Devoted Life Fighting for Improved LGBTQ Family Rights with Deb Guston

Brad Shreve [00:00:00]

This is Queer We Are. Welcome. I’m Brad Shreve, and I interview LGBTQ guests who share their positive stories of making a difference in the world, staying optimistic, and spreading good news on this episode. My guest has been serving her state and our country for years with having the honor of being on three committees on the New Jersey Supreme Court is past chair of the New Jersey Bar LGBT Rights section. Past president. Of the ACLU, New Jersey, and what we’ll talk about today is her marriage equality activism and her tireless work for adoption and reproductive law for LGBTQ people and others. I’m your host, Brad Shreve, and my guest is Deb Guston. And don’t go anywhere because queer we are.

Deb Guston, I want to say thank you for the great work you’ve done for so many.

Deb Guston [00:01:00]:

It’s been my pleasure. Absolutely.

Brad Shreve [00:01:02]:

While there are many that say thank you, one thing I know for sure.

There are those who are grateful for the work you’ve done. I have no doubt, and that includes being an advocate for marriage equality and especially your tireless work in adoption and reproductive law for LGBTQ people and others. And I want to say I’ve been looking at adoption laws and regulations since we scheduled this conversation, and it’s a messy business.

Deb Guston [00:01:33]:

Yeah, it’s all over the place because every single state has its own process, its own laws. Absolutely.

Brad Shreve [00:01:39]:

I was surprised how little regulation there is, and I saw somewhere the number of queer people you’ve helped with adoption, but I misplaced it. Do you have a ballpark figure what that number is?

Deb Guston [00:01:48]:

Well, I’ve been practicing now about almost 34 years. I think we’ve probably assisted well over 1000 LGBT couples in building their families. It’s growing every day.

Brad Shreve [00:02:00]:

That is even higher than the number I saw. That’s a beautiful thing you’ve been doing.

Deb Guston [00:02:04]:

It’s been fun.

Brad Shreve [00:02:05]:

Deb, we’re going to definitely talk about the adoption work that you’ve done and marriage equality, and we’re going to dive deep into that. But I want to start with a dilemma that intrigues me. A few years back in Bergen County, New Jersey, where you live, in Hackensack, the county seat, the county and several communities struggled with raising the Pride flag. And the concerns expressed that were aired were if they allowed the Pride flag, then they would have to allow it for other political acts and organizations, including so far as being forced to raise banners for hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. Can you speak on that?

Deb Guston [00:02:47]:

Yeah, Brad. It’s been an argument that’s been made by several municipalities here in Bergen County and in across, New Jersey, as well. And I’m sure across the country. We’ve only really, to my knowledge, had one municipality that was faced with that dilemma. And it wasn’t a traditional hate group. It was a Christian group that wanted to raise a flag on a particular day and argued that since there was a Pride flag and a Pride event, they should be allowed to do it as well. We don’t really have a sense whether there’s any law here in New Jersey that would prohibit that would permit the denial of raising a flag. A lot of this just has to do with the local politics. And so what our Bergen County Advisory Group is planning on doing this year, as we have in the past, is we’ve had a countywide flag raising. This year will be our 6th consecutive year. We are getting bigger and bigger and we are also considering holding another Pride flag raising for members of communities whose own towns won’t do it. And the more people we can get involved in these Pride events, the more I think local governments will be responsive to having these events.

Brad Shreve [00:04:01]:

Now, you were quoted as saying there’s nothing political about this, that it’s about inclusion and it’s about being a welcoming county. And I agree. But I think you’d also agree it’s not that easy.

Deb Guston [00:04:14]:

Oh yeah. No, it’s not. I think there’s a difference between mere tolerance and inclusion. And many towns may think that they are tolerating all of their people, but they’re not necessarily moving towards inclusion. And that’s what we’re looking for.

Brad Shreve [00:04:31]:

And so you and I don’t see it as a political issue. As I’ve stated many, many times, I am not a political issue. I am a human being. The challenge is we have those that adamantly stand by it being political in nature, whether it’s disingenuous or not. I think there’s some that truly believe that. So what do you say about that? How do we overcome that? Get them to expand and understand that it’s inclusion and not just trying to impose our political beliefs on them? That’s much? More than that, sure.

