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The Village

The Village

The old adage about raising children takes on new meaning as the kids of gay and lesbian families grow up with a plethora of both biological and alternative parents. Chloe Harris looks at how queerspawn and their pioneering parents are redefining the American family.

Rosie and Amy* live on an idyllic residential street typical of West Hollywood. The couple's 1920s Spanish Revival abode is the only home their children (Dan, 8, and Anne, 5) have ever known, and it looks pretty much like every other house on the block. With a white stucco facade and low terra-cotta roof, the home faces onto a manicured lawn. To one side a narrow driveway feeds into a private patio in back -- ideal for family dinners -- and a makeshift basketball court supplies hours of entertainment for the energetic kids.

If it all sounds like a high-def screen grab from a commercial for the happy, normal (queer) American family, it is. After nearly 10 years together Rosie and Amy are like any couple raising kids: They take turns packing lunch boxes and volunteering at the annual school picnic. They've also survived "in sickness and in health" to the extreme -- last year Rosie endured a kidney transplant. For nearly three years before Rosie's surgery, the children's drawings had depicted a bleak, albeit rainbow-hued, scene: Amy was usually wielding pots and pans while Rosie lay in a Crayola-colored sickbed. These days Rosie's on the mend and shooting hoops with her kids.

Chris and Jeffrey Hietikko-Parsons with biological mom Jessica Yorba-Mondt

With any good story comes a plot twist. In Rosie and Amy's tale, it lies at the end of the aforementioned driveway. The charming two-bedroom, two-bath guesthouse is home to the children's biological father, Rob, and -- two nights a week -- to the children themselves. p

While this three-parent clan may disturb the conventional picture of American family life, it's by no means unusual. In fact, Rosie, Amy, and Rob just might be the Cleavers of an emerging family paradigm.

In case you haven't noticed, we're in the midst of a gay and lesbian baby boom. Sure, lesbians have increasingly been in the business of making babies since the first such boom in the 1980s. It's been estimated that by the year 2000, at least 23% of lesbian households were raising children. Gay men, however, have been slower to settle down and raise a brood. Whether the lag is due to reproductive hurdles, difficult adoption processes and costly alternatives, or just maybe a hesitancy to trade Bear Week for Family Week, statistics show that's all changing: With more than 15% of male couples raising kids, gay dads are the new bear daddies.

The Hietikko-Parsons clan at the time of Henry's birth.

Barring immaculate conception, there is no escaping the fact that same-sex couples can't have biological offspring without at least preliminary help from a third parent. This third parent could be a surrogate mother, a sperm donor father, or an ex-partner from a previous heterosexual relationship. Whatever their method, same-sex couples are forming relationships and building families with these biological third parties, and as the "gayby" boom grows up, these extended families guarantee that the "homonormative" family nucleus -- i.e., the two-mom or two-dad "we're just like you" model that's frequently presented to mainstream culture -- is not now and will likely never be the norm in gay society.

Actually, the same could be said for the archetypal heterosexual family: With an ever-rising divorce rate among straight married couples, nearly 40% of all American children under 18 do not live with both biological parents. Straight or gay, conventional or alternative, it's clear that the American family is a growing and changing breed. Kids of queer families may have the advantage: An extra parent (or two or three or four) to fall back on in times of need, not to mention an inherently creative perspective on the definition of family.

Nava EtShalom, cofounder of the Queerspawn Diaries, an online audio documentary project focusing on young adults of LGBTQ families, recalls trying to create a family tree for a homework assignment in the fourth grade. "You may not remember it," says the Philadelphia native in "Mothers and Others," one of the Diaries, "but I guarantee you all the kids from queer families who were in your class do."

To EtShalom's chagrin, the illustrated diagram given to her at school lacked branches enough for her flourishing queer family -- a butch-dyke biological mom (Rebecca), a remarried father, a younger sister, "some other mothers" (ex-lovers of her birth mother, including a stepmom who began dating a man and moved down the street), and one Green Bean. Trouble was, there was no space on the diagram for Green Bean -- the playful name bestowed upon Rebecca's partner at the time -- and EtShalom was fearful of how the kids in the class would treat her. The project ended in tears.

Now 26, EtShalom says that part of growing up in a super-size gay tribe is realizing that a family can be different from those described by homework assignments -- even if there's no vocabulary to describe it. "Our family has been made invisible over and over again by the failure of words to tell who we are," she says. Like EtShalom, most children of gay and lesbian parents (or "queerspawn") become aware early on that the traditional parameters of family do not apply to them. So they're compelled to create a new familial language.

