JFCS honors gay dad
Gay adoption lawyer Charlie Spiegel was honored for his 20 years of service to LGBT families at the Jewish Family and Children Service's 25th annual gala and fundraiser March 7. Spiegel's work was recognized with a Fammy Award from the agency, which also helped him adopt his own daughter in 1997.
Spiegel has volunteered with Adoption Connection at the JFCS since he adopted his daughter Nora, now aged 12. Spiegel began his career as a real estate lawyer; in 2008 he joined Adams and Romer, a practice specializing in adoption law, where he now guides same-sex couples through the adoption process.
Spiegel sees his legal work as a way to help the larger LGBT civil rights struggle, as well as a way to assist individual families. He noted that agencies like Adoption Connection, which treat LGBT couples as they do straight couples, are key players in the civil rights movement.
"Very early on JFCS put their seal of approval on gay male families," Spiegel explained in an interview with the Bay Area Reporter at the JFCS event, which took place at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco.
In the video introduction that preceded his award, Spiegel, 50, recalled his sadness at his sense that he would never be a parent after he came out as a young adult.
Same-sex families, particularly those formed through adoption, were still virtually invisible in the 1990s, when Spiegel began volunteering his legal services to gay couples. He remembers attending educational panels about same-sex couples and adoption, and seeing the same gay male couple on every panel that he attended.
"Gay men were just beginning to dream about the possibility of being parents in 1994," explained Randie Bencanann, the co-executive director of Adoption Connection, noting that when the calls began to come in, JFCS immediately began working with same-sex couples in the adoption process.
"Since the early 1990s, Charlie is someone who's worked pretty tirelessly to promote the normalcy of gay and lesbian families," Bencanann said, explaining that Spiegel's commitment to legitimizing same-sex families in the public eye was another reason why JFCS was honoring him.
Spiegel's worked to increase the visibility of gay and lesbian families by opening his home on more than one occasion to major media outlets, an activist take on public relations that puts the normalcy of same-sex families front and center. Spiegel also founded the first Bay Area parent's organization for LGBTs and helped to found the West Coast branch of Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund.
This public relations battle, Spiegel said, is an essential front in challenging anti-gay amendments such as Proposition 8, which eliminated same-sex marriage in California.
"When the right wing wants to win an anti-gay proposition they involve children," Spiegel said, recalling the Yes on 8 campaign ad of school children attending a same-sex marriage ceremony that was a tipping point for support of Prop 8.
"Families with gay children are at the center of these fights," Spiegel noted. "We need to get out there in an affirmative way and say these are our families."
"Get used to it. It's not that different," was how Spiegel described the message behind putting a public face on gay and lesbian families. "We're not Leave it to Beaver, but we are not that different."
Despite recent setbacks such as the passage of Prop 8, Spiegel noted a significant change in attitudes since he began his volunteer work in adoption law. "I've had people calling the office to say I only want same-gender couples," Spiegel said.
This change was also noted by Bencanann, who said, "Birth mothers are asking for gay men [as adoptive parents] ... to help them because they could not have children themselves."
After accepting his award, Spiegel recalled the moment when he realized his parenthood was real was when his daughter's birth mother drove away from the hospital and left Nora with Spiegel and his ex-partner. "As the cab drove off it was the moment when I totally lost it emotionally... this woman just came here and entrusted her child to us," Spiegel remembered.
"I could never have imagined the joys of having a child." Spiegel said. "It's a wonderful, wonderful gift."
In addition to Spiegel, JFCS also honored Jane and Michael Rice, who received a Fammy Award for their work in the agency's Chicken Soupers program, which helps those who are poor, sick, or alone, including those living with AIDS and other disabilities.
JFCS' board of directors presented the Distinguished Humanitarian Service Award to the agency's executive director, Anita Friedman, Ph.D., who marks her 30th anniversary leading the agency.