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By Arlene (Ari) Istar Lev

Complex Families Don’t Make for Easy Advertising Response: Gay Adoption Commercial

Posted By on June 30, 2009

Complex Families Don’t Make for Easy Advertising
By Arlene (Ari) Istar Lev

Only a few years ago I would have been surprised to see the face of my family in American advertising. Images of two women touching — that might portray friendship but looks an awful lot like lesbians–are being used to sell cars and life insurance. Subaru markets directly to lesbian families saying, "It’s not a choice. It’s the way we are built." A Fleet Bank ad shows two women — one visibly pregnant the others’ hand on her shoulder in a supportive yet comforting manner, while they contemplate their financial needs.

Now I suppose what is blatantly obviously queer to me might pass the uninitiated heterosexual by with hardly a glance. The ads are clearly intended to be double messages, to make me want to support these companies the next time I need a loan or a car, and yet not raise too many eyebrows with the rest of their paying customers. I am, however, quite well-aware that major corporations are investing in my community for only one reason–they want my money. In the last decade what was once the "gay" liberation movement, morphed into the lesbian and gay (and of course, bisexual and transgender) market.

So it is with mixed emotions that I watched the new John Hancock ad, debuting in July and intended to air during the Olympic games that celebrates two white women at the airport with their newly adopted Chinese baby. One tells the other "we are a family," and then they say to each other "you will make a great mom". John Hancock is now denying that it intended the image to be lesbian, or for that matter representing the adoption of a Chinese baby. Trust me that every lesbian in America who watches this ad will see two lesbians, and that every transracially adoptive lesbian will recognize herself in this ad, a mirror of immense significance.

Except for one small hitch. The Chinese government will also see this as a lesbian family, and they don’t allow lesbians to adopt "their" babies. It is a written explicit policy since 1998 and they have warned agencies to not place with lesbian and gay families. The Chinese government is scrutinizing dossiers, particularly those by people with non-related same-sex roommates. Some adoption agencies fear that if the Chinese government thought that babies are being placed in lesbian homes, they will completely restrict adoptions by "single" people (which many others countries already do) and perhaps even stop working with U.S. agencies completely.

The truth is that Chinese babies are being place in lesbian homes. There I said it. Immediately I feel paranoid, and am assured by friends in the adoption community that I should. They tell me that the Chinese government monitors adoption email lists, and yes will read this article. Acknowledging that lesbians have adopted Chinese baby girls will likely create a backlash from the Chinese government who is, I am warned, "very sensitive" about this issue and will feel humiliated and stop these adoption in order to "save face."

Some adoption agencies have requested that the ad be pulled, or that the ethnicity of the family members be "changed." In turn they have been accused of homophobia, and that John Hancock should be praised. Yet, others fear that this debate will interfere with adoptions underway, that children will languish in orphanages, and lesbian (and single) prospective families will continue to wait. This is not merely a theoretical exercise: One woman emailed me that she knew a lesbian who was outed while in China to meet her daughter; the adoption process was immediately terminated.

Everyone is in agreement about one thing: the Chinese government is homophobic. Agencies are saying be discrete, don’t bring attention to yourselves and we will quietly help you; if you don’t tell, we won’t ask. Although some activists see this as homophobia, others see it as a modern day Underground Railroad.

The days are gone when gay civil rights issues were easy choices between good and evil. Visibility has always been a complex issue, but never before has public approval been such a double-edged sword. Although John Hancock might have intended to show support for gay families, they might have placed more obstacles in our path. They have edited the ad now, making it clear that the child is not Chinese, and cutting the last sentence where the second woman acknowledges that her partner too will make a good mother. They have saved both face and money, for most gays and lesbians, ignorant to issues of international adoption, will remember only that during the Olympics of 2000, our families were visible. Hopefully John Hancock will have learned that issues of queer interracial visibility are complex and to market to a community you have to be savvy to the daily lives of its members.