Unmarried With Children
For Members of Families With Pride, It Takes a Lesbian Village to Raise a Child
There are no definitive numbers on how many gay parents head families in the United States, but with estimates ranging from 600,000 to 7 million, families with two moms or two dads just don't shock the way they used to. But these families still face unique challenges, and despite their growing numbers--according to the 2000 U.S. Census, the number of self-identified same-sex families rose 314 percent from 1990--many same-sex parents and their children feel they are alone in their neighborhoods or schools, so they look to groups like Families With Pride for a sense of community.
"This is a great group where you meet people and you can have that conversation and say, 'I'm really sad,' or, 'I'm really angry about this,' and know that that person understands it in way that even your most well-intentioned friends and family can't always understand," says Gita Deane, a Families With Pride member who has two daughters with her partner, Lisa Polyak.
Families With Pride began in Baltimore in 1990 with just five families who wanted to share information and create a social context in which their children could see that there were other families like theirs. Now the group includes more than 100 families throughout Maryland, Virginia, Washington, and Pennsylvania. For the most part, Families With Pride centers around monthly social activities, like taking kids to the zoo or bowling, but the group also holds informational seminars on issues specific to gay parents, sends members to speak at local schools, and has testified before the Maryland General Assembly. It has become an invaluable resource for parents and kids alike.
On a recent Wednesday night, six members of Families With Pride sit around Lina Ayers' living room eating marble cake and discussing issues they face as gay parents in a world that may be getting used to them but hasn't quite accepted them. Jodi Kelber-Kaye, a women's studies professor at University of Maryland, Baltimore County breast-feeds her 13-month-old son when he isn't busy flirting with the rest of the group. Carole Wiedorfer cradles her 6-year-old son, who has just woken up from a nap. Deane and Polyak talk animatedly, finishing each other's thoughts but still keeping one eye on the clock so they can get home to their two daughters. And Heidi Bell and her partner, Laura Farner, enjoy having a child-free evening; their 3-year-old twins are home with a sitter. As the group talks, cracking jokes and arguing points, their concerns tumble out. They worry about the state of gay rights, but mostly they worry about their children and how they deal with being seen as different from other kids.
"Their first exposure to the bigger world is in their classes where they go to school for the first time, and they look around and they just do the arithmetic and realize, 'Boy, I'm different,'" Polyak says.
"That's why this group is so important," Deane adds. "We can say to them, 'There are many people who have two moms or two dads.'"
Polyak agrees: "And it's not just recitation. They observe by their own experience."
Deane also notes that her oldest daughter periodically asks about her father. Deane and Polyak had their children through artificial insemination using an unknown donor. "[It] comes up periodically because everyone else has [a father]," Deane says. "It's like having a bike: 'Everybody else has one, why don't I?'" Through the group, she says, their daughter has met older kids she can talk to who have already dealt with those issues.
"It's also tremendous support to us as adults just to commiserate, to exchange information," Polyak says. "Who are the good pediatricians? What are the right schools? How do you handle this financial issue, and what did you tell the teacher when this happened? This is one of the most invaluable networks--even better than e-mail because it's done over juice and cookies."
Kelber-Kaye picks up a toy for her son and quotes author and director of Georgetown University's women's studies program Suzanna Danuta Walters: "It takes a lesbian village to raise a child."
While there are male gay couples, bisexuals, and gay single parents in the group, the majority of Families With Pride's members follow the two-mommies model. In fact, many credit the group with helping them become parents. Deane and Polyak were having trouble getting pregnant through artificial insemination, so they attended a daylong Families with Pride Seminar on the issues facing same-sex couples trying to have children.
"There was a physician who specializes in fertility and we ended up going to her, and I got pregnant on the second try," Polyak says. "I have a tremendous debt of gratitude for the opportunity to start my family."
Others found the group by finding Ayers, one of Families With Pride's longest standing members and a lawyer with expertise in civil rights and second-parent adoption. Second-parent adoption allows two unmarried people to adopt a child and is the predominant method used by gay and lesbian parents to ensure that both parents have legal rights to their child, whether that child is conceived through artificial insemination or adopted.
