Austin has two daddies
By Scott Henry
DOUBLE DAD: Stephen Bartlett and Woody Hinton get mushy with their new baby, Austin, whose mother chose the couple as adoptive parents after seeing Rosie O'Donnell on TV.
One of the unfortunate realities of being gay or lesbian is a feeling of isolation, of not fitting in. So imagine Karla Drenner's frustration at having to live through those youthful emotions all over again in her 30s as Georgia's first and only openly homosexual state legislator.
Some fellow House members conspicuously avoided riding the elevator with the freshman Democrat from Avondale Estates. Others welcomed Drenner by declaring her sexual orientation "morally reprehensible" or making it clear they equated homosexuality with pedophilia. One particularly clueless pol, in apparent earnestness, drawled: "I don't know any gays -- and there are none in my district."
Then there was the day she was summoned to the Capitol office of a senior party leader -- she won't say who, for reasons easy to guess. After awkwardly referencing her already notorious sexuality, the elder statesman surprised Drenner by asking if she were raising her two adopted children to be gay.
"I hope not," she replied. "I don't want my children to be treated like I'm being treated."
After a moment's thought, she added: "But then, my mother didn't raise me to be gay."
If Drenner's lesbianism was a Gold Dome mini-scandal, the fact that a gay woman was raising two kids was truly seen as an affront to old-fashioned family values. That is, until she brought the two 5-year-olds to work with her and they sat, full of disarming cheer, on the laps of some of the same folks who had vilified their mom.
"After seeing how friendly my kids were, people told me, 'You know, you're a good mother,' as if the fact that I'm gay should automatically mean I'd be a bad mother," Drenner says.
But, the simple truth is, gay parenting is still a relatively new concept to many Americans -- especially those who, like some of our elected leaders, don't seem to get out much.
The rest of us already know, however, that we're in the midst of a so-called "gay-by boom." You can scarcely swing a pool cue in downtown Decatur without hitting a lesbian couple strolling with their new toddler. In Piedmont Park, in-line skaters must dodge a gay dad helping his 4-year-old maneuver on training wheels. On TV, Jerry's kids are old news; Rosie's kids are the flavor of the month. And how many jokes have you heard in the past few years for which the punch line was "David Crosby"?
There's something of a grassroots social revolution taking place in Atlanta and across the country, one family at a time. And it's happening in plain view, for anyone who cares to notice.
Gay couples -- including an increasing number of men -- who once may have resigned themselves to being always godparents, never parents, have woken up to a new reality: that they, too, have the opportunity to change dirty diapers, wear puke-stained shirts and stumble down the hall every night for 3 a.m. feedings.
After all, the biological clock keeps ticking, no matter which team you play for. As Drenner notes, "There is no difference between a gay person and a straight person wanting to start a family; it's the same emotional desire."
But, as with most slices of reality, this one's not without its complications. You see, the current upswing in adoptions and artificial insemination by gays and lesbians has not come about because wise, far-sighted Georgia lawmakers saw fit to strike down unfair barriers to parenthood. Rather, it's a result of recent advances in fertility technology, an expanding global baby market, less domestic adoption red tape -- and perilous ambiguities in state law that have gay activists looking over their shoulders and describing their success stories in hushed tones.
The concern is that if right-wing fanatics get clued in to this trend toward alternative domesticity, they may try to come up with new restrictions on gay families. After all, only a few years ago the state was still sending guys to prison for violating the 19th-century sodomy law -- talk about letting the punishment fit the crime. And it was Georgia's own Bob Barr who penned the "Defense of Marriage Act" allowing states to ignore same-sex marriages granted by another state.
To see what could go wrong here, the worriers say, look across the state line. As Rosie O'Donnell has pointed out, Florida specifically outlaws adoptions by gays and is aggressive about enforcement -- "Don't ask, don't tell" doesn't fly in Anita Bryant country. In Alabama, Chief Justice Roy Moore, in explaining a February state Supreme Court decision denying a lesbian mother custody of her three kids, declared homosexuality to be an "inherent evil against which children should be protected." And we thought the Taliban was hard-line.
Georgia isn't immune from gay-hostile jurisprudence where children are concerned, as evidenced in a 1999 ruling by a Cherokee County judge forbidding a gay father from discussing his sexual orientation with his three daughters -- even if they ask him -- at the risk of losing his visitation rights.
If there's any conventional wisdom for gay Southern parents in this shifting landscape, it's to avoid straying far from the relatively safe harbor of intown Atlanta and to make as few political waves as possible.
But laying low isn't the preferred style of Craig Pigg, who considers himself a Pied Piper for the diaper set. Five years ago, he and his partner, Michael Prudent, became the first male couple they knew in Atlanta to set out to adopt a newborn. Since then, the 46-year-old stay-at-home dad has given advice to dozens of other gay couples looking to adopt.
"We jokingly call it the Underground Railroad," he says.
Many of the adoption hurdles that Pigg, a retired insurance agent, and Prudent, a psychiatrist, had to clear are the same ones facing straight couples. They hired an "adoption facilitator" rather than sign with an adoption agency, and spent two years interviewing with 15 expectant mothers before they met a woman willing to have her baby raised by two gay men.
