Lesbian Couple Tries To Change Michigan’s Gay Adoption Laws

We’ve reported before on the difficult environment Michigan has created for LGBT people, as one of the most backwards states in the country when it comes to LGBT rights. In Michigan, there are no employment protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity, same-sex marriage and civil unions are illegal and same-sex couples can’t adopt. In short, it’s hard out there for a queer. But we’ve expressed hope that things might change soon, and now, it looks like an opportunity has finally presented itself.

April DeBoer and Janet Rowse are both nurses who are life partners living in Hazel Park, MI, a suburb of Detroit. They’ve adopted three children, ages 3 to 4. Their two sons, Nolan and Jacob, were adopted by Rowse and their daughter, Ryanne, by DeBoer. Unfortunately, as this article in Business Insider puts it, “under Michigan law, they can’t adopt each other’s kids because they aren’t married. If either woman died, the other would not be instantly recognized as the legal parent of the remaining children, even if instructions were spelled out in a will.” As Rowse puts it, another, biological family member could easily contest any claims of custody the dying parent made for the other one in a will.

In order to protect their children should the worst happen, the two moms have sued to allow them to jointly adopt. But it quickly no longer became about just them and their kids. As Business Insider further illuminates:

During a court hearing in August, the judge suddenly changed the case — and raised the stakes — when he said Rowse and DeBoer should consider challenging Michigan’s ban on gay marriage, which was approved by 58 percent of voters nearly a decade ago. So they expanded their lawsuit to claim the prohibition violates the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause because it treats same-sex couples differently than heterosexual married couples.

If the state courts find their current laws unconstitutional, that could mean exciting things for same-sex couples across Michigan – likely overturning the state’s same-sex adoption ban, and even likely changing its laws against same-sex marriage. But will it really go that far?

The state is trying to get the lawsuit thrown out of court, on the grounds that there is “no fundamental right to same-sex marriage.” In a groan-inducing attempt at explanation for why the state’s constitutional ban on the practice “bears a reasonable relationship to legitimate state interests” – the idea that DeBoer, Rowse and many other same-sex couples and their supporters around the state want to dispute – they’ve said that “Michigan supports natural procreation and recognizes that children benefit from being raised by parents of each sex who can then serve as role models of the sexes both individually and together in matrimony. Plaintiffs fail to allege facts showing there is no rational basis for these legitimate state interests.”

So that would explain why the state doesn’t allow heterosexual couples to adopt or to conceive children through “non-natural” means like in vitro fertilization. Or why when parents divorce and are then no longer “serv[ing] as role models…together in matrimony,” they lose custody of their children. Except…neither of those things are true. Frankly, it shouldn’t be too difficult for DeBoer and Rowse’s lawyers to poke holes in the state’s argument, if this is indeed the “logic” on which they are going to support it. But that doesn’t mean that the MI Supreme Court will be sympathetic; after all, there’s a reason that the majority of states still ban same-sex marriage: because only a handful of courts have been able to get over their prejudices and see the arguments against marriage equality to be as weak as they are.

AP Photo/Paul Sancya via MSNBC

AP Photo/Paul Sancya via MSNBC

There’s also a question of if the state is “ready” for it, or if we’ll see a backlash against pro-equality judges like what happened in Iowa after the court struck down its gay marriage ban where, in the following election, voters sent some of the pro-equality judges packing over the issue. One of my friends, who is gay and a Michigan native who still lives in the state, told me that, while he’s “very happy that the ban on gay couples adopting each other’s children is being challenged” and that “removing it is one of the biggest steps in achieving equality in Michigan,” he fears what will happen if the court goes so far as to strike down the marriage ban as well:

But I think that by making the leap to gay marriage is too much, too fast. I would love to be able to marry in the state, but I think that the political climate isn’t quite right yet and the reaction of the social conservatives in the north and west of the state will only serve to make the lives of LGBQ people worse were gay marriage to be legalized at this point in time.

Even in Iowa, despite the backlash, the court’s ruling stands, four years later. I’ve written before about how Michigan’s reactionary politics are driving so many people away, so there could be even an economic argument for how the state will be better if it moves its social politics into the 21st century. Yeah, it’s easier for social conservatives if Michigan has less bright young things around, but it’s not so great for the state’s welfare as a whole, which affects them; after all, their allies in the business world can’t be happy about an older, less educated workforce.

Michigan’s political leaders might not be “ready.” Some of its more socially-conservative voters are likely not, either – some of them won’t ever be ready. But it’s clear the time is now that LGBTQ Michiganders get the rights they deserve, including lesbian parents like DeBoer and Rowse and their families. With the Prop 8 trial advancing every day, potentially affecting marriage bans in all 50 states, Michigan may need to be ready, like it or not.

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Rose is a 25-year-old Detroit native currently living in Austin, TX, where she is working on her Ph.D. in musicology. Besides Autostraddle, she works as a streaming reviewer for Anime News Network.

Rose has written 69 articles for us.


  1. Guys, can anyone convince me that things don’t suck in Michigan as much as this website makes it out to be? I’ve gotten a very good grad school offer there but am considering going to a school that’s a less better fit for me in a more queer-friendly state.

