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It's all about
our children

It's all about
our children


State lawmakers across the country are proposing new bans on adoption by gays and lesbians. That makes the work of the Family Pride Coalition all the more challenging--and necessary

For over 120 years families have come to the White House on the Monday after Easter to take part in the annual Easter Egg Roll. The event, put on by the National Park Service, revolves around young children who roll eggs across the White House lawn. It includes a visit from the Easter bunny along with music, storytelling, and food giveaways for the whole family.

It's just this kind of national event--one that focuses on families--that members of the Family Pride Coalition say should include gay and lesbian parents and their children. "Our families are participating in all aspects of traditional American life, and we should have the opportunity to participate in this longtime iconic American event," says Corri Planck, deputy executive director for Family Pride.

News of Family Pride's planned participation on April 17 made headlines as antigay religious leaders criticized the group for planning to "crash" the White House to promote a "radical homosexual agenda." But that did nothing to discourage the more than 200 families that had committed to attend through Family Pride.

As state lawmakers increase their efforts to ban adoption by gays and lesbians, Family Pride is making its presence known as the only national organization exclusively dedicated to securing equality for LGBT parents and their families. Small in size and budget, the 27-year-old nonprofit group has nevertheless become a powerful force on the front lines of the gay rights movement, and this year could be its biggest challenge yet. "In 2003 there were a handful of bills being filed in a handful of states that would attack family recognition and family protection issues for the gay community," says Family Pride executive director Jennifer Chrisler. "In 2006 we are talking about five or six states with constitutional amendment [proposals] and seven or eight states with statutory legislation being filed to prohibit our ability to parent and protect our kids. The magnitude and scope of what we are talking about is so exponentially larger than anything we've ever seen before in terms of attack on our families."

Most family law and legal recognition is created at the state level, so the Washington, D.C.-based coalition has long been fighting for rights on a state-by-state basis. Florida has the country's only blanket ban on adoption by gays, but lawmakers in Ohio, Kentucky, and Georgia--all of which approved constitutional amendments to ban same-sex marriage in 2004--are pressing for laws similar to the one in Florida, while discussions are under way to do the same in a dozen other states.

"I think this really is the year that people are going to come to understand how incredibly vicious their attacks are [as they attempt to] strip away whatever rights and protections we've been able to carve out for ourselves," Chrisler says.

Many gay rights groups faced heavy criticism for failing to defeat a single one of the 13 state ballot measures against same-sex marriage in 2004. But Family Pride has managed to achieve some key victories in recent years against legislation seeking to limit or deny the rights of gays and lesbians. In Texas in 2003, Family Pride got 300 people to sign witness affirmation forms against a bill that would have prevented all single unmarried people from becoming foster parents, and more than 40 testified in committee against the bill. "What Family Pride did in Texas was to put a human face on the debate," says Chris Caldwell, an attorney and past cochair of the organization. "We had real kids, real moms, and gay dads to look the legislators in the eye and to walk the hallways."

Family Pride brought to the hearings LGBT people and straight allies from the districts of each committee member considering the Texas bill. Now the group is employing that strategy in other states through Outspoken Families, a national speakers bureau launched in December with more than 200 participant families. "We certainly feel strongly about real families giving real information about who they are, what their lives are about, and what their daily struggles are," Chrisler says. "At the end of the day, [antigay legislation] impacts thousands and thousands of children all across this country."

Family Pride was officially formed in 1979 as the Gay Fathers Coalition, a group of gay fathers seeking custody of their children. Most of these men were not out to their children and had acrimonious relationships with their ex-wives. "It was a very different place and time," remembers Tim Fisher, the first executive director of the organization. "Coming out later in life, they felt like outsiders and didn't feel they'd have a fair shot in court."

As times changed, the organization got more political, and by 1986 it had become coed and its name was changed to Gay and Lesbian Parents Coalition International. When former Vice President Dan Quayle made his famous speech in 1992 deriding television character Murphy Brown as a poor role model because she was a single parent, the organization gained widespread notoriety. What is less known is that in his speech Quayle also described lesbian mothers as "immoral." "We were getting 25 media requests a day, and we had to start justifying ourselves," Fisher says. "It was also the time that second-parent adoptions in the courts were starting to crop up, so there was a bit of momentum."

Since then, Family Pride has taken on the mantle of supporting gay families who may unexpectedly find themselves in the media glare. That was the case with Vermont couple Gillian Pieper and Karen Pike and their three kids, whose appearance on the PBS kids show Postcards from Buster ignited a national debate after U.S. education secretary Margaret Spellings strongly denounced PBS and PBS station WGBH of Boston for producing the episode.

"They are just this tiny organization, good people trying to help," Pieper says of Family Pride. "They are unbelievably small in staff and gigantic in heart and passion. We were about 11/2 weeks into it when the phones wouldn't stop ringing. Then Family Pride contacted us. They took a really proactive approach to try to bring attention to this and let people know that this was not OK."

Family Pride, which didn't even have a paid executive director until 1997, has been receiving the support it needs to take public stands like its campaign for a presence at the White House Easter event. Since 2001 the organization has nearly doubled its database and budget, while expanding its capacity through its e-newsletter, which reaches nearly 35,000 people.

In 2005, Family Pride's budget was still a mere $800,000. But with such a daunting set of challenges ahead they were able to increase their 2006 budget to more than $2 million through corporate sponsorships, grant money from foundations, and membership dues of $35 a year. They now have a membership base of about 10,000.

Still, the work is done by only seven full-time staff members, including Planck in Los Angeles and Chrisler in Washington, D.C. Chrisler says that whatever success Family Pride and other LGBT groups are able to achieve at the ballot box this year will only be the beginning. "You have to pull out all the stops on these short-term battles," she says. "We have to recognize that changing the poll numbers, changing the public perception at large around marriage and around family recognition issues and the rights of LGBT people to be able to be parents, is not a one-year battle. It's probably a 10- or 15- or 20-year battle."

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