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The Semi-Free State

When It Comes To Gay And Lesbian Families, Virginia’s Loss Is Maryland’s Gain

The author (left) with her daughter Zoe and Partner Gina
Baltimore Attorney Lina Ayers, who handled Gina's second-parent adoption--legal for same-sex couples in Maryland but not in Virginia
Story time at the author's home
Kathy Irrer (second from left) and Rachel Demunda (third from left) moved to Towson from Virginia with their children, Zachary and Madeline
Gina helps Zoe untangle Christmas ornaments.
Photographs by Michelle Gienow

By Laura Laing | Posted 12/21/2005

It was Oct. 28—adoption day—and Courtroom 2 of the Baltimore City Circuit Court was packed. Well-dressed parents and children squeezed into the hard wooden benches like churchgoers on Christmas Eve. Babies cried and young children squirmed on their parents’ laps. Adolescents dressed in big puffy jackets sat quietly, glancing seriously about the room.

Our attorney sat in the jury box—the only available spot—while we settled into the front row, our usual choice in church as well. The whole group had been waiting outside the room for 30 minutes or so, sizing each other up. There were three factions: grandparents or other relatives adopting older children, parents adopting from overseas, and us—two-mom and two-dad families.

At 5 years old, our daughter Zoe was clearly the oldest of the kids among the latter contingent. Another two-mom family pushed their tyke along in a stroller. A very handsome male couple held their young son in their arms, one set of grandparents in tow, beaming and snapping pictures.

One by one, the families were called to a large oak table in front of Judge Althea M. Handy’s desk. I took a sideways glance at my partner Gina. She was nervous as a cat. The gay couple with movie-star looks and happy grandparents strolled to the front. When there was some confusion about which dad was the birth father, I noticed tears rolling down Gina’s cheeks, her eyes widening in fear. Reading her mind, I squeezed her hand, assuring her that everything was OK. Just like everyone else, the fathers were announced to be fit parents, and smiles abounded. But a little posttraumatic stress is hard to shake.

The last time Gina and I had been in a courtroom was in Norfolk, Va., in June 2001. I had given birth to Zoe a year earlier, and we were there to secure what few rights we could for Gina—the non-birth mother. I was nervous then, too—scanning the courtroom for someone who would object, even though we knew our relationship would not be disclosed in full. Gina was described in the petition as my “friend,” but it was clear to us that the judge understood our situation midway through the proceedings. We left there with the best we could acquire under Virginia law: joint custody and a piece of paper that basically allowed Gina to make medical decisions for Zoe, sign her up for soccer, and get her a library card.

This crisp October day in Baltimore was different, but the fear and humiliation Gina felt in Virginia was still palpable. She waited for the other shoe to drop, for our petition to be the only one denied, for all of the gay and lesbian parents in the courtroom to be sent home packing.

Of course, that didn’t happen. Just as our attorney, Lina Ayers, and the judge had said, this was a formality. On that day, in that room, we were just like any other parents—a real first for us, as far as the law was concerned. Gina was declared Zoe’s legal mother, and just as in 1994, when we stood in front of our family and friends to say our vows, our lives changed. One small step toward recognition is a powerful thing.

If the journey to gay equality is like a road trip from Baltimore to New York, Virginians haven’t even reached the Harford County line. Maryland, on the other hand, is on the New Jersey Turnpike—stuck in a traffic jam that is not moving very quickly. The farther we get, the more roadblocks our opponents throw up.

 

On July 1, 2005, we moved to Baltimore from Norfolk to escape the oppression we felt in our home state. And we’re not alone. There are no formal records, but anecdotal evidence shows that gays and lesbians—singles, couples, parents, grandparents—are fleeing the Old Dominion in favor of greater rights elsewhere. Because of its proximity to the state, Maryland is a logical choice for many.

“It’s really happening in Northern Virginia,” says Dyana Mason, executive director of Equality Virginia, a gay-rights organization. “For people there, it’s relatively easy to move just over the border and continue to work in Virginia. They get so many more rights by moving only 20 minutes away.”

