Adoptees Disrupting Adoption Narratives is a series of as-told-to pieces written and curated by Prism’s editor-at-large, Tina Vasquez, featuring five adoptees—Tiffany HyeonBrooks, Mezekerta Tesfay, Nicole Eigbrett, Rachael Murphey, and Rev. T Sheri Dickerson—and one personal narrative essay by Kimberly Rooney 高小荣. They share in their own words what being an adoptee means to them and how current narratives around adoption are inextricably linked to family separations, settler colonialism, and white supremacy. They also delve into how adoptee-led discussions are necessary for the sexual and reproductive health, rights, and justice movements. You can find the series in its entirety here.
T. Sheri Amore Dickerson is a powerhouse in their Oklahoma community. Dickerson, who identifies as a “Black, queer, gender-fluid, fat, associate pastor,” is the founder of Black Lives Matter (BLM) Oklahoma and the executive director of the BLM Oklahoma City chapter. They are also a reproductive justice advocate who co-founded the Oklahoma City chapter of the National Organization of Women (NOW ) and Women’s March Oklahoma, while also having served on the national board of the Women’s March. Dickerson also provides community care as a certified holistic doula, midwife, and organizer.
“All these roads lead to reproductive justice,” Dickerson explained during an October interview. “It’s only been the last 10 years or so where I very intentionally called what I was doing ‘reproductive justice work.’ But the more I have been in RJ spaces, the more I have realized I’ve been doing RJ work most of my life, and so have my mentors and elders.”
Dickerson’s activism and advocacy come from a deeply personal place. Before they were adopted at the age of 8, Dickerson lived and learned to survive within the foster care system. This experience gave early insight into how systemic injustices impact marginalized communities. Personal tragedies compounded these understandings. Dickerson’s adoptive father passed away shortly after their adoption was finalized, and when they were 23, their biological father was murdered. Dickerson gave a victim impact statement during court proceedings that influenced some jurors to choose the death penalty for their father’s murderer. Not long after, Dickerson said they came to the conclusion that they were made to be complicit in an unjust system. Earlier this year, Dickerson shared this story as part of an effort to abolish the death penalty in Oklahoma.
Dickerson’s activism has also come with a steep price. They have been arrested, their childhood home was shot at and set on fire, and while Prism was interviewing Dickerson this fall, agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation appeared at their home to discuss their organizing work. The attempted “interrogation,” as Dickerson called it, did not deter them from later moving forward with the interview. This is how strongly they felt about discussing adoption as a reproductive justice issue.
Dickerson was one of the adoptees who attended Tiffany HyeonBrooks’ session about adoption at SisterSong’s reproductive justice conference, an experience they call “transformational.” Dickerson is nearly 50 years old, and as a longtime activist and organizer in movements for sexual and reproductive health, rights, and justice, they said HyeonBrooks’ session was the first time they’d ever been in a space created by an adoptee with the goal of centering adoptees’ lived experiences—and they want to see more of this in the future. Dickerson is currently in conversation with HyeonBrooks and other adoptees in this series about how best to use their voices and stories to invite more adoptees into the reproductive justice movement.
In October, Dickerson spoke to Prism about how critical it is to connect with other adoptees, the realities of adoption trauma, and becoming one of the “cool kids” in the RJ movement. Here they are, in their own words:
Over the course of my life, I can’t say that I’ve known many other adoptees, so in some ways, this has sometimes been a lonely journey. But being in movement work has connected me with others who are also on a journey of discovery, and it’s helped me become more aware of my own extensive pockets of trauma. It wasn’t until pretty recently that I felt it was time to act on the strong urge to connect with other adoptees and to really verbalize my experience with them.
I live very openly. In movement work, transparency is appreciated; it’s also a security strategy. Personally, I don’t see it as an uncomfortable vulnerability. I’m a third-generation preacher’s kid, so my life has been presented in various pulpits. Whatever I did—regardless of it being perceived positive or negative—often showed up in a sermon. I know there is power in sharing your story, and it nurtures the part of me that is an activist and an advocate. But the trauma of going through foster care and adoption is something else, and connecting with other adoptees who understand that experience is lifesaving in a very personal way.
