Same-Sex Couples and Their Families (Print Section)
by Claire Pires
I used to tell people my mom’s life partner was her work partner. I didn’t want to be different because I had two moms.
Flash forward eighteen years to this weekend when my mom and Kathy met my girlfriend for the first time. The fact that we were two girls together never came up and the fact that I wasn’t nervous to be publicly out with a girl was something I never thought would happen. This is a testament to how far we’ve come in society considering the discrimination my moms faced as I was growing up.
As I grew up, the LGBT community’s fight for equal rights was always in my family’s shadow. DOMA, gay marriage, the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell—for some, those were political battles or headlines in the news. For us, it was a constant reminder that we were not the norm.
In 1996, the federal government passed a federal defense of marriage act (“DOMA”), which prohibited the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages and denied federal benefits to people in same-sex marriages. That same year, my mom divorced my father after twenty-five years of marriage, and she fell in love and moved in with a woman, Kathy Lazear. My mom had only ever been with men, was raised by nuns in the Midwest, and lived an innocent life of potpourri and Pottery Barn. Kathy had spikes in her ears, dated numerous women, and thrived on adventure. Let’s just say, the potpourri had crumbled. But at the time, there were no states that accepted same-sex marriage. At six-years-old, I did not accept my mom and Kathy either. At school, I told everyone that Kathy was just visiting for work. I purposefully walked ahead of my mom and Kathy when they’d hold hands in public, and I’d cringe, even in our own kitchen, when they’d kiss.
“And you used to come home and we’d say, “You know, it’s okay to be different,” Kathy said. “And the one thing you used to say was, I know, I don’t mind being different. I don’t know if I want to be different because of that.”
While I was trying to ignore my mom’s relationship in elementary school, same-sex couples were slowly beginning to receive some legal recognition. In 1999, when I was nine years old, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that prohibiting same-sex marriage violated citizen’s equal rights. The state passed a law creating the civil union registration system. Under this law, same-sex couples could only enter into a civil union ceremony and were then allowed to have all of the same laws that applied to married couples. Then, in 2003 in a case called Goodrige vs. Dept. of Public Health, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that the state’s defense of marriage law violated the Massachusetts constitution. Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage, which took effect on May 17th, 2004. Same-sex marriage may still have been illegal in my hometown of Washington, D.C. but, in my family, 2004 was pivotal-that was the year that, like Massachusetts, I finally accepted my two moms.
In 2004, my school had its first gay pride assembly. By this time, I had successfully lied for eight years to my friends by telling them that my mom’s partner, Kathy, was just a work colleague. I was afraid I’d be teased if I told the truth. For the assembly, the school asked me to speak in front of everyone about what it’s like to be raised by two moms. I immediately declined the invitation, but when my mom told me that she and Kathy were coming to the assembly, I knew I had to speak. I couldn’t embarrass them by sitting in silence. On the day of the assembly, I hoisted myself up from the floor with my sweaty nervous hands, took a deep breath, and talked about them in front of the whole school. I told everyone how normal it was to be raised by two moms.
“We don’t have more beauty products because we are all girls,” I said. “We don’t have more emotional conversations.”
I shook throughout my whole speech, and when it was over, my mom and Kathy cried and my shoulders collapsed in a sigh of relief. In that assembly, some teachers raised their hands and basically outed themselves to the school. As the months progressed, more faculty members began to come out. My volleyball coach, Peg, a fellow teammate of mine, Carly, and I were sitting on the gym floor a few days after my speech and Carly asked Peg where she lived. Peg happily answered her but when Carly, purely out of curiosity, asked her if she lived alone, Peg stuttered for a second. She said she lived with a woman.
“Oh, like your life partner?” Carly chirped.
“Uh, yes, actually. Yes, my life partner,” Peg responded as she smiled at Carly.
The students were beginning to understand that same-sex families were actually all around them and their openness was helping the older faculty members.
Society’s evolution of acceptance towards same-sex couples quickly escalated after that assembly; almost as if more people heard my speech. In 2006, the local government in Washington, D.C. instilled domestic partnerships so gay couples could receive the same benefits as straight couples, such as visiting each other in the hospital. Then, in 2009, same-sex marriage was legalized in Washington, D.C. I was experiencing homophobia at the time as a freshman in college in New Orleans. My first friend, who later became a priest, frequently made comments about how “sinful” and “gross” my family was. Mandatory Sunday mornings in church and heteronormative fraternity/sorority formals eventually made me transfer schools and move to liberal Los Angeles where Human Rights Campaign stickers lined the bumpers of most cars. By then, in 2011, the discriminatory “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was repealed, so lesbians and gay men could now serve openly in the military.
2011 was also the year that I, the girl who had formally rejected my own mother’s sexuality, came out as gay.
