It's a little after 5 on a Sunday afternoon, and a house full of moms and kids have gathered for the monthly potluck dinner and social evening of "In the Family," a 7-year-old support group for same-sex parents in Richmond. The group's hosts this month are Tami Fraser and Dianna Mines, who live in a West End subdivision with a green lawn and rocking horses at the ready on the porch, should any of their four children (two sets of twins, 4 and 2) be in the mood for a trot.
Much has changed in the world since 1996, when "In the Family" was born. The 1990 census was the first to offer an "unmarried partners" category. Between that census and the next in 2000, the number of lesbian and gay couples reporting in that category grew by 314 percent from 145,130 to 601,209. The increase is partly attributable to a change in data analysis, experts say: In 1990, Census Bureau computers apparently were stymied by same-sex couples who identified themselves as "married." Rather than adding them to the new "unmarried partners" category, computers changed the gender of one person and the couple was recorded as a heterosexual married pair. But, the increase from 1990 to 2000 also reflects the increased comfort that many gay couples have in identifying themselves as such.
Nationally, lesbians and gays are growing increasingly visible. A report using 2000 census figures, prepared by the country's largest lesbian and gay political organization, the Human Rights Campaign, states that "gay and lesbian families live in 99.3 percent of all counties in the United States compared to 1990 when gay and lesbian families reported living in 52 percent of all counties."
The report cites Richmond as having the 16th highest percentage of coupled households that are gay and lesbian. Arlington County and Alexandria City in Virginia rank fifth and eighth, respectively.
In recent years, references to the "gayby boom" have appeared in the media when in-the-spotlight lesbian women or couples have added "mother" to their resumes (think Rosie O'Donnell, Melissa Etheridge and Julie Cypher). But you have to look away from the spotlight to get the bigger picture: A Census Bureau report released in March 2003 shows that nationwide, there were 1,653,000 same-sex couples. Of these, 34.3 percent of the female-partner households and 22.3 percent of male-partner households are raising children.
There always have been gay or lesbian parents raising children, whether or not they've been tracked. What's changing is the number of couples who are starting their family lives as same-sex parents, rather than getting married, having children first, then living out their sexual identities later. "In the Family" is a microcosm of that change. "Being gay is not about being single anymore," says Dayle Winslow, one of the group's founders. "Just like straight couples, couples are getting together to have children. It's one of the first conversations couples have."
n the kitchen, women are discussing their favorite Grisham books and speculating on when "King of Torts" will be out in paperback. In the foyer, the topic is "Flylady," the online "coach" who gives free e-mail advice about home organization and de-cluttering. "You have to see this," Fraser says. She and Mines lead a couple of moms upstairs, turn right and present their newly cleaned bedroom. Their Shaker-style bed is neatly made, smoothly covered by a green flannel comforter patterned with spruce trees.
"We pulled five boxes of stuff out of here last night, all to give away," Mines says.
"And we probably filled two green garbage bags before that," Fraser adds.
In the older twins' room across the hallway, two beds are end-to-end against one wall. Against another wall is a set of large wooden cubes, neatly packed with books, puzzles, toys and trinkets. Fraser sits in the rocking chair and watches as Jaylan, 4, who is playing on her bed, suddenly darts across the room and grabs a small, framed picture. "Mom, Harry Potter's on your head," Jaylan teases, reaching up to flutter the picture through Fraser's hair.
The group's numbers are burgeoning today, and the children (most of whom are younger than 6) outnumber the adults by at least two to one. Contrast that to the original group, which in 1996 consisted of three expectant lesbian couples and two founders: Dayle Winslow, who had just become a grandmother and a godmother, and her partner, Dale Mabry. The group came together through the Metropolitan Community Church in the Fan, which encourages congregants to form common-interest "clusters." The three expectant couples bonded over their pregnancies. Winslow and Mabry often called "the Dales" by their huge community of friends got involved because they wanted to stay in touch with the other expectant women, who were their friends, and because they wanted their grandchildren to grow up knowing other families headed by lesbian couples.