Adoption has been a charged issue for gay parents. There is no federal law concerning gay adoptions, and many states' policies vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. In a time when gay parents are still sometimes denied visitation with their biological children because of their sexual orientation, adopting a child carried by one's partner can be difficult. Twenty-six states and Washington, D.C., permit second-parent adoptions, but states such as Florida, Virginia, and Arizona continue to block them.
In 1995, Maryland had never granted a second-parent adoption, and Families With Pride made it their top priority to change that.
"People were very afraid of losing their children, especially if something would happen to one of them or if they were to break up," Ayers says. "So we were responsible for the first case in Maryland." Ayers refuses to give specifics about the case, pointing out that adoption proceedings are confidential, but does say that the case took more than a year, and that Families With Pride helped raise money to cover the couple's legal costs. That case was finalized in 1996, and since then Ayers estimates that between 300 and 400 second-parent adoptions have been approved in Maryland.
But Ayers and others involved in second-parent adoption are hesitant to talk about it. When the subject turns to adoption, Ayers, a soft-spoken woman in general, starts giving short, hesitant answers. Other lawyers contacted for this story who handle second-parent adoptions were equally guarded, offering little information. In Maryland, second-parent adoptions have occurred on a county by county, judge by judge basis. Because most of these cases go through with just the requisite paperwork, they have never faced higher courts. And there has been no statewide decision ruling on the issue, making the state of second-parent adoptions in Maryland somewhat tenuous.
Ayers stresses the importance of consulting a lawyer with expertise in same-sex family law when attempting a second parent adopting. "There's a very specific process that we've developed in Maryland," she says. "And if they go to their family attorney or a local adoption attorney, they may not follow that process which could result in an appeal."
"We have been very quiet about it," Ayers acknowledges. But with same-sex marriage becoming an issue throughout the country, she says the group is finally willing to talk about it, at least a little bit. "We're coming out of the closet about it," she says.
In January 2003, the relative ease of getting second-parent adoptions in Maryland--particularly in the case of adopting a partner's biological child--hit the news in a rather unexpected way. A baby girl was born in a Virginia hospital one minute after midnight on Jan. 1 to Helen Rubin and Joanna Bare. The press descended on the region's New Year's baby, and Rubin, Bare, and their daughter became inadvertent spokeswomen for same-sex families. The couple's move from Virginia to Maryland so that Bare could adopt the child briefly put second-parent adoption in the public eye.
Kelber-Kaye and her partner, Stacey Kargman-Kaye, also moved to Maryland four years ago because of second-parent adoption. "One of the reasons that we chose Baltimore was because we had heard it was fairly easy to do second-parent adoptions here. Because we were coming from Arizona, where it was impossible," Kelber-Kaye says. "Thing Number 2, besides unpack the kitchen, was do second-parent adoption."
Even with second-parent adoption, same-sex families face problems that wouldn't even occur to straight couples. In March, Ayers was stopped trying to board a plane to Mexico with her 13-year-old daughter because international law designed to thwart parental kidnapping requires both parents give their consent for a minor to travel internationally. "They almost did not allow my daughter onto the airplane, even though we had the birth certificate and the adoption decree, because they said she didn't have a father," Ayers remembers.
Deane and Polyak had similar problems in April coming back into the country after a trip to Ireland. Polyak had claimed both the children on her custom form, so when Deane walked off the plane with their youngest daughter in her arms she was stopped by customs.
"My customs form was just me, so the customs officer says to me, 'You can't take her, she's not on your form,'" Deane remembers. "So Lisa sees that there's trouble, comes back, and says, 'She's on my form. You know if you guys just let us get married you wouldn't have these problems.'"
Polyak jumps in: "Meanwhile, Gita's kicking me."
"'Don't say anything, they might not let both of us in,'" Deane says.
Bell seems skeptical that legalizing same-sex marriage would put an end to the problems facing same-sex couples.
"I don't know that it changes the behavior of that clerk or that person at that airport counter or the person that you're applying for your passport from," she says. "It doesn't change necessarily the behavior of those people."
