cover_story (2005-34)

Same-sex couples navigate choppy political and social waters to raise their children

This Knoxville couple has been together for 16 years. They’ve adopted a six-month-old, and have plans to adopt two more children in the coming months.

When the time is right, Milly Morrow plans to raise a child with her partner.

Gays’ marriage rights are tied tenuously to their ability to rear children with the security they desire.

Sandy Honeycutt and Tanya Comer cradle their four-year-old, Katie.

Two Men and a Baby

by Ellen Mallernee

A young girl weaves through the aisles of the Metropolitan Community Church, the sash of her purple velveteen dress loose and untied behind her. She walks with the haughtiness that comes with being 12, just old enough to start musing about boys and high school and the relevance of purple eye shadow. Either that, or she’s just concentrated on eating a slice of iced chocolate cake for breakfast. On a paper plate she balances the confection, fetched from a back room of the church, where the remnants of a commitment ceremony are strewn across a table.

The girl is one of many children belonging to a pair of same-sex parents at MCC, a Christian church created for gay, lesbian, transgendered and bisexual members of the Knoxville community.

Perhaps the girl in the purple dress is the product of an earlier heterosexual relationship, or perhaps she was adopted or was placed in her mother’s womb by a doctor. In any case, at MCC she is not unique. Every row of the church contains a family unit that includes someone who is gay or lesbian. These families are as unassuming and ordinary as any family in any church on any Sunday. Prayers are interrupted by the incomprehensible burbling of babies, bounced on their fathers’ knees, and the church breathes with the sounds of listless children, uninterested in the even poise of the pastor or his old-fangled hymns.

Unconventional families are no novelty. Most every family, in fact, is a diversion from the nuclear family—the mom, dad, kid and his wet-nosed golden retriever. But lesbian and gay parents say they’re under unwarranted fire, as some conservative lawmakers insist that they’re unprepared to raise healthy children. Most gays agree that they share a mixed bag of challenges but attribute many of these difficulties to an outright dearth of legal rights, rather than insufficient parenting abilities.

“This is not a new issue,” says Milly Morrow, a young lesbian and social worker who anticipates being a mother one day soon. “Politically, we’re not the only group that’s being attacked as parents, and I think it’s important for us to consider why we’re being targeted right now for judgment and analysis.” Homosexual parents are treated with the same skepticism as single moms were 15 years ago, and as single dads are today, Morrow says. “There’s an element of social control. This is definitely an agenda. It’s not based on any research.”

Morrow’s own research as a counselor has led her to conclude that as long as a primary parent meets a child’s needs sufficiently, the child will be well adjusted and happy, barring mental illness. The American Psychological Association (APA) backs Morrow up, emphatically concluding that gay and lesbian parents are as likely as heterosexual parents to provide healthy environments for their children. One study even concluded that children of gays are more communicative with their parents.

Despite those findings, many have misgivings about two men or two women partnering to raise a child, saying that such children are more likely to have problems with gender identity and bullying. There are also concerns that a child will feel the absence of a stable male or female role model. Still others question the true motives of homosexuals who desire to raise a child.

“I believe that it is hard for a lot of people to understand why gays and lesbians have children or want to have them,” says Bob Galloway, pastor at MCC. “Some because they think gays or lesbians are not fully human but only sexual and others because they think of gays and lesbians as irresponsible. There are even some who see gays and lesbians as only predators.”

In an effort to dissuade homosexuals from adopting, a bill that would limit their rights to do so was overturned this past winter, but there are those who say we’ve not seen the last of it. “There’s every reason to believe that it may be upheld [one day soon],” says Dawn Coppock, a preeminent Tennessee adoption lawyer. “[Last time] they weren’t all that organized and [it didn’t pass] also because it cuts out a lot of avenues to place kids that are in state custody and special-needs kids that wouldn’t have a family otherwise.”

Despite the fact that such a bill would undermine efforts to get some 9,500 children out of state custody, some conservative lawmakers say not having a parent is better than having a gay parent, voting to uphold “Tennessee values” with the traditional family model of a mother and a father.

If passed, a bill of this sort would also pull children from foster homes. “Many of these foster kids are well-bonded and they’ve been closely supervised by the state, but if legalized they’d have had to pull all of those kids, which is clearly not in the best interest of the children,” says Coppock. “But it passed in Florida, and they had all those same arguments down there. This is not over.”

As it stands now, Tennessee adoptions aren’t difficult to come by for most gays and lesbians, excepting some of the private Christian agencies. A representative from Bethany, one such local agency, said “We do not [allow same-sex couples to adopt from us]. We are a Christian agency, and we only work with heterosexual couples. That’s just Bethany’s stand.”

