By Kit-Bacon Gressitt
On Family Day in 2009, President Obama proclaimed that, “Whether children are raised by two parents, a single parent, grandparents, a same-sex couple, or a guardian, families encourage us to do our best and enable us to accomplish great things [emphasis added].”
The proclamation represented a culmination, of sorts, the definitive result of nearly four decades of advocacy for same-sex parenting, endorsed for the first time by a U.S. president.
Today, same-sex parenting as a social institution has come of age in popular media and across the country. Network television offers two regular series that feature gay couples approaching, or in the throes of, parenthood: The New Normal and Modern Family. The 2010 Census revealed that the number of reported same-sex couples raising children increased from 63,000 in 2000 to more than 110,000 in 2010.* Parenting classes and support groups, progressive adoption laws and fertility clinics, all encourage couples who, until less than two decades ago, thought that acknowledging their sexuality meant forsaking parenthood forever.
“When we grew up, we were never expected to have a family,” said Dietmar Weiss. “When we came out as gay, it’s the same as saying that we won’t have a family, especially if you’re men.”
Russ Noe was once close to being engaged to a woman. “It would have been a marriage with a white picket fence house and 2.3 children. I figured I’d be a dad. And as I got older that image slipped away, and when I came out, it was gone.”
Scott Zucker long envisioned himself with kids. “When I was really young, I saw myself growing up and having a family like the family I had, and when I realized I was gay, that was one of the sticking points, because I thought I wouldn’t be able to have a family. I took that whole idea of being a parent and shoved it under the carpet.”
Similarly, Wally Oliver had the will, but questioned the way. “It’s always been a desire to be a parent, to share the good experiences and give a child a chance to do the things that I didn’t get to do. I didn’t think that that was ever going to be possible.”
But social, political and medical advances in recent years have made parenting eminently possible for same-sex couples. And, unlike nearly half of the prospective parents in the United States, whose pregnancies are unintended, these four gay men and their partners became parents with explicit intent and thoughtful consideration, often at great expense, and driven by a common and compelling desire to create families.
Dietmar Weiss, 45, born in Germany, and Richard Doust, 56, live in New Jersey, where they manage their business and raise three children: Eleanor, who is 4, and twins Philip and Tara, 2. For Dietmar and Richard, parenting was a given from the start of their relationship.
“I have always loved children, and I felt that having a child of my own might bring some meaning to my mundane day-to-day existence,” Richard explained. “It was actually one of the first things we talked about when we met. We shared a desire to have kids at some point. … We read up on what the options were, and they seemed to be adoption and surrogacy. We ruled out adoption rather quickly, mostly due to health and age issues. We read up on surrogacy and learned all the pitfalls, of which there are many. We found what seemed to be the ideal candidate, in Oregon. … We had certainly read our share of the nightmares, so we were aware of the potential problems and that informed our decision to use embryo from an egg donor, rather than actual surrogacy.
“It’s terribly expensive,” Richard continued. “Each of the kids cost us at least $70,000. The twins were a little cheaper — because we got two for one,” he concluded with a laugh.
Dietmar’s first child, Max, now 24 and living in Germany, was born of a different-sex relationship that ended when Dietmar came out as a young man. “I had a relationship with my son,” he said, “but I was basically a weekend dad. I felt like there was something missing, and I liked being a father and I had good times with him, but I felt like I wanted to do it right.”
Today, Daddy and Papa (Richard and Dietmar respectively) deal with the unique challenges of same-sex parenting:
Crafting the perfect response to the older woman at the nearby table who commented on their beautiful children and said, “My hat’s off the women who raised them.” Their response? “There are no women. We are a couple, and these are our children.”
Eleanor’s recognition that she is different from the other kids, who are dropped off at pre-school by their mothers. “You know,” she said one day to her teacher, “I have a mommy. She lives in Oregon.” Richard and Dietmar recognize that this is something Eleanor will live with her entire life, and they don’t necessarily think it’s bad, just different. But, as Dietmar said, “It’s always in the back of your mind: Is there something we’re not doing that a mother would do?”
