On Dec. 11, 2004, John and James (as they're called in court papers) escaped hell. Their parents had all but abandoned them. The boys — one 4 years old, the other 4 months old — suffered from scalp ringworm. The baby had an ear infection. Medicine sat in their house, unopened and expired.
When Florida Department of Children and Families agents removed the kids, John was wearing a dirty, adult-size T-shirt and sneakers four sizes too small. DCF officials learned that the older boy had been his half-brother's caretaker for weeks, if not longer.
DCF turned to Frank Martin Gill, a 43-year-old flight attendant with a master's degree in public health and a bachelor's degree in psychology. Gill had fostered seven children before, and he agreed to take the boys in, even though he and his domestic partner — identified in court records as Tom Roe Sr. — planned to move to Georgia. The couple, who had been together five years, thought the arrangement was temporary.
Over the next few weeks, Gill learned how far behind John, the older boy, had fallen. He'd never seen a book. He couldn't identify colors, count or even hold a pencil. He hoarded food at dinnertime, as if he were afraid he'd never be fed again. For a month, he didn't even speak.
But as time passed, both boys acclimated to their new family. Gill and Roe became "papi" and "daddy." They were, as one caseworker later put it, "model foster parents."
By July 2006, courts had terminated the parental rights of the boys' parents. John and James were officially wards of the state. They became two of the 1,000 kids that DCF has at any given time awaiting adoption.
In other states, Gill would be a natural adoptive parent. But he's gay, and in Florida, adoption by gay parents is illegal.
Gill sued. On Nov. 25, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Cindy Lederman struck down the law in a sharply worded 53-page ruling. She called it "illogical to the point of irrationality." The state attorney general's office, helmed by former Orlando congressman Bill McCollum, immediately promised to appeal.
That much made the media rounds. But most reporters missed the real story of how Florida made its case.
At the four-day October trial, the state called only two witnesses. Both testified that gays aren't fit parents because they're mentally unstable. They were paid $87,000 collectively for their trouble.
The state's star witness, clinical psychologist Dr. George Rekers, is a Southern Baptist minister who founded the right-wing Family Research Council and has nearly 30 years of virulently anti-gay writings to his credit. The other witness, Dr. Walter Schumm, is a Kansas State University family studies professor who uses "statistics to highlight the truth of the Scripture."
Rekers and Schumm stake out religiously rooted anti-gay positions that run counter to the research of organizations like the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and others, who say there's no problem with gay parents.
"These people are religious radicals," says Robert Rosenwald, one of the ACLU attorneys who represented Gill.
The state's case had nothing to do with John and James' well-being. Florida never challenged Gill's abilities as a parent or rebutted the idea that removing the boys from his care would be emotionally devastating to them. Instead, it defended the law's discriminatory nature and bigoted underpinnings (see sidebar, page 18).
And to do that, they hired two men who aren't afraid to conflate science and religion.
Rekers is the ideal expert for a state that has long codified its moral objection to gays adopting kids. In court, he testified that even if scientific data conclusively proved that children of gay parents do just as well as children of straight parents, he'd still want gay adoption banned.
He's written such books as The Christian in an Age of Sexual Eclipse (1981), Growing Up Straight: What Families Should Know About Homosexuality (1982) and Shaping Your Child's Sexual Identity (1982).
In the latter, Rekers writes that "gay liberationists" are plotting to "legalize pedophilia." In Growing Up Straight, he writes: "Homosexual activists seek to lure our children into a deceptive and `destructive` fantasy world that ignores the obvious physical, social and moral boundaries of sexual oppression." Also: "When scholars disregard divine law, they deliberately suppress truth and result in foolish and futile speculations."
In court, he testified that the state shouldn't allow gays to adopt because, as a demographic group, they have higher rates of depression, suicide, drug use, relationship instability and psychiatric problems than the population as a whole. Thus, he says gay parents put the children they raise at risk for any number of developmental maladies. In his view, those factors make gays ill-equipped to be good parents.
He dismisses numerous studies suggesting that children of gay parents are no worse off than those of straight parents, saying the methodology of such studies is flawed and the researchers who perform them are politically motivated.
"Of course," he tells Orlando Weekly, "most of the people conducting those studies carefully select `gay` parents who are not depressed."
