Gay Families Come Out

THERE WERE MOMENTS IN Claire's childhood that seemed to call for a little... ingenuity. Like when friends came over. How could she explain the presence of Dorothy, the woman who moved into her Chicago home after Claire's dad left? Sometimes Claire said Dorothy was the housekeeper; other times she was an ""aunt.'' In the living room, Claire would cover up the titles of books like ""Lesbian Love Stories.'' More than a decade later, Claire's mother, Lee, recalls silently watching her daughter at the bookcase. It was, she says, ""extremely painful to me.'' Even today, Lee and Claire--now 24 and recently married--want to be identified only by their middle names because they're worried about what their co-workers might think.

Hundreds of miles away, a 5-year-old girl named Lily lives in a toy-filled house with her mommies--Abby Rubenfeld, 43, a Nashville lawyer, and Debra Alberts, 38, a drug- and alcohol-abuse counselor who quit working to stay home. Rubenfeld and Alberts don't feel they should have to hide their relationship. It is, after all, the '90s, when companies like IBM offer gay partners the same benefits as husbands and wives, and celebrity couples like Melissa Etheridge and Julie Cypher proudly announce their expectant motherhood (interview).

Lily was conceived in a very '90s way; her father, Jim Hough, is a gay lawyer in New York who once worked as Rubenfeld's assistant and had always wanted to have kids. He flew to Nashville and the trio discussed his general health, his HIV status (negative) and logistics. They decided Rubenfeld would bear the child because Alberts is diabetic and pregnancy could be dangerous. They all signed a contract specifying that Hough has no financial or legal obligation. Then Rubenfeld figured out when she would be ovulating, and Hough flew down to donate his sperm so Alberts could artificially inseminate her at home. Nine months later, Lily was born.

Two daughters, two very different families. One haunted by secrecy, the other determined to be open. In the last few years, families headed by gay parents have stepped out of the shadows and moved toward the mainstream. Researchers believe the number of gay families is steadily increasing, although no one knows exactly how many there are. Estimates range from 6 million to 14 million children with at least one gay parent. Adoption agencies report more and more inquiries from prospective parents--especially men--who identify themselves as gay, and sperm banks say they're in the midst of what some call a ""gayby boom'' propelled by lesbians.

But being open does not always mean being accepted. Many Americans are still very uncomfortable with the idea of gay parents--either because of religious objections, genuine concern for the welfare of the children or bias against homosexuals in general. In a recent NEWSWEEK survey, almost half of those polled felt gays should not be allowed to adopt, although 57 percent thought gays could be just as good at parenting as straight people. Despite the tolerance of big companies like IBM, most gay partners do not receive spousal health benefits. Congress recently passed--and President Clinton signed--a bill allowing states to ban same-sex marriages. Only 13 states specifically permit single lesbians or gay men to adopt, according to the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a gay-rights advocacy group. Even then, usually only one partner is the parent of record--leaving the other in legal limbo. Courts have allowed adoptions by a second parent (either gay or straight) in some of those states, although the law is still in flux. In California, for example, Gov. Pete Wilson has been lobbying hard against his state's fairly open procedure for second-parent adoptions.

Dealing with other people's prejudices continues to be a rite of passage for children in gay families. Merle, 14, lives north of Boston with her mother, Molly, and her mother's partner, Laura. Over the years she has learned to ignore the name-calling--gay, queer, faggot--from kids who know her mother is a lesbian and assume she must be one, too (as far as she knows, she isn't). And there are other painful memories, like the time in fifth grade when a friend suddenly ""changed her mind'' about sleeping over. Merle later learned that the girl's parents had found out about Molly and Laura and wouldn't let their daughter associate with Merle. One day in sixth-grade health class, the teacher asked for examples of different kinds of families. When Merle raised her hand and said, ""lesbian,'' the teacher responded: ""This is such a nice town. There wouldn't be any lesbians living here.''