I know many of our movements are intersectional, but there is a direct connection to reproductive justice in every other kind of justice-centered work. In the last three or four years, I have realized how much of my lived experience as an adoptee colors my reproductive justice lens, but it wasn’t until the session with HyeonBrooks at the Sister Song conference that I felt seen as an adoptee in the RJ space. It really blew my mind.
I have a platform that has been established over time. It is a privilege but also a necessity to navigate the work I do nationally, internationally, and in Oklahoma. Amplifying voices and issues is part of what I believe keeps me safe. Being open about what has happened to me and what is happening to my community is obligatory. I am comfortable taking up this kind of space, yet I acknowledge how it often triggers deep-rooted abandonment issues. Rejection translates differently for me, and I guess a part of me always felt like my experience as an adoptee wasn’t worthy of conversation. HyeonBrooks helped me see how valuable it can be for adoptees to share our experiences.
I have spent a lot of time thinking about how we can recreate this really courageous space HyeonBrooks carved out. Adoptees are rarely centered in RJ spaces, and it’s important for people to understand all of the nuances and complications of the foster care and adoption systems and to get that information from the people who have lived it. I have always wanted the opportunity for that. It was a very sacred space for me. It felt very much like a sanctuary, and I felt a kind of grief when it was over. Having this forum has been a long time coming. Even unintentional exclusion of adoptees/adoption communities is remiss and harmful.
I don’t always feel connected in the way some people in movement spaces talk about it, especially when they talk about their “guides” in the universe. I always think, “Which side? Where are my guides? Are they from the biological side? The adoptive side? Who is guiding me?” For the first time, sitting with other adoptees and talking about our experiences and the system of adoption, I felt like maybe I met some of my guides. It was such a deep feeling of community I didn’t want to leave. Being Black, Indigenous, and queer from Oklahoma, these are identities I bring with me to all movement spaces. But I rarely get the chance to talk about my experience as an adoptee and never have had the opportunity to do so with other adoptees.
We understand each other on a different level, but none of our experiences are the same. I wasn’t adopted as an infant like some of the other adoptees in this [series]. My case literally set a legal precedent in Oklahoma. As a child forced into the foster care system, there were days during the legal process when my foster guardians and members of my birth family and adoptive family were all present in the courtroom. This was so confusing, mentally and emotionally. Having a system of people make decisions that affect the rest of my life—while not once being asked how I felt, what I wanted, or if I understood what was happening—was devastating. When the decision was made and the legal portion finalized, the court order included a total severance of any relationship or contact with my birth family. Overnight, I went from being the youngest of many siblings to an only child. My mind isn’t a computer where I can just erase all of the content. I remembered my birth family, I missed them, and I was very abruptly cut off from them. This is partly what frames my abandonment issues. However, it also frames my lens about familial connection and how I define family.
This is part of my foundation and the core of me. It’s why I’m an activist, advocate, and organizer. I was victimized because of the power that the judicial system has. I experienced how the legal system made decisions about my family formation and dictated how I navigated this foundational part of my life. No one involved in this seven-year process had the wisdom or [gumption] to talk to me. I don’t remember anyone talking to me about what I thought or felt about what was happening. Yes, I was very young, and I don’t know if I would have even had the words to describe how I felt, but I still believe that the most impacted persons should have a voice.
I wish I could have said I wanted to see my birth siblings. I wish I could have asked, “Who do I look like?” When I see someone in Oklahoma or abroad who kind of looks like me, I wonder if it’s possible we are related. The aspect that still feels the most harmful is that I felt like I could not seek information. I was always aware of how delicate the situation was, no matter if I was 8 years old or 13 years old. I felt invisible. I was the scandal. I thought I was tainted and unworthy. Even now, searching for answers to what makes me who I am is like walking through a minefield.