Deb Guston [00:05:02]:

At least here in my home state, we have a very vibrant municipal government and county government representation. And again, like all things in a democracy, it takes people to want to move the needle. The more people who come to a Pride event, the more people who demand that a Pride event be held, the more people who start telling their representatives their own stories, whether they are LGBTQ or whether they have kids or parents. This is all personal. Remember that old phrase, the personal is political and the political is personal? It is. It’s all intertwined. And so citizens have to use their power to move their elected representatives. And if their elected representatives don’t move, they have to vote them out.

Brad Shreve [00:05:48]:

So tell me about little Deb. Did Deb always want to be an attorney?

Deb Guston [00:05:52]:

No, little Deb didn’t want to be an attorney. I come from a family of attorneys. My father’s an attorney, my grandfather was an attorney.

Brad Shreve [00:06:01]:

So you were doomed.

Deb Guston [00:06:02]:

Well, maybe so, but I started out in life. My undergraduate degree is in theater. I was a director. I got a master’s degree. I worked in the professional theater for a while and then two things kind of happened. One, the practical happened. I realized I had to start earning a living. But also, by the time I got out of graduate school, the AIDS crisis was really in full bloom, and I was losing friends, and I was seeing things that all of us remember the horrors. And I just decided that I had to do something a little more constructive with my life. And so I came back to New Jersey. I had been living in Massachusetts and came back to New Jersey and went to law school.

Brad Shreve [00:06:41]:

What were your first actions during the AIDS crisis?

Deb Guston [00:06:45]:

Oh, gosh, really? For me, it was really just trying to be supportive of friends. I never really got involved in any of the protest movements, and when I got into law school, I did some writing on AIDS policy, legal policy. But I have to say that I think I was more focused on individuals than on the big picture and tried to make an impact where I could on an individual level.

Brad Shreve [00:07:12]:

Well, I do want to say I don’t see that huge of a difference between being in theater and being an attorney, because when you’re speaking in court, you’re center stage.

Deb Guston [00:07:22]:

Yeah. There’s no doubt that my training helps in the area of communication. No doubt. And it helps to just as I was doing as a director, it helps me as a lawyer, focus on what are the important parts of an argument, what are the important parts of someone’s testimony. So, yeah, no doubt. I definitely agree with that. And a friend of mine who I went to college with who was also a theater major, ended up being a health policy wonk kind of. She always used to tell people, if you want a really organized person in your organization, find somebody who’s worked in the theater, because things don’t get done if nobody’s organized. So we kind of carried that forward into our careers.

Brad Shreve [00:08:02]:

Well, that’s a very good point. I’m curious when people in theater are on stage and there’s moments where they just know they are on point, do you ever get that feeling in court?

Deb Guston [00:08:14]:

Yes, I have. There have been a number of moments that I go back to, and as I’m preparing for the next thing, I try to remember how that moment was generated, what kind of questions were asked that moved someone to answer in a particular way that was helpful.

Brad Shreve [00:08:30]:

So I’m curious because there’s so many different areas that an attorney can focus. I mean, you could have done corporate law, but it clearly sounds like that was not your direction anyway. But there are so many rights issues that could be covered. Where did your passion for adoption rights and laws come from?

Deb Guston [00:08:45]:

Well, when I was in law school, I attended a conference called Lavender Law. It’s been around for a very long time, and it was a conference intended to gather law students from all over the country, as well as established lawyers to talk about LGBTQ law. And I met a lawyer from New Jersey who became my mentor and has since become my dear friend. And we were the only out lawyers in New Jersey working in the family law are for many, many years. And we started talking about adoption and family building and what we could do to try to move the needle forward in New Jersey. And New Jersey has never been a particularly hostile place for this. It’s just that when we started practicing, there really were no procedures in place, and nobody really knew. How does a lesbian couple, where one of them is given birth to a child, how does the other one become a legal parent? We had no process. And so we started to build that, and a lot of what we did later became the law, which was great.

Brad Shreve [00:09:47]:

Listener, I don’t want to fail to mention that Deb is a past president of the Academy of Adoption and Assisted Reproduction Attorneys. That’s a mouthful. I know. It’s for? Do you go by Quadruple A or AAAA? How does that?

