Gay Today: The Family

Jacob Williams was playing in the sandbox at his preschool when he got the first hint that there was something unusual about his family. One little girl kept asking him the same question every day: "Where is your dad?" And every day, Jacob gave her the same answer: "I don't have a dad. I have two moms." She walked away confused until the day she finally marched up to one of Jacob's moms, Teresa Williams, 43. "I figured it out," the little girl announced. "I have two granddads, so I guess he can have two moms."

If only it was always that easy for other people to accept how Williams and her partner, Jo Deutsch, 40, came to be the parents of Jacob, now 9, and Matthew, 5. But for this lesbian couple, raising two boys in the Maryland suburbs has been a sometimes painful journey. Even the simplest exchanges with the rest of the world can be fraught with anxiety. "One of our neighbors has never spoken to us," says Williams. "When we go out, he goes in. But we don't know if that's just the way he is or if it's because we're lesbians."

When they decided to have children 10 years ago, the idea of a family headed by two mothers was so new that Williams and Deutsch weren't even sure they would be welcome in a hospital delivery room. And indeed, after one of the boys was born, a doctor followed the new mother back to her room and handed her a Biblical quotation on the evils of homosexuality. She finally had to call security to get the doctor to leave.

Now, the two women have had to become experts on the special legal and emotional problems gay parents must contend with: adoption, medical benefits, the stares they sometimes get when they hold hands at the mall. Nobody knows how many gay parents there are, although most experts agree the numbers have increased dramatically in the last decade. Initiatives like the recent ban on gay marriages in California hits home for these couples; when they're denied the same legal rights as heterosexuals, gay partners like Williams and Deutsch must learn to work around the rules in their own way.

Williams and Deutsch each gave birth to one boy (they don't want to say which, just as they guard their privacy about how they got pregnant). When Matthew was 6 months old and Jacob was 5, each woman adopted the other's birth child (gays can adopt in every state except Florida). "We understand that we are not what many Americans feel is a normal family, with legal rights," says Deutsch, a labor-union lobbyist. "There are precautions we have to take, especially when we travel. We have to carry our wills around with us, as well as our power of attorney and guardianship papers. If anything happens, we have our papers in hand to prove that the other one is also a parent."

They chose to live in more liberal Maryland, rather than conservative Virginia. Their house is just up the road from an American Legion post, in a town filled with neat, red-brick colonials and "Welcome" flags hanging over the front door--just like theirs. The tip-offs that they are different are subtle: the rainbow mat on their front stoop and the love makes a family bumper sticker with the lambda design (the lambda is a symbol widely adopted by gays) that is forever getting yanked off their station wagon. "We could easily pass for suburban moms in a way that almost makes us invisible," says Williams, a massage therapist who stays home with the kids. Although they dread the negative reactions they sometimes get, they've decided to be upfront about who they are. "Many Americans haven't come into personal contact with lesbians and gay men," says Deutsch, "and we hope that when they see us, they think, 'They look just like us. They have kids like us. Their kids play with Pokemon just like ours do.' We think it's imperative that people realize we're not that different."

Jacob and Matthew call their mothers Mommy T and Mommy Jo--even though that often elicits odd looks from strangers. (Some lesbian parents use just first names, Deutsch explains, "but we are more traditionalist.") They kiss each other goodbye when Deutsch leaves for work in the morning, even if other children are around. They each wear a wedding ring although they cannot legally marry. "Matthew recently asked if we were married," Williams says. "I assured him that we were married in our hearts, but according to the law, two men or two women couldn't get married. I could tell he was grappling mightily with that... If we could do it for him, we would."

They often have the experience of being the first lesbians, and the first lesbian parents, that most of their acquaintances have ever met. That can be stressful. Last week Deutsch went to watch her kids' drama rehearsal. "It was the first time I had met this group of mothers, and when I walked in, I felt like a spotlight was on me," says Deutsch, "because they had never met Teresa's partner before. I felt a lot of pressure to be animated and clever, even though I was really tired from working all day."

