Election 2024

America devalues queer families. Jaymes Black is lifting them up.

Family Equality President and CEO Jaymes Black
Family Equality President and CEO Jaymes Black. Photo illustration by Kyle Neal.

Mike Pence attacked Pete Buttigieg for taking paternity leave when his twins were born and sick in the hospital. Lauren Boebert mocked the new father, claiming he breastfed them. Matt Walsh pointed to Buttigieg and husband Chasten as examples of “why two men shouldn’t be allowed to adopt babies in the first place.” 

Why are so many people on the right angry at Pete and Chasten Buttigieg for growing their family?

Jaymes Black, President and CEO of Family Equality, the LGBTQ+ family advocacy group, shook their head at the thought.

“Yeah, I mean, it’s just — I chuckled because it’s just, it’s horrible what they have to navigate and what they have to go through.”

Black spoke from their white-paneled office in Washington, D.C., dressed in a gray camouflage hoodie — hood up — with a distressed “New York” applique across the front. The 48-year-old looked ready for battle or a race into the arena, where all the good fights are fought.

“I would say that Pete and Chasten are an easy target because they’re so visible. I think it’s really easy because they’re visible figures in the news. They’re very vocal about their family.”

“But this is connected to the core issue of dehumanizing LGBTQ+ people,” Black continued, “and our right to exist and our right to create families. There’s this issue of believing that our families are somehow not as important or not as real as other families. That’s what this is about. They don’t care to understand that our families are so much like their families.”

Black joined Family Equality as president and CEO in 2021 after a long history of senior roles in the defense, technology, and finance sectors. They’re now applying that corporate expertise in their new role at the nonprofit to broaden Family Equality’s mission to better reflect LGBTQ+ parenting in a time vastly different from when the organization was founded as the “Gay Fathers Coalition” during the 1979 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights.

“Family is so integral to our existence as humans, so the work we do is so important. Whether that’s a chosen family, whatever way you can make families — it’s so inherent to humans. And so the work we do is to ensure that all people, especially LGBTQ+ people, can experience family.”

Family Equality President and CEO Jaymes Black

“Family is so integral to our existence as humans, so the work we do is so important,” Black tells LGBTQ Nation. “Whether that’s a chosen family, whatever way you can make families — it’s so inherent to humans. And so the work we do is to ensure that all people, especially LGBTQ+ people, can experience family.”

Queer families are under fire, they say. 

In red states, that looks like an onslaught of “Don’t Say Gay”  laws and legislation forcing parents and their kids across state lines, discriminatory adoption laws built to shut out prospective gay parents, and rogue state officials hunting down trans kids and their “criminal” parents. 

Libraries in red and blue states alike are stalked by right-wing scolds searching out “prurient” LGBTQ+ content. At the same time, school boards and local town councils are ambushed by Moms for Liberty on a mission to erase LGBTQ+ identity — and families — from curricula and the public square. And it means most recently, millions of hopeful parents, gay and straight alike, are denied fertility treatments as Christian nationalist judges legislate morality in a secular nation from the bench.

The fight for the right to have kids

Family Equality commemorates the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington.
Family Equality commemorates the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington. Photo provided.

With so many fronts in the battle for family equality, where does Black begin?

“First of all, our policy work. That is where the rubber meets the road. That is where we see the opportunity for more and most change,” they say. “So we’re looking at the defense of marriage, ensuring that we’re helping protect marriage. We’re looking at child welfare, the process of ensuring that LGBTQ+ people can adopt from the foster system.” 

The Trump administration imposed rules that make all adoptions and foster care more difficult for prospective gay parents, a fact reflected in polling this year that showed gay people feared discrimination in adoption and the foster care system. 

Potential gay parents, who are more likely than their straight peers to consider fostering children, may be held back from taking in one or more of the 400,000 kids in foster care because of anti-LGBTQ+ bias. 

“Those families could be LGBTQ+ people who could foster them,” including LGBTQ+ children waiting for their “forever family,” says Black. Family Equality advocated for the Biden administration’s executive order in 2022, increasing LGBTQ+ discrimination protections in the foster care system.

Black says they’re also addressing “family creation, which includes, again, ensuring that we’re removing barriers so we can create our families without legal, social, and economic barriers.  Also, parentage. That ensures we understand how to establish a legal parent-child relationship once we have our children. Sometimes people don’t understand that is the next step that you have to take.”

“It is critical to establish a legal parent-child relationship. The birth certificate is not the mechanism that will establish that legality.”