Rekers holds a doctorate in behavioral psychology from the University of California at Los Angeles, did a postdoctoral study at Harvard University and spent his career at the universities of Florida, Kansas State and South Carolina's medical school. He also has a master's degree in divinity from Columbia International University and a doctorate in theology from the University of South Africa. He serves on the board of directors for the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, which advocates "reparative therapy" to turn gays straight, a controversial practice strongly discouraged by the American Psychological Association. He's an ordained Southern Baptist minister and a founder of the Family Research Council, an organization "dedicated to the promotion of marriage and family and the sanctity of human life in national policy," according to its website.
He says his testimony was based on science, not his religious beliefs. At trial, the ACLU disputed that notion, a tactic Rekers takes personally. "If they're not winning on the data, they try to do character assassination," he says.
The ACLU lawyers asked if he thought homosexuality is a sin. "Well, I believe that is what the Bible teaches," he replied.
They asked about his early anti-gay writings. "I don't endorse things I have written 26 years ago," he said. "I don't endorse or necessarily believe anything written in these books."
He disavows his earlier work because he didn't undergo theological training until the 1990s. His views on homosexuality haven't changed, he says, but he's less strident.
"My views are similar to roughly one-half of the U.S. population. The ACLU wants to paint it as some extremist point of view. I did not bring my religion into the courtroom."
Rekers spells out his gay-adoption views at length in a 99-page St. Thomas Law Review article written in 2005 titled "An Empirically Supported Rational Basis for Prohibiting Adoption, Foster Parenting and Contested Child Custody by Any Person in a Household that Includes a Homosexually-Behaving Member."
In it Rekers argues, "There is a strong rational basis for laws or regulations prohibiting adoption or foster parenting of a child by any person engaged in sexual behavior with another individual of the same sex and to any person living in a household in which there resides an adult or adolescent household member who engages in sexual behavior with another individual of the same sex."
In court, Rekers said that he favored removing children from any gay home in favor of a straight home, even if the child had been there 10 years.
Placing children in households with homosexuals is like placing them with the blind, or perhaps Al-Qaida, he explains in the article. "This is not basically different from denying placement in other households with structures that are not in the best interests of children. Fifteen-year-old couples, 90-year-old couples, Thai-language-only speaking couples, blind and deaf parents, households with a pedophilic-behaving adult, households with practicing criminals, households with drug dealers and drug abusers, households with unemployed adults, households that advocate the overthrow of the U.S. government, households with an active terrorist, households with sexually promiscuous unmarried men and women co-habitating and households with homosexually behaving adults all have either inherent instability or inherent disadvantage, stress, and potential harm to placed children."
He cautions not to read too much into this. "Even the terrorists, 95 percent might be good parents to their own child," he says in an interview. "But you don't want to risk it."
Schumm, the state's other witness, has a collegial relationship with Rekers. The two co-authored a book chapter titled "Sex Should Occur Only Within Marriage" that said, "We prefer to accept the authority of the Bible as the best guide for sexual decision-making, as well as for many other areas of life." The authors wrote that they "disagree with homosexual practices."
In a Journal of Psychology and Theology article, Schumm explained that "with respect to the integration of faith and research, I have been trying to use statistics to highlight the truth of the Scripture."
Schumm specializes in family studies and statistics. In his testimony, he analyzed research that claimed there was little difference between gay and straight parenting. He believes that other academics overlook research that casts aspersions on gay parenting and indicates that children of gay parents tend to have higher levels of same-sex attraction than children of straight parents. He recalculated data to show differences in gay and straight parenting that original researchers had chalked up to statistical sample error. Nonetheless, during cross-examination, Schumm conceded that at least for some children, being adopted by gay parents could be beneficial.
In an e-mail interview, Schumm chafes at the idea that he's a "religious radical." Instead, he says, he's merely pointing out the unwillingness of other researchers to challenge politically correct positions.
"Consider if science is dogmatic by its nature or not," he writes. "Consider the dogmatic statements I found `in previous research`. Yet the person accused of being dogmatic and a religious fanatic and a liar was myself. All I did was point out how dogmatic the other side has been."
To Schumm, it's inconceivable that gay parenting is exactly the same as straight parenting. "It's just not logical to say that no aspect of the environment whatsoever can have ever had any impact whatsoever on a given variable," he writes.
