I was talking to a cousin of mine at a family gathering over Memorial Day weekend, and the conversation turned to her adoption, as a girl, by her step-father. My cousin’s father had died when she was very young and her mother remarried a man who adopted her. Sounds good, right? The problem is that the marriage ultimately failed and he effectively ditched my cousin along with the divorce – she’s now in her forties and hasn’t seen him since she was 15.
My cousin said the thing she didn’t know, that she wished had been explained to her at the time, was that as a result of the adoption she would get a new birth certificate with her adoptive father’s name on it. The reality of her biological father was effectively wiped out – she had lost him to a tragic illness before she could ever know him and then his very existence as her father on the day she was born was erased and replaced by a guy who apparently considered her part of the package of a marriage that didn’t last, rather than a lifetime commitment.
People at the dinner table were astonished to learn that birth certificates are changed as part of adoptions. I share their astonishment. I was shocked by this practice the first time I handled an adoption. It seems so odd and so completely not legalistic: the intentional creation, by judicial decree, of a false document. It is not called an “adoption certificate;” it is called a “birth certificate” and it is a back dated, official “birth” record, which contains the name of two parents, at least one of whom was not in fact the parent at the time of the child’s birth.
Who are we kidding? What interests do we serve by issuing these phony documents? You can get prosecuted for using a fake ID at a bar when you’re 19, but somehow courts can wipe out one identity and replace it with a new one with total impunity. Same goes for a name change – the end result is a new birth certificate. And if you are transgendered and change your name to match your new gender, you get a new birth certificate which creates the fiction that you were born with both the name and the gender you became later in life.
I guess it’s all based on the intense privacy and secrecy surrounding adoption (and, certainly, changes of gender), the idea that these are dark secrets that must be protected from disclosure. But how did we end up getting the state in the business of literally rewriting history? Of obliterating identity? Why can’t we accept change – you were born with one set of parents, now you have another; you used to be a man, now you’re a woman. Life histories, in all their variety, deserve accurate recording. We can handle it.