In December 2011, I had dinner with a girl I had grown up with, Nina, who told me she was casually dating both a man and a woman. Nina was one of those cool girls who wore bracelets on her upper arm and gallivanted throughout Portugal drinking port during her freshman year while I ate Wendy’s. Until that moment, I had avoided seriously thinking about my sexuality in fear that I might be gay. I had gotten so used to speaking comfortably about other people being gay, like my moms, when I was actually using their relationship to deflect any attention on my sexuality. Until that point in college, I had attended numerous LGBT club meetings as an “ally;” a straight supporter of LGBT rights.
“I’m here to support my two moms,” I’d say. “But I’m not gay. I’m just here for them,” I’d add quickly.
I used my moms as my excuse when I was actually secretly there for myself. I came home from the dinner, broke up with my boyfriend, and revealed this deep two-year lust I had for my roommate, Laura. Laura was a swimmer with broad shoulders for whom I’d leave my internship quickly, speeding down the I-10 highway, just to see her before her 6:00pm class. The former six-year-old who felt ashamed to walk with my two moms in public was gone. The build-up for the last fifteen years of advocating for LGBT rights as if it was a distant cause; as if I was preaching out of pity for my moms, had ended.
In 2011, my professor showed a YouTube clip in class of Zach Wahls, who famously addressed the Iowa House Judiciary Committee in 2011 about having two moms. The video generated millions of views on YouTube (his speech has 2,860,410 views as of March 24th). During an interview over the phone, Wahls said, “The attitude that my two moms had (was) live and let live…my parents felt a lot of prejudice growing up so they are hesitant to judge other people. I learned to be hesitant to judge other people.” He said, “What they taught me had very little to do with their sexual orientation.” People had assumed Wahls was gay because his moms were gay, which was something I grew up fearing. Wahls said, “Some questions were raised about my masculinity which would not have been raised if I had straight parents.”
People would ask me if I was gay as I was growing up because they assumed kids of gay parents were gay. I didn’t know I was gay when my mom and Kathy got together, but as I grew up, I definitely realized that I rarely noticed men.
“You know, Mr. Huntley is a looker,” my friend said about my second grade teacher.
“I guess,” I’d say while my eyes were glued on the substitute, Ms. Riley.
Like Wahls, I had encountered many people who assumed I was gay because I was raised by two moms. Their assumption forced me to stay in the closet for fear of experiencing the same adversity I saw my moms face. In Eva Apelqvist’s book, “LGBTQ Families,” she interviews a boy, Thomas, who was raised by two moms and happens to also be gay. She writes, “The unique thing in Thomas’s situation is not that he is a gay kid with lesbian moms but the fact that he felt free to come out at a very young age because he had great emotional support at home.” Unlike Thomas, I stayed in the closet longer because I didn’t want to succumb to people’s assumptions that I was gay, but when I did come out, I told my mom’s partner Kathy first because I knew she wouldn’t make it into a big affair; the label was not important. She took the news as if I had just told her I’d like an iced coffee with soy. She just didn’t care. In that respect, Apelqvist is right because I felt comfortable enough to come out because of my ‘emotional support at home.’ Same-sex marriage was legalized in Washington, D.C. the same year I came out, and my instinct at the time was to advocate as much as possible.
“I feel like you became this fervent advocate overnight,” my brother, AJ, said to me over dinner shortly after I came out. “Why are you so intense about this?”
My brother, who is thirty-five and prefers a structured, careful life of post-it notes and moleskin planners, was raised by my mom and my dad before they got divorced, and his relationship with Kathy is distant. His ignorance toward my unique upbringing and the sheer fear of adversity my mom, Kathy, and I faced whether we were at a school function, in a (usually) Southern state, or even sitting in a restaurant booth in an unfamiliar city, made me want to advocate more. LGBT advocate, Ricky Cortez, said it’s important to advocate for all minorities because he and his partner still experience racial discrimination.
“I’ve had people ask me and my partner if it cost us more to have a white child,” said Cortez.
Now, in 2014, I’ve been out for three years, and equality for same-sex couples is arguably the largest civil rights movement of our time. Seventeen states now accept same-sex marriage. Although there is still discrimination, (anti-gay laws in Arizona, violence towards LGBT communities abroad in Nigeria, Uganda, and Russia to name a few), acceptance toward the LGBT community is definitely increasing. GLAAD’s news director, Ross Murray, spoke to me on a snowed-in day at work and said, in order to help same-sex couples right now, GLAAD, an LGBT advocacy organization, is specifically working on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. Murray said, “That bill is past the Senate with gender identity protections in place, which is unheard of and hadn’t happened before, and currently is in the House waiting for John Boehner (the Speaker of the House of Representatives) to allow it to be debated. Employment is a source of income and being able to provide for your family is one of those essential pieces that helps hold a family together. It’s great to say you support these families, but it has to happen in a real tangible way for these families.” Over the phone, Gary Gates, a law professor at UCLA, said same-sex couples with children are specifically dealing with discrimination because of the inconsistency in same-sex marriage laws per state. He said, “When you’re married, it provides a legal framework for legal parenting, and I think there are a variety of issues that happen where (gay) individuals who are married with kids lose their legal parental status simply by crossing a state line and that has a potential host of problems that couples face.” Even being married without children is difficult as a same-sex couple because your marriage can be immediately taken from you if you go into the majority of the states in this country.