He also sees social engineering at play. "The larger picture, as I see it, is an attempt to make same-sex relationships socially and morally equivalent to mixed-gender sexual relationships. I don't like that idea because I think it promotes inequality. There are risks and costs associated with mixed-gender relationships that are unique to mixed-gender relationships, but there are unique benefits for society (mainly children that have two biological parents raising them) from them. If we treat all things the same, we are unfairly discriminating against those people who are taking more risks and providing society with more benefits."
'The child is absent'
To Judge Lederman's dismay, the state didn't call any witnesses to talk about the children's rights during the trial. "The child is absent from this argument," she wrote.
By contrast, lawyers for Gill, the adoptive father, had plenty to say. Dr. David Brodzinsky, a California developmental psychologist who specializes in adoption and foster-care cases, assessed James and John in their foster home and told the court that removing them would be emotionally devastating. The state never challenged that assertion.
Ronald Gilbert, the guardian ad litem appointed to look out for the children's rights, also testified that removing them would be "against their manifest best interests. I think it would be tragic. These kids were subject to abuse and neglect, and this would add legal abuse and neglect to their placement, and their mental and physical well-being." The state didn't cross-examine Gilbert.
Yves Francois, the adoption supervisor for the Center for Family and Child Enrichment — a DCF subcontractor that acts as an adoption agency — testified that Gill and Roe met all the criteria for adoption but one, their sexual orientation. If their adoption request was denied, he said, the CFCE would keep looking, and in all likelihood, the siblings would end up being separated. To date, no one else has applied to adopt James and John.
Other psychologists hammered Rekers and Schumm. Dr. Letitia Peplau, a UCLA psychologist and relationship expert, testified that the breakup rates of unmarried, cohabitating heterosexual and gay couples are very similar.
Dr. Susan Cochran, a UCLA epidemiologist and psychology expert, explained that while the overwhelming research shows that gays have slightly higher rates of psychiatric problems, substance abuse and smoking than straights, those rates are also higher for American Indians, yet no one tries to exclude them from adopting.
Dr. Michael Lamb, a psychologist at the University of Cambridge in London, told the court that placing children in a "traditional" household environment isn't as important as once thought. Instead, the quality of parenting is much more vital to childhood development.
In her ruling, Lederman dismissed testimony from Rekers and Schumm. Schumm, she wrote, "admitted that he applies statistical standards that depart from conventions in his field."
Schumm believes the judge unfairly discredited him. "She cherry picked, it would seem, obscure lines from obscure papers, totally out of context, to try to discredit my science," he writes.
Lederman had more scathing words for Rekers. His testimony "was far from a neutral and unbiased recitation of the relevant scientific evidence," she wrote. "Dr. Rekers' beliefs are motivated by his strong ideological and theological convictions. … The court cannot consider his testimony to be credible nor worthy of forming the basis of public policy."
"From the outset, the state was in a weird position," says Rosenwald, the ACLU attorney. "It only got more complicated when they tried to find experts. They were looking for serious scientists. They were told no serious scientists would testify on their behalf."
Indeed, Rekers and Schumm stand diametrically opposed to the position of the American Psychological Association, which in 2004 put out a statement in support of gay parenting.
It's unclear who developed the state's strategy. A spokeswoman for the attorney general's office said its lawyers took their cues from DCF. DCF's spokeswoman offered another perspective: "I'm going to have to say it came from the attorney general's office in terms of legal strategy," says Sarrah Troncoso. "I would have to defer to them."
From a political perspective, that explanation makes sense. DCF's leader is George Sheldon, a lifelong Democrat who has enjoyed a good relationship with the gay community since the 1980s, when he served in the Florida Legislature. Republican Attorney General Bill McCollum, on the other hand, is a conservative eyeing a U.S. Senate seat in 2010.
Troncoso says DCF takes no joy in pursuing this case in appellate court. "We have to follow what the Legislature puts in place," she says. "We're an executive branch `office`; we have to enforce what the Legislature says."
Year after year, progressive lawmakers have tried to repeal the gay-adoption ban without success. In 2006, Republican state Rep. Bill Galvano said he was willing to discuss the gay adoption ban; the Christian Family Coalition blasted him with e-mails warning of "homosexual extremists." Needless to say, that push never got traction.
State Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston, will file another bill to get rid of the ban next year. She's not optimistic. "The chances of this bill even being heard are remote," she says.
Lederman's decision to strike down the state law as unconstitutional is rooted in the idea that the children's rights to a good home supersede a gay-adoption ban that doesn't have a rational basis. She's not the first judge to rule that way. In August, a judge in Monroe County allowed a gay parent to adopt. (The state didn't fight that case because the children involved weren't in foster care, so they weren't under DCF's supervision.)
