By Prathap Nair
STUTTGART, Germany, June 5 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When German IT professional Sarah Kinzebach had her first child, it took six months of lengthy checks for her female partner to be legally recognised as a co-parent. Had her partner been a man, it would have happened automatically.
Germany recognised same-sex relationships in 2001, granting couples greater rights on inheritance, tax and other benefits, and legalised same-sex marriage in 2017 despite stiff opposition from conservative politicians and the Catholic church.
That made it possible for gay people to adopt in Germany, where only married couples are eligible. But same-sex couples who want to have a family still face barriers, both legal and cultural, in a country where conservative social values prevail.
"We had to go through a longwinded six-month stepchild adoption process for Vanessa to also be recognised as the mother," said Kinzebach, 36, recalling visits to the child services department and financial and mental health checks.
The biological father - a friend of the couple - had to sign a legal undertaking giving up his rights to the child, now 6.
"This was a cause for such grief for my friend," Kinzebach told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
As things stand, a married man can be automatically recognised as the father of a child even if he is not the biological parent under the concept of "fiktiver Vaterschaft", or notional paternity.
The law has not yet caught up with the new reality of two women being married to each other.
But a referendum to change the civil code expected to be presented to the Bundestag, German's parliament, later this year would change this, allowing married lesbian couples to be automatically recognised as co-parents.
Green Party parliamentarian Ulle Schauws, sponsor of the change in civil code, said the existing law was "not in the child's best interest" and was out of step with the principle of equal treatment enshrined in the German constitution.
"Unlike the case of heterosexual marriage, where the parental rights are automatically granted, a couple who has a child in a lesbian relationship has to undergo a lengthy procedure of stepchild adoption," she said in an email.
The problems faced by Kinzebach and her partner are illustrative of the broader difficulties for same-sex parents in Germany, where surrogacy is banned and domestic adoptions are relatively rare.
Some have said they feel the system still discriminates against them because official attitudes have not changed in line with the law granting equal marriage rights.
The issue of adoption by same-sex couples loomed large in the debate over whether to allow same-sex marriage in Germany, and it remains controversial.
Chancellor Angela Merkel, who voted against the bill but allowed her lawmakers to follow their own conscience, said at the time that she had become convinced same-sex couples should be allowed to adopt.
But education minister Anja Karliczek said last year there was a need for further study of the long-term impact on children growing up in same-sex homes.
Many lesbian couples have reported difficulties like those Kinzebach described.
"Our social worker seemed so worried that there was no father in the picture," said Cheron Singleton, 32, who used donor sperm to have a baby with her female partner.
"We did get the feeling that she thought it wasn't a good idea to bring a child into the world without a father."
The issue is not unique to Germany - many countries that have equal marriage laws ban the use of paid surrogates, meaning gay men who want to have a family are often reliant on adoption.
More and more are extending adoption rights to same-sex couples, the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) said in its latest annual report.
Same-sex adoption is permitted across the United States, although laws in some states make it more difficult, and both France and Britain also allow adoption by same-sex couples.
In Germany, one alternative is long-term fostering, which can eventually lead to adoption - as in the case of Michael and Kai Korok, who were among the first same-sex couples to marry in 2017 and adopted their 2-year-old foster son shortly after.
Last autumn, Francois Dupont and his husband Frank along with their two foster children found themselves in the national media spotlight in Germany.
On the first anniversary of the passing of the marriage equality law, they were cast as the ideal gay nuclear family.
But Dupont said conservative attitudes persisted among officials.
"If you've an uncommon character quirk, if you have coloured hair or tattoos or piercings, it doesn't inspire confidence with the child service officials," he said.
Looking to the future, Dupont said the media focus on his family had helped raise the visibility of fostering through the country's Jugendamt – or child services - among same-sex couples.
"There is a lot of stigma because these children come from families with issues," he said. "But I think gay couples should make an attempt. These children need loving homes."
(Reporting by Prathap Nair; Editing by Hugo Greenhalgh and Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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