Gay parents embrace openness

06/16/2013 12:00 AM

06/18/2013 11:41 AM

Ellen Pontac and Shelly Bailes moved in together in Davis in 1974. They were in love and intended to be partners for life. But the story they gave their four children at the time was that they were simply two divorced moms on limited incomes, sharing expenses and raising their kids together.

"Nobody was out then," said Pontac's son, Jeff Caplan, now 51 and an educator in Santa Cruz. "They weren't out, because their attorneys had told them they'd lose custody of us. The story was, we were just sharing a house."

The reality was, two lesbian moms raised him for much of his childhood – but he didn't realize it for years.

Contrast his memories to the world that 19-year-old Maddy Condon-Lorenz and her brother, Tim, 16, have always known: a cozy life on a quiet Elk Grove street with two gay fathers who have been open about their orientation for decades.

"People ask, 'When did you notice your parents are gay?' " said Maddy, a Sonoma State University student adopted at birth by Ed Condon and Norman Lorenz.

"Well, when did you notice your parents are straight?"

She and Caplan represent two generations of children and two dramatically different experiences of life with same-sex parents: The landscape for California's gay and lesbian families – and LGBT adults who want to become parents – has changed radically in the past 40 years.

The U.S. Supreme Court is poised to rule as soon as this week on the constitutionality of Proposition 8, California's voter-approved ban on gay marriage. But even as the debate over same-sex marriage continues, advocates for gay and lesbian families think that same-sex parenthood could represent the next civil rights frontier.

Oral arguments at the court this spring touched on the issue of same-sex couples raising families: Justice Anthony Kennedy expressed concern for the 40,000 California children under age 18 who live with gay and lesbian parents. And the attorney arguing in favor of Proposition 8 said that recognizing same-sex marriage would sever the connection between traditional marriage and its historical purpose, which he defined as procreation.

"Families are clearly part of the marriage argument," said Emily Hecht-McGowan, public policy director for the Family Equality Council, a Washington, D.C., group representing the interests of LGBT families.

"You're talking about what's best for children. The reality is that same-sex couples have been creating families and raising happy children for a long time."

Statistics suggest that lesbian and gay parenthood is on the rise across the country, bolstered by what polls show as a steadily growing acceptance of same-sex marriage. By 2010, according to U.S. Census figures, 19 percent of same-sex households – 125,000 couples – were raising 220,000 biological, adopted or stepchildren under age 18.

And that doesn't take into account the numbers of single lesbian and gay parents.

Researchers from UCLA Law School's Williams Institute, a think tank on sexual orientation and gender identity law, estimate that 37 percent of the country's gay and lesbian adults have raised a child at some point during their lives, a total of 3 million LGBT parents caring for 6 million children.

Conservative critics, including Justice Antonin Scalia during the Proposition 8 oral arguments, have questioned whether being raised by same-sex parents could cause harm to children. But professional groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association, maintain there's no scientific evidence for that.

"Research has consistently found that what happens in the family, how warm and involved the parents are in their children's lives, matters more than the gender and number of parents," said Abbie Goldberg, a Clark University associate professor of psychology who researches same-sex parenting.

"What happens between the parent and child is what matters to the child's outcome and mental health."

Legal landscape uneven

Marjha Hunt, 31, had two children with her ex-partner, a man, before she moved to West Sacramento with her new partner, Brooke Piasecki, two years ago. Hunt's son is 8, and her daughter is 5. The two women are raising them together and considering having another through artificial insemination.

"My son tells his classmates, 'Yeah, I have two moms,' " said Hunt, a student. "We're interracial, too. We explained to the kids that a long time ago, blacks and whites couldn't get married, either.

"The kids are open-minded. At the end of the day, I want them to be good kids and have good hearts, and I think we're giving them a good foundation for that."

In California, parents who come out after having children in heterosexual relationships cannot be denied custody or visitation specifically because of their orientation.

But the legal landscape remains uneven across the country. For example, joint adoption is expressly allowed under the law for gay and lesbian couples in only 10 states, including California; and only California and five other states allow same-sex couples to provide foster care.

