The New Nuclear Family
What Was Once Inconceivable
By Jonathan David Carroll
AUGUST 28, 2000: The scene is not exactly a Norman Rockwell painting, but it's close: the interior of a Central Austin home, dad seated in an overstuffed chair in a room decorated with a child's artwork and family vacation photos. And yes, outside, where 10-year-old Nicolas is at play with a neighborhood buddy, there is even a picket fence. All so conventional that the reader might guess where this is heading. Nicolas has two daddies: "Dad Scott" and "Dad Bryan."
"I think that some people maybe expect to walk in this house and there be some kind of disco room, knitting and flashing lights going on," Scott said. "If they came here and spent some time with us here, they would be bored out of their skin. There's not a lot of excitement going on around here. We're raising kids. They're playing with their friends, watching TV, reading books and fixing lunches. It's boring, boring, boring, but we're just raising a child."
Scott, Bryan, and "Nicolas" (the child's name has been changed at his parents' request) are part of a national trend. At one time, children of gay families were for the most part holdovers from heterosexual marriages or relationships. Then gradually, in the late 1980s, gay and lesbian individuals and couples began creating families of their own, and what has come to be known as the "gayby boom" was underway. "More and more of us are choosing to be parents and have families as openly gay people," said Dianne Hardy-Garcia, executive director of the Austin-based and statewide Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas. "I think that's a real sign of progress. There was a time when even I thought because I was gay that I couldn't be a parent. I now know differently. I know better. I know I'd be a hell of parent. I think a lot of people are now knowing that and creating their own families."
Gay and lesbian parents are not identified in the census data or other reports, so the size of the trend is hard to track. The Gay and Lesbian Parents Coalition International and other gay-rights groups estimate that there are about four million gay men and lesbians raising eight to 10 million children in the U.S. Most of these are gay parents who have left heterosexual marriages and taken the kids with them. But as gays and lesbians create their own families, the numbers are increasing. According to statistics from the coalition, about 67% of lesbians have children, compared with 72% of straight women. About 27% of gay men have children, compared with 60% of straight men. "I can't give you exact numbers, but it's more than I ever fathomed," Hardy-Garcia said.
The percentages might even be higher in Austin, because of the city's gay-friendly atmosphere. "Austin is an oasis to so many of us," Hardy-Garcia said. "I think people are seeing themselves as having a future. They can see themselves having a home, a stable job, and a family. That's truly a mark of progress."
The Adoption OptionAlthough the gayby boom is a demographic reality, it is still a challenge for gay and lesbian couples to create families of their own. Gay and lesbian couples can adopt from private adoption agencies, international adoption agencies, or from the state. Bryan and Scott chose the latter. Their family began when the two men met in Southern California in 1988. "We really clicked," Bryan said. So well, in fact, that a year and half later they were joined in a formal union ceremony in front of friends and family. The couple then moved to Texas. On a trip back from Mexico in 1993, they saw a poor Mexican boy begging for change at the border and were inspired to start talking about becoming parents. "I always wanted to be a dad, but I never thought I would be," Scott said.
Years later, after they heard a Child Protective Services radio announcement about the need for foster and adoptive parents, they decided to give it a try. They enrolled in the parenting class required to become foster parents -- although one CPS employee advised them that because they were gay, if they were selected to be foster parents, they would be assigned the most difficult-to-place children. "We basically gave up," Bryan said.
A late-night phone call changed everything. They were asked to take in Nicolas and his brother, who were being removed from their home because of abuse and neglect and placed in foster care. The two boys, age 14 and six, came to live with Scott and Bryan. It soon became evident that the older boy would require services that couldn't be provided in a domestic setting, and he was moved to a therapeutic group home. But Nicolas remained with the two men, and six months later he became legally their son. "He's flourished," said Scott -- of a child who once cursed like a sailor and refused to read, but has now cleaned up his vocabulary and regularly reads for enjoyment. Nicolas also seems to be recovering from the emotional trauma he suffered with his biological family.