Family Equality President and CEO Jaymes Black

Antiquated or arcane laws on the books in some states mean a birth certificate isn’t necessarily the last word in parentage for gay people. About six million LGBTQ+ parents in the U.S. are raising a minor child.

“We released a parentage report last year in partnership with the Movement Advancement Project that is comprehensive around how you establish parent-child relationships and what the risks are when we don’t. It is critical to establish a legal parent-child relationship. The birth certificate is not the mechanism that will establish that legality.”

“And then, of course, we’re building community. And now more than ever, people are asking for community building and connection because they feel alone,” says Black. “They feel afraid. They feel isolated. So, it’s our job to build programs on the ground and virtually so our community feels connected and staying informed.”

Building those connections comes with in-person events like the group’s annual summer Family Week in Provincetown, virtual peer groups and in-person gatherings like the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington, and professional training for family-building providers and employers.

Family Equality marches in Provincetown's Family Week, 2023. Photo provided.
Family Equality marches in Provincetown’s Family Week, 2023. Photo provided.

Most of all, it’s sharing the knowledge that makes becoming a queer parent a reality. The first step to building an LGBTQ+ family is often intentional. For one, the odds are that fertilization isn’t happening without a concerted effort, unlike fertilization for many straight couples. And even if a queer couple found a baby on their doorstep, there are obstacles unique to LGBTQ+ lives.

With so many ways to build a family, including adoption, intrauterine insemination (IUI), in vitro fertilization (IVF), and foster care, Family Equality provides a vital information hub but avoids dispensing advice.

“We don’t advise people to choose what’s right for them,” says Black. “We say we’re going to provide you with all the options so you can choose what’s right for your family and your situation. Geographic, economic, and familial considerations or relationships also have to be made.”

“So our job as the family organization in the movement is to ensure that those folks have all of the options, all of the legal information or ramifications, all of the things that you need to know to create that, or to make that right.”

Families come in all shapes and sizes

Family Equality president and CEO Jaymes Black (second from left) with their two children and wife Cheralyn.
Jaymes Black (second from left) with their two children and wife Cheralyn. Photo by Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images.

“My wife and I went through, as many of us do — we can go down several roads, right? At first, we thought about fostering, and we thought about IVF, and then we thought about and finally settled on private adoption. There’s not one magic bullet or silver bullet, if you will. It’s really about providing people the information so they can have that to make the right decision for themselves.”

Among the obstacles facing potential queer parents is discrimination built into adoption law.

“There are still 13 states that can discriminate against an LGBTQ+ person who wants to adopt or foster from the child welfare system if they feel that that person’s religious values are not aligned with the agency’s,” says Black. “So, we’re looking to pass legislation that eliminates that.”

Movement Advancement Project
Movement Advancement Project

While the Biden administration has approached the barrier with executive action, a comprehensive bill banning LGBTQ+ discrimination has been elusive.

Family Equality is pushing the John Lewis Every Child Deserves a Family Act, introduced in 2021 by Rep. Danny Davis (D-IL) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY).

“That is a piece of legislation that we’ve been involved in for quite some time, and basically, it ensures that for LGBTQ+ people who want to foster and adopt — the discrimination that happens within the child welfare system — would be eliminated.” The bill continues to languish in Congress.

But Black says just as important as passing legislation that promotes family is blocking or overturning laws that undermine it.

“Family Equality is doing lots of work on the ground with our state movement partners helping to fight the bad bills. In particular, it’s the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bills,” says Black. “We strategically made the decision last year to hire our first Director of Policy and Education because many of our families who have children in the school systems are now feeling the effects of ‘Don’t Say Gay.’”

“One story that comes to mind is the story of this family from Iowa,” Black shares. “The mom’s name was Rhonda, who called us pretty distraught because one of her kids came home from school upset. When she dug into it, she found out that her child was speaking about their two mothers at school. A teacher approached the child and said, ‘You can’t talk about your family here.’”

Black pauses, distraught herself.

“And then she said that the teacher was tearing up. The child told her mother that the teacher started tearing up. We don’t know if the teacher was crying because she was distraught because she had to deliver that news or because she felt that there was something negative around LGBTQ+ families. But the fact of the matter is that a teacher told the child, ‘You can’t talk about your two moms.'”

More than half of families with an LGBTQ+ parent or child say they are seriously considering leaving Florida, in particular, because of the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” laws.

“That’s a real-life example of what families are going through and the kind of legislation we’re looking to fight back on,” says Black.

Controlling the narrative

Family Equality president and CEO Jaymes Black with Rev. Al Sharpton at New York City Pride, 2023.
Family Equality President and CEO Jaymes Black with Rev. Al Sharpton at New York City Pride, 2023. Photo provided.