    • I’m seconding Ava’s thoughts on Ann Arbor. I lived there when I was much younger but it is a wonderfully eclectic and diverse community! I’m sure someone else can speak for other parts of Michigan! Realistically, any college town is going to be much more gay friendly than any small rural community. Best of luck!

    • my lesbian mom lives in royal oak with her lesbian partner who has two foster kids, one of whom now has two of his own kids. they’re all fine. i grew up in ann arbor, went to boarding school up north, and went to university in ann arbor after spending a year in new york and it was also fine and dandy. rachel our senior editor goes to school in kalamazoo, our former managing editor is in law school at michigan. i wasn’t involved in the queer scene at michigan because i hated myself and i worked almost full-time during school which prevented me from being a part of any scene, really, but i hear good things about it!

      • Mom here. (Sorry for not weighing in earlier.) There is a lot of support for LGBT rights in MI. We live in Royal Oak-Ferndale, very trendy to be gay. This couple lives in a neighboring town, very conservative and my understanding is they have tons of support from their straight community. We also own a house “up-north” in snow-mobile country. Most people we know do not blink an eye when they hear us calling each over ‘hon’ or see us with our bi-racial granddaughter. If asked point-blank what they think of LGBT-related rights they might spout stupid, but on a person-to-person level, no one really cares.
        Queer scene in Michigan is a good one. Check out Between The Lines (www.pridesource.com (or .org?) )
        Don’t let people acting stupid stop you from getting a good education. In fact, don’t let anything or anyone stop you from getting a good education.

    • I can tell you that Michigan > Indiana, where I’m in grad school right now.

      And I’m guessing it’s probably U of M or MSU, in which case, both pretty liberal towns (ESPECIALLY Ann Arbor) and you should go for it.

      • It’s MSU. Sounds like it won’t be too bad!
        (Thanks everyone for flooding the comment thread with replies)

        • MSU is the best! Lansing Pride is super fun. Just avoid the west side of the state (Holland, Grand Haven).

          • Be careful not to lump the “west side” as one thing. Holland, Grand Haven, not so much. But Kalamazoo is awesome, and come on, Saugatuck’s over there.

    • Let me put it this way, I live in Ferndale and our motto used to be, “Fabulous, fashionable, friendly, Ferndale,” it’s pretty much known as the gay mecca. There’s only one gay bar and one gay coffee shop/video rental/bookstore/everything gay store, and one gay community center, but almost all of the shops downtown have rainbows on the doors and lezbehonest, every bar is PRETTY gay. Even our old mayor was gay, I used to run into him at the bar all the time… (Actually, our new mayor is gay too, but he’s a little more reserved, lol)

      The suburb just to our north, Pleasant Ridge, actually has the highest percentage of gay people IN THE NATION. Not SanFran, Pleasant Ridge, MI… (But real talk, it’s a small kinda snooty suburb where all the rich gays live…)

      Just to give you a personal account a friend told me the other day, apparently, they were waiting in line for a street vendor (hot dogs or something), and some anti-gay jerk started mocking/harassing a gay man in front of him because of his ‘lisp’. Noticing this, the other people in the line all stood up for the gay guy, berating the asshole right back. In the end, the street vendor actually kicked him out of the line. We don’t mess around with homophobes here.

      Here’s an article for reference: http://www.metromodemedia.com/features/LGBTFerndale0228.aspx

      So, depending on your school, I’d say if it’s one in the Detroit-ish area, I would recommend living in either Ferndale or Royal Oak. If it’s U of M, you’ll be fine in Ann Arbor.

      • Also, if it’s Michigan State, East Lansing is pretty okay too. It’s less obviously gay, but it’s a HUGE college campus and tends to be pretty liberal no matter where you go because of that. I lived out there for a few years and never experienced problems.

        But lastly… if it’s in Grand Rapids/Western MI, honestly, it’s a struggle. I grew up out there and haven’t lived there since 2006, so keep that in mind. I DO know that GR is getting better from friends of mine, but it’s still a mostly conservative area.

          • You’ll be fine in East Lansing. :)
            MSU is known for two things: hot girls (because women outrank men) and partying.

            Honestly, you should be more concerned about alcohol poisoning than homophobes. That city… I lived out there 2 years before I had to admit that I’m too old for this shit, lol. In EL, they drink to blackout, every time…

            “Pure Michigan” ad for MSU:

    • I’m sorry if my pessimistic articles are ruining your grad school decision! It’s easy for me to be pessimistic because I don’t live there anymore, I’m now going to school out-of-state and my family has also moved away. I also grew up in Troy, which is a very conservative suburb of Detroit. While the state-wide laws suck, individual local jurisdictions often have their own laws and you definitely shouldn’t dismiss the whole state based on these articles!

      Particularly since I assume you’re probably going to either Michigan or Michigan State. They’re both excellent schools and Ann Arbor and East Lansing (especially the former) are, to the best of my knowledge, fairly liberal and gay-friendly places (AA is definitely that, but I’m much more familiar with it than EL due to my parents being fierce Michigan Wolverines football fans and having a lot of friends who went to Michigan). So don’t let that make or break your grad school options if you got a good offer and the program looks good! Plus, Michigan needs bright, open-minded people like you to help it get better!