"The majority of states are silent on LGBT people fostering and adopting children," said Hecht-McGowan of the Family Equality Council. "Because there are no laws either way, what happens depends on where you go in the state. You get different answers. It's kind of a crapshoot."

Bob Herne, executive director of the Sacramento adoption agency Sierra Forever Families, actively recruits same-sex couples to foster and adopt children.

"About 20 percent of our families come from the LGBT community," he said. "People get very angry on either side of this issue, but our only politics is, every child should grow up in a forever family."

Religious advocacy groups such as Focus on the Family encourage families to adopt, saying the Bible mandates giving children loving homes, but they consider adoption by same-sex parents to be a politically motivated effort that's not in children's best interests.

An online Focus on the Family fact sheet says that children require the distinct and complementary ways of parenting that mothers and fathers bring.

"We're in alliance with what the word of God says," said Patricia Thompson, president of the California chapter of the Christian group Concerned Women for America. "Simply put, we feel it's best for children to have a mother and a father."

'Sensible love'

Their children's birth certificates have spaces for listing "mother" and "father" – so Ed Condon and Norman Lorenz, both educators who are now 52, figured out a good way to fill in the blanks.

"He's listed as the mother on one," said Condon, "and I am on the other."

It's a sweet, funny memory, but Maddy and Tim's two dads faced mixed reactions when they decided to adopt. Maddy came along in 1994, when same-sex adoption had been allowed in California for only a brief time.

After Condon and Lorenz announced Maddy's adoption in the newsletter of the Montessori chain they owned at the time, a couple of parents took their kids out of the school.

"We think of everything as positive now, but there were a lot of questions and concerns at the time," said Condon. "There were teachers who were uncomfortable.

"My own mother was very distracted. She burst into tears because she was worried. She didn't trust the world."

But dozens of friends and relatives flocked to the baby shower for Maddy. And, said Lorenz, their family members soon "appreciated that we took the risk to adopt, because we demonstrated what sensible love is all about."

Three years later, the couple fostered their son, a baby born drug-exposed and diagnosed with cerebral palsy. His adoption was final a few months after his first birthday.

Now Tim Condon-Lorenz is about to be a sophomore at Christian Brothers High School. He plays trombone in the school's jazz band, and just the other morning, he got his learner's permit.

"I remember people asking, 'Where's your mother?' and stuff like that," he said. "With new friends, they'd ask. I'd say, 'I have two dads,' and they'd say, 'That's cool.'

"They knew it was a normal family."

He and his sister call their parents, who married in 2008, Daddy Ed and Daddy Norman.

"When we were first together 30 years ago, we didn't necessarily think we'd have children," said Condon. "Then we started to see it. We began to say, 'Why not us?' "

'The Moms'

The four kids whom Pontac and Bailes raised together – two born to each of them during their previous marriages – call them "The Moms." The Moms are now in their early 70s, and they, too, married in 2008.

But in their early years together, they feared losing their children if anyone in the community learned they were a couple.

"When we were first together, we were never the kind of family we'd be today," said Pontac. "We weren't a blended family.

"The nicest thing Shelly's daughter said to us – we'd lived together about a year then – was, 'If something happens to Mom, would it be OK for me to live with Ellen?' "

From what Pontac and Bailes recall now, no one questioned their ruse. Lots of suburban moms were getting divorced at the time. It made sense that two women would want to pool their resources.

So they pretended.

When one of Bailes' daughters ended up in the emergency room after a car accident, said Pontac, "Shelly turned to me on our way in and said, 'You're my family.' Only family was allowed to be there."

Jeff Caplan was 18 when he figured out the situation.

"I had a friend who was gay, and I said to him, 'It's possible my mother is gay,' " said Caplan. "It was 1980. My friend said, 'You've got to talk to her.'

"So I asked her."

That's how the decades of living openly – out to their family members and then to their community – slowly began for the two women.

"Every time we see same-sex families now, it's wonderful," said Pontac. "It's like a miracle."

Call The Bee's Anita Creamer, (916) 321-1136. Follow her in Twitter @AnitaCreamer.

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