Pictured above: Heather McCormack (R) with her wife Margot (L) and their 9-year-old son.
Barry Myers gives new meaning to the phrase I don’t know how he does it. An army veteran and retired nurse, Myers is raising nine adopted children in a five-bedroom house in Knoxville, Tennessee, all of whom are between the ages of 11 and 22. Seven are still at home.
Myers wakes up at 4:30am every morning to cook their breakfasts. During the day, he volunteers as a crossing guard at the local elementary school and serves as the PTA president at three of his children’s schools. After they get home at night, Myers spends his evenings driving to and from various practices. He counts among his clan two competitive dancers and a football player, and has kids in color guard, marching band, orchestra, and choir. After racing home to cook dinner, making sure everyone showered and brushed their teeth, and getting them all tucked in by 9pm, Myers is lucky if he gets to bed by 11pm.
That daily routine is daunting, especially as a single parent, but Myers says his hope is to give his kids the opportunities he never had. He grew up in poverty, raised on a farm in rural East Tennessee.
“It's about my children having the best life they can have,” he tells NewNowNext. “This life is my dream. My dream was to have kids.”
Unfortunately, that dream is in jeopardy for LGBTQ families across Tennessee. On Friday, Republican Gov. Bill Lee signed House Bill 836, which allows faith-based adoption and foster care agencies—including those that receive state government funding—to refuse to work with same-sex couples. The Volunteer State was the 11th to sign what LGBTQ advocates have called a “license to discriminate” law after similar measures were enacted in states like Alabama, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Virginia.
Barry Myers and eight of his nine adopted children.
LGBTQ families in Tennessee tell NewNowNext the passage of its “license to discriminate” law has made them feel unsafe in their own state. Cynthia Deitle, who has a 9-year-old with her wife of 11 years, says her family has discussed moving every single day since the legislation became the law of the land.
“We have very frank conversations with our son about how the state government in Tennessee thinks his family is lesser than,” Deitle says. “That's a really hard conversation to have, but we don't want to keep anything from him. We’re talking about moving back to Boston—where we lived before we moved to Tennessee—or moving back to Washington, D.C. … just moving back to a place where we feel very safe and very protected. If the law had been passed, we never would have moved here.”
Of particular concern for LGBTQ families in Tennessee is what they perceive to be the “vagueness” of HB 836, which passed both the state House and Senate with overwhelming majorities. For instance, the legislation states that adoption and foster care agencies are not “required to perform, assist, consent to, refer, or participate in any child placement” should doing so contravene their “religious or moral convictions.” However, it does not clarify whether that could be used to deny placement to other kinds of applicants—like single parents, interfaith couples, or Muslims.
Heather McCormack, who also has a 9-year-old son with her wife, worries that the impacts could be “far-reaching.” Could the law, she wonders, be used to pull a foster child out of an LGBTQ household if they’ve already been placed there? Could an adoption agent suddenly terminate an application that’s already being processed just because they “disagree with the LGBTQ community, our lives, and our homes?” she asks.
“People have spoken out and said, ‘You could go to an agency that likes you,’ but most places don’t have a sign on the door that says, ‘Don't come in here,’” McCormack says. “We just have to be careful where we're going, who we're talking to, and make sure it's a supportive community where we’re adopting.”
But LGBTQ parents say they are less concerned about the impact on their own families—or even their ability to adopt or foster in the future—than the fallout for youth currently in the foster care system. Tennessee has among the largest numbers of children awaiting placement of any state in the nation: around 8,100, according to Joe Mercer. Mercer, who works in Tennessee foster care, says many of those kids are queer or transgender and already struggle to find supportive households that will take them.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee.
“My phone rings off the hook all the time for transgender youth,” Mercer says. “The public here is not informed enough about the transgender community. This year the state introduced an LGBTQ class for foster parents, which is a good thing, but I'm trying to push them for more transgender classes because I don't think foster parents here understand.”
Mercer has worked as a children’s advocate for decades, but he is also the foster parent of a transgender child himself. Over the past three years, he estimates that 35 kids—both trans and cisgender—have come through his home and describes the experience as “not for the faint of heart.” Many children who have gone through the system are experiencing extreme trauma, often moved between households dozens of times. On average, youth remain in the system for two years, but some end up aging out without ever finding their forever home.
Given that research shows that LGBTQ couples are seven times more likely to adopt than other households, Mercer believes Tennessee’s law is only going to make the problem worse.
“To deny a child a forever home just because somebody's gay doesn't make any sense to me,” he says. “You're in this for the kids. The reward is being able to see a child either go back to their family or be able to be adopted.”
That’s why Myers says—law or no law—nobody is going to stop him from caring for another child, should he wish to do so. When he first sought to adopt 20 years ago, the state of Tennessee banned LGBTQ people from adopting or fostering altogether—so essentially, he would have had to go back into the closet to open up his home to needy kids. He waited a few years and tried again. This time he was told that gay men could adopt, but he couldn’t live with a partner. He was still in a relationship with his now ex-husband at the time, with whom he would spend the following 19 years.
Eventually, Myers decided to plead his case to the state commissioner’s office, arguing that the current policies were “preventing kids from having homes.” His entreaty worked, and before the couple even finished their adoption application, they were asked to take in four siblings. “As soon as I met them,” Myers remembers, “I knew in my heart they were my kids.”
After fighting so hard for his family for so many years, Myers is prepared to fight all over again if that’s what it takes. “If I do find another partner and we were to start a life together, there's a possibility that partner and I may want to adopt a child,” he says. “For someone to say we can't, especially when I've already raised nine kids, is just total discrimination. It has nothing to do with my abilities as a parent. It has nothing to do with what I provide to my children. It simply has to do with who I am.”