Black is also focusing on Family Equality’s mission to serve BIPOC communities, those living at or below the poverty line, and LGBTQ+ people living in rural communities more effectively. Black says research has shown that those segments of the community, often siloed from whiter, wealthier groups in the LGBTQ+ community, can feel alienated from the broader movement.

“We have a project called The Family Equity Justice Project,” says Black, with the objective “to interview LGBTQ+ people and determine how we can create more inclusive programs. Who’s not at the table? Who are we leaving out?”

“We did a pilot last year, and one of the findings is that these families feel, from a kind of a larger movement perspective, that they don’t feel a part of the national [LGBTQ+] movement,” says Black.

“So we need to fix that all LGBTQ+ families feel welcome, and they feel that there’s a place for them at Family Equality,” says Black. That effort includes partner organizations.

“I don’t want to call it a tenet, but just something really important to us — is that we will tell our own stories,” says Black. “Are we providing a space for families to tell their stories, and then are we locking arms with those other organizations? Say, for example, Gays with Kids, who are also telling stories, and are we locking arms with PFLAG? Men Having Babies are also telling some of those stories. It takes all of us to tell those stories, but we don’t make a change if we’re siloed, and I love that we all have a piece of the story that represents our families or serves our families.”

But those narratives often face competition. 

“The competition is about the false narratives we hear about our families, and our kids hear those false narratives at school. We hear it from the right on the news. That is where we will tell our own stories because the stories they tell about our families are absolutely not true.”

Two years before Black arrived at Family Equality, they participated in a video series in collaboration with Out in Texas and shared their family-building experience.

“Our life is at risk every day by coming out as a same-sex family,” they say in the video, adding, “What’s the alternative?”

“The alternative,” Black says now, “is to live a life of repression. That’s how I feel about it. Repressing who I am, repressing who my family is, repressing the authenticity that I need to show so I can be my best self.”

“I often tell people at corporations, when you are not providing a space for employees to be their whole selves, how do you expect them to show up and perform? The alternative… is dangerous. And it wasn’t even as bad as it is now.”

In 2023, the Louisiana House Labor Committee defeated a proposal to make LGBTQ+ workplace discrimination illegal. According to a Center for American Progress study released the same year, half of LGBTQ+ adults surveyed reported experiencing some form of workplace discrimination or harassment because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or intersex status, 

“Every time we come out, we risk rejection. Every time we come out, we risk someone responding negatively,” says Black. “But we have to do that. I will never say, ‘You need to come out regardless,’ because that is dangerous. But I have to do that because the alternative is being repressed, and repressed doesn’t work for me anymore.”

Black took a big step in that direction in December when she embraced a new identity. Family Equality made the announcement on its website.

“Friends, say hello to Jaymes Black (any/all pronouns)!”

Black credits the organization with helping to set them on “this path to live a more authentic life.”

“I thought I was living as authentically as I could be,” says Black. “I left corporate America, and maybe, you know, some days or some moments I was not shouting from the rooftops, you know, that I was lesbian, but I felt that I was living authentically.

“And then I come to this organization of families, already with these beautiful displays of LGBTQ+ families, and it served as a growing opportunity for me to see all the beauty and then to use that as a way to find my true self.”

Fighting the good fight

Family Equality president and CEO Jaymes Black with son London on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Family Equality President and CEO Jaymes Black with son London on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court. Photo provided.

Black’s evolution notwithstanding, they grasp — as only someone fighting the good fight every day can — the profound implications of power in Washington devolving to Trump, the Christian nationalist right, and the worst elements of a Republican Party now fully in thrall to MAGA nihilism.

The stakes in the 2024 election couldn’t be higher.

“Now, I know that we’re in a pretty bad spot as it relates to anti-LGBTQ+ bills,” Black says. “What I worry about is that if we do not win this election, what happens next? Do we go from having a year ending with over 500 bills to a year ending with something much greater than that?”

“What I think is at stake is people within our community not getting to the polls. We know that there are 62 million voters who prioritize LGBTQ+ rights when deciding who to vote for,” says Black. “How do we ensure we’re getting them, and then some, to the polls?”

“I think what’s at stake is that we need to educate the people who don’t understand that our transgender brothers and sisters deserve to be here and exist,” says Black.

“We know that it’s bad, right? But we also need to take a step back and [recognize] we have gained a lot of momentum that we need to be proud of, and there’s more to gain, and we don’t want to lose. I know it’s hard right now, but we have to keep the momentum.”

“What’s at stake is losing that momentum if we don’t have the right administration in the White House.”

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