When asked how many parents she has, 25-year-old Danielle Silber, a Manhattan-based fund-raiser for the International Rescue Committee, issues a breathless "Oy vey." She explains that her two mothers "played the traditional role of parents," providing her daily care. "But if parents are the people who teach you about values and the world, who support your dreams and feel like home, then I have a lot of parents," she says -- two moms and four dads, to be exact.

Silber's story goes like this: In the early 1980s her mother, Susan, and Susan's partner, Dana, went in search of a sperm donor. Regulars among various advocacy circles in College Park, Md., Susan and Dana approached their good friend and fellow activist Billy. Billy referred the women to his partner, a Frenchman named Chris, who would become Silber's biological dad in 1983. After much discussion, the four decided to raise their daughter together, with Silber living primarily with her mothers. Five years later Chris fathered Susan's (and Dana's) second child, Avi.

It's easy enough to follow -- that is, until Silber turns 7. That year Chris and Billy split up, then Chris started dating Art. Art is dad number 3 in this burgeoning family tree and is, as Silber calls him, her "Dad Dad" -- despite his breakup with Chris just four years later. Silber and "Dad Dad" are incredibly close; Mark, who has been Art's life partner for the past 14 years, is dad number 4.

Silber tells her story proudly today; and as a frequent volunteer for COLAGE (Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere), the national support group for kids of LGBTQ parents, she tells it rather often. But it wasn't always so. This daughter of six gay parents hid in the proverbial closet until high school, for fear that the other kids wouldn't want to be her friend, "or worse."

According to Nanette Gartrell, MD, founder of the National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study, kids of gay and lesbian families are bound to face homophobia. (The children of Rosie, Rob, and Amy have already heard homophobic slurs; one factor in EtShalom's sister, Yonah, switching elementary schools in fourth grade was incessant teasing.) But, Gartrell cautions, "all too many children are hurt in this country by discrimination of all kinds. Homophobia isn't necessarily more weighty."

Silber was confronted equally with homophobia and racism: Her mothers are both Jewish; Art (Dad Dad) and Billy are black. She confesses that moving through the world as part of a gay multiethnic family was "tricky" -- and even recalls having been blackmailed at school ("They'd say, 'Do x, y, and z or we'll tell everyone that your parents are...' and then they'd use the f word").

"There were times," she admits, "when I would conveniently want one mom to be seen with one father to make it seem like my parents weren't gay. There were other settings when I was uncomfortable if one of my parents of color was present, and then other occasions when I wanted to celebrate that my family is diverse.

"We crossed a lot of different boundaries -- from race, class, religion, and sexual orientation. In that sense, it was really important that my family existed, and it was an incredibly enriching experience for me growing up. But we were also constantly butting heads with institutionalized forms of discrimination in our society. That can be challenging and really hurtful for anyone who's trying to be authentic within their family while at the same time trying to fit in with the larger community."

As a self-conscious young queerspawn, Silber might not have been a snug fit for the mainstream societal puzzle, but she did at last find her people -- at a COLAGE barbecue in Provincetown, Mass. At first suspicious of the "contrived community," she ultimately found the group to be extremely "supportive and empowering." By the end of the day she and a handful of teens had bonded, even cried, and Silber has been active in COLAGE ever since.

With family trees like hers sprouting up all over and with little legal and societal status to protect them, the fledgling branches will need all the nourishment they can get. (Of the folks interviewed p for this article, every single one noted the importance of socializing with others like them.) In addition to seeking out schools that celebrate diversity and peer groups, such as Los Angeles's Pop Luck Club for gay dads and their kids, more and more families are looking to advocacy organizations -- like COLAGE, which serves the more than 10 million children in the country who have at least one LGBT parent, and Human Rights Campaign's Welcoming Schools initiative, which offers diversity training to teachers and students.

"There is no one kind of family in this country or in the queer community, and every family needs and deserves to be recognized," says COLAGE executive director Beth Teper. "Our different models of family are rich, creative, and diverse.... Children really are being raised by a village."

That old adage is a "wonderful phenomenon" among gays and lesbians, according to Gartrell, who notes that at one time when a village stepped in to help a child, it was usually a result of some crisis. "Now lesbian moms and gay dads are creating those villages as everyday support networks."

When looking at families with three-plus parents, another old adage comes to mind: Can there ever be too many cooks in the kitchen? Gartrell -- whose 22-year longitudinal study of 84 lesbian families, including 70 co-mothers and 19 active donor fathers -- says yes: "If you've got a bunch of people with strong opinions and equal power in family decision-making, it can be very stressful and complicated."

While maneuvering through six parents in multiple households was no small feat for Silber, she says, "I think it was very hairy for my parents, especially my fathers, to navigate questions of responsibility as parents in a family that's kind of revolutionary, and then how that impacts the lines of communication."