At least three times since the 1990s, state judges have found the law unconstitutional, but they've all been overruled. As recently as 2004, in a case called Lofton v. Secretary of the Department of Children and Family Services, a U.S. appeals court upheld the state gay-adoption ban, stating, "Openly homosexual households represent a very recent phenomenon, and sufficient time has not yet passed to permit any scientific study of how children raised in those households fare as adults."
This time around, says the ACLU's Rosenwald, the science will prove conclusive in his favor.
All prospective adoptive parents go through a screening process that involves background checks, evaluation and training. The process — which can take eight months — is supposed to catch problems before children are placed in a home.
Rekers says there are only two ways to determine if adoptive parents have psychiatric problems: a clinical evaluation or determining if they belong to a high-risk group. Since evaluations measure a person's current status, he prefers the second method: "The only way you can predict long-term `behavior` is what kind of group they're in."
Which is why Rekers sees the ban as beneficial. But the argument has two flaws.
The first problem involves using population samples to draw conclusions about the gay community at large, when in fact gay parents are self-selecting — they choose to be parents. The argument goes that gay parents who elect to become parents, subjecting themselves to background checks, might not have the negative attributes of the population as a whole.
Rekers says research comparing gay parents to the population as a whole in terms of mental illness or drug use hasn't been done. "That specific variable hasn't been explored," he notes.
Problem No. 2: Rekers' argument is based on stereotyping gays as drug-addled, mentally unstable and reckless. But gays aren't monolithic. Even if gays as a demographic group have higher propensities toward psychiatric problems, not all of them do.
But by law, the state of Florida assumes just that. It declines to look at individual parents, and instead relies on stereotypes of gays as troubled individuals.
Here's a final question: If Gill and Roe are inadequate parents, why are James and John still with them after four years? On the other hand, if, as court records say, the children have excelled under their care, what logical reason is there to keep them from adopting?
'Stick and sad values'
In 1977 the Metro-Dade Commission in Miami, cheered on by gay-rights activists, passed a landmark law banning housing, employment, credit and public accommodations discrimination against gays. It set off a firestorm, a full-throttle assault on the community led by a beauty-queen-turned-holy-warrior named Anita Bryant.
Spurred by her belief that homosexuality is a sin that shouldn't be even remotely condoned by government, the Miss America runner-up, citrus industry spokeswoman and devout Southern Baptist singer Anita Bryant launched the "Save our Children" campaign. Things got ugly fast.
Bryant claimed that the ordinance would force school principals to hire gay teachers, who could, in the words of a contemporary Time magazine piece, "lead their pupils astray."
She described the gays' "evil influence": "As a mother, I know the homosexuals cannot biologically reproduce children. Therefore, they must recruit our children." Her goal was to "seek help and change for homosexuals, whose sick and sad values belie the word ‘gay' which they pathetically use to cover their unhappy lives."
Her group bought full-page newspaper advertisements warning of a plague of child pornography. She went into the Cuban community and threatened calamity of Biblical proportions: "It would break my heart if Miami would become another Sodom and Gomorrah and you would have to leave again."
The fear-mongering worked. In June 1977, by a 2-to-1 margin, Dade County voters revoked the law. According to Time, Bryant and husband Bob Green celebrated their victory by kissing in front of reporters. "This is what heterosexuals do, fellows," Green said. (The couple divorced in 1980.) Miami reinstated the gay-rights ordinance in 1998.
Bryant reaped a backlash. She lost thousands of dollars' worth of contracts, including her lucrative deal with the Florida citrus industry, after activists announced a boycott of Florida citrus products. She was parodied in National Lampoon and eventually filed for bankruptcy.
Over the last three decades, public opinion has evolved. Even among many social conservatives, gays are no longer considered the predatory perverts Bryant made them out to be. Yet one relic from Bryant's crusade remains: In the midst of the anti-gay furor of 1977, the Florida Legislature passed what became Florida Statute 63.042(3). It simply reads: "No person eligible to adopt under this statute may adopt if that person is a homosexual."
The day the Florida Senate passed that law, a freshman senator from Clearwater — one of only five who voted against it — asked his colleagues, "Will we sleep better knowing we have institutionalized shame for those who have already felt shame?"[email protected]