Gays say they hope that being honest with the outside world will ultimately increase tolerance, just as parenthood makes them feel more connected to their communities. ""It sort of gets you into the Mom and Dad clubs of America,'' says Jenifer Firestone, a lesbian mother and gay-family educator in Boston. Having a child can also repair strained family relations; mothers and fathers who may have once turned their backs on gay sons and daughters often find it emotionally impossible to ignore their grandchildren.

Still, the outlook for children in this new generation of gay families is unclear. Only a few have even reached school age, so there are no long-term studies available of what the effects of growing up in such a family might be. Researchers do have some data on kids who grew up about the same time that Claire was living with Lee and Dorothy in Chicago. Most were born to a married mother and father who later split up. If the children were young, they generally wound up living with their mother, as did the majority of children of divorce. Pressures were often intense. The children worried about losing friends, while the mothers worried about losing custody if anyone found out about their sexual orientation. Yet despite these problems, the families were usually emotionally cohesive. In a comprehensive 1992 summary of studies of gay parenting, psychologist Charlotte Patterson of the University of Virginia concluded that the children are just as well adjusted (i.e., they do not have any more psychological problems and do just as well in school) as the offspring of heterosexual parents. The studies also show that as adults, they are no more likely to be gay than are children of straight parents.

The new generation of gay parents is far more diverse and will be harder to analyze. Often they are already in stable partnerships when they decide to start a family. They include lesbian couples who give birth through artificial insemination (the donors can be friends or anonymous contributors to a sperm bank); gay dads who adopt, hire surrogate mothers or pair up with lesbian friends to co-parent, and the more traditional--in this context, at least--parents who started out in heterosexual unions.

Usually they try to settle in a relatively liberal community within a large urban area like Boston, Chicago or Los Angeles, where their children will be able to mix with all kinds of families. They often join one of the many support groups that have been springing up around the country, like Gay and Lesbian Parents Coalition International or COLAGE, an acronym for Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere. The support groups form a kind of extended family, a shelter against the often hostile outside world.

A decade ago, when gay parents routinely hid their sexual orienation, the issues of differences rarely came up in school. But now gay parents say they try to be straightforward from the first day of class. Marilyn Morales, 34, and her partner, Angela Diaz, 37, live on Chicago's Northwest Side with their son, Christopher, 6, and their 4-month-old daughter, Alejandra, both conceived through artificial insemination. Registering Christopher for school proved to be an education for everyone. Because Morales appeared to be a single mother, a school official asked whether the family was receiving welfare. When Morales explained the situation, the woman was clearly embarrassed. ""People don't know how to react,'' says Diaz. At Christopher's first soccer game, Diaz had to fill out a form that asked for ""father's name.'' She scratched out ""father's name'' and wrote ""Marilyn Morales.'' Both Morales and Diaz feel Christopher is more accepted now. ""At birthday parties people say, "Here comes Christopher's moms','' says Morales. Dazelle Steele's son Kyle is a friend of Christopher's, and the two boys often sleep over at each other's home. ""They're such great parents,'' Steele says of Diaz and Morales. ""Their actions spoke louder to me than rhetoric about their political decisions.''

To the parents, each new encounter can feel like coming out all over again. Brian and Bernie are a Boston-area couple who don't want their last names used because they are in the process of finalizing the adoptions of two boys, ages 12 and 6. A few years ago, Brian dreaded meeting the older boy's Cub Scout leader because the man had actively tried to block a sex-education curriculum in the schools. But his son Ryan wanted badly to join the Scouts, and Brian felt he needed to tell the man that the boy's parents were gay. As it turned out, the session went better than Brian had expected. ""People challenge themselves, and people grow,'' Brian says. But, he adds, ""as out as I am, I still feel the blood pressure go up, I sweat profusely, I'm red in the face as I tell him I'm gay, that I have a partner and that Ryan has two dads. I always think how it looks to Ryan. I'm always hoping he doesn't see me sweat.''