Another local private Christian agency, Harmony, does permit same-sex couples to adopt from them, and as of now, all state-conducted adoption proceedings ignore a person’s sexual orientation, gauging a parent’s suitability by other means. 

“We do stringent screening to make sure that every prospective parent is able to provide that safe, loving and nurturing home,” says Communications Director Rob Johnson with the Department of Children’s Services. “We don’t gather data on people’s sexual orientation.”

Lesbians and gays who conceal their sexuality for career reasons can find it more difficult to adopt. One lesbian, who after a long rejection process eventually adopted children with her partner, says, “I understand the fear social workers, lawyers and judges have. They fear losing their jobs if there isn’t full disclosure. That is what we face on a daily basis. We faced losing our child.”

Coppock, for one, won’t represent would-be adoptive parents who aren’t open about their sexuality. “It’s a huge ethical issue,” she says.

Galloway estimates that there are anywhere from five to 20 children in the church each Sunday. “We have six persons in relationships [who have] children,” he says. “Most of these are one of the persons’ natural children. We have three single persons with children. We have a number of non-custodial or joint custody parents in the congregation.” The MMC congregation also includes single people currently looking to adopt.

Tall and willowy, Galloway has the drawn face of a man who carries a lot on his shoulders—the joys and concerns of a congregation’s worth of people. “The difficult part of raising a child for a gay man or lesbian, either in or out of a relationship, that is different [from a straight couple] is the deciding who needs to know about the parents’ sexuality and how to legally protect the child through guardianship arrangements,” he says.

Unable to marry, gays and lesbians miss out on over 1,000 federal statutory provisions in which marital status factors into benefits, rights and privileges. Tennessee adoption law only allows two people to have joint custody of a child if they’re married, and because gays aren’t permitted to marry, they may not adopt children together. Only one partner may be the adoptive parent. The same goes when a lesbian couple takes the insemination route; only the biological mother can be granted custody, leaving the other mother without necessary rights to medical decisions and the like. Some argue that this one-sided setup is harmful not only to the non-custodial parent, but also to the child involved. “If you’re looking at the best interest of a child and you could have two people responsible for healthcare and child support and social security, two parents are better than one,” says Coppock.

Gays’ marriage rights are tied tenuously to their ability to rear children with the security they desire. But in November of 2006, gay marriage will likely be even further out of reach, if a referendum vote amends the Tennessee Constitution to include the Marriage Protection Act, which would essentially ban gay marriage. “It’s...absurd.... It’s almost precisely the same language of the Tennessee version of the Defense of Marriage Act [DOMA],” says Bill Mynatt, a local lawyer who’s been “out for 10 years” and works to represent gay rights, among other things.

The DOMA, which defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman, passed in 1996. The Marriage Protection Act will pass too, says Mynatt.

Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, sponsored the constitutional amendment bill, but declined to comment on it for Metro Pulse . Dunn did, however, refer us to the website: www.realmarrige.org , on which a Missouri man’s desire to wed his horse is compared to homosexual couples who wish to marry. “The logic of [the Missouri man’s] argument is remarkably similar to that employed by advocates of homosexual marriage,” reads the Real Marriage web-site, run by a group of Tennesseans working to fight a lawsuit against the impending marriage amendment. The suit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee and the Tennessee Equality Project, two groups who seek to block the vote on the basis that lawmakers took up the resolution deceptively.

Neither Mynatt nor Coppock believe the marriage bill will have any direct impact on the anti-gay-adoption bill that they predict is on its way, but some activists say it’s demoralizing, disheartening and counteractive to their cause anyway. “It sets us back,” says Mynatt. “Because it enshrines discrimination into a constitution.”

Many assert convictions that lawmakers aren’t acting on their gut instincts, but rather what they think voters will dwell on when it comes to reelection time. Local representative Harry Tindell, who recently held a conference at MMC to discuss gay rights issues, is often named as a notable exception.

“It’s very political,” says Jill Henson, a local lesbian. “Most politicians couldn’t care less about the gay vote, but [gay issues have] got so much punch to it, to get the votes. The Republicans are going for that [conservative] vote, so they come out against the things that they know that all the Christians are going to band together and vote for. They’re laughing about it, like this is so easy.”

UT grad Kip Williams identifies himself as “queer” and works for gay rights; he attended Equality Day on the Hill last February in Nashville, and was dismayed with our local legislators. One gentleman, Williams says, “openly stated that he would rather pander to his constituents than do what he knew was right.”