Deb Guston [00:10:01]:

Yeah. We call ourselves Quad A.

Brad Shreve [00:10:03]:

Okay, thank you. Because that’s much easier to say. So you were past president, and you’re currently the adoption director. Tell us what this current state of adoption laws is.

Deb Guston [00:10:14]:

So there are really good things and there are really difficult things remaining in the United States for LGBTQ couples. First of all, the good news is that since marriage equality, some states that only allowed people to jointly adopt a child if they were married, well, that’s been cured, because now you can get married. And in fact, one of the cases that was a companion to the marriage equality case, Obergefell, was an adoption case out of the state of Michigan. So that’s good news. What’s difficult right now are some backlash issues, and backlash mainly to marriage equality, but also, just in general, to LGBT people parenting. And going back to your comment at the beginning of the program, Brad, is that we are a mess because we are 50 individual states with individual policy, individual law, and it can be perfect or near perfect in one state, and it can be really difficult in another. And I don’t know that that changes necessarily unless the culture changes in those states where it’s difficult because there’s no such thing, really, as national adoption policy. It’s really been under the guise of a sincerely held religious belief. And in fact, some of those organizations are not working with Jewish couples. They’re not working with Muslim couples. So they’re kind of carrying their religious preferences forward to a larger community that are being denied certain services. But we’re in a really strange period of time where we have a big conflict between civil society and trying to live in a multicultural world and trying also to protect religious expression and freedom and not let the two of those things be antithetical to each other. So there are two very fundamental parts of our American culture that are right now, button heads a lot.

Brad Shreve [00:12:20]:

Well, I find myself personally conflicted by that in trying to understand and, as you said, respect people’s beliefs. Now, my mother in law is devout Catholic, and she embraces me and we live with her, we help take care of her. And I remember the day that our picture was finally put on top of the piano. What a thrilling because we gave it to her long before it ever showed up on top of the piano. But that was an exciting day when I said, oh, look, it’s up there. But I also respect that some people, it’s been ingrained in them since the day they were born that homosexuality is wrong. It’s a choice, and it is a tough balance to say, oh, what you believe is it doesn’t matter. This is the way it’s going to be. As I said earlier, it’s not that easy.

Deb Guston [00:13:01]:

I agree with you. It’s a hard decision. I was brought up in a conservative Jewish tradition. Nothing in my religious tradition is antithetical to who I am and the choices I have made and who I fundamentally am as a human being. But by the same token, I know there are broader issues across the spectrum of my religious tradition that I both respect and wish we were different.

Brad Shreve [00:13:27]:

I recently had Jamie Brusselhoff on the show, and she said something I thought was great. She has a transgender daughter. And she said, embracing your child, you don’t have to change your beliefs, but you may have to change your church.

Deb Guston [00:13:43]:

Yeah, right. Well, you have to look for those beliefs that fit with how you react to people. I certainly have people in my life who are like your mother in law.

Brad Shreve [00:13:54]:

What’s the one accomplishment that satisfies you the most when you reflect on it?

Deb Guston [00:13:59]:

Well, I’ve been involved in a lot of legislative advocacy over the years. And I think the one thing that’s been most gratifying, at least in recent memory, is this colleague of mine that I mentioned, Bill Singer, and I wrote a statute that makes it easier for same sex couples where they were married when their child was born. Nobody else has a competing parental interest, can in a very quick manner, get a judgment of adoption to prove that they are both parents to the child. It’s made the process of proving you are a parent easier, faster, quicker, cheaper. And we’ve reached a lot of people who never wanted to do this because they thought it was complicated. They maybe thought they couldn’t afford it. But we’re finally starting to kind of drill down into our community here in New Jersey to make sure that people understand that you may think you’re a parent, but probably in many cases the law doesn’t see you as a parent. But there are things we can do really easily to make that change.

Brad Shreve [00:15:08]:

Do yourself a favor right now. It’s quick, easy, and you won’t miss 1 second of the show, whether you’re on the phone or on the computer. Look at the app where you’re hearing me now and find the button that says Follow or subscribe and click it now you’ll be notified when a new episode publishes and you won’t miss a single one.