As the months went by and the couples transitioned into parenthood, the group gained momentum. Everyone enjoyed the opportunity to gather regularly with other new families. But more importantly, the meetings offered these parents an opportunity to consider some of the specific issues they'd face as their children grew up: What would be the best way to tell teachers or administrators about their family status? How could a family with this structure protect itself from meddlesome acquaintances or neighbors? Where could parents find storybooks or videos depicting same-sex families, so the children would see their own lives reflected back to them?
As the months went by, the Dales decided to expand the group beyond the context of the church and open it to lesbian or gay couples in the greater community. The numbers climbed. Though the group has occasionally drawn gay dads, through the years it has been attended predominantly by women.
The Dales were a natural fit to provide initial leadership to the group. As a new couple themselves, they had plenty of initiative for community-building. And they were the only couple involved without young children at home (or on the way), which left them with more energy and focus to follow through on their ideas.
Winslow, a social worker in Richmond for 30 years, has a knack for networking and organization. She helped the group expand and take on a more definite form: The first hour and a half was a "program" of some sort a discussion, a guest speaker, a book review and the second hour and a half was for potluck and socializing. Mabry was happy to hang out with the babies and children in the playroom.
Guest speakers during those first years included:
n An attorney to give legal advice. Because same-sex marriages are not recognized in any legal sense in Virginia, it takes some work for partners to effectively safeguard their children's and each other's futures.
n A child psychologist to discuss raising emotionally healthy children.
n A CPA to discuss the best ways for lesbian couples to file taxes together with a dependent in the picture.
n Obstetricians/gynecologists, doulas and pediatricians.
n A school social worker to talk about general subjects such as school readiness and issues more specific to this community, such as coming out to teachers.
Winslow often reviewed books for the group, aiming to find selections for every age group. She eventually put together a comprehensive book list for families in the group. The reading suggestions range from issue-oriented books, to basic storybooks or alphabet books that depict same-sex parents, to titles that deal with having gay grandparents.
The Dales ran the group from its inception until just a few months ago. Now both 55, the recently retired couple is enjoying a long-awaited opportunity to travel, and the group leadership has been turned over to members. Mabry doesn't have children of her own, but Winslow has a daughter and a son. Her daughter, Shannon, is married (to a man) and has two daughters, ages 6 and 2. Shannon has brought her children to "In the Family" meetings many times, and she says her older daughter, Maki, 6, met her best friend there. "Going to the group is a way for my kids to stay connected to their grandmas," Shannon says. "Plus Maki wants to go because she has friends there. She understands that [one friend] has two moms, [another friend] has two dads, and she's got a mom and a dad. To be honest, she hasn't questioned it yet."
The group in its current form is less structured than it was in its early years. There's seldom an official program anymore, mostly informal conversation. For one thing, there seem to be approximately 11,000 small, rambunctious bodies present for each meeting, and much of the parents' attention goes to helping them navigate new toys and playmates. Perhaps another reason is that most of these parents are too busy raising their children to organize such programs. But after listening to the confidence and optimism expressed by these moms, it's easy to consider a third reason: The programs that were needed by the group's first wave of parents are simply not as urgent today.
tanding in the Fraser-Mines kitchen with paper plates, managing an occasional bite for themselves while also attempting to feed the moving targets that are their children, the moms in this group report favorably on their family's experiences.
Stella Graham-Landau notes that her 8-year-old daughter, Ellie, sometimes shares her family's makeup at the grocery store. "I have two moms!" she'll cheerfully report to other shoppers in line, Graham-Landau says. "And people almost always say, 'Aren't you lucky!'" she adds. "She gets a nice reaction 100 percent of the time."
Another mom has noticed a "copycat" factor among her young daughter's pals. "When I pick up my daughter at day care, kids come up to me and say, 'I have two moms, too!' because they want to be like their friend," she says. Her child isn't singled out in any negative way for her family structure, she says, partly because the prevalence of stepfamilies these days has put plenty of other kids in similar situations: They have two moms, too.
Certainly there are challenges that come with being a less traditional family in a mainstream world. But often, that mainstream world is quite supportive. Carol Schall recalls that at daughter Emily's day care last year, there was a "celebration of dads," concluding with a luncheon. Emily's teacher made a point of telling Schall and her partner, Mary Townley, about the plan in advance, and welcomed them to invite a male relative or friend. Schall and Townley invited a close friend of the family who also is Emily's godfather, and all went well. Schall says she struggles much more with other issues than she does with their family structure. "I worry more about how to handle violence in the world and its influence on Emily," she says.