Rosie has been on the same page with Rob and Amy from the beginning -- literally. Hoping to preempt conflict among parents, Rob and Amy wrote a prenatal agreement and showed it to a family friend who's a lawyer. The contract, says Amy (a psychologist and the children's biological mother), "is based on a model of respect, love, and care and was meant to capture the spirit of our emotional intent."

The document does, however, lay down some practical provisions: Amy and Rob share 50-50 financial responsibility; decisions are made with consideration for all three parents' opinions and should be unanimous; if the mothers were to separate, Rosie's relationship with the children would be honored; and no parent is allowed to move the children out of state. "It's not always easy," Amy says, "but we try to say 'yes, yes, yes' to each other. 'Yes' is kind of our motto."

With divorced biological parents, the EtShaloms had a different family framework. In their modus operandi, Rebecca was the primary parent. "There was never any confusion about whose job it was to call the shots," EtShalom says. "But for everything else -- learning how to cook, asking health questions, writing thank-you notes, practicing Judaism -- we were lucky to have lots of adults who could teach us, play with us, and challenge us." Such is the spirit of the village. Every resident tosses a unique talent, skill, or insight into the pot for the collective good.

Manhattan couple Chris and Jeffrey Hietikko-Parsons are busy building their hive -- a carefully cultivated adult network for their not-quite 2-year-old son, Henry. Keen to ensure Henry never lacks for any support, the pair has swaddled him in layers of biological family and enlisted a host of "gay uncles" and "lesbian aunts" -- the most athletic among them have already been drafted for a future-coach roster. Whatever sport Henry might choose, the bases are pretty well covered. Or, should he prefer to warm the bench and follow in his dads' footsteps -- Chris is an actor, and Jeffrey's a psych professor at Hunter College in New York -- that's OK too.

Like any family, villagers cross various divides -- social, political, economic, sexual, religious. Henry's family crosses the nation: His biological mother, Jessica Yorba-Mondt, lives in Oregon. As a traditional surrogate, she does not play an active role in day-to-day parenting. However, the Hietikko-Parsonses say she's definitely family -- as are her own three children and lesbian partner. "This is the family that we created," Jeffrey says, "and we wouldn't have it any other way."

The Lopez-Zucker family, from top: Scott (far left) and David with Aiden, Bram, and Cade.

Unless, of course, the other way included a couple more dads -- namely, Scott Zucker and David Lopez, a landscape architect and holistic health care practitioner, respectively, from California's Orange County who are also raising a biological child (Aiden, 6) carried by Yorba-Mondt. The two couples met Yorba-Mondt eight years ago, and it didn't take them long to realize that Aiden and Henry, who now bear a striking resemblance, would be half-brothers. Today, the couples regularly fly from coast to coast for visits; next year they hope to take the whole tribe on one of Rosie O'Donnell's R Family Vacations cruises.

Scott and David with surrogate jessica Yorba-Mondt a month after Aiden's birth.

In the end, there are few statistics regarding the health-and-happiness quotient of kids conceived through donor insemination -- let alone studies of kids who have more than two gay parents. Despite any claim that children fare better with both a biological mom and dad, Gartrell's study is uncovering remarkable results: So far there have not been any reports of abuse from within the home, as the youths of the longitudinal study turn 17 and begin being interviewed as adults. Many, however, report exceptional academic success, early graduation, and acceptance to prominent colleges. And most impressively, when asked to rate their overall quality of life, with a 10 representing the shiniest of happy people, the teens on average say it's a whopping 8. "I don't know about you," Gartrell says, "but when I was 17, I wouldn't have come anywhere close." While these findings aren't specific to kids with more than two parents, Gartrell raises another valid point: "More parents, with multiplied capacity for love and support, could never be a bad thing."

Call it anecdotal, but the evidence here paints a vibrant, multidimensional picture of our sprawling family landscape, blooming with hardy, well-adjusted children equipped and motivated to teach the next generation of queerspawn -- and their more conservative classmates. Yes, homophobia happens; and no, our ever-evolving families still have no place on the predictable family diagram. But would any of the kids we spoke to trade their big gay families for a chance to fit inside the box? Not a chance.

"I have a lot of very different and exciting models of how to be an adult, how to raise kids, how to make a politically engaged and socially satisfying life," EtShalom says. "That fact has made my own adult life more of an adventure than it might otherwise have been. Plus, my kids are going to have more grandparents than anyone I've ever met!"

As for Silber, she says the rewards of growing up with a half dozen queer parents overwhelmingly outweigh the difficulties that she's faced. "Every one of my parents is a brilliant, insightful, and incredible human being, and they've taught me an immense amount about social responsibility. Without them I wouldn't remotely be who I am today. I don't regret a thing."

30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff & Wayne Brady

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Chloe Harris