Compare it today to where it was. Where do we start and where are we today and what still needs to be done? We touched on it. I want to go further.

Deb Guston [00:15:39]:

Okay, sure. Well, look, I think where we are is that I think that queer individuals and couples today have an overwhelmingly better chance of adopting a child than they ever did, even in some very difficult states. One of the biggest problems that we have right now is that adoption is very slow. There aren’t a lot of adoptable children out there other than those who are older, maybe profoundly disabled. So infant adoption across the United States is way down. And unfortunately, the way our system works, there can be a lot of competition for those children that are available for adoption. The good news is what’s changed also is that birth parents are much more involved in selecting an adoptive family than they ever were before. Years of decades ago, an adoption agency would say, you want to place your child for adoption? Very good. Sign on the dotted line and goodbye, we’ll figure out who we’re placing the child with, you’ll never know. But the openness in adoption now is terrific. It’s certainly in a child’s best interest to be able to know where they came from, possibly to have a relationship at some point with a birth family. And that kind of hacks changed the dynamics for a lot of queer couples in some very good ways. Social workers tell me that a lot of times gay male couples are preferred by women placing their children because in their mind, and practically so they will be the only mother this child ever has. The child will have two dads and a birth mom. There are women who have become pregnant as a result of sexual assault who may never want to see another man in their life, even though they’re heterosexual and may prefer to place with a lesbian couple. So there’s a lot of openness and I think, like with everything else, the younger the person, the more open minded they are. I think it’s true across the board. And I think a lot of young people looking to place a child for adoption are not being particularly worried about placing with a queer couple and may in fact prefer them. So there are social dynamics that are going on there too, which help in our community.

Brad Shreve [00:18:03]:

Well, you mentioned something that really surprised me, and that is the limited number of babies to adopt. Now, in the past, the argument for LGBTQ people to allow adoption before marriage equality even existed was there are so many babies. Here’s somebody that wants to love a child, let’s let them do it. And I believe that some states did do that as a result of that. But has it always been true that there’s a limited number of babies? Or is that something new? Because it used to be that we thought there were just tons of babies waiting to be adopted, like fields of them.

Deb Guston [00:18:36]:

Right. Well, look, there are two really strong forces at work here. One is the Affordable Care Act has made free or low cost contraceptives available to almost everybody. And so the number of unwanted or unplanned pregnancies out there have significantly plummeted. That’s one issue that’s at play. The other issue is that the states have done a much better job of following the law in respect to child welfare cases. So if a parent has been unable to parent because there’s been substance abuse or some other type of issue that has created an abuse or neglect situation, the states are doing a much better job at rehabilitating those parents or if not following the law, which is trying to find a relative with whom to place the child. That old thought that the foster care system was this dumping ground for all these kids who nobody wanted and the only people who wanted them were queer people. It really doesn’t function that way anymore. And that’s good for the children. That’s good for the children. Those are two of the big nationwide social issues that I think are driving this lower number of infants available for placement and also, obviously, pandemic. Basically, we had lower numbers of international adoptions before the pandemic due to political pressures. But the pandemic just destroyed international adoption because you couldn’t travel. And then looking forward, people ask me all the time, do you think that abortion bans are going to mean that there are more children available for adoption? And the numbers do not bear that out. The numbers show that most of the time when a woman wanted to terminate a pregnancy but could not, she parents that child may be a difficult life for her, but the numbers are significant. So I think we’re in a world now where children are being parented by their parents and there’s not a whole lot of unwanted pregnancies, as many as there may have been a decade or more ago.

Brad Shreve [00:20:45]:

What was a turning point in your life?

Deb Guston [00:20:47]:

Oh, wow, that’s an interesting question. This may sound weird, but I think it was the decision that I made to go to the college that I went to. I am a very proud alum of Mount Holyo College in South Adley, Massachusetts. And I honestly think that had I guess I can’t know for sure, but I honestly think if I hadn’t decided to go there, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. It was the most comfortable supportive, intellectually stimulating environment in which I’ve ever been, and that includes law school. I made friends there that I have to this day who are a vital part of my life. And it just was such a formative period in my life that being in the right place, it’s where I came out. It’s where I met my first partner. And I think it was just such a formative four years of my life, and it had a lot to do with the environment.