There are many reasons for gay couples to leave Virginia, not the least of which is House Bill 751, the so-called Marriage Affirmation Act, which in 2004 declared it illegal in Virginia for same-sex couples to enter into marriage or any other contract that purports the rights and responsibilities of marriage. Suddenly, custody agreements, powers of attorney, and even joint bank accounts were called into question. Gay couples scrambled to get their footing, but the damage was done.

But gay and lesbian parents were already on shaky ground in Virginia. Sharon Bottoms is an example of what can happen to gay parents in Virginia. Immortalized in a 1996 Lifetime movie starring Valerie Bertinelli (Two Mothers for Zachary), Bottoms is the lesbian mom who lost custody of her biological son to her mother in 1993, despite the fact that the boy’s father wanted Bottoms to have custody and Bottoms’ testimony that her mother’s second husband was abusive.

“The Sharon Bottoms case was a seminal case in a lot of ways,” says Joe Price, a trial lawyer with the Washington firm Arent Fox and general counsel for Equality Virginia. It is “completely unheard of” to disregard the wishes of the biological father in favor of a grandparent, Price says; he adds that he remembers a Virginia child custody case in which a father was given custody of his child after the boy watched him kill his mother. Pretty much the only way children are taken away from their parents in Virginia is in the case of severe physical abuse. Unless you’re queer parents.

Virginia Chief Justice Harry L. Carrico’s court made the ruling in 1995 that decided Sharon Bottoms was an unfit mother and that a potentially abusive home was preferable to one with two moms. This is the very same Justice Harry L. Carrico who wrote the opinion for Loving v. Virginia, which upheld Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws in 1967. Yup, the same guy who was hellbent against interracial marriages also thought that simply being a lesbian made a mom unfit.

“The Sharon Bottoms case really set the tone in Virginia,” Price says. I’ll say. It scared the bejeezus out of me and Gina. We got the message loud and clear.

We figured we’d be safer in Maryland. Gina could adopt Zoe. We’d be less concerned about Zoe’s school. Hell, we might even be able to marry in a few years.

 

Arriving in Baltimore was somewhat like entering the Garden of Eden. We didn’t stray too far from what we knew, choosing crunchy-granola Mount Washington. But everything is more liberal here and, unlike in Norfolk, we are not at all an anomaly. The couple next door proudly fly a rainbow flag on the front porch of their home. Aaron, the adorable single guy on the corner, told us during our first meeting that his mother recently had a civil union with her partner in Vermont.

And at a late-summer outdoor party on our block, Gina met Ame, whose daughter Sophie is 5 years old, just like Zoe. While painting a big box with glitter pens, Ame leaned over to Zoe and whispered, “We have something in common. I have two moms, too.” Zoe took it in stride. Gina’s eyes widened with surprise.

Suddenly, we’re not so alone any longer.

But the most surprising thing for us happens many times in a week, within moments of meeting people. We introduce ourselves and wait—for that slight pause, and then a small “Hmm.” It’s a little thing that happens with people who have never met same-sex parents before. But someone changed the dance steps here in Baltimore, and it’s not an easy thing to get used to. No pause, no indication of intolerance.

That’s not the shocking thing, though. In a Patty Hearst sort of way, we had grown used to this treatment—that pause and slight suggestion of disapproval—and become complicit.

Hey! Gina recalls thinking. Did you hear what we said? We’re lesbian parents. You know. We have a child. And we have sex!

Still no reaction. The conversation always moves on to equally mundane topics—growing hosta plants, the latest episode of Survivor, or what we pack in our kids’ lunch boxes. For the most part, people don’t skip a beat; they don’t need time to assimilate the information into their understanding of the world. We are already a part of their world.

Rachel DeMunda and Kathy Irrer, friends of ours who moved from Virginia to Towson this summer, have had similar experiences. Their neighbors have siblings who are gay. There were other gay parents in their son Zachary’s summer day-care program.

“It’s just not an issue for anyone,” Rachel says. “But you could travel four hours, and things are completely different.”