Even in the relatively more tolerant '90s, gay parents ""always feel threatened,'' says April Martin, a New York family therapist who is also a lesbian mother and the author of ""The Lesbian and Gay Parenting Handbook.'' ""How can you feel secure when it's still legal for someone to tear apart your family?'' The parents are haunted by such well-publicized legal cases as the 1995 Virginia Supreme Court ruling that Sharon Bottoms was an unfit parent because she is a lesbian; she had to surrender custody of her 5-year-old son, Tyler, to her mother. In Florida this summer, the state appeals court ruled that John Ward, who was convicted of murdering his first wife in 1974, was a more fit parent than his ex-wife Mary, a lesbian.

Catherine Harris, 41, a university administrator in Boston, knows only too well the pain of these legal battles. Ten years ago, she was married and the mother of a toddler daughter, Tayler. Then she fell in love with Paula Vincent, now 38, a nurse-midwife. During the divorce Harris's husband fought for custody of Tayler, and Harris's parents, who disapproved of her new identity as a lesbian, testified against her. Her ex-husband won.

Harris is still on rocky terms with her parents and her ex-husband, but she and Vincent have started a new family of their own that now includes Sora, 7, and her twin siblings, Kaelyn and Marilla, 22 months. In contrast to Tayler, Sora knows her biological father only as ""the donor.'' She has seen the vial his sperm came in and knows that her biological mother, Vincent, and Harris chose him because--according to the questionnaire he filled out at the sperm bank--he was well educated, spiritual and optimistic. ""I don't really want a dad,'' says Sora. ""I like having two moms.''

But problems can arise even in the most innocent situations. Wayne Steinman and Sal Iacullo didn't truly understand their fragile footing until Labor Day weekend a few years ago, when they drove to Disney World from their home in New York City. As they passed through Virginia, Steinman was at the steering wheel; Iacullo was in the back seat with their adopted daughter, Hope, now 9. They noticed a pickup truck sticking close to them, and when they pulled off the highway to get lunch the truck followed. Just as they were getting ready to pay the bill, two highway patrolmen walked in and started questioning them. The driver of the pickup had called the cops because he suspected the fathers of kidnapping. Fortunately, Steinman and Iacullo were able to convince the patrolmen that they were, in fact, Hope's parents. ""From that point on, we carried the adoption papers in our pockets,'' says Iacullo.

Legalities aside, gay parents--and those who disapprove of gay families--are also concerned about issues of the children's emotional development. Most same-sex parents say they make a special effort to ensure that their kids learn to relate to adults of the opposite sex. Their situation is not that different from that of heterosexual single parents, and the solution is often the same: persuading aunts, uncles or grandparents to be part of their children's lives. Hope Steinman-Iacullo, for example, oftens visits with her grandmother, her aunts and her teenage cousins. ""There are a lot of female role models,'' says Iacullo.

Psychologists say the best time to tell kids how their families are different is either in childhood or in late adolescence. Young adolescents--from about ages 11 to 15--are particularly vulnerable because they are struggling with their own issues of sexual identity. George Kuhlman and his ex-wife shared joint custody of their daughter, Annie, who was 13 when their marriage fell apart in the early 1980s. But although Annie talked to her father nearly every day of her life, he never told her he was gay. ""Several of my friends and even family members had been of the opinion that there might be some real psychological damage and some anger if I didn't make the disclosure,'' says Kuhlman, now 49 and the ethics counsel for the American Bar Association in Chicago. ""That was the bear breathing down my neck.'' But the timing never seemed right.

Then, one day when Annie was a college freshman, he called to say goodbye as he was about to head off for a Caribbean vacation with a male friend. ""She just said, "Dad, I know. I've known for a long time... I just thought you and Tom would have a much nicer time and a happier vacation if you know that I knew and I love you.' I pretty much fell to pieces.'' Annie, now 24, says she is happy she learned about her father when she was an adult. His sexuality isn't an issue now, she says. ""When you have a dedicated parent, it matters less.''

