The voice on the other end of the phone 10 years ago was smug and self-righteous: “What you’re asking for is against the law. You should just forget it.”
What I was asking for was a copy of my original birth certificate, the first record of my birth created before I was adopted, and New York State rewrote my history and issued a revised birth certificate with my adoptive parents’ names on it. This is standard procedure for adoptees in the U.S.
I’d called the registrar’s office in Albany hoping for a sympathetic ear. Instead, I got the party line. No wonder. Up until this week, wanting to know who gave birth to me was illegal in New York.
In fact, in 39 states, adoptees’ birth records are sealed. The idea decades ago was that this protected adopted people from the stigma of illegitimate birth and also protected the mothers who relinquished them from the shame of being an unwed mother.
In practice, these laws had a different effect: They served to treat adoptees as forever children and second-class citizens.
On Thursday in New York that changed. After years of lobbying by adoptees, birth parents and groups like the New York Adoptee Rights Coalition, New York lawmakers voted to overturn eight decades of discrimination against adopted people. Once Gov. Andrew Cuomo signs the legislation, New York-born adoptees will finally be able to get that same piece of paper that everyone else takes for granted.
This is an incredible victory for adoptee rights, an historic day, especially given that Albany lawmakers were for many years fiercely opposed to changing the law. I hope it’s a belwether for change to come in the remaining states where adopted people and their supporters are fighting hard for equality.
You can bet that come Jan. 15, when the New York law takes effect, I’ll be one of the first on line to request my original birth certificate.
But back when I was on the phone with that bureaucrat in Albany, I wasn’t thinking about history in the making.
I was thinking how someone like me, at the center of an arrangement I had no say in, could have so little voice.
And I was thinking that some people must have considered my existence a pretty major mistake if an entire state had to remake my identity and hide all the clues to my original self.
I was thinking, too, that I might never know my ethnicity, who I look like, my medical history or the circumstances surrounding my arrival on earth — and neither would my daughter have that information for herself and any children she might have.
How ridiculous that it was against the law to know myself. And yet the bureaucrat seemed to be saying that I should just make peace with being a second-class citizen.
I’ve never made peace with it, nor do most adopted people.
How can you ever make peace with being treated like an object instead of a person?
Thankfully technology has outpaced the law. With the kind help of volunteer searchers and the Internet, I found both sides of my biological family, got answers to many of my questions … and generated a bunch more, some of which I’ll admittedly never be able to resolve.
But — doubly ironic in light of all that — still no original birth certificate.
I remember several years back talking over coffee with a then-new, non-adopted acquaintance about how important that original birth certificate is to me, how it represents a critical validation in the face of a lifetime of repeated messages that boiled down to: Sit down, shut up and just — please — be grateful for being adopted.
“What would you do with it?” she asked.
“What do you do with yours?” I countered.
There was silence at the table then.
Thankfully, there won’t be silence in New York come Jan. 15.