“My wife is from Louisiana and I’m from North Dakota, so we are entering into jurisdictions that don’t honor our marriage,” said Carrie Evans, executive director of the LGBT advocacy group, Equality Maryland. “We still have to carry our power of attorney documents. We become legal strangers.”
Despite their seventeen years together, Andrew Berman and David German, a gay couple in Washington, D.C. also felt like ‘legal strangers’ when they adopted their two sons from Vietnam.
“The arrangement is Andrew would formally adopt them in Vietnam and I went along as the cameraman,” said German.
In Zach Wahls book, “My Two Moms,” he says anti-gay people will often talk about the struggles children of gay people have to face. He writes, “By trying to tell us that there is something wrong with gay marriage, that there is something wrong with families led by gay couples, you create something wrong—you become the source of our pain,” and that negativity towards gay families was what kept me in the closet about my moms and myself for so long. I treated my mom and Kathy like ‘legal strangers’ for years as a kid because I didn’t want to accept that they were together, and as I got older, I treated my identity as a gay person as something I didn’t want to accept. Now, in 2014, after eighteen years of struggling to accept my lesbian moms and my own sexuality, I finally feel comfortable.
My mom and Kathy recently came to New York City to visit me, and they spent time with my current girlfriend, Kate. The four of us watched singer Rachael Yamagata perform in concert at the City Winery, and we were surrounded by a sea of diverse couples; transgender couples, gay couples, straight couples, biracial couples, etc. Kathy sat next to my mom with her arm draped around my mom’s shoulder while I sat across from them resting lightly on Kate’s arm. No one seemed to notice, and if they did, I was happy staying right where I was.
Apelqvist, Eva. LGBTQ Families. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2013. Print.
Hertz, Frederick, and Emily Doskow. A Legal Guide for Lesbian & Gay Couples. 16. Nolo, 2012. Print.
Wahls, Zach. My Two Moms. New York: Gotham Books, 2013. Print.
I started thinking about my master’s project before Columbia started. I knew that I wanted to write about how I was raised by two moms while incorporating how other same-sex couples raise children. Over the summer before Columbia started, I made a page of lists and notes with all of my ideas of what topics I wanted to spend five-six months of my life reporting. I narrowed my idea down with my advisor and then did almost all of my reporting over winter break. My first piece of advice is to do as much as you can over winter break because you’ll be busier than you think you’ll be in the spring. I researched my story by buying about five books on LGBT parenting from Amazon, reading through them on plane rides and at night before bed, and also reading any studies online that had been done on LGBT parenting. For sources, I knew I wanted to do a radio piece with four different same-sex couples who had children in different ways (open adoption, international adoption, via sperm donor, and via a previous marriage). I knew my mom and her partner would be one couple, so I had to find three more. I researched as many LGBT organizations as I could online and called all of them. As I talked to different LGBT directors, I asked them if they were parents themselves. I was able to get one couple from that, but then they fell through. I was in the grocery store thinking about how to find LGBT couples when I struck up a conversation with a guy in line who had a Human Rights Campaign sticker. I ended up talking with him for a while and he gave me the contact information for one of the LGBT couples I ended up interviewing, Steve Geishecker and Kevin Sturtevant. Two couples down. Two to go. Then, I emailed all of the LGBT people that I had ever met. One person got back to me and told me a couple at the school she worked for had just adopted two kids from Vietnam. They became my third couple. The last couple I met at a party. I saw that two moms had walked in to the party together with their children, so I immediately went over to them and asked to interview them at another time about their family. The lesson there is that you have to send out more emails than you think is necessary, call more people, and always be open to meeting people anywhere whether it’s at a grocery store or a party. If you stick to just emailing people or just using books, you won’t get anywhere and you won’t experience any of the spontaneity of being a journalist. For the rest of my sources, I contacted lawyers and researchers who had written studies online about LGBT parenting and followed through excessively because sometimes they don’t respond to the first two-three emails. I had read a lot of articles throughout my life and over the summer about the topic, so I knew advocates like Zach Wahls had grown up very similar to me so I knew to reach out to him and buy his book. I called and emailed LGBT centers and just consistently followed up with people. Don’t ignore your emails ever. Pay attention. For the reporting part, I went to three of the couples houses for their radio interviews and met one couple at a coffee shop that was convenient for them. I spent almost every day of my winter break interviewing or, at least, planning out how I would complete the reporting. In terms of production, my advice would be to schedule a time to meet with your master’s project advisor every week. Your master’s project advisor might be very busy, so it’s your responsibility to schedule time with them. Every week you should work on your print piece, because it takes longer than you think it will. For the radio piece, make sure none of the quotes are repetitive. Every quote should add something new to the piece. With all of this said, the most important thing is to find a topic you are genuinely interested in.