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Courting Change

Queer Parents, Judges, and the Transformation of American Family Law

Kimberly Richman

Publication Year: 2009

Winner of the 2010 Pacific Sociological Association Distinguished Contribution to Scholarship Award

A lesbian couple rears a child together and, after the biological mother dies, the surviving partner loses custody to the child’s estranged biological father. Four days later, in a different court, judges rule on the side of the partner, because they feel the child relied on the woman as a “psychological parent.” What accounts for this inconsistency regarding gay and lesbian adoption and custody cases, and why has family law failed to address them in a comprehensive manner?

In Courting Change, Kimberly D. Richman zeros in on the nebulous realm of family law, one of the most indeterminate and discretionary areas of American law. She focuses on judicial decisions—both the outcomes and the rationales—and what they say about family, rights, sexual orientation, and who qualifies as a parent. Richman challenges prevailing notions that gay and lesbian parents and families are hurt by laws’ indeterminacy, arguing that, because family law is so loosely defined, it allows for the flexibility needed to respond to—and even facilitate — changes in how we conceive of family, parenting, and the role of sexual orientation in family law.

Drawing on every recorded judicial decision in gay and lesbian adoption and custody cases over the last fifty years, and on interviews with parents, lawyers, and judges, Richman demonstrates how parental and sexual identities are formed and interpreted in law, and how gay and lesbian parents can harness indeterminacy to transform family law.

Published by: NYU Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii


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pp. ix-xi

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1. A Double-Edged Sword? Indeterminacy and Family Law

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pp. 1-18

In 1999, an Indiana social worker petitioned to adopt three children, siblings, all of whom had severe disabilities and had been in foster care for most of their lives. The adoption was near completion when the children’s foster parents petitioned to stop the adoption of one of the children. ...

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2. At the Intersection of Sexuality, Family, and Law

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pp. 19-41

It is no longer novel, or open to serious controversy, that lesbian and gay individuals form relationships and exist as families, in varying degrees of visibility, across the United States. Even for those heterosexuals who may not personally know any (out) LGBT individuals...

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3. Negotiating Parental and Sexual Identity

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pp. 43-81

It is not common in public discourse that one would think to stop and determine what the definition of “parent” is—or, for that matter, what the definition of “gay” is. These seem intuitive to the average person, if not self-consciously considered often by him or her. ...

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4. Right or Wrong? The Indeterminacy of Custody and Adoption Rights

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pp. 83-122

The historical, political, and symbolic importance of legal rights, particularly in American legal culture, is well known in popular consciousness and scholarly thought. Americans have seen the First Amendment right of free speech invoked in high-profile settings anywhere from the...

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5. Talking Back Judicial Dissents and Social Change

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pp. 123-151

How do most people come to understand what the law is and what it says? Certainly not by researching decisions handed down by appellate courts or by delving into the family code or penal code. The recent spate of sociolegal scholarship focused on narratives...

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6. Conclusion: Mastering the Double-Edged Sword

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pp. 153-178

This book began with a story of exclusion, of a family relationship literally being judged out of existence by a set of decision-makers and mores that assumed gay male parenthood to be contrary to the best interest of a would-be adoptive child. ...

Appendix 1: Case Names and Citations

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pp. 179-187

Appendix 2: Interview Questions for Attorneys

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pp. 189-190

Appendix 3: Interview Questions for Judges

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pp. 191-193

Appendix 4: Interview Questions for Parents

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pp. 195

Appendix 5: List of Interviews

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pp. 197-198


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pp. 199-228


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pp. 229-237


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pp. 239-265

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About the Author

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pp. 267

Kimberly D. Richman is an assistant professor of sociology and legal studies at the University of San Francisco.

E-ISBN-13: 9780814777442
E-ISBN-10: 0814777449
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814775950
Print-ISBN-10: 0814775950

Page Count: 288
Publication Year: 2009