Same-sex parents finding greater acceptance

David Blum (left) and Mark Woodland with their adopted children, Scott, 15, and Ashley, 12, at home in Society Hill. "We want them to be good kids and to be contributors to society, to have rewarding, successful lives that are meaningful to them," Woodland says.
David Blum (left) and Mark Woodland with their adopted children, Scott, 15, and Ashley, 12, at home in Society Hill. "We want them to be good kids and to be contributors to society, to have rewarding, successful lives that are meaningful to them," Woodland says. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 31, 2014

Third in a series of occasional stories about the new modern family.

'Where's the mom in this family?" puzzled 10-year-old Megan asked a few years ago as she glanced around the breakfast table. She had slept over in the Center City home of her friend Ashley and seemed to have just noticed that Ashley's mother was missing. Without skipping a beat, Ashley's 12-year-old brother, Scott, piped up, "Oh, we keep her in the closet!"

Mark Woodland and his partner, David Blum, just smiled. Woodland, a gynecologist, and Blum, a lawyer, who have been partners for 25 years, adopted their son and daughter when the children were infants. Now, Ashley is 12 and her brother nearly 15.

From the start, they lived on a mid-city block heavily populated with young families, and the children had no trouble making friends. Both were educated at St. Peter's School at Third and Lombard Streets; now Scott takes a train every day to the Shipley School in Bryn Mawr, where he is in his first year of high school. Their fathers' dreams for them mirror those of most parents. "We want them to be good kids and to be contributors to society, to have rewarding, successful lives that are meaningful to them," Woodland says.

The number of gay men and lesbians openly raising children has climbed dramatically in the last three decades, with close to six million children and adults in this country having parents who are lesbian, gay, or bisexual. Some were born when their parents were in an earlier heterosexual relationship; others are birth children, mainly created through donor insemination or surrogate parenting, and growing numbers have been adopted, often from the foster care system.

It's a different world today, says Ellen Kahn, director of the Family Project of the Human Rights Campaign, which strives to achieve equality for LGBT Americans. "When I came out in 1985, it was incongruent to be out and be a gay parent. You had to let it go . . . and grieve. Today's twentysomethings know that having kids is possible."

A cultural metamorphosis - TV shows like Modern Family and the "yes I am . . . so what!" declarations of celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres, Robin Roberts, and Anderson Cooper - have helped reshape attitudes and policy.

But the greatest impact, says Gary Gates, a demographer at UCLA's Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy, comes from knowing someone who is gay or lesbian, especially if it's a close friend or relative.

The personal link, too, is largely driving the epic shift in support for same-sex marriage, which the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press ranks among the most dramatic changes in public policy in a decade.

With same-sex marriage legal in 17 states, including New Jersey and Delaware, "it seems likely that we'll be seeing more LGBT families with children," says Kahn. "People feel differently when they get married," she says. "We may live like any family. We pack our kids' lunches, go to their soccer games, wipe away their tears, but we walk through the world differently as two moms or two dads. Now, we can create a moment where we cross over into the more traditional. Raising children is a natural next step."

Abby Ruder and Ellen Tichenor were trailblazers. In 1978, when women like Ellen Kahn mourned the children they would never have, Ruder courageously separated from her husband and bought a house with Tichenor in Northwest Philadelphia. There they raised Tichenor's two sons, then 7 and 8, in shared custody with their father.

"Lots of us were raising children born before we came out," says Ruder, "but the big shift came when some of us, including me, wanted children after we came out."

Their boys, then teenagers, were "cool" with the idea, but Ruder had to explain that the adoption community was not.

"The law does not recognize the kind of family we are," she told them, "so we have to be careful about what we say to the social worker. It was risky. We wanted to be open about our family, but couldn't name our relationship. You had to separate a big part of your heart in this process."

Ruder is certain the social worker knew, but, in 1986, she placed baby Eliza, whose birth mother was Caucasian and birth father African American, in their home.

Though Ruder and Tichenor's families had come to embrace their relationship, one of Ruder's brothers was disturbed about her wanting to raise a child with two mothers.