Brad Shreve [00:21:48]:

When Roe v. Wade was overturned, you acted quickly, and you wrote the bill to codify marriage equality into law in the state of New Jersey.

Deb Guston [00:21:57]:


Brad Shreve [00:21:58]:

I must say, well done. You did that before, almost a year before Biden signed into law nationally.

Deb Guston [00:22:03]:

Yeah. So what had happened in New Jersey was very unique. We had two cases in New Jersey. The first one led us to civil union because our Supreme Court unanimously said, you can’t treat gay couples differently than you can treat straight couples. But they left it up to the legislature to fashion a remedy. And so our legislature just wasn’t ready for marriage equality at that point, so they created our civil union law. And when the Windsor case was decided so that was the case that struck down a portion of the Defensive Marriage Act that prohibited the federal government from recognizing same sex marriages. Another case started in New Jersey that said, well, now it’s really clear that civil union isn’t equal, even though we knew it wasn’t from the beginning, but now it isn’t equal because if you’re in a civil union in New Jersey, you can’t access federal benefits. If you were married in New Jersey, you could. And so a trial court judge entered an injunction and directed the state of New Jersey to start granting marriage licenses to same sex couples. So at our lowest trial court level, judge said, you got to do it. The governor at the time, Chris Christie, appealed that he wanted the Supreme Court to take the case directly, bypassing our middle level appellate court shock, right, which is sometimes not all that uncommon in New Jersey for big constitutional issues. But he also wanted the Supreme Court to issue a stay to stop the trial judge’s order that on a date, certain marriage licenses had to start being granted. And the Supreme Court of New Jersey came back to Governor Christie and said, no, we’re not issuing a stay. There is, from our reading of this case, you stand no chance of winning on appeal. We believe that the trial court judge decided this correctly, that denying marriage licenses to same sex couples in New Jersey violated New Jersey’s constitution. And so for years, New Jersey was recognizing marriage equality based on a simple trial court judge’s order, and that meant it could be overturned in the future. So we realized that we needed to do something to create a statute that would be much harder to overturn than finding some sympathetic judge in some county in New Jersey. So we did that, and I’m really proud of that. We did it really without a whole lot of pushback in our capitol. There were Republican legislators who either voted against it or just simply did not vote, but it was not a problem. It moved through relatively quickly. And God bless our governor, governor Murphy. He has been a tremendous advocate for queer people in New Jersey, and he signed it very, very quickly.

Brad Shreve [00:25:16]:

Well, the Respect for Marriage Act that codified marriage equality was signed in December 2022, and we’re all very grateful. It certainly has protected us in some manners, but it’s far from perfect and a lot of people are scared shitless right now. We have what’s going on in Florida, which is all over the news, but Florida is just in the news. There’s a lot more going on, much quieter and just equally dangerous, maybe more so in other states. So a lot of people are really beyond frustrated, let’s just say. What is giving you hope right now?

Deb Guston [00:25:51]:

Well, I think young people give me hope, because I do think that the thing that’s scaring the old people is that so many young people are presenting themselves to the world as being non binary, as being gender nonconforming, as being LGD, as being queer, as being anything they want to call themselves in recognition of who they are. I think that that’s what’s scaring people is that our people in their teens and their twenty s and maybe even into their 30s are probably the most progressive group of people that America has ever seen. And I think people, older, conservative people are scared of that. So that’s what gives me hope. I look at young people that I know who have come out in their teenage years and I think, wow, I can’t even imagine that. I have friends who have trans kids who identified as trans when they were barely four or five years old and are living really extraordinary or authentic lives because they were able to do so so young and they had supportive parents. Still, there’s problems out there, and there are a lot of people who really should be scared because they’re living in dangerous places. But there is reason for hope, I think. And I just marvel at a lot of young people that I know who are really very easily living their authentic lives, and I just really salute them.

Brad Shreve [00:27:15]:

Yeah, as I’ve said many times in the show, the backlash we’re seeing is because we’ve been doing so well.