They're home-schooling the boys--not to insulate them from potentially troublesome situations but because they think they can do a better job. Jacob was in preschool for three years and Williams and Deutsch believed he wasn't learning. "He likes to take things in his own stride," says Williams. But home schooling does give them more control over their kids' contacts. The kids have lots of interaction with youngsters from straight families in their home-schooling group. In addition to the community drama group, they go to dance, gymnastics, art, Little League and a reading club.

They make no particular arrangements to have the boys spend time with men--and there is no special man in their lives. The women do have lots of gay and straight male friends whom the boys know. Deutsch says she sometimes wonders if that's enough male attention. "Jacob is old enough now for some of these questions," she says. "I asked him recently if he thought he was spending too much time with women and he looked at me like I was nuts. It sounds so trite, but what children really need is love and security, an understanding that someone is there for them, and will play sports with them and read with them or whatever they want to do."

Williams and Deutsch are always surprised that strangers think they can ask intimate details about how they had their children. "They would never ask a straight woman that kind of question," Deutsch says. "My feeling is, it's none of their business. People always ask whose child is whose. We feel like both are both of ours and find the question very offensive." With the boys, they keep things simple, using a children's book on sexuality. "It talks about donors and putting sperm and eggs together," says Williams, "and says that making a baby doesn't necessarily involve intercourse... All we've told them is that a very nice man helped us, and that's how it is. We haven't gone into more detail."

Growing up, neither woman ever imagined she would someday be a role model. Deutsch grew up in Miami, in a family that stressed academics. "I thought of myself as a feminist and a nerdy intellectual," she says. "I didn't go out much. But my perception of myself was that I was straight. I hung out with straight women, and went to straight parties." In college, she had relationships with both men and women, but considered herself bisexual and came close to being engaged to a man. She met Williams at a NOW convention 20 years ago. They were just close friends until 1984, when, she says, "we realized we were right for each other and decided we wanted to spend our life together." Deutsch's parents and her straight siblings have been accepting, and relations improved when she produced the family's only grandchildren.

Williams, who grew up in a fundamentalist household in the Deep South, came out in college. When she told her parents, they were devastated. "My mother went through a grieving process," she says. "This was the worst thing that could happen, they thought." To this day, her mother still isn't comfortable with her daughter's choices. "My mother loves the children," Williams says, "but she just cannot come to terms with the lesbianism. We have been to see her, but she will not come here." Her father initially banned her partner at the time from the house. A week later, he relented. He took both of them out for a drive in his pickup and said, "I've thought about this a lot and... people are people. And you're both welcome any time." That conversation, Williams says, "was the last I had with him alive, face to face. He was killed in a car accident not long after that. But I often think what a gift that was to me."

Both women always wanted to be mothers. "There's a picture of me as a child wearing a cowboy outfit," recalls Williams. "I always wanted to wear the pants and not the skirt. But in my arms is a baby doll." After they got together, having kids seemed natural. "All I knew," says Deutsch, "was that we really loved each other and we were sure our love would last a lifetime, and that we had a lot to contribute to kids." They felt like pioneers when they joined other lesbians in a "maybe baby" group that met to discuss the pros and cons, as well as the ways and means, of having kids. At that time the number of lesbian parents in the area was so small that, Williams says, they thought they knew all of them. Now when they go to functions for gay families, the room is crowded with hundreds of people.

There's strength in those numbers, and both women believe their sons are growing up with a profound sense of diversity and tolerance. Jacob shrugs when asked why some people don't like his family. "There are some families with two moms," he says, in a matter-of-fact manner, "and some with two dads. There are some with a mom and a dad, and there are some with kids and some without kids. I think they're all good." What makes a good family? "People care and are kind to each other."

Williams and Deutsch dream of a world where everyone they meet would possess that same generosity of spirit. They're not there yet. "It never quite goes away that you are a minority that is disliked by lots of people," Deutsch says. "You have to keep your guard up all the time." But some dreams do come true. "When I was 8 years old," Deutsch says, "I was playing with dolls and thinking what it would be like to be married. I imagined a life like I have now. The difference is I didn't marry Ken. I married Barbie." Most of the time, that's almost enough.

Photo: HOME FRONT: Williams (right) plays with Matthew as Deutsch and Jacob look on. "They don't understand why people hate us,' Williams says of the boys.

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