Coming Out to Children
Mike Robertson of Mt. Vernon, 60, came out to his wife and four sons when he was 51 years old.
“My biggest fear was losing the close relationship I had with my children,” said Robertson. “My children were no longer very young, so I came right to the point and told them I was gay, always was gay, but kept it so deeply buried since society expected me to marry a woman and have a family.”
Robertson met individually with every family member, even his in-laws. He believed they all deserved the personal attention. The result?
“It went way better than I ever imagined it would,” he said. “My largest fear never happened.”
His entire family embraced his sexuality, and his wife was extremely instrumental in making his transition as easy as possible. He joined, and eventually led, the Gay Father’s Coalition, a support group that met monthly at the GLCCB.
“I was always told how easy I had it,” said Robertson who recalled one father in particular who had a far worse experience. “His wife did everything she could to influence his children in a very negative way. She even made up lies about him in an effort to separate him from his children.”
Hampden resident Michael Myers, 44, came out to his sons when they were just eight and 11 years old. About a year after his divorce, Myers began living with his current husband, Mark Scurti. One day his youngest son, Matthew, asked if he was gay.
“I said ‘yes,’ and he said ‘okay,’” said Myers.
After that, Myers said the most difficult part was choosing their friends. Some friends were invited to come over; others were not. Sometimes Myers would hear: “No, Dad. He can’t handle the gay thing.”
“They were very honest, and I never pushed,” said Myers. “I didn’t want them to be uncomfortable; I was more concerned with that than them hurting my feelings.”
Creating a Family
When it comes to starting a family, gay and lesbian couples have choices. Scurti, a Maryland attorney, outlined four basic avenues for gay and lesbian Marylanders: private adoption, foster care adoption, artificial insemination (for lesbians) and surrogacy (for gay couples).
While private adoption agencies can be expensive, time-consuming, and not always LGBT-friendly, Baltimore City and Baltimore County have streamlined the adoption process for same-sex couples through foster care.
“The foster care system has opened up for samesex couples to adopt,” said Scurti who specializes in second parent adoption, domestic partnership agreements, same sex dissolution of partnerships, and other related services.
While adoptions have become routine for gay parents in Maryland, the process is complicated, and even prohibited, in many other states.
When Havre de Grace resident Tom Barnes tried to adopt his cousin’s son in 2003, he faced an uphill battle. Seven-year-old Austin had been removed from his mother’s care after a history of abuse and was living with a foster family in Shawnee, Okla. Barnes already had a son, Tucker, but when he learned of Austin’s situation, Barnes knew he wanted to adopt the boy.
“At that time, none of my family in Oklahoma knew that I was gay,” said Barnes who was raised there and in Maryland. When he came out to Austin’s social worker, she had to inform her supervisors. “My understanding is that some in the Shawnee Social Security office were opposed to the placement because I was gay.”
The social worker, who remained supportive, convinced Barnes to visit Oklahoma and plead his case. Not only was he found to be a suitable adoptive parent, he was able to visit Austin during his stay. But once the biological mother and grandmother learned Barnes was gay, they made many attempts to derail the adoption process.
In the meantime, Barnes and Austin spoke by telephone every week.
“In his phone calls to me, he went from calling me ‘Uncle Tom’ to ‘Dad,’” said Barnes. Austin also began exchanging letters with Tucker. Both boys were very excited to have a brother.
Despite ongoing challenges to the adoption process, Austin was brought to Maryland in July 2003. Barnes was finally able to adopt him in September 2004. The Maryland judge who completed the adoption ensured that Barnes’ spouse, Glenn Gorleski, was included in the court hearing. But due to same-sex adoption restrictions in Oklahoma, there is still uncertainty as to whether Glenn is considered Austin’s legal parent.
Because adoption agencies in Maryland are gender neutral, the process is comparable for gay and lesbian couples. But gay men who choose to conceive a child with a surrogate face more challenges than their female counterparts. For lesbian couples, pursuing insemination by a sperm donor can often achieve faster results.
Rene Watkins always knew she wanted kids. When her partner, Lauren Debelius, was ready, she wasted no time making an appointment with a fertility specialist.
“We knew couples who had been trying to get pregnant for a while,” said Watkins. “We didn’t know what our fertility chances were going to be, so for us, it made more sense to go to a fertility specialist where they track your cycle and track your hormones.”
Watkins got pregnant on the first try.
“We went in for the first appointment in September, and we inseminated on Christmas Eve,” said Debelius. Their daughter, Lillian, is now seven months old.
But before her birth, Watkins and Debelius knew they needed legal protection for their growing family. They met with a lawyer who helped them with all of the necessary paperwork. They gave their healthcare directive and other documents to their midwife.
“It’s spelled out very clearly in our medical records that Lauren was my partner and that she was to be there no matter what,” said Watkins. “And after the birth, if Lillian had to go to the NICU or something, Lauren was to go with her.”