Deb Guston [00:27:19]:


Brad Shreve [00:27:20]:

What we’re seeing called grooming, and just saying that word leaves a really bad taste in my mouth, we know is really kids just finally being able to say, hey, this is who I am, and we’ve always been here.

Deb Guston [00:27:33]:

Yeah. Again, it’s irrational fear, or it’s trying to take political advantage of that irrational fear. And look, we’re probably of the same generation. So when we were young people, there were groups of gay men who were advocating for being able to have sexual relationships with children, with boys.

Brad Shreve [00:27:55]:

Yeah, I remember.

Deb Guston [00:27:56]:

And they became the boogeyman. Right. I mean, they were the face of the gay community and therefore that everybody.

Brad Shreve [00:28:02]:

Was bad all over the talk shows, everything else. Yeah, because that was the norm.

Deb Guston [00:28:08]:

That’s who these people are. Right. So I think you’re absolutely right. I think the more people who are out there living their authentic lives, it makes people look over their shoulder and say, why is this happening? There’s got to be some reason for this that all of a sudden we went from 20 or 2030 years ago hiding to maybe 15 or 20 years ago going, hi, this is me, to now this explosion of people who are, if not queer, totally embracing queer people. And I think it drives people crazy when life Beyonce is on stage saying, hacks, thank you to the queer people for inventing disco. So I think you’re absolutely right, it’s fear. But I do think there are tons of politicians and others trying to take advantage of that fear because you can fear, you can talk to people, they can learn. But if somebody’s going to exacerbate these problems for their own personal gain, that’s really hard to defeat sometimes.

Brad Shreve [00:29:10]:

And the challenge with you said it was irrational fear. Unfortunately, to many folks, it’s not irrational based on everything that they’re being told.

Deb Guston [00:29:18]:


Brad Shreve [00:29:18]:

It’s perfectly rational.

Deb Guston [00:29:20]:

Yeah. I mean, there are probably still people in America who at least don’t think they’ve ever met a queer person. They probably have, but they just don’t think they have.

Brad Shreve [00:29:28]:

Odds are good.

Deb Guston [00:29:30]:

Yeah, I guess. I’d like to tell people my parents a long time ago took a cruise. It must have been 30 years ago, maybe a little more. And they came back and they said they’d met this wonderful couple from Indiana. And they kept in touch with them over the years. But when they met them on the cruise, the couple from Indiana said, we’d never met Jews before, and we were always told when we were kids that Jews had horns. And we’re so glad to meet you because, wow, we just learned something new. There are still people in America who are life that who certainly don’t think they’ve ever met a queer person. That’s too bad.

Brad Shreve [00:30:13]:

So despite how it seems, we have come a long way.

Deb Guston [00:30:16]:

We have. At least I think so.

Brad Shreve [00:30:19]:

Well, before I let you go, I have a question and then I’m going to let you take a moment to think about it.

Deb Guston [00:30:23]:


Brad Shreve [00:30:24]:

If the world was set to music, as I think it should be, what song would play whenever you entered the room?

Deb Guston [00:30:35]:

That’s a really good question. I kind of have a couple of voices in my head that have never left me since I was a younger person. So. Let me try to think. If I can think of one of those songs. Well, I’ll tell you, I grew up listening to an awful lot of Peter, Paul and Mary and Mary Traverse, god rest her soul. Her voice is still in my head. So I would have to say any Peter, Paul and Mary song where Mary was singing in the lead, because I don’t know. Like I said, it’s just a voice that never leaves my head.

Brad Shreve [00:31:07]:

I think that’s a good choice.

Deb Guston [00:31:09]:


Brad Shreve [00:31:10]:

Well, deb guston. Thank you so much for everything you do.

Deb Guston [00:31:15]:

Thank you, Brad.

Brad Shreve [00:31:16]:

I know it’s exhausting. Just researching your background was absolutely exhausting. So I’m tired for you. Also, in the midst of all that, I appreciate you giving me your time.

Deb Guston [00:31:26]:

I appreciate it. It’s been a delightful conversation. Thanks, Fred.

Brad Shreve [00:31:33]:

Do you enjoy this show? If so, tell a friend, because the number one way podcasts grow is word of mouth. So pass it on so others can enjoy Queer we are.

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