But they know other couples who spent thousands supporting a birth mother, only to have her back out of the deal after delivery. In some cases, hopeful dads got taken for costly rides by several different women, a risk taken by straight couples as well. All told, they spent about $25,000, which is fairly typical of any adoption.
Today, 3-year-old Cooper -- last name Prudent, for obvious reasons -- has several playmates with lesbian parents in his Morningside neighborhood, but has yet to ask why he's got two dads. It's a question Pigg plans to take in stride with the rest of his job of raising a child.
"He says, 'I will always be safe with you," and that's about the greatest thing to hear," he says.
To appreciate how times have changed, consider Ed Nix, an Atlanta psychiatrist who was married with two young daughters before he realized in 1979 that he was gay. When he said he'd like to share joint custody of the girls with his ex-wife, his divorce lawyer told him not to bother asking; in fact, if he wanted to keep any parental rights, it would be better to keep quiet and not let the judge know he was gay.
Soon after, Nix founded a support group for gay fathers in Atlanta who, like himself, felt cheated by the legal bias against them. Through the group, his daughters were able to meet other kids with gay parents "to help them feel like their dad isn't weird," he says.
The mere idea that gay men might want to have children, much less that they could be effective fathers, was such an foreign concept 20 years ago, Nix contends, that many men tried to deny their sexuality and get married simply in order to have kids -- a surefire recipe for disaster.
"I think that's why there are so many gay male teachers, so they could help raise children by proxy," he says.
In the decade he stayed involved with his support group, Nix, 63, says he saw acceptance gradually grow for gay parenting. Earlier this year, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared that children of gay parents are as likely to grow up well-adjusted as those whose parents are straight -- or, from a half-empty viewpoint, we're all equally doomed to dysfunction.
Nix's own daughters are both planning to be married soon. The older, 30, is a pediatrician; her sister, 28, is a psychologist. Nix says both women remain close to him and his partner of 23 years.
"I can't imagine my life without my kids," he says.
One woman who doesn't want to see anyone regret not having kids is Lori Surmay, one of Atlanta's top adoption attorneys, who specializes in helping gay couples navigate Georgia law. Her once-female-focused practice has recently taken on an increasing number of men, as gay couples' paternal instincts are aroused by seeing other men with babies.
"The number of gay men showing an interest in becoming parents has risen dramatically," she says. "I think the interest was always there, but more men now see parenting as a possibility."
Since men are at a natural disadvantage when it comes to having kids (i.e. no womb to call their own), one of those possibilities takes the form of "gestational surrogates," a woman hired to carry an in vitro baby.
Once an oddity one might expect to see only on "Donahue," surrogate moms are now so commonplace that five minutes of Internet browsing will yield dozens of willing candidates. Surmay's seemingly far-fetched contention that surrogacy has become just another, albeit more intimate, service industry is supported by a paid link on one prominent website advertising Gap maternity wear.
In fact, many of Surmay's clients don't even need a rent-a-uterus service; a sister, cousin or friend who, unlikely as it may seem, claims to enjoy the experience of pregnancy, will offer to hatch a fertilized egg, she says.
The process of adoption, on the other hand, is often much trickier, even though many of the red-tape impediments were streamlined during the Clinton administration.
Most baby-rich countries do not allow international adoptions by gay women and none allow adoption by single men, gay or straight. Domestic adoption agencies likewise tend to favor their straight clients, as do birth mothers, who have become so active and empowered in the adoption process in recent years you'd think they had formed a union.
That's what Dan Savage found himself up against when he and his partner decided to adopt nearly five years ago. Savage, editor of the weekly Seattle Stranger and a widely syndicated sex columnist, observes that many gays are willing to take "damaged, unwanted or older kids" because gays more easily empathize with the children's outsider status. Also, he says, many agencies are more likely to assign less-desirable kids to gay clients.
As it turned out, Savage eventually got a kid commonly perceived as "the Holy Grail -- a healthy, white, male infant," but only because he was willing to take a gamble on an alcoholic birth mother who drank during her pregnancy.
Savage wrote about his experiences of becoming a father in The Kid, a book that has attained must-read status among many gay men.
"We're seeing gay life normalized," he explains. "We're from straight families and some of us want families of our own."
But normalcy often isn't as simple as it seems. Georgia law doesn't allow two unmarried adults to adopt a child simultaneously, which effectively rules out gay couples.
Therefore, the adoption must be undertaken first by one partner, then by the other, in what's known as a second-parent adoption. It's the same process that allows a stepfather to become the legal parent of his new wife's children.
The problem is, there's no provision in the Georgia code that establishes the legality of second-parent adoption by gay couples. Then again, there's no prohibition against it, either. The process is so new that Georgia lawmakers simply haven't caught up with it yet -- and that has many gay advocates worried.
"I'm confident in the legality of second-parent adoption, but I'm worried that a legislator could move to ban it," Surmay says.
Because state law doesn't address the matter, gay parents "are at the mercy of the progressiveness of individual judges," explains Beth Littrell, a local ACLU attorney whose focus is on gay rights. "In metro Atlanta, gay folks find it easier to have their relationships sanctioned; in the rest of Georgia, that may be more tenuous."