 

In essence, we moved from Virginia because we couldn’t join a pool. The adoption stuff was just gravy. Of course, we now understand how much we compromised. Sometimes it takes a dramatic change in location to comprehend how much you’re missing.

We moved to the Norfolk region right after graduating from James Madison University in 1990. Gina’s parents lived 10 minutes away. I was happy as long as I didn’t move from the Old Dominion, which generations of my family called home. Coming out inch by inch, we were both comfortably out of the closet by the time Zoe was born. Looking back we had a pretty easy time of it. There was nothing spectacular to make us flee our home, nothing as horrible as what many gays and lesbians face.

That said, in 1998 we were denied a family membership to the Norfolk YMCA. Actually, we were humiliated—the membership director shouted at Gina in the main lobby, “You are not a family!” We were free, of course, to pay for two individual memberships—nearly double the cost of a family membership—for the privilege of swimming and exercising among the straight folks and single gay men. We declined that offer.

In September 2003, when Zoe was 3, we became embroiled in a battle to join a privately owned community pool in Norfolk. Stuffily called a “country club,” although there was no golf course, yacht club, or dining facilities, the Mallory Country Club rejected our membership application. Again, we were offered the “opportunity” to pay twice as much as everyone else. And again we declined.

But the thing that pushed me over the edge was some gossip I picked up from my friend Anne. She was collecting signatures to have the Mallory’s bylaws changed so that we could join as a family. Apparently, one Mallory member—who declined to sign the petition—was concerned about her children’s well-being should we join the pool. I imagined her lounging poolside, Diet Coke in one hand and gesturing grandly with the other: “It’s not that I don’t want them to be here. I just want to talk to my boys about homosexuality on my own terms—not have it shoved in their faces at the pool.” I guess she thought that simply because we are gay we were going to strip down in the deep end and . . . well, you get the drift.

The really sad thing is that we had been to her pool already. If we had decided to become individual members, we would be there all summer long.

But worse than that, regardless of our membership at the Mallory, Zoe would soon attend the same public elementary school as this concerned woman’s sons. If we were feared at a local pool, what might happen at a school where we would be the only out queer parents? That realization hit me like a brick. Within six months, we had made the decision to move.

Before the truck holding all of our worldly possessions pulled up to our big gray stucco house, we paid for a membership at Meadowbrook Aquatic Center in Mount Washington. I envisioned a typical lazy summer—taking Zoe to the pool each day, watching her learn to swim, meeting other moms and kids. And that’s pretty much what happened. I didn’t strip in the deep end one single time.

Ironically, the week after we moved, Elkridge-gate broke. The Sun reported that Gov. Robert Ehrlich hosted a fundraiser at the racially exclusive North Baltimore country club. Soon after, it was revealed that Baltimore County Executive Jim Smith had also held a fundraiser at the club, and that Mayor Martin O’Malley had attended his brother’s wedding reception there.

So, while it was perfectly OK for a couple of white lesbians to join most any pool around, Baltimore City was home to a country club that excluded blacks. This was an issue that should have died out decades ago. Of course the Elkridge Club rejected the implications of the accusation and quickly found a suitable African-American couple to join.

All’s well that ends well, I guess. (Well, not really.)

Being excluded is a horrible feeling—I don’t care how much people deny it. Queers who say they don’t need straight acceptance—or tolerance—are just fooling themselves. It’s the everyday stuff that gets us down: worrying what the parents of our daughter’s friends will think of a play date at our house, being stared at in a restaurant because our fingers touch over the table, being excluded from a “girls’ night out” because the other ladies don’t know which one of us to invite.

There’s a long-running joke among queers about the “gay agenda.” Sure we have a gay agenda. It goes like this: We wake up at 6, have coffee, get ready for work and school, walk the kids to the bus stop, drive to the office, put in eight hours, come home, fix dinner, supervise homework, clean the kitchen, do a load of laundry, put the kids to bed, and collapse on the couch before turning in ourselves.