Their lawyer also began the second parent adoption process so they could submit the paperwork as soon as the baby was born.
“The problem with second parent adoption,” said Scurti, “is that there’s a hold-your-breath-and-waitperiod for the non-biological parent.”
This is something Debelius understands all too well.
“From when she was born on September 22 to December 10, when Lauren adopted her, they were legal strangers,” said Watkins, “and so if something happened to me in that time Lauren had no rights over her.”
Thankfully, legally married lesbians are now protected. On February 10, 2011, the MD Department of Health and Mental Hygiene issued a statement indicating that if a new mother is married, information pertaining to her spouse is to be entered, regardless of her spouses’ gender. This change is based on Attorney General Doug Gansler’s opinion last year that Maryland should recognize out-of-state same sex marriages.
In terms of custody, however, the relationship between partners does not matter as much as each partner’s legal relationship with the child. “It always comes down to the legal relationship between parent and child,” said Scurti. “Legal parent” is federally recognized, and same-sex marriages are not. Simply put, a same-sex spouse is not automatically considered a legal parent or guardian.
Scurti recalled a current case here in Maryland, in which the rights of a known sperm donor were never terminated and the couple is now in danger of losing their child to him.
“Couples need to plan more than ever to protect themselves from third parties who could claim rights and take the children,” he said. “There are so many different ways people can create families and the introduction of a third party can exponentially complicate the situation.”
“I don’t think that gay parenting is really much different than straight parenting,” said Robertson whose four sons ranged in age from 13 to 25 when he came out. “In the beginning there were questions like, ‘Are you sure you’re gay?’”
His sons also reflected on their own sexualities.
“I tried to assure them that they would know if they were [gay] and it was perfectly fine if they were,” he said. “You would think with four boys that maybe one would be gay, but so far I’m the only homosexual, along with my sister.”
Myers agreed that gay parenting is somewhat similar to straight parenting. “But there are more nuances,” he said. “It is a little more challenging.” He recalled two incidents in particular.
When Myers and Scurti planned a family trip to Europe, the mother not only had to sign papers allowing the couple to take the kids out of the country, she also had to agree to let Scurti make decisions about the welfare of the children if something happened to their biological father. Although the children considered their father’s partner to be like a step-father, the law did not.
“I was a legal stranger to Michael’s children,” said Scurti.
Another incident came when his oldest son, Michael, had his learning permit and needed to log driving time. Because his father was traveling and hewas unable to use his mother’s car, he asked to drive with Scurti.
“But Mark, unlike his mother’s husband, was not considered a family member and therefore wasn’t allowed,” explained Myers. “This was a minor situation, but it kind of hit home for them because it defined our relationship as different.”
Advice to Prospective Parents
“The planning process is the most critical and most over-looked,” said Scurti. As an attorney, he sees what happens when people fail to plan. “When they come to me it’s either when the parties are splitting or when a third party, often a known donor, comes into the picture.”
He recommends getting legal advice ahead of time and not waiting for issues to arise because the laws are complicated and often changing.
“There are always concerns with same sex-couples compared to straight couples,” said Scurti. “There is more potential for nuance which may not otherwise exist.” For example, because Scurti and Myers married in Massachusetts last summer, Scurti is considered a legal step-parent to Myers’ sons. But outside of Maryland there are still legal barriers. Federal tax returns are another example. Married same-sex couples cannot file federal taxes jointly, and even if both are federally-recognized legal parents to their children, only one parent can claim them as dependents on their federal taxes.
Myers said there are days he’d be tempted to tell prospective parents to buy a Jag and drive to P-Town. But then he remembers he’s more proud of his kids than anything else in his life.
“It will be the happiest and saddest you’ll ever be,” said Myers. “Children are an emotional rollercoaster; everyday is a challenge.”
To parents considering coming out to their children, Myers recommends giving kids just enough information so they can process it; then be ready to answer their questions honestly.
“You’ll be surprised about what they don’t ask,” he said. Sex for example—children are not generally interested in the mechanics of their parents’ sex life.
“They get that it’s about love and not 100 percent about sex,” said Barnes, “that sex is a small percentage of any relationship when you put it in the context of day-to-day living as a family.”
“I swear love conquers all,” said Robertson. “Love your children and be a part of their lives. Get involved and be there for them whether they’re happy or sad.”
As new to parenting as they are, Watkins and Debelius are already thrilled to be there for Lillian.
“We fight over who gets to carry her sometimes,” said Debelius, laughing. “Because I didn’t carry her for nine months, and I want to carry her now.”
“I firmly believe that when we are active parents, we do the very best we can with the tools we have to work with,” said Barnes. “I think my kids are awesome and terrific and wouldn’t trade this experience, this family, this love for the world.”