While on the Hill, Williams, and many others, lobbied the legislature on several issues, adoption and gay marriage among them. In his statement from that day, he said, “The legislation in question doesn’t only disallow homosexual couples from raising children, it clearly bans all homosexuals from doing so. This opens up a dangerous slippery slope: anyone known to be, thought to be, accused of being anything other than purely heterosexual will suffer from this bill.”

 

Forty-one-year-old Jill Henson gave birth to her first child, a tow-headed boy, last December. Now eight-and-a-half-months-old, dressed in a miniature baseball uniform, his highchair is pulled up to the edge of a restaurant table, a book and several toys before him, though he’s more interested in clinking the silverware on the glass-topped table. Suckling his pacifier, his face is a full moon, bestowed with blond eyebrows and tiny, protruding ears. Sarah, who requested anonymity for career reasons, hunches down to spoon feed her son from jars of orange concoctions: pumpkins or carrots or yams. Both women relate garden variety parenting experiences: that it’s best to get traveling and social pursuits out of the system beforehand, that they slept very little for the first five months of their son’s life, and that pregnancy weight’s a drag.

Neither woman is too concerned about raising a son together. The couple’s strategy, specifically, is communication. “I think that we will just try to prepare him and have him understand the circumstances from an early age and why we brought him here and how we chose to love him by example of our church,” says Jill.

Both agree that with the involvement of a couple of uncles and their male friends, he’ll not want for male role models. “I’ve always had better luck with boys anyway than with girls,” confides Sarah. “I’d worry more about raising a girl to tell you the truth. In a strange way, I sort of identify more with boys.”

In fact, the couple’s not entirely convinced that their union might not be a kind of advantage for their son. “I really do believe it will make him a stronger, gentler man,” says Sarah.

In order to conceive, Jill and Sarah solicited the help of a male friend. “We found a friend of mine that I’ve known for seven years and he gave us a specimen, and I self-inseminated on the first try and got pregnant,” says Jill. “That’s truly astronomical, the odds of that happening.”

Though it can be a troublesome decision, both emotionally and legally, it was quickly determined that Jill would be the one to carry their child. “I’ve always wanted to and she never really has,” says Jill.

Unlike some couples, Jill and Sarah wanted to know their son’s donor. “I didn’t want [my son], at some point in his life, to say ‘You took that choice away from me,’ to have a father,” says Sarah. “This way it worked out and now he will be able to have a real father as part of his life. I mean, [the donor’s] a wonderful man. He’s so happy that we’re happy.”

Active members in their church, Church of the Savior, another liberal church that opens its doors wide to all persons, Jill and Sarah say they believe their son’s birth was “the will of the Lord,” and they’re almost ready for another one.

Sarah says she doesn’t claim to understand what God thinks about her sexuality; she knows only that she can’t change it, and that she intends to love God. In fact, she’s assured by the fact that she and Jill will raise their son in the church.

“Most people don’t believe that gay people and lesbians have true faith,” she says. “My hope would be that people will see that we don’t have kids to do perverted things to them or to mess them up. We have kids because we really, truly have gifts and talents and love that we want to give, in a very safe, and every-day-borders-and-boundaries kind of way—a safe, normal every-day-life kind of way.”

Next time around, they hope to adopt a child from Guatemala or Africa. “We want children that no one else wants,” says Jill. “We’re kind of outcasts ourselves, and there’re so many children out there that other people don’t want.”

They’d like to wait until their son is two before adopting a sibling for him, but they’re aware that the clock may be ticking on their adoption rights.

 

James, who wishes to conceal his real name because he owns a Knoxville business, was there in the hospital the day his son was born. But neither he nor his partner Joe could enjoy much of an otherwise beatific day. Instead, they braced themselves for heartbreaking news, as the gay adoption vote made its way through session in Nashville that same day. “It was a very, very hard time,” says James. “Not only did we have the normal threats and fears that come with adoption, but we also had the state threatening us continuously over our heads. That’s all that was on the news.”

The two men, who’ve been together for 16 years, are now the parents of a six-month-old son, overjoyed that the bill was overturned so that they could continue to open their home to children. James and Joe have up to five foster children in their home at any given time, and are currently in negotiations to adopt a little boy and girl who are siblings.

James insists he’s experienced relatively little prejudice, but most gay men reportedly find it more difficult to acquire children than lesbians do, especially in international adoptions. Other gay men say they’ve suffered the devastating loss of children back into the hands of the Department of Children’s Services. One malecouple who had adopted a child backed out of a Metro Pulse interview for fear their child would be taken away from them again.

Single adopting males, perhaps, tend to raise more eyebrows. DCS’ Communications Director Rob Johnson says that in the last calendar year 755 married couples adopted from the state, as well as 251 single females, and only 14 single males.