This group has come a long way in seven years. Its members have prayed for success at insemination appointments and cried for joy in maternity wards; they've traveled to foreign countries to adopt babies; they've hashed out wills, second-parent adoptions and other legal documents that define and protect their families; they've juggled expenses and logistics to allow for stay-at-home parenting; they've enrolled children in public and private schools, often coming out to teachers and administrators in the process. And they've done it all in Richmond, a city that many consider one of the most conservative on the East Coast.
"Those first families were truly pioneers," reflects Winslow, sitting on a sofa in the comfortable East End home she shares with Mabry, " even just going to the hospital to have the baby and not keeping their identity and relationship secret." Winslow has lively blue eyes, softly cropped gray hair and a peaceful air about her that fits right in with the pastoral view through the window.
Mary Gay Hutcherson, a LCSW and school social worker with Chesterfield County Schools, has spoken with the group through the years and commented in a recent e-mail: "What a dedicated group of parents! I was delighted at the thoughtful attention these parents were giving to parenting."
When moms in the group contemplate their success as parents, they have some definite ideas about why they're doing so well: "I think we're far more prepared as parents," says Schall. "This doesn't happen by accident!"
"There's an intentionality here," another mom agrees. "We don't have unwanted children."
Lest this all sound like some sort of easy ride, however, it must be noted that some issues are not changing so quickly. One common issue among all of these women is fear that something could be done by a teacher, a neighbor or even a relative to interfere with their families. Most don't live their lives in reaction to that fear, they say, but it's an undercurrent nonetheless. For every family in this group willing to be identified in this story, there were two who weren't. Even for those who are out in their communities, many don't feel safe enough to have their names or photos appear publicly.
Society has yet to completely embrace these types of families. Plenty of child welfare and mental health professionals have expressed their beliefs that a parent's sexual orientation has nothing to do with his or her ability to be a good parent. Organizations that have issued such statements include the American Psychological Association, the Child Welfare League of America, the American Bar Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Family Physicians. Yet there are many voices out there claiming otherwise, and sometimes those voices belong to people with enough power to break up a family (judges or employers, for example). So some of these parents are simply more comfortable keeping a low profile.
Still, it's worth noting that even the concept of a low profile has changed in recent years. The vast majority of the moms in this group don't attempt to hide from neighbors, teachers, pastors or anyone else involved in their children's lives. How can they, when they are driving carpools, helping at church, volunteering in classrooms or hosting play dates? They don't broadcast their family status from the rooftops, but they don't live double lives, either, they say and that's a big change from a generation ago.
Another challenge these families face is the lack of legally binding ties between partners. Graham-Landau, for example, pays $600 monthly in health insurance because she can't be covered under her partner's policy. Other women in the group find themselves in the same boat, depending on their partner's employer's policy. That can be particularly challenging when a couple chooses to have one partner stay home and raise children, as many of this group's families have.
"Paying such a high premium for health insurance affects the entire family's financial status," Schall says. "That's what kills me when people say we want 'special treatment.'"
These women hope that politicians and policymakers will right what they consider remaining inequities. And they lend their support to such issues. But they have a more immediate challenge to meet every day: being thoughtful, open, devoted parents.
"There is a mentoring aspect to the group now," Winslow says. "Couples with older children are really a gift to those with younger ones." She considers her involvement with the group a gift, as well. "As a social worker here for 30 years," she says, "I saw the other end of the spectrum. I always found this group such a celebration of family, especially when you know what's going on in so many other families in Richmond. Families that wouldn't be scrutinized [for their makeup]."
Mabry, Winslow's partner, is somewhat pokerfaced. She wears a maroon polo shirt and jeans, and sits across the room from Winslow. When she speaks, it's heartfelt: "I don't think you could find any better parents than the parents we know. These are stable families. They're responsible in their jobs, they're involved with their kids." A tiny smile creeps up on her. "I never thought I'd have kids. And now I'm a grandmother." S
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