And, ultimately, it is the quality of the parenting--not the parents' lifestyle--that matters most to kids. Sexual orientation alone doesn't make a person a good or bad parent. In Maplewood, N.J., Charlie and Marc are raising 17-month-old Olivia, whom they adopted. Last Christmas she had a lead role in their church's holiday pageant. ""So you had a little Chinese girl of two gay parents who was the baby Jesus,'' says Charlie. Adds Marc: ""It gives a whole new meaning to the word "Mary'.'' As she gets older, Charlie and Marc say, they'll explain to Olivia why her family is unusual. ""I think Olivia is so lucky to have the opportunity to be different,'' says Marc. ""And that's what I intend to teach her.''

In the most recent Newsweek Poll, 57% of the adults surveyed said they think gay people can be as good at parenting as straight people; only 31% said they didn't think so. 36% of those surveyed think gay couples should have the right to adopt, as c ompared with 29% in 1994; 47% oppose gay adoption rights, down from 65% in 1994.

The acceptance of gay men and lesbians as parents varies from state to state. This overview is based on information provided by the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a gay civil-rights group that looked at adoption law and custody decisions.


MCGUIRE, 18, is a freshman at Mills College in Oakland, Calif.

WHEN I WAS growing up, the words ""fag'' and ""queer'' and ""dyke'' were everywhere, even though we lived in a relatively tolerant community, Cambridge, Mass. I even used them myself to put down someone I didn't like. If you were a fag or a dyke, you were an outcast. All that changed when I was 12. My mother had a friend, Barb, who started spending the night, though she lived minutes away. One night when Barb wasn't there, I asked my mother, ""Are you gay?'' I can only remember the ""yes''--and the crying. All I could think was that she couldn't be gay. It wasn't fair. She was one of ""those'' people.

I always thought my family was normal. By the time I was 5, my mother and father no longer lived together. My brother and I split our time between our parents. My father remarried, and my mother dated men. We assumed our parents were straight. That's all you see on TV.

As it turned out, we didn't have a stereotypical family. The years after my mother came out to me were very difficult for me and my brother. We had just moved from Washington, D.C. We had to start over, and at the same time we had to lie about our mom. In school I wanted to be liked, so I laughed at the jokes about gays. I had yet to figure out how to make a friend I could trust with my secret. I wasn't ready to talk about my family because I wasn't ready to deal with it myself.

High school was the hardest. I was into all kinds of clubs, but I was afraid everything I had gained socially would disappear if anyone ever found out that while they went home after volleyball practice to their Brady Bunch dinners with Mom and Dad, I went home to two moms. My brother and I would never allow Mom and Barb to walk together or sit next to each other in a restaurant. We wouldn't have people spend the night; if we did have friends over, we would hide the gay literature and family pictures. When a friend asked about the pink triangle on our car, my brother told him it was a used car and we hadn't had time to take the sticker off. We lived like this for three years, until we moved to a house with a basement apartment. We told our friends Barb lived there. It was really a guest room.

Ironically, our home life then was really the same as a straight family's. We had family meetings, fights, trips and dinners. My brother and I came to accept Barb as a parent. There were things she could never have with us the way our mother did. But she helped support us while my mother got her Ph.D. in public health. And she pushed my brother and me to succeed in school, just like a mom.

With the help of a really great counselor and a friend who had a ""it's not a big deal and I knew anyway'' attitude, I started to become more comfortable with my two-mom family. The spring of my junior year, a local newspaper interviewed me for an article on gay families. I was relieved, but also afraid. The day the article appeared was incredibly tense. I felt like everyone was looking at me and talking about me. One kid said to my brother, ""I saw the article, you fag.'' My brother told him to get lost. Some people avoided me, but most kids were curious about my family. People asked if I was gay. I chose not to answer; as teenagers, most of us can't explain the feelings in our minds and bodies.

Last year, in my final year of high school, I decided to speak at our school's National Coming Out Day. Sitting up front were my best friend, my mother, my brother and my counselor, Al. That day was the best. I no longer had to laugh at the jokes or keep a secret. I hoped I was making a path for others like me: a kid with a gay parent, scared and feeling alone. After my speech, I lost some friends and people made remarks that hurt. But that only made me stronger. The hardest thing to deal with is other people's ignorance, not the family part. That's just like any other family.