It is exactly those little details that trip us up. I do have an agenda, and I will say it loud and clear. I want the same rights and responsibilities as everyone else. I want to go to a job and not worry what people will think when I come out. I want to know, not just suppose, that my daughter will not be teased on the school bus for having two moms. I want to hold Gina’s hand in public. I want to feel secure and protected.

These aren’t special rights I’m asking for. This is common decency. And queers are not alone in desperately seeking this security. African-Americans face many of the same issues in the workplace and schools. Those without insurance have concerns about medical treatment. Interracial couples must hide their love in some settings.

Even a great city like Baltimore hasn’t overcome these inequities.

One afternoon this fall, I took Zoe to the Roland Park library. After picking out some books from the children’s shelves, we trudged up the tiny staircase to the checkout desk, Zoe’s library card in hand.

There was a line. While we waited, I noticed a young black girl hoisting a huge book to the desk—the latest Harry Potter.

“I want to check this out,” she said.

“You have to have a library card,” the librarian snipped.

The girl asked how she could get one, and the librarian launched into a laundry list of documents she needed to provide to prove where she lives. The girl slipped away unnoticed while the librarian talked on.

Moments later, my gaydar went off like a school bell. I saw a white woman sitting with the young black girl. Bonus, I thought. She’s a mom, too. Both of them walked over to the desk with Harry Potter in tow, where the librarian scolded the girl for asking again if she could check out the book.

“I already told you. Why weren’t you listening?”

The mom said that she would help her get a card, and the librarian launched into her laundry list again.

“Can’t I just get one for her?” the mom asked.

“You have to be a parent.”

I cringed. Some part of me knew what was going to happen next. I wanted to reach out and say, “It’s OK. I’ve got your back.”

“I’m her guardian,” the mom said.

“Oh.” Pause. “Well, I guess you can do it,” the librarian said with a sneer. And I stupidly kept quiet.

This interchange didn’t seem to bother either of them, but it shook me to the bone. I am supposed to be safe in this tolerant city, but in some ways I felt like I was in Virginia again.

At the same time, I couldn’t help but remember when I got Zoe’s library card at that very same checkout desk. There were no questions asked. But that wasn’t the only difference. I can pass as straight, and Zoe and I are both white.

When Zoe asked what was going on—both of us were glued to the scene like it was a car accident—I told her that the girl was simply getting a library card. How could I explain to a 5-year-old what I feared was actually happening?

This incident was so short, so insignificant in the scheme of things, that to another person it probably would have gone unnoticed. But when you’re gay there’s a kind of nervous anticipation. We wait for the next time someone is unintentionally rude, outwardly cruel, or just plain ignorant.

 

We have known Lisa Polyak and Gita Deane for 10 years. They are a huge reason that we decided to become parents. I held their oldest, in my arms when she was only 6 weeks old. And I remember thinking, We could do this. They are also a huge reason that we moved to Baltimore. After nagging us for years to come live in their city, we finally decided to take the plunge.

Of course, Lisa and Gita are a huge reason that Gina and I—and other same-sex couples—may be able to marry in Maryland. In July 2004, they agreed to be the lead plaintiffs in a case against the state of Maryland, formally known as Deane and Polyak v. Conaway. (Frank Conaway is the Clerk of the Circuit Court in Baltimore City.)

I have heard advocates predict that gay marriage will be made legal because of
a sense of duty to children. To all but the staunchly anti-gay and completely ignorant, gay parents break the stereotype that queers are sexually obsessed partyers. Becoming parents has put us in
the mainstream.

According to the Urban Institute, which analyzed 2000 U.S. Census data, almost 600,000 same-sex couples are raising children nationwide, about 27 percent of same-sex couples the Census registered. In Maryland, Census numbers indicate that 11,243 same-sex couples are raising kids, more than 29 percent of the state’s gay and lesbian couples. Leaders at the Human Rights Campaign, a national GLBT advocacy organization, say the 2000 Census undercounted same-sex households by as much as 62 percent, and the Census same-sex parenting statistics don’t even account for the number of single gays and lesbians rearing children.