James says he’s experienced no problem with the Department of Children’s Services, which he calls “very cooperative and easy to work with.” Instead, DCS employees have written letters on behalf of James and his partner, two men who’ve taken some of DCS’s most difficult children, attitudinal teenagers and the like, and have had good results with them. “We had a doctor here in town, one of our kids’ therapists, and she wrote a statement saying that me and my partner were the best foster parents she’d every worked with,” says James.

The couple have made it a policy that every incoming foster child is informed of their sexual orientation before coming to their home, so that no one is pressured into an uncomfortable situation.

Only once has a mother demanded that her son be taken from the couple’s home based on their sexuality. “She actually spoke up and said she didn’t want her child around homosexuals,” James said.

Custody of their six-month-old is in James’ name. “It’s difficult even to this day,” he says. “We’re considering doing a hyphenated last name because it’s a difficult situation, with things like going to the doctor’s and picking up prescriptions.”

 

Over club sandwiches and French fries at Chop House in Fountain City, Tonya Comer and Sandy Huneycutt complement each other’s sentences with interjections and affirmations, filling blanks in the other’s explanations. The couple, who met online seven years ago, discuss their four-year-old, Katie, and their soon-to-be born son, Seth. But for parents who are gearing up for the birth of their second child (Sandy is eight months pregnant), their conversation is relatively morbid.

Tonya especially speaks a lot about death, namely her partner’s. Removing the lettuce from each triangle of her sandwich, she expresses concern that if Sandy were to die, she may be unable to secure custody of their children. “Truly if something happened to Sandy, if that were an issue, I would get the kids and then leave,” says Tonya. “I’ve already decided that. I’d just scoop them up and go.” Though the couple have had legal papers drawn up, they’re not sure how well they’d hold up in a court of law if Sandy’s parents were to pursue custody of their grandchildren.

Sandy’s also got plans to make a video, recording herself voicing her wishes, and Tonya makes sure to carry papers with her at all times, certifying that she can make medical decisions for Katie, if necessary.

Most gay people point out how well-planned, and desired, their children were; when it comes to adoption and artificial insemination, there are no accidents. In fact, both processes require great emotional and financial temerity. A number of decisions must be made, and they won’t be easy.

Unlike Sarah and Jill, who Sandy set up on a blind date three years ago, Sandy and Tonya conceived both of their children with the help of an anonymous donor. The couple, one of whom is called momma and the other mommy, feel confident that they can provide enough male role models in both their children’s lives. In fact, one family friend has already taken their daughter under his wing, acting as an honorary dad.

But even though Katie spends her days at an open-minded daycare with two other children who have two mommies, her parents admit that she’s begun to wonder why she doesn’t have a father.

“She’s at the age now where she’s doing a lot of pretend play,” says Tonya. “So she’ll have a prince and she’ll be the princess. She said the other day, when she was taking a bath, that she wished she had a daddy, and I said, ‘Instead of two mommies?’ But when she thought about it a little more, I said, ‘Well, do you want to not have two mommies?’ And she was like, ‘No, I want to have two mommies and a daddy.’”

Tonya and Sandy believe that raising their son might invoke more problems, due to the macho nature of young men, but they hope to circumvent this with tactful communication and a school that’s accepting of diversity. Most therapists recommend that gay parents be up front with their children, and with their children’s teachers, noting it can be harmful to the child if her parents stay in the closet.

“I will always remember the young boy whose father was gay, going into his kindergarten teacher and saying, ‘My dad’s gay. If you have any questions, just ask me,’” says Galloway. “That kid had very few problems through school.”

Friends Jill and Sarah vouch for Tonya and Sandy’s ability to raise well-adjusted children. About her friends’ daughter, Sarah says, “She is a character. She’s bold. Nothing shy about her. You only have to meet Katie to know that she’s okay. She’s not suffering from anything.”

 

All of the couples Metro Pulse spoke with say they’ve considered moving away from Tennessee, to Vermont, Massachusetts or California, even to Asheville, N.C., where the gay community thrives, despite similar laws. But mostly, they hope that Tennessee can provide them with a home, a place where their children can grow in relative peace. They hope that one day they might be thought of as more than just gay, and their children more than just the children of gay people.

“There are still a lot of people that are misinformed,” says Jill. “They just don’t understand.”

“[Our sexuality] is only a little part of us,” says Sarah, scooping their son from his highchair. “It’s not the main focus for us. It’s a very small part. Other people may not understand it, but their lack of understanding doesn’t mean that we’re not okay as a family.”

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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