As a new father, he thought her decision implied fathers didn't matter. "In the end, after some difficult and searching conversations, we actually became closer for it," recalls Ruder.

Now Eliza is 27, a graduate student in elementary special education working in a Jewish preschool program. She is close to her parents and brothers, has a loving relationship with her extended family, and is in touch with members of her birth family. At the same time, she is conscious of her intersecting identities as a woman who is biracial, adopted, Jewish, and has two lesbian mothers.

Eliza embodies what the research, including evaluations by the American Psychological Association, has shown: Children of gay and lesbian parents are as happy, healthy, and emotionally well-adjusted as other children, have good relationships with their peers, and are more likely to be tolerant of differences in others. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry has said children of gay or lesbian parents are not more likely to be gay than those from heterosexual families and are not more likely to be sexually abused.

Still, bias persists. Republican presidential contender Rick Santorum told a New Hampshire audience in 2012 that children are better off having a father in prison than being raised in a home with lesbian parents and no father. And a 2008 national survey by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network indicated one-fifth of students with LGBT parents heard derogatory remarks from other students; even more disturbing, one-third heard them from school staff.

Jake Miller, 35, and Scott Craig, 33, of Germantown, whose 4-year-old daughter and 14-month-old son were adopted at two days old, say they have been thoughtful and cautious. They have chosen to live and work in a community where they and their children, both African American, would not be ostracized.

Have there been incidents? Only two, they say, and both had more to do with their racially mixed family than with their children having two fathers.

While Miller and Craig opted for adoption, Doug Metcalfe and Brian Lahmann of Berks County felt strongly about having a genetic link to their children. Their first step: buying gold embossed rings for each other and flying to Paris for a commitment ceremony that was a prelude to parenthood. "It sounds a little traditional, but that was the way we felt," Metcalfe says.

From there, the process got complicated. There needed to be a woman who would donate eggs, another who would carry the child, and an attorney willing to draw up a legal agreement. Once the women were found, there was a tangle of logistics; both women had to coordinate taking hormones, the eggs needed to be harvested, then fertilized with sperm from both men until several embryos were ready for transfer to the surrogate.

The men do not know, even now, which is the biological father, but when their daughter, Helen, was born, they had to go to New Jersey so one of them (the nonbiological parent) could adopt her.

At the time, that option was not yet legal in Pennsylvania. Three years later, they went through a similar process for their second daughter, Sarah, who became the first child in Pennsylvania to be part of a second-parent adoption.

Helen, who is in third grade, and Sarah, in first, have never had other children in their classes with same-sex parents. "Once, a kid in Helen's class said, 'You have to have a mom.' She said, 'No, I have two dads. There are different kinds of families.' "

"Being part of Philadelphia Family Pride" - a 20-year-old group that builds community for LGBT parents and children - "has gone a long way toward normalizing our family," Metcalfe says. "Our kids get to see other kids with two moms or two dads or a trans parent."

Still, it takes the children a while to come out to their friends. " 'Oh, by the way, I have two dads,' is not the first thing Helen would say to a new friend," says Metcalfe. "But once she feels comfortable with someone, it is no longer an issue."

"We see ourselves as just a normal, loving family," says David Blum, "and we're not aware of any negative experiences our children have had because they have two dads. I suspect there have been some. Would they have not been invited to a party because they are being raised by two men? We don't know what our children don't tell us."

Scott has a matter-of-fact attitude, Woodland says. "This is what he got, this is what it is. He has two parents who love him. He feels lucky.

"Ashley is more introspective and sometimes fantasizes about what it would be like to have a mother to relate to. She is, after all, the only girl, with three males."

But Woodland grins as he recalls a meaningful moment. He was styling Ashley's hair so she could be Dorothy in her Wizard of Oz Halloween costume. Ashley kept looking in the mirror, then turned to her father and said: "You told me that my birth mother said she let you adopt me because I'd be getting great parents. But I think it's something else. I think it's because you know how to braid hair."

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