Long before 2000, gay parents were obtaining second-parent adoptions, a way for a nonbiological parent to adopt his or her partner’s child, in Baltimore. Lisa and Gita adopted their girls after their second daughter was born.

The first same-sex second-parent adoption in Maryland was completed in Baltimore City in 1996. Five years before that, I had heard about lesbian parents for the first time. Ten years after that, it was be my turn to stand before a judge.

“In Maryland, the standard for adoption is ‘best interest of the child.’” This was how Lina Ayers, our adoption attorney and a lesbian mom herself, explained how second-parent adoptions for gay couples began. Duh, I thought. Why would adoption be granted if it were not in the best interest of the child?

Of course, not everyone agrees that same-sex parents are good for or even benign to children. According to the Human Rights Campaign, court rulings in four states have disallowed second-parent adoption by same-sex couples; in as many as 23 states it is unclear whether or not these adoptions are permitted, since adoption laws have not been tested. Having come from Virginia, one of those 23 states, I can say with certainty that there is good reason the laws have gone untested. There is too much to lose.

According to the Human Rights Campaign, same-sex second-parent adoptions are not granted statewide in Maryland. Some counties in the state are iffy places to seek a second-parent adoption.

For nine years, such adoptions have been carried out in Baltimore City with little or no fanfare. No one did press interviews. Lawyers’ names were shared only in confidence. The idea of protecting our children was so new and tenuous that everyone was afraid to alert the opposition. Only the marriage case brought these adoptions out in the open.

Our attorney Lina says that Baltimore City and Cecil, Frederick, Howard, Anne Arundel, Montgomery, Prince George’s, and Baltimore counties have all granted second-parent adoptions to gay couples. However, almost all gay parents seeking this recognition still come to Baltimore City.

“You’re not allowed to judge-shop,” Lisa Polyak says. “That’s illegal.” But it’s clear that a bad ruling on a second-parent adoption could threaten all such adoptions in Maryland. As Lisa notes, “There was an understanding that most of the judges in Baltimore City were open to this, so there seemed to be no reason to take a risk elsewhere in the state.”

After several hundred second-parent adoptions in Maryland, parents are still afraid of adoption rights going away. Oppression is a bitch.

When our friends, Kathy and Rachel, found themselves in Courtroom 2 on Nov. 18, the entire docket was filled with same-sex couples. Not a single straight person was adopting that day.

“That shocked me,” Rachel says. “It was a very welcoming feeling.” Rachel wasn’t nervous because she was among other gay parents, and Kathy’s adoption of their two kids went off without a hitch.

But no matter how important these adoptions are to our children, the issue generally flies over their heads. After we explained that she would be going to court, Zoe asked us, “What’s an adoption?” The night before their adoption day, Rachel and Kathy’s 7-year-old, Zachary, told them he was very exited.

“Are you excited about adoption day?” Rachel asked him.

“No, Mommy,” he said. “I’m more excited about the book fair tomorrow at school.”

When I asked Zachary what he thought about adoption day, he said, “It wasn’t very exciting. I got a coloring book, though.” I’m not sure, but he could have been talking about the book fair.

I shouldn’t admit this, but by the time I moved to Baltimore, I was tired of the gay-advocacy thing. I was tired of calmly listening to bigoted legislators—who had my family’s well-being in the palm of their hands—make slurs about homosexuals. I was tired of trying to convince other gays and lesbians that this fight was worth their time, energy, and money. Living in a liberal-leaning state and city means I have less responsibility. In Baltimore, there are fewer minds to change and a greater sense of pride within the gay community.

But of course, none of that really means much. In six months, I have gone from finding Eden to discovering warts. Sure, Gina can adopt our kid here, but we will still face huge struggles.

For this story, I talked to the gay parents of a local high-school student. Neither of them felt able to go on the record. These parents are out and proud, but in some ways they now find themselves back in the closet—in order to protect their teenager. Their child faced few problems in elementary and middle school, but in high school, the difficulties increased by tenfold. And kids who are different, such as those with gay parents, have to deal with sophisticated social problems when they should be learning to tie their shoes or passing notes in geometry class.

