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Post-Nuclear Families

[whitespace] gay families And Baby Makes Five: Raphael's two sets of parents include Shelly Anne andLeslie Smith, who have been partners since 1992.

Christopher Gardner

Gaymen and lesbians resort to various means in their quests to have children andbuild families

By Cecily Barnes

Raphael runs around his mom's home buck naked, dark curls framing his face. His bright eyes twinkle and a huge smile spreads across his face. During a one-hour interview, 2-year-old Raphie pushes car keys around in his baby stroller, shows off every single toy in the living room, issues requests for milk, water,chocolate and crackers, and climbs on Mama Leslie and Mama Sho and their 11-year-old helper, Janna Farmer.

Leslie Smith and Shelly Anne, who have been partners since 1992, are Raphie's two moms. The 2-year-old also has two dads, Glenn and Joel*, and eight grandparents. He's the product of two gay couples who made the decision to bring him into the world and nurture him together. Their choice is one of many ways gay men and lesbians today are becoming parents.

Glenn says the two couples were friends for four years before Raphie was conceived—a time they refer to as the "dating period."

"We would go to Santa Cruz for the talent show, A Gay Evening in May, or we would go ona hike with them," Glenn says. "We remained friends throughout."

Before attempting to conceive, the two couples sat down in Smith's home and drafted a formal contract. They decided that Smith would be the birth-mom and Joel the biological father, that the child would attend public schools, and that he or she would be raised Jewish. They alsodetailed how expenses would be divided.

Since the state of California typically recognizes only two parents, Smith and Joel would be the legal parents. "Whatever rights[Shelly and I] have are through our trust in our partners," Glenn says. "Legally,she and I don't really have any rights." The contract stipulated, however, that all four adults would share parenting responsibilities equally.

Smith's first attempt at conception was entirely unplanned. "Joel and I were there for some other reason and it came up that this was a good time in Leslie's cycle," Glenn says. The two men excused themselves to be alone for a while, then the two women did the same. Afterthree months of similar efforts, Smith became pregnant.

Glenn and Joel played a very active role in Smith's pregnancy. Often, all four parents attended birthing classes. "I think I was the only one who was there for every single class," Glenn says, grinning. "There was one class that Leslie wasn't even there for."

At the birth, the entire crew filed into the delivery room at Sutter Maternity Hospital in Santa Cruz and coached Smith through the nine-hour labor. "I cut the umbilical cord," Glenn says proudly. Photos of the birth show Glenn and Joel horsing around, lying on the delivery table with pillows stuffed under their shirts. "They thought that was so funny," Smith says, rolling her eyes, as 2-year-old Raphie leans his naked body across the photo album.

The More the Merrier

LIFE WITH A 2-year-old is a constant barrage of toys, juice, park, diaper changes, baths,books and energy. For this reason, Smith says, group parenting is great.

"We had nights out before most of our friends with kids ever thought about it," Smith says. "The challenge of trying to negotiate with four people is so outweighed by him being able to see four people modeling and negotiating. The potential for his understanding and appreciating difference is more important than my controlling whether he eats Lucky Charms two days a week—which he does," she adds, flashing a knowing look at Anne.

Conflicts have come up, however. Circumcision was the first issue that polarized the parents. Leslie felt strongly that the operation was unnecessary. Joel, a traditional Jew and a medical doctor, believed the procedure was important culturally and medically.

Computers have also become an issue. Glenn and Joel want Raphie to get started early. "For Leslie and Sho, I think it fits into the same category as television—this evil thing that sucks out your brain and creativity and will sort of numb you to life-experience," Glenn says. "They would like to have him playing with sticks and stones and crayons."

Smith agrees that computers are useful, but thinks they are not appropriate for a 2-year-old. "Anything he could learn from a computer he could learn in a more rich human way right now," Smith says. The couples are currently negotiating a compromise.

The parenting arrangement can be difficult, Glenn and Joel admit, because Smith has a "trump" power when it comes to Raphie. "No matter how much of a role we play, she's his mom," Glenn says. "She's king."

All four parents confess that at times they wish they had more time with Raphie; however, the "arrangement," as Glenn puts it, allows them to have their cake and eat it too. "Sometimes we get Raphie and sometimes we get to live like a childless couple," he says.

"We just got back from a two-week vacation to Switzerland," Joel adds. "It would have been a lot harder to do that if he wasn't with his moms."

Family Values

BECAUSE SMITH AND Joel are Raphie's biological parents, the way they arranged everything is their own business. But for gay couples looking to adopt, the law and politics come into play.

California law doesn't expressly allow or prohibit same-sex adoption. Instead, the law requires social workers to recommend against adoption for unmarried couples, a suggestion that judges, the final decision makers, can take or leave. Queer-friendly judges can be found in most counties in California, including Santa Clara County, say local gay advocates. But the state's involvement doesn't end there.

