Now more than ever, gays and lesbians are choosing to raise kids. So Metrosource set out to explore the journeys of these parents — with two dads who’ve been raising sons for decades, the moms of a young daughter, and a couple anxiously awaiting their big chance.
Even under the best of circumstances, raising a family can be a daunting challenge. Yet it’s one that the LGBT community is embracing: Studies estimate that between 2 and 6 million children in the United States are raised by LGBT parents today.
Mark Pedersen and his husband Rod Howe are the parents of two sons — one is 29 and the other is 17 years old. Both were adopted as infants in Cambodia — nearly a decade apart. Pedersen recalls that he initially approached the idea of parenting with a mixture of excitement and fear. “What did I know about parenting?” he wondered. “Who was going to allow two gay men in 1987 adopt any child?”
”I had never considered the possibility of becoming a parent before I met Rod,” Pedersen explains. To him: “I was gay and the two didn’t mix. Rod was the first man to present the possibility that two men could raise children.”
“It was just something I knew would be part of my life,” says Howe. “The fact that it would mean being part of a gay couple was secondary.”
The couple began their journey to parenthood within the first year of their relationship. “When we met,” says Pedersen, “I told him that I was HIV positive and he told me that he wanted to live on a farm in upstate New York and raise children. [He] didn’t see any of this as mutually exclusive, and so I was drawn in by his optimism.”
“In 1986, there were limited options,” explains Howe. “At the time, we were in Massachusetts, where fostering was not an option. We ended up marching in front of then-Governor Michael Dukakis’ house on Mother’s Day 1987 protesting this discriminatory policy.”
“Our social worker steered us to international adoption,” says Pedersen, “with me posing as a single man. There were a few countries willing to deal with single men. My social worker coached me how to answer questions that would not disqualify me as a potential parent.”
Despite the challenges they faced early in the process, Howe remembers being “pleasantly surprised” once they had adopted their first son Veasna and it came time to make decisions about schooling. “This small rural school district in an upstate New York town of 1,800 residents did not skip a beat [even though] I am sure that we were the first openly gay couple to enroll a child in their elementary school — and this was an overwhelmingly Caucasian school district receiving our five-year-old Cambodian son,” he says.
Ultimately Howe and Pedersen’s interactions with the school focused on making sure their son was receiving the educational attention he needed. “The fact that he had two gay dads was very secondary,” they recall. The couple feel it helped that they approached the school community with a positive attitude: “We knew that there was nothing wrong and nothing to hide, and people seemed to read that.”
DISPELLING THE MYTHS
It’s in part because pioneering gay parents like Pedersen and Howe took risks when they did that many negative myths about gay parenting are being disproven. For example, a January 2015 study by Columbia Law School examined three decades of research and found that children are at no disadvantage from being raised by same-sex parents. This confirms many other studies that have determined there are no differences in the social and behavioral outcomes for children of same-sex parents compared to kids raised with other parental configurations.
CNN political commentator and Daily Beast columnist Sally Kohn, is raising her six-year-old daughter in Brooklyn with longtime partner Sarah Hansen. “There’s no doubt we have the privilege [of living] in such a diverse community,” says Kohn. She happily notes that “having two moms [has been] a source of joy, as well as humor, for our daughter — like when she would brag to the straight moms at day care about how she has two moms and the straight moms would reply, ‘You don’t know how lucky you are.’ Those moments are priceless.”
Hansen confirms, “I think our daughter feels as lucky to have us as we are to have her.”
Kohn has seen firsthand evidence of society’s move towards a greater acceptance of family diversity. “In our daughter’s first grade class,” she says, “there are three other gay families — which, including us, basically means that 15 percent of the class are from gay families. That’s awesome! And [our daughter’s] experience has been like that since preschool,” she marvels. “I hope every kid in the world can eventually grow up surrounded by such a wide range of loving families.”
Happily, an accepting school environment is increasingly something same-sex parents can demand. “Schools need to place a high priority on inclusivity and make sure that all parents feel welcomed into the community at large, and — more specifically — at school events and activities,” says Erica Papir, director of admissions at Manhattan’s Caedmon School. “We must also continually be sensitive to how families want to be recognized, identified and introduced,” she adds.
To that end, The Caedmon School regularly hosts speakers and workshops that address social justice — such as Border Crossers, an organization which trains and equips educators to have meaningful conversations about identity. “Diversity is one of the four cornerstone values of the school,” states Papir. “A vital component of that is welcoming all families. All kinds of family structures are introduced to our students through the curriculum, through books in the library, and in discussions in class. By enrolling at Caedmon, families are signing on to a mission of absolute respect and acceptance.”
Kohn notes that her experience has involved less concern about how she is being perceived as a same-sex parent and more change regarding her perception of others. “What’s been fascinating is how much [parenting] changed my relationships with other adults,” says Kohn. “Before we had a kid, I maybe thought of my social network more in terms of who was gay and who was straight or maybe who was single and who was coupled.”
