The Stewarts were driving down the streets of Lincoln, Nebraska when they decided it was time to apply to raise another foster child, adding a sixth needy child to their family.
Billboards calling for foster parents lined their path as they navigated the roads of the capital city they’d just relocated to from California.
But it wasn’t long until Greg and Stillman learned they wouldn’t be allowed to care for one of Nebraska’s thousands of displaced children, despite the pressing shortage of parents there and their experience raising a family of California foster care kids.
They called the number listed on the billboards, only to be rejected because they were unmarried—and gay.
“It really reinforced the second-class citizenship that gay and lesbian adults have when it comes to these things,” Greg Stewart, 55, said. “It would mean everything to us to be able to adopt.”
In August, the Stewarts, along with two other gay and lesbian couples, filed a lawsuit arguing Nebraska’s 1995 policy banning them from becoming foster or adoptive parents is unconstitutional.
The suit comes four months after the U.S. Supreme Court threw out a key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act, which had barred gay couples from the federal marriage benefits afforded to straight couples.
Nebraska still maintains a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, however.
Greg and Stillman have been helping at-risk children for decades. As a minister, Greg helps with youth and families, while Stillman works with disadvantaged students. The pair has been together for more than 30 years.
The couple’s five sons, ranging in age from 13 to 20, were adopted from the California foster care system before they moved to Nebraska. Now that their children are becoming adults, they are looking to help others.
“Look at our track record,” Greg said. “Why can’t we create a family?”
There are about 4,000 children in Nebraska’s foster care system, according to the state’s foster care review office. Nationwide, more than 463,000 children live in foster care—115,000 of which are currently eligible for adoption. While in foster care, these children often fall behind educationally and socially.
Prior to being fostered by Greg and Stillman, their sons experienced significant abuse and neglect, and multiple foster placements before being placed. Some, Greg said, came to them without toilet training. Some had never eaten with silverware.
“It shouldn't have to hurt to be a child,” Greg said.
Nebraska isn’t the only state prohibiting same-sex couples from becoming foster or adoptive parents. Utah and Mississippi have some of the most restrictive adoption and foster-care policies, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
ACLU Legal Director Amy Miller says it’s time for Nebraska to change its stance, given the state’s dire need for foster parents.
“It’s always going to be better to have a parent saying to you personally, ‘How was your day?’” said Miller, who is representing the case.
That’s the message Bryant Huddleston is trying to send as an LGBT rights advocate in Los Angeles. Huddleston says there are thousands of children who want a family and wouldn’t care if their parents were gay or straight.
The 41-year-old television producer gave up the single life and adopted his son Haven—whom he calls “the most athletic, rambunctious, perfect little boy”—five years ago.
An Arkansas transplant, Huddleston says he always knew he wanted to be a parent and was happy to be able to do so in California. For him, being a father is not only a dream come true, but a means to inspire thousands of gay and lesbian people across the country who are struggling with equality.
“Is going from foster parents to foster parent in their best interest? Or is having their own bedroom, parents and grandparents?” he asked.
Adoption and foster care should be about children and their needs, not about personal beliefs on sexual orientation, he says.
“I know down the road it won't matter to him if his dad is gay or not,” Huddleston said. “He loves his dad.”