Children confronted by criticism of their gay parents. “I think they learn to defend their parents,” Dietmar mused. “They learn who are real friends, whether somebody is open-minded or not. They can always get into situations where it is not accepted, and they learn how to keep a secret, and that situation would not be good, because we want everything open. So, we limit our friends to people who are open.”
People who are open seem to be on the rise. Russ noted an indicator of that in the November election results, “This last election was such a big deal, and not just about marriage equality. I think this last election was incredibly telling about the way our culture is going — more progressive.”
Russ Noe, 52 and a commercial artist, and his partner, Kergan Edwards-Stout, 47 and a writer, live in Orange, Calif., with their two adopted boys, Mason, 12, and Marcus, 10.
Kergan explained that Mason was a private adoption, and Marcus was a “foster adopt,” meaning that he was adopted through the foster care system. “With Mason, it was a great experience. We were actually in the delivery room when he was born in Tennessee. Cut the cord, it was a very intimate process, where we bonded with the birth mother. She and I are friends to this day.” The family does not maintain contact with Marcus’ birth parents.
A 2011 report by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law indicated that the number of same-sex couples adopting children tripled between 2000 and 2009, rising from 6,477 to about 21,740. The cost of adoption varies wildly, from less than $5,000 for foster adoption to more than $50,000 for a domestic agency newborn adoption. However, other factors can be more compelling than cost.
“Surrogacy is a valid path for others,” Kergan said, “but I just see so many kids in need, and I can’t fathom bringing another one into the world without taking care of those already here.”
And the care Mason and Marcus receive is evident in the fondness they share with their fathers and the child-centered structure of their household.
“Being a dad and being a partner and being a part of this family is one of the most gratifying things I’ve experienced,” Russ said. “I didn’t have this growing up, though they loved me deeply. We have such a traditional family structure ironically, for a nontraditional family. Kergan fixes them breakfast before they go to school. We have dinner together. We correct homework. It’s almost 1950s style, except it just happens to be two Caucasian men and two African-American children.”
Adoption has worked well for this family, but foster adopt can sometimes be a rocky path, particularly if a birth parent contests it.
Wally Oliver, 55, and Dave Roberts, 52, are committed to the foster-adopt process, despite the risks — and they have experienced them.
Dave, former deputy mayor of Solana Beach and newly elected member of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, will leave his job with an international nonprofit to take office in January. His commitment to service is visibly passionate. “Even though we’re not Jewish,” Dave said, “we believe in the Jewish proverb, if you can save one soul, you can save the world. We wanted to foster and adopt children locally. We were astounded how many children had been abused and neglected right here in our county.”
Dave and Wally talked about adopting children on their first date, but they didn’t know how to go about it — until they saw the San Diego County’s foster and adoption program booth at the county fair.
“We came across that booth, and that gave us the means to do it,” Dave explained. “I walked up and asked the woman, I whispered, ‘Do they allow gay couples?’ and she said, ‘Honey, this is Southern California; you don’t have to whisper!’”
They now have five foster-adopt children: Robert, 17 years of age; Alex, 12; Julian, 8; Joe 5; and Natalee, 4. The couple adopted Robert when he was 5, and he’s about to launch into adulthood.
“Robert’s a great, well-adjusted kid,” Dave said. “He works at the visitor center, for the Chamber of Commerce. He wants to join the Air Force.”
Wally, who serves as the family’s stay-at-home dad, is a retired Air Force master sergeant, and he was both surprised and proud of Robert’s goal. Daddy Wally, as the kids call him, makes sure they are all involved in sports, have access to music, and experience an “even balance of discipline and fun.” And, like many parents, he recognizes that, “Someone is the disciplinarian, and that’s me most of the time, even though Dave steps in sometimes. And I get, ‘I want to go with Daddy Dave’ — he’s the fun dad.” Although Wally has to be the “bad guy” sometimes, he exudes the joys of parenting. “I think we’ve got a great family, a harmonic family.”