Sometimes when I feel myself go quiet about something that is happening, it’s because I’m back in that headspace where I feel voiceless. I push through it. I have to force myself to be loud because I know how necessary it is to break out of that confinement. When I was a child, they took from me the knowledge that my voice mattered. I’m still working through the trauma of being silenced and unseen. It’s very difficult, painstaking internal work. It’s never easy, and it’s never over. I know it will be a lifelong battle to always remember that my voice matters.
This is why it’s so hard for me to understand why so many of the [media] narratives around adoption do not center adoptees. When you’re talking about someone’s story, they know their story best—not their adoptive parents, not their case worker or adoption agency. How do you establish a basis of trust when you erase a person from their own story? How do you get accuracy without including the person most affected? When adoptees are not part of the conversations on subjects related to their lives—whether it was intentional or not—the impact is irreversible harm. It’s not only residual harm; it’s cyclical. I know people use the word “triggering,” but being erased is not the trigger that does it for me. It’s the fact that I can’t escape it. It’s the fact that adoptees cannot ever seem to get out of the sphere of erasure. Personally, it continues to reiterate in my mind that I don’t deserve to tell my own story. I’m so insignificant I cannot even be in control of my own narrative.
A lot of adoptees—myself included—are told by their adoptive families and by strangers, “You should be grateful.” We should be grateful we were adopted and that anyone even cared about us at all. I’ve never heard about this being said to someone who was raised by their birth parents. They only say this to us.
People do not realize that adoption is not a monolith. Some people have nothing to be “grateful” for when it comes to their adoption because they were abused by their adoptive family. There are endless variants of the why, how, and what of someone’s adoption. Even if we share similar feelings or experiences in the adoption system, each of our journeys is different. I’ve heard some adoptees say they wish they weren’t adopted. For others, it’s not really an issue. A friend of mine was given to her adoptive parents within 48 hours of being born because that was the agreement in place with her birth mother. She doesn’t know anything else but the family that adopted her. That’s very different from the experiences of people who went through foster care, parental rights termination, or kinship adoption. I just wish people would honor that and believe us when we say that we are not a monolith, but our experiences and feelings as adoptees—whatever they are—are valid.
There is still so much stigma and misunderstanding around adoption—and that extends to adoptive parents too. Adoptive parents are almost always the focus, but it’s interesting to see how stigma does or does not unfold for them. I’ve had people tell me that when they revealed they were considering adoption, they felt very judged and shamed by their families because adoption was seen as a lesser or somehow derogatory choice. Other people adopt a child, and they are given undeserved sainthood. Adoptive parents can suck as bad as birth parents, but for some reason, they are given extra credit just for existing. I’ve always thought it was strange that there isn’t the same level of expectations in parenting for adoptive parents. It’s enough that they have adopted a child.
As far as [my] parents are concerned, everyone else in my life is basically gone. The only surviving parental figure I have is my godfather, who raised me after my adoptive father died. He is my daddy, as far as I’m concerned. He has always been there for me. He was the only parent who never made a distinction between his biological children and me. Clavis Gilbert is my anchoring source and constant defining example of family. His biological children see me as their sister. We call each other “siblings,” but there are times when I still have to walk on eggshells because I’m an adoptee. There was an instance a year or two ago when I referred to my godfather’s son—who I consider my younger brother—by his childhood nickname on Facebook. I was poking fun. My sister got very mad about it and called him up and said, “Only I get to call you that. I’m your real sister.” That crushed me. It was a reminder that there’s always this element of, “You are family, but there are parameters to your family status.”
This is the first time I’ve discussed these kinds of dynamics publicly, and I can feel myself being triggered. I think it’s important to say that, and it’s also important to talk about these dynamics and adoption trauma. You don’t always know that trauma is there until it shows up. You don’t know what kind of questions or conversations will bring it to the surface.
Just like everyone else, adoptees’ trauma takes shape in different ways. If you ask a group of adoptees what adoption trauma is like, you’ll get a different response from each person. For some people, there isn’t that deep sense of loss. There is just anger. Like, “Why would I want to connect with my biological family if they didn’t want me?” Or some people just don’t have the need to revisit the past, or they don’t want to complicate their life by trying to connect with their biological family. For some people, that connection is all they’ve ever wanted, and they will always carry that sense of loss unless they can make that connection.