Scott adopted Nicolas and is his legal guardian. "It was a simple matter of waiting for parental rights to be terminated, going through a number of legal procedures," said Bryan. But he then added that "simple" is perhaps not the word to describe the process. And in a sense, much of the process had already been completed once. "Everything we needed to do to foster, we needed to do again to adopt," he said. "Of course they wanted to know about our relationship, because even to become a foster parent you have to go through rigorous scrutiny." But sexual orientation did not seem to be an obstacle, he said. "We worked as a team with CPS workers, who were very helpful," Bryan said. "And none of us gave up."
Another adoption option for gay and lesbian couples is a private agency, though many agencies are reluctant to place children with gay and lesbian couples. Dallas family attorney Kevin Griffin described the chances of gays and lesbians adopting a child as "nearly impossible." So in many cases, one member of a partnership will apply to adopt a child, and after the adoption is finalized will pursue second-parent adoption for the partner. Lower courts in Texas have approved second-parent adoption, but their willingness to do so depends on individual judges. "This is a very sensitive political issue and judges can get very nasty correspondences if they do it," Griffin said. Some judges will only very quietly and discreetly grant second-parent adoptive status to gays or lesbians, because they fear that opponents will use the issue against them in election campaigns.
Bill Pierce, president of the Washington-based National Council for Adoption (an association of private adoption agencies) said gays and lesbians will continue to face obstacles in the adoption process. "When it comes to kids, people are very risk-adverse," he said. Birth mothers also play a large role in selecting adoptive parents, and usually want their children placed with heterosexual couples. "Many birth mothers think 'I want my baby to be with a family who is like me,'" Pierce said.
That, too, could be changing as the gay baby boom continues. Shari Levin, executive director of Open Adoption and Family Services agency, said her agency is placing more children with gay and lesbian couples. And she's found that biological mothers are not so reluctant to place children with gay or lesbian parents. "Mothers who chose adoption tend to be nonconformist by nature," Levin said. The Oregon-based agency she works with placed 64 children last year; four of those were with homosexual couples. "The children do great with these families," she said. Yet it remains difficult for gay and lesbian couples to adopt children from private agencies. So many turn to overseas adoption agencies, which often have less stringent regulations concerning same-sex couple adoption, or don't ask about the sexual orientation of the prospective parents.
Facing this growing trend, conservative groups continue to oppose adoption by gays or lesbian couples. They raise concerns that gay parents are more likely to sexually abuse their children and that their children are more likely to grow up gay -- though those claims have no basis in published research or anecdotal histories. "We don't have the best information on it, but it's common sense," said Robert Regier, cultural studies policy analyst with the Family Research Council, an organization that openly urges homosexuals to change their orientation and opposes the idea of gay men and lesbians having children.
The opposition from conservative groups, combined with Gov. George Bush's continuing courtship of the Christian right, will continue to make adoption by gay and lesbian couples more difficult than the process is for heterosexual parents. Last legislative session, the Governor backed a bill that would have banned gay adoption or the placement of children with gay foster parents (see "Warren's War on Gay Families," below). The ongoing presidential campaign hasn't changed Bush's position. "Gov. Bush believes the best home for a child is a traditional home with a mother and father present and should be the first choice for all children in need of a home," a spokesperson for Bush said in a recent statement from the Governor's office. Yet the traditional home Bush envisions is no longer the norm. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 1991 only about 30% of American households fit the traditional definition of family: two heterosexual parents living with children under 18.
The Biological OptionThe question of whether to deal with state, private, or foreign adoption agencies has become moot for many gay and lesbian couples, who are using biological means to create their own families. That was the choice Tami Brandenberger and Julie Andersen made. Tami is a staffing scheduler for the Austin Regional Clinic, and Julie is a teacher with the Austin Independent School District. The couple used artificial insemination to bring their 17-month-old daughter Lilly into the world. The women refer to Lilly's biological father -- a sperm donor -- as "donor daddy." When choosing a donor, they most wanted to have someone who was intelligent, healthy, and shared the two women's common German ethnicity.