Zoe will tell you, “We moved to Maryland because Virginia doesn’t like two-mom families.” She’s only 5 and already acknowledges that the place she was born is dangerous. I worry what she will think when she is called a dyke for the first time in middle or high school. I have no clue how to prepare her for that probability.

The recent uproar at Pikesville High School is an example of the difficulties queer students and their allies face. On Oct. 17, as students were entering the Baltimore County school for the day, anti-gay protesters gathered on a nearby street corner holding signs and yelling slogans. The school’s Gay/Straight Alliance had made plans to acknowledge National Coming Out Week with a series of events, including straight students wearing pink in support of their queer classmates. Duane Johnson, a WEAA (88.9 FM) radio personality, used his platform on Morgan State University’s National Public Radio station to encourage people to protest the Coming Out Week events, prompting national coverage and his eventual removal from the air by Morgan State. Pikesville High’s Gay/Straight Alliance was only emboldened by the protest. The group planned a counterprotest, and school administrators stood behind the students, saying that even high-schoolers have civil rights to freedom of speech and assembly.

Perhaps the best reason that things get tougher for our kids when they reach high school is that the “gayby boom” hasn’t reached those grades yet. These schools do not have much experience with kids of gay parents. And everyone knows that a person’s tolerance and understanding increase when he or she’ knows someone gay—or has a friend with two dads.

Zoe is one of two kids of out gay parents at Mount Washington Elementary School. That’s not much, but numbers don’t always tell the whole story. Her teachers are experienced with our family type. If they disapprove, they keep their mouths shut. In many ways, we have a second-grade girl to thank. As the only other kid of out gay parents in the school, she paved the way for us. By the time Zoe reaches her teens, many others will have blazed the trail.

“I worry about the day that someone says something to our kids,” Lisa Polyak says. “I have this fear that they won’t tell me. And every time adults look the other way, it leaves my kids at risk.”

This isn’t a legal issue; it’s a social issue. In a state where gay families are legally protected better than most in the
country, we still have to deal with the underlying causes of heterosexism: fear, ignorance, intolerance.

“I want the world to stop seeing our families as a freak of nature,” Lisa says. Hear, hear.

 

On Nov. 20, Gina and I attended Equality Maryland’s annual Jazz Brunch at the Wyndham hotel downtown. It was thrilling to be among 700 other gay and lesbian people. NAACP Chairman Julian Bond gave an electric keynote speech, even daring to compare the gay-rights movement to the civil-rights movement. Mayor Martin O’Malley made a similar comparison.

But most validating was running into the parents of one of Zoe’s classmates—the straight parents of one of Zoe’s classmates. Curt and Maddy greeted us warmly. They didn’t look like fish out of water. They weren’t appalled by men holding hands and women with arms draped around the backs of their partners’ chairs. They introduced us to a lesbian couple who lives just around the corner.

Last spring, Gina and I attended the Equality Virginia legislative dinner. It was thrilling to be among 700 other gay and lesbian people. Julian Bond gave an electric speech, even daring to compare the gay-rights movement to the civil-rights movement. Gov. Mark Warner didn’t extend the same comparison. But the only people that I knew in the room were gay, and I knew them only peripherally. None of my close friends—lesbian, gay, or straight—attended.

Yes, it’s different here in Baltimore. And yes, it’s more of the same. Baltimore City needs more than Mount Washington and Mount Vernon. Our children—all children—deserve better schools that are equipped to handle differences of all kinds. All Baltimoreans deserve equal rights under the law and understanding in our schools, workplaces, and corner grocery stores.

“There are bubbles of diversity in Baltimore City,” Lisa says. “And with that diversity comes a tolerance for differences. I think people who choose to live in Baltimore City—when they have the suburban choice—really make a conscious decision to live with diversity.”

Maryland and Baltimore are gay Meccas compared with places like Norfolk, Va. But for now, we are still stuck in traffic just outside the Holland Tunnel. It’s time to lean on the horn.

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