"You know what," Deane replies, leaning in to make a point she's clearly passionate about. "It doesn't change what they think, but it has to change their behavior. It's the same situation with integration--[people] didn't change their hateful feelings, but they had to change their behavior or they lost their jobs. And you have recourse. You can go to the inspector and say, 'This customs official said this to my family, and this is a legal family.' We are not in that situation right now. So I think the behavior will change, has to change, but the mind-set will not change."
Marriage equality has become one of Families With Pride's central issues. This year members testified before the Maryland General Assembly to speak out against laws that would put up further barriers to same-sex marriage and for a law that would allow couples to register as domestic partners and make medical decisions for one another. The marriage bans didn't pass, but neither did the medical decision-making act.
Kelber-Kaye can think of a few instances when it would have come in handy. Her second child was premature, and after the birth her partner tried to find out what was being done to the child but the attending nurse refused to give her any information or allow her to make decisions for the child. The nurse asked Kargman-Kaye who she was, and when she responded, "I'm the mother," the nurse said simply, "No, you're not."
"It wasn't until the midwife got there and could advocate for us," that the situation was resolved, says Kelber-Kaye, who wanted to nurse her son and feared the nurse would give him formula. "That's a critical window, when they're that little. They need nourishment, and I was ready to nurse, but they were so busy fighting that it became an issue until the midwife intervened."
Polyak commiserates, "Yeah, a stranger's word was better than the parent's."
And when Kargman-Kaye was sick, Kelber-Kaye was ejected from her hospital room, even though she had paperwork giving her power of attorney.
"You know, if you start thinking about this stuff the anxiety can overtake you," Deane says. "If you're in a car accident, who the heck is carrying all their papers with them to say if you're taken to a hospital you can see your children, you can see your partner? If you really think about the logistical things, all we really want is to be able to provide a secure life for ourselves and for our children, to protect them just like everybody else can protect their children and their spouse. As far as I'm concerned, that's what marriage means to me."
Kirstin Gulling, a lawyer who specializes in same-sex family planning, says in a separate interview that it isn't just rights that gay families are missing out on by not being allowed to marry. "There's not the same responsibilities," Gulling says. "Everybody keeps talking about rights, but I think the part that's missing is that people, when they come together in a family, have a responsibility to each other. Just because you split up, you shouldn't be able to use the law and deny all your responsibilities to the other person."
Without the normal mechanisms to deal with issues like alimony, child custody, or child support if a couple breaks up, same-sex couples are forced to draw up a large quantity of complicated legal documents which are costly to prepare. Even with those strictures in place, it can be difficult for a nonbiological parent to get inside a courtroom to fight for custody, much less win.
"When two people break up when they're raising a child, if they haven't done the adoptions so that both parents are legal parents, then the courts automatically presume that the nonbiological or nonadoptive parent is a stranger, third-party to that child," Gulling says.
In May 2000, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals ruled that the lesbian partner of a child's biological parent was the "de facto" parent of that child and had the right to seek visitation, creating a precedent for future cases. The case also builds on a 1998 Maryland Court of Appeals decision that said, "we make no distinctions as to the sexual preference of the non-custodial parent whose visitation is being challenged. The only relevance that a parent's sexual conduct or lifestyle has in the context of a visitation proceeding of this type is where that conduct or lifestyle is clearly shown to be detrimental to the children's emotional and/or physical well being."
But for the parents of Families With Pride, the little things are what prove the most challenging. Polyak wishes there were more gay-headed families at her children's schools. "Then it wouldn't always be one family carrying the issues to the teachers and always feeling like we're asking for special consideration," she says. "'Could you please say "parent" instead of always saying "mom and dad"? Could you please change your forms so that my kids don't have to look at them and feel like they have to cross [father] out? Could you please read one story this year where the families aren't all white and heterosexual and Christian?'"
"This group is sustenance for me," Kelber-Kaye says. "I don't think I could do some of the things I do at my son's school if I didn't have the support. After a while I'm just so tired of being an example. Now I can be in a space where I'm not unique, and we can talk about whatever. We can talk about the weather. We can talk about how cute my child is. We don't have to be gay."For more information on Families With Pride, e-mail Jodi Kelber-Kaye.
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