While Dave and Wally’s children have come from challenging backgrounds, the family is clearly a success, yet their success is not unique. A recent UCLA multi-year study found that “high-risk children adopted from foster care do equally well when placed with gay, lesbian or heterosexual parents.” This provides a powerful argument for those who can’t get their heads and hearts around same-sex parenting.
When Dave and Wally first moved to the neighborhood, they met some resistance.
“My neighbor said, ‘Oh, the gays are moving in.’” Dave recounted. “He has to admit we really changed his mind about same-sex couples raising kids, because now he says we’re the best parents.”
David Lopez, Scott Zucker’s husband, received similarly dismaying responses to their plans to become parents through surrogacy, including, “They’d say we only wanted a boy child to play with him. Are you kidding?!”
But, like Dave and Wally, Scott and David are changing minds as they raise their three sons, born through surrogacy: Aiden, 10; and twins Cade and Bram, 7.
Scott described the reception they received when they moved to Mission Viejo, Calif. “The neighbors across the street, our landlord said hi to them — they’re devout Christians — and she reprimanded him for renting to a homosexual couple. But at Christmas time last year, she brought over a box of baked goods for us, so it is changing.” And the celebrity status of gay parenting on TV doesn’t hurt. “Another neighbor, walking her dog, said, ‘Oh, my god, I love Modern Family! I can’t wait to tell my girl friends I have my own Modern Family in the neighborhood!’”
A sense of humor helps, but David is quite serious about preparing the boys for the possibility of people responding to their parentage with hostility. “That’s one of the reasons we have them in Taekwondo. With our kind of family, they are going to encounter people like that in high school, and all I want to know is that they’re going to be able to protect themselves.”
Scott, a landscape architect, has facilitated groups for lesbians and gays contemplating parenthood. He shares David’s concern, and tries to instill in their children a sense that their “difference” is a positive thing.
“I want them to understand that we are a different kind of family, but I want them to be proud about that. I’ve always been proud of being different. It’s fun, and there’s a lot of pride in being at the forefront of changing society for the better. I was proud that Aiden was out there with [No on Prop. 8] signs on the street corner with us.”
Although such moments are memorable, the daily grind of parenthood, straight or gay, is the hardest job available: “It feels overwhelming,” Scott said, “because we’ve got some challenges in our family, and at the same time I have to acknowledge how lucky I am to have a partner like Dave. There are a lot of things we don’t do well in our relationship, but we partner well. Together, we make sure the kids are taken care of. I’m very, very proud of that.”
These four families are special in each its own way, yet they ring a lot of familiar bells. The parents juggle workplace demands with childrearing with housework with the PTA with homework with tantrums with cuddling with trying to find a little time just for the adults. They are frustrated with differing parenting styles. They mourn and love their children’s challenges. They struggle to be present at conflicting school and sports events on opposite sides of town. They demonstrate adoration for each child’s achievements, in the way that each child needs it. They do their best to enable their children to accomplish great things — as all good parents do, as their president acknowledged.
Of course, just because you can be a parent, doesn’t mean you should be, but enthusiasm can be contagious.
“I think family is a great institution and one that more gay couples should feel that it’s their right to participate in, beyond the context of extended family,” Richard said. “As more and more younger gay couples come of age, it will become more and more accepted as a possibility. … It has its challenges, it has its rewards, and it’s only just begun. We have a lifetime to see how it all turns out. We’re only four years into this experiment. I look forward to the rest of it, I’m sure as much as any other dad. It’s the best thing since apple pie — I love being a dad!”
* While the number of same-sex couples raising children has risen significantly since 2000, the proportion decreased by 1% from 2000 to 2009. However, analysis of the data suggests that “the decrease in the proportion of couples raising children may be due to decreases in parenting by lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) individuals who had children at a relatively young age while in a relationship with a different-sex partner.”
Crossposted at San Diego Gay & Lesbian News.