“But now,” continues Hansen, “it’s [about] who has kids versus who doesn’t. Our world is more organized that way, and you feel this instant connection to anyone who has kids, whether they’re gay or straight and coupled or not. [Other parents] get it, and it’s nice to have that immediate commonality with such a range of people.”
GAINING ACCEPTANCE, LEGAL AND OTHERWISE
Even the highest court in the land has acknowledged the importance of same-sex parent-led families. One of many remarkable passages in the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 2015 ruling, which called for nationwide same-sex marriage stated that one “basis for protecting the right to marry is that it safeguards children and families and thus draws meaning from related rights of child-rearing, procreation and education.”
The Court specifically noted the important role adoption has played in our community: “Most States have allowed gays and lesbians to adopt, either as individuals or as couples, and many adopted and foster children have same-sex parents. This provides powerful confirmation from the law itself that gays and lesbians can create loving, supportive families.”
However, prior to recent advances in marriage equality, adoption was a legal minefield for same-sex couples. “Before we were married,” Pedersen says, “we had to insure that ‘extra’ legal protections were in place, so that both boys were seen as both our children and that should anything happen to one of us, the other parent would be regarded as such.”
And even with the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage, same-sex couples and their children face numerous obstacles due to the variances of family law in different states. In couples where one parent is biological, the nonbiological parent still often needs to consider adoption to protect his or her parental rights. In Mississippi, this is not even an option, as the state expressly forbids joint adoptions by same-sex couples. Certain states have also enacted “religious exemption” laws that allow the denial of services, including foster care or adoption, to same-sex couples.
A MORE SUPPORTIVE WORLD
Jason Hunt and Alex Suarez are not dads yet, but their pursuit of parenthood commenced soon after they became a couple in 2008 (they later married in 2014). “Very early in our relationship, we discussed becoming fathers,” explains Hunt, who was raised in Massachusetts. “We love our respective families and we’re very family oriented.”
Suarez, who was born in Cuba but today teaches middle school in Miami, says that their decision to become parents has been greeted with “an unbelievable amount of support not just by people we know, but by complete strangers who have donated money to our GoFundMe page,” which the couple created to defray the costs of pursuing parenthood.
One of Suarez’s coworkers in the Miami-Dade County public school system even pulled him aside, confessing that she had been against same-sex parents until she’d seen Suarez and Hunt “as a couple who share a life and are now trying to form a family.” According to Suarez, “She has completely changed her mind [about same-sex parenting] and apologized to me for ever feeling otherwise.”
Like most male same-sex couples contemplating parenthood, Suarez and Hunt considered whether to pursue parenthood by surrogacy, by becoming foster parents or adopting. According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, the number of same-sex couples who have adopted children in the past decade has more than tripled. One recent study determined that same-sex couples raising adopted children are older, more educated, and have more economic resources than other adoptive parents. However, Hunt notes, “the adoption process is tough and expensive.”
“We first tried surrogacy with a friend,” explains Suarez, “but that was placing a strain on our friendship and, ultimately, we decided that open adoption is the best bet for us.”Though it’s impossible to predict how long the adoption process will take, it is possible that by the time Hunt and Suarez are raising their children, same-sex parenting will seem commonplace. “As more and more same-sex families are created,” states Suarez, “with time, the ‘new normal’ will simply be normal.”
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
Despite the fact that same-sex parents are increasingly more likely to be respected by the law, the school system and their communities, taking on the role still involves risks — from the often frustrating path to becoming parents in the first place and onward. But Kohn points out that “parenthood is risky, period. Being a same-sex parent may add a layer to it, especially in some places, but there are a million other challenges and complications.” On the other hand, there are rewards: Studies show that children in same-sex households are more often resilient, compassionate, tolerant and better able to talk about emotionally difficult topics.
With each new generation, the old, narrow definitions about what families should and shouldn’t be seem to fall further out of fashion. “All of our children [at Caedmon] are taught that a family is comprised of the people who love and care for you,” says Erica Papir. “Families come in all shapes and sizes and colors.”
And as for those naysayers who continue to deny the legitimacy of families led by same-sex parents, Hunt observes that — beyond continuing to fight for our legal rights, “the best way to show them how wrong they are is to live a happy and fulfilling life.”
For an update on the family (as of May 19, 2017), check out the article How We Raised Two Adopted Sons as a Gay Couple on our sister site, NYMetroParents.
Metrosource, a division of the Davler Media Group, is and integrated media company and glossy lifestyle magazine geared towards the modern metropolitan gay community. Metrosource has three editions: New York, Los Angeles and National. For more great articles like this, subscribe.
Also check out: LGBT Families Face Challenges Making Educational Choices for Children
Last modified: October 15, 2018