California legislators have been writing laws for and against gay parenting for the past several years, but none have made it to the governor's desk. Many gay people continue to adopt, although it's impossible to say how many because they often resort to roundabout means. To avoid conflicts,a gay man or lesbian will sometimes pose as a single person living with a "roommate,"who later completes a "second-parent" adoption—a common practice for divorced parents who remarry.

New legislation could potentially make things easieror more difficult for gay couples. In December of 1996, Assemblyman KevinMurray (D-Los Angeles) introduced a bill that would have forbidden social workers from using marriage as a criterion when deciding if a couple would make good adoptive parents. But Murray had to pull the bill because of lack ofsupport.

In February of this year, Sen. William J. "Pete"Knight (R-Palmdale) introduced a bill proposing that only married, hetero sexualcouples be permitted to adopt, and that second-parent adoptions only be allowed if the couple married, and only if the second parent is of the opposite sex. That bill was also pulled.

Meanwhile, gay couples continue to become parents,either through adopting or arrangements like Raphie's parents.

The current situation is workable, so long as legislators continue to balk. If a bill similar to Knight's were to become law,gay men would likely be hit the hardest. Without the option of artificial insemination, they would be limited to finding surrogates or settling for less-active parenting roles, an option some gay men already choose on their own.

San Jose native Tom Grissinger knew he was gay sinceage 13, but he also knew from a young age that he wanted to be a father. He wanted it so much that in college, he dated women with the intention to marry,plant his seed and then get out fast. "I didn't think there was any other way to do it," he says with embarrassment.

But when the AIDS epidemic hit the gay community in 1981, Grissinger changed his mind. Still, he desperately wanted a baby. When he became involved with Skip Searcy seven years ago, he thought the two of them could fight the uphill battle of trying to adopt. But Searcy didn't want a baby. He had already raised a child who was now full grown and wasn't ready to do it all over again.

"I was very frustrated that he didn't want kids,"Grissinger admits. "I remember when I told my parents I was gay the one thing my father said was that he was sorry I would never get to have the experience of having kids. I've always wanted kids."

But in the back section of Metro, Grissinger found an ad for Rainbow Flag Health Services, a sperm bank for gay men and lesbians, which allows the biological father to play the role of uncle to a child. For Grissinger, that was better than nothing. He signed a slew of waivers, he says,and then began making the "deposits."

According to Leland Traiman, the director at Rainbow Flag, the clinic is set up as it is because when they get to be around 3 years old, children start asking, "Who's my daddy?"

About a year ago, Grissinger received a call from Traiman that a woman was six months pregnant with his child, and he would becontacted three months after the child was born. When the mothers finally called, Grissinger, Searcy and Grissinger's sister (who happened to be intown), all piled in the car and drove up to the East Bay to see Andrew*.

"We all had dinner together and then the biological mom said, 'Well if you wash your hands, I'll let you hold him," he says with a smile. "She was just protective like any new mom would be."

Since he was born last December, Grissinger has seen Andrew only a half-dozen times. In the future, overnight visits will be a possibility, he says.

It hasn't even been decided yet whether Andrew will call Grissinger dad.

"When the biological mom asked me what I wanted Andrew to call me, I said I'd like him to call me dad or father," Grissinger says. "She said, 'With that name comes a lot of responsibility.' I guess she wants me to prove myself first."

Although Grissinger is Andrew's father biologically, legally he has waived all his rights and responsibilities. He cannot be held accountable for child support, but he also has no custody rights.

"They control the shots," Grissinger says. "It's awkward to call them and say, 'I'd like to come up and see Andrew this weekend.'But when you have nothing, like I did, all you can do is gain."

Advocates of gay parenting herald studies of children who thrive in same-sex families. Perhaps, couples suggest, this is because children of gay couples are clearly wanted. With biology against them, same-sexpartners must fight hard for their babies. And when they succeed, those children are loved.

"It just so happens that in our families, there are no 'accidents,' and children are always planned for," says Kate Kendell of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. "Often, this means that a lesbian or gay couple has been a lot more thoughtful in considering if they're ready to parent."

Kendell doesn't purport that gay couples make better parents; rather, she believes that being gay or straight has nothing to do with it.

"There have been like 40 studies done that have reaffirmed repeatedly that sexual orientation is irrelevant to good parenting,"she says. "Whether a parent is lesbian or gay has no bearing on their ability to be a good parent. What matters is that children are wanted, that they're loved, that they're nurtured and that they're empowered to grow up feeling good about themselves. And whether you're lesbian or gay has nothing to do with whether you can give a child those critical things."

**Last names withheld by request

**Not hisreal name

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From the July 16-22, 1998 issue of Metro.

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