeks and then announces a petition that seeks to convince Campbell to work with the bill’s sponsor on legislation, there’s really no other conclusion that compromise is likely being placed on the table.
Except that’s not how it’s sold, and that’s not what advocates are given up front. It’s also why I didn’t sign the petition. Because STAR does not commit unequivocally to a no-compromise solution, advocates who adhere to such a principle are naturally if not wholly reluctant to provide last minute support. Signing a petition in such a context means you are open to if not fully supportive of the resulting compromise, for the simple fact that there is no commitment from advocates up front to kill such compromise. Had STAR made that commitment up front, unequivocally, I would have readily signed the petition. But we are instead asked to have faith in STAR’s commitment to adoptee rights without STAR having to make such a public commitment itself.
That’s the Donaldson approach. For all its messaging and all its promise, the Donaldson approach is the same today as it was ten or fifteen years ago: be OK with compromise because such thinking allows for complications and context and nuance and also satisfies the interests of the entire “family” of adoption.
And that’s what this OBC2020 stuff all comes down to. Donaldson, in a snappy and well-crafted advocacy campaign, relies on a fuzzily appealing message that may potentially have a disastrous impact on adoptee rights across the country. Bastard Nation, unacknowledged in all of this, nevertheless sticks to a real and undaunted message, rooted in its own history and deep experience. It is an approach that could move adoptees to unrestricted access with no exceptions. Not tomorrow, not by 2020, but realistically within a number of years.
Though I’ve been one to criticize Bastard Nation in the past for its churlishness (and I’ve also used “nuance” against them as well), I have a much better understanding today about its bastard principles. I readily join Bastard Nation in rejecting compromise, unequivocally. I’m moving forward in a rights-based reality, for adoptee civil rights, for access to what is ours. I choose to be one of the many proud bastards in the room, whether we are acknowledged by others or not.