  2. Which grad school? Ann Arbor is an extremely gay friendly environment, and a completely awesome place to live! I love it there and there are rainbows all around.

    • That said, currently the political powers that be in Michigan are swinging extremely conservatively, and we need to be as outspoken as we can in order to change the political climate…

  3. I’m not sure I understand your friend’s fear about things being worse if marriage was legalized for same-sex couples. What could potentially happen? (This is a sincere question)

    • I believe that line of reasoning (mind you, I’m guessing here, and I don’t agree with it anyway) is that a sudden, large victory (say, the SCOTUS striking down marriage bans in all 50 states) would mobilize very strongly the anti-marriage-equality folks, similar to huge number of bans that happened in the 2004 US elections, about one year after the Goodridge v. Department of Public Health ruling in Massachusetts.

      However, like I said, I don’t really agree with that. Things have changed quite a bit since then (we now have a bunch more states with marriage equality), and public sentiment has swung very strongly against the anti-marriage-equality people. And while I don’t doubt they would continue to try and make trouble, they’d be far more limited in what they could ‘accomplish.’ (For example, regardless of what NOM and company think, the Federal Marriage Amendment….it’s not going to happen, ever. End of Story)

      Sorry, I trailed off. And I was speaking on the national level anyway. Could the Michigan Supreme Court even overturn the equality ban? This was the same court, as I recall, that ruled that public employers in the state couldn’t legally allow even domestic partnership benefits. Though, according to one of the articles Rose linked (and she alluded to this), they are waiting to see how the SCOTUS rules anyway.

      • Hey everyone, I’m Rose’s “gay male friend from Michigan”.

        Sarah’s interpretation of my comment is correct — while SE Michigan (and to some extent the Lansing area) are fairly gay-friendly (including where I live), areas of the state are very socially conservative, and the anti-marriage equality nuts would most likely organize and raise hell.

        I’m from a very conservative town myself (there were no Democratic candidates for local positions) and I know that marriage equality would make life worse for queer kids locally. I was sort of assuming that it’d be the same in other conservative strongholds of the state. So I don’t think they should force it — we don’t want a repeat of Roe v. Wade.

        That said, I’d love to see marriage equality in Michigan, and I think it’s really important to have all couples be able to adopt children together.

        • Uh, I just realized that my last comment could be misconstrued. By “a repeat of Roe v. Wade”, I think that the courts made the right decision, but that because the decision was sort of rushed, it led to the current right-wing bs about abortion.

    • Basically what Sarah said. I think he’s fearing something similar to what happened in Iowa as a backlash against the court decision there. But I think his worries are a bit exaggerated.

      Also I asked my friend if he wanted to come clarify in the comments but I’m not sure if he does.

  4. My partner and I moved to Holland Michigan (some may argue the worst of the worst) a little over 2 years ago from Chicago. We’ve never hid who we are or our relationship either to our neighbors or employers and we find that although most people don’t know queer folks, we have had very few negative experiences. We do spend a lot of time “educating” people, which does get exhausting, but hey our queer ancestors did that in Chicago to make things easier for me, so hopefully we are going to make it easier for young queer kids in the future.

    That being said, there is very little or no queer community here. Laws suck, you can be fired for being gay, be denied housing in addition to the marriage and adoption laws. I think it is important to point out 85% of Michigander that actually voted, baned same-sex marriage. Not of all people in Michigan, like every election. There old white dudes in Michigan who spend a lot of money telling people how to feel on TV, and get heard, I doubt this is really the majority.

    • I grew up in Holland. There are five of us queers who went to high school together and none of us came out until after we had graduated and moved away. Yes, there isn’t a supportive community in Southwest Michigan, (maybe Grand Rapids) but as someone else said, individuals are by and large very lovely. When each of us came out (all from conservative Christian families) we were supported. I don’t know if I could ever move back, I live in New York State now, but I think things are evolving.

  5. I went to oral arguments in this case on Thursday, and it was really something. Michigan’s lawyer didn’t seem to stand a chance. Their arguments would have worked perfectly 10 years ago, but it won’t fly now. The judge said he’s going to wait until after the Supreme Court decides DOMA and Prop 8 (opinions should be out in June) before he rules on this case. Hopefully they make it impossible for Michigan to defend these ridiculous laws!

  6. As much as I feel like things are changing, there’s a part of me that is still nervous because this is the same state government that banned a state representative from speaking on the House floor because she said, “vagina”

  7. This would be so fabulous, but I can’t imagine it actually happening. I have given up hope on my home state.

  8. I spent 5 years in Grand Rapids for college and although it has some conservo areas – it is also artsy and hip. There is a queer scene there (including two gay clubs, my favourite pub ever (shout out to PUB 43), a LGBTQ community centre (called The Network) and a great organization for Christian LGBTQers called Gays in Faith Together among other things. I agree with other comments – sometimes change happens through relationships with people – and the people I met were kind and generous- although I may have been the only queer person that had come out to them before.

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