I have thought about how amazing it would be to have a reproductive justice conference for adoptees, but because of the trauma we hold, I know there would need to be healers in place who could hold space for us. There would need to be therapists, ministers, and others that people rely on for support. Still, I think it would be life-changing. I think it would save lives. Figuring out your truth as an adoptee, it’s a journey that can be extremely lonely. When you add to that intersections and generations of trauma? Like I said, I’m queer, I’m Black, I’m indigenous, I’m fat—and I navigate all of that from the lens of an adoptee. The story and histories of my adoptive family, I carry the burden of the trauma they have passed down. I carry things from my foster families with me—all 15 of them. Now there is evidence that trauma can be passed down through DNA, that there may be genetic markers for trauma. Do I carry trauma from my birth parents and ancestors? How can I address it if I don’t know what it is? It’s like having math anxiety. I don’t like solving for X. If you give me the number, I can give you the correct answer, but if you don’t, I feel like I’m feeling around in the dark. Solving for X is my whole life journey.
For adoptees and people who have gone through foster care, it feels unfair to have to carry all of this, try and make sense of it, and then process it. But you have no choice because it does form who you are. Some days I think if someone were to ask me, “Who are you?” I would have no idea how to respond. I’m on a new, humbling journey connecting with other adoptees. Processing and peeling away layers is difficult, but it’s helpful to be a part of a new community that is helping me form questions I didn’t know I needed the answers to.
As an older adoptee who has done revolutionary work for many years, I have a lot to share with younger activists. Something I really want them to know is that if they have the ability to go outside of the boundaries of the U.S., they should really try to do so. If they can’t, they should be intentional about making connections and learning about how racial equity, gender equality, LGBTQIA+ freedoms, environmental justice, and reproductive justice work are being done in other countries. There are a lot of atrocities coming at us here, and we don’t have all of the tools we need to fight back. Doing work in Colombia, Cuba, Venezuela, and East Africa has changed how I see everything—including adoption. If we want the knowledge and the tools to fight injustice, we have to forge international movements and build solidarity with people outside of the U.S.
It’s not hard for me to feel like I have value and knowledge to share with younger activists. It’s different when I think of the broader movement and people who are closer to my age, who have also been doing this work for decades. There was a moment at the SisterSong conference when I found myself in a room with Loretta Ross [MacArthur Genius, feminist academic, and co-creator of the reproductive justice framework], Dázon [Dixon Diallo, a founding member of SisterSong and the founder and president of SisterLove, the first women’s HIV, sexual and reproductive justice organization in the southeastern U.S.], leaders from the Afiya Center, [poet, activist, and author] Sonya Renee Taylor, and activist Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson [the first Black woman co-executive director of the Highlander Research and Education Center]. I’d never felt such joy or peace because these fierce Black women and femmes are my heroines, people I’ve always admired and whom I never thought I’d have the privilege of meeting.
I was just sitting there and listening when I got emotional. Diallo asked me what was going on, and I said I just felt so honored to be with such incredible women. I said something about getting to sit at the table with “the cool kids.” Some of them scoffed, and I thought, “Oh, shit. I said something offensive.” I was getting ready to explain myself when Lorretta told me to hush. She said, “Our response isn’t condemnation or even offense. My concern is that you don’t seem to understand that we know who you are. I certainly remember you, Miss Oklahoma rabble-rouser.” She pulled me closer and told me to rest my head on her. She was really mommying me, and she told me, “You are what you think you see in us.” It was a beautiful loving moment that I will never forget.
I don’t know if I can ever fully embrace her message. As an adoptee, you just never really feel like you belong, fit in, or deserve to take up space. Within a span of 24 hours, I had that experience and the life-changing experience of sharing my story with other adoptees in HyeonBrooks’s session. My life’s lens gained such clarity in these two moments. They were two of the most affirming experiences I’ve ever had—and if Mama Loretta Ross tells me I have a special part to play in the reproductive justice movement, I want to live up to that by helping to create these kinds of affirming spaces for other adoptees. Collective power and community building, it’s time. Ase.