The knowledge the women have of Lilly's father is what they gleaned from the paperwork he filled out for the sperm bank and an audiotape interview the bank provided them. "He kinda of sounds like a geek," Tami said. The women don't know the man's identity, but they do know he is an engineer and plays the ukulele. The couple purchased the sperm through a bank in California, and a Federal Express driver delivered it to their home, where Lilly was conceived. Nine months after the FedEx delivery, Lilly was born. When she is an adult, if both she and her father agree to it, a meeting can be arranged.
As Tami discusses motherhood, the sound of the garage door opening signals Lilly and Julie's arrival. Lilly runs into the living room looking for "Meme." Tami picks up Lilly and hugs her. Lilly refers to Julie, her biological mother, as "Momma" and Tami as "Meme."
"We really dig her," Tami says, as she gives Lilly a squeeze.
And while it's easier for lesbians to create families -- men don't have wombs, observes Ray Drew of the Family Pride Coalition -- more gay men are employing surrogate mothers.
Kids in the Gay CommunityMany gay activists attribute the gay baby boom to changes in the gay and lesbian community. "I think it's part of a larger change of attitude in gay and lesbian people about what our future looks like," said Rev. Ken Martin, pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church, the largest church serving gays and lesbians in Austin. "There's renewed sense that we have a future and that all of our resources are not going to be involved in AIDS or with fighting these battles just to survive. This just reflects a feeling that we have a future and that we want to integrate our lives into the mainstream of human life. Part of that is having children."
This trend is changing the look of the gay community. "In our events, there's a real multi-generational showing, which we're not quite used to," Hardy-Garcia said. "I joke about that now we have to accommodate big wheels and strollers, now that we have children at all our events. That's relatively new to the community. It's a real positive."
The boom is apparent in Ken Martin's church, which has an active congregation of 300 members. Martin estimates there are 20 gay families and 25 children under the age of 12 in the congregation -- quite different from what he encountered when he arrived at the Metropolitan Community Church in 1974. He was a minister for six years before there were any children in his church. "In the last 10 years, I would say that the number of children in our churches has at least doubled or tripled," he said. "I think gay and lesbians make wonderful parents. The parents in our church are just remarkable, very loving and really committed. Gay people don't often have children by mistake or unintentionally like some straight people do. When we have children it's because we want them."
The gayby boom is also changing the look of the extended families of gay and lesbian couples. After Bob Parsons' daughter came out, he assumed that only his son could provide him with grandchildren -- until his daughter Sandy and her partner Tammy decided to conceive a child through artificial insemination. "I'm elated Sandy is trying to have a baby. We're waiting on pins and needles to find out if Sandy's pregnant," said Parsons, a retired Methodist minister and a member of Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). Parsons knows that Sandy and Tammy will be great parents, yet he worries about his future grandchild coming into a world that is not always accepting of gays and lesbians. "I worry, but I will stand with my grandchild against it," he said.
Support for Gay FamiliesAnother result of the Austin gayby boom is the growing number of support groups for these families. Tami and Julie started an Austin chapter of the Family Pride Coalition because they wanted Lilly to have more men in her life. Tami began the organization in May and membership is steadily growing. The group meets once a month. "It's just a way for people to get together and share their stories and support one another," Tami said. She hopes this local chapter will continue to grow and eventually develop into a separate group for the kids.
Austin Family Pride is not the only support group of its kind. Lilly already knows other children with parents like her own because they are part of an informal lesbian mothers' group that now includes 40 families and each month hosts potluck dinners, camping trips, or other family activities. "Parenting is a hard job -- gay, straight, whatever. It's great to have a support system," Julie said. There's also the North Austin Lesbian Moms Network, a support group of about 25 lesbian families. The group is a resource for gay and lesbian families, and hosts family events every other month.
This trend will continue to grow, as more and more gays and lesbians realize that they too can be parents. It's a nationwide realization that one's sexual orientation does not determine someone's ability to love or take care of a child. "I would encourage more gays and lesbians to have children on their own -- biologically or adopt. It's a tremendous experience," Bryan said.
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