Failure to secure legal parenthood can result in wild injustices. For instance, let's say a gay couple takes in a child who's been adopted by one partner but not the other. If the adoptive partner were to die, his estranged family could take the kid away from the surviving partner, even if he'd been the child's primary caregiver -- his legal standing would be roughly equivalent to that of a nanny.
Even worse is the case of Susan Freer, a Rome woman whose divorce decree denies visitation with her three biological kids as long as she lives with another unrelated adult, in this case her partner. Although the women have taken part in a Vermont civil union of the kind now celebrated on the New York Times' weddings page, an appeals court earlier this year upheld a 2001 ruling by a Floyd County judge that effectively forces Freer to decide between her children and her partner.
"Folks should realize just how precarious some of their rights are," Littrell says.
Rachel Franklin's legal rights were the least of her worries when she considered kids.
"I always thought I wouldn't have children," admits the 34-year-old British ex-pat. "It wasn't a factor of being gay, but I didn't want to pass on my family dysfunctions."
Franklin burned through two marriages before ending up with her partner of six years, Missie Edwards.
"Two years ago, the thought occurred to me that the relationship we have would be particularly nurturing to a child," Franklin says. "Once the decision was made, I wanted to do it now."
Adoption was quickly ruled out as too expensive so the couple visited Atlanta's Feminist Women's Health Center already having coaxed a friend into agreeing to donate free sperm. There, insemination services program coordinator Gail Panacci did what she always does: talk them out of it.
Panacci explained that there are too many legal landmines when everyone knows where the sperm came from, such as: What will be the father's involvement with the child? Who owns any leftover sperm? Would their friend be willing to sign away all rights regarding his child in a pre-conception agreement? Plus, having the father around can make second-parent adoption more difficult.
She also warned them that, in a quirk of artificial insemination, chances are roughly 2-to-1 that they would have a boy because male sperm tend to swim faster.
The first issue, ironically, was a superabundance of choices when it came to potential donors. Franklin and Edwards fell into the common trap of sifting through hundreds of donor essays and profiles to find just the perfect guy. (Pannaci says many women hold out for tall, slim donors; some insist on fellow Jews; and one hopeful mother wanted an MIT grad -- and found one!)
"Finally, I realized we were being too picky and impractical," Franklin says. "I mean, I'd rather he not resemble the Hunchback of Notre Dame, but I'm not trying to engineer a child, just to get pregnant."
In the end -- after "lots of prodding and poking and peeing on sticks," and three month's worth of insemination treatments -- Franklin beat all the odds. Four days before Christmas, she gave birth to twin girls. She works at home as a Web content editor for IBM so she's able to manage without a babysitter.
Even though Edwards subsequently adopted the girls -- giving her equal legal standing as a parent -- Franklin says she had to remind herself to introduce them as "our children."
She's already planning to bring up her daughters to be tolerant of others, better adjusted than she was and free to decide how to live their own lives.
However, she and every other gay parent interviewed for this story admitted a secret desire to have straight children so the kids wouldn't have to deal with a lifetime of bigotry -- but also so they could be counted on to produce grandchildren. So much for the theory of "homosexual indoctrination."
Says Franklin: "I suppose there's a little voice in all of us that says it'd be easier if they turned out to be straight, but I really only want them to find the right person for them -- as long as it's not a Republican."
Joking aside, artificial insemination carries serious risks. Two women who own metro Atlanta's largest lesbian bar recently held a private party to help raise money for their planned adoption of a Russian baby. The couple had to resort to international adoption after an artificial insemination attempt by one of the women caused an infection that nearly killed her and left her unable to bear children.
Underscoring the paranoia felt by many hopeful gay parents, the couple refused to talk to CL about their planned adoption, apparently worried that Vladimir Putin might flip open his copy of the Loaf, see that a Russian infant was to be snatched away by a couple of Yankee dykes and scream, "Nyet!" (Paradoxically, they sent out press releases detailing their travails to promote their fund-raising scheme.)
But the restrictions on adoptions by gay parents are routinely sidestepped, says Anna Belle Illien, who founded Illien Adoptions International in Atlanta 20 years ago. Hers is one of many agencies that gladly locate babies for gay couples in countries as far-flung as Brazil, Thailand and the Ukraine.
"Sexual orientation is not a criteria for being a good parent," she says. "The key ingredient I look for is motivation. The desire to parent a child is a human need -- it has nothing to do with sex or gender."
Despite her personal philosophy, she is likewise concerned about drawing too much attention to the gay-by boom.
"If you talk about gay parents and international adoptions, it can shut programs down," she warns. "Socially, this is really new and whenever you open up, you see a backlash. As this becomes more commonplace, it will simply no longer be an issue."
Until then, we know of a couple of clean-cut guys living happily in their immaculate new house with their cute little baby who represent the ultimate Phyllis Schlafly nightmare.
"I've always thought I'd have children," says Woody Hinton, 31. "Even when I realized I was gay, that feeling didn't change."
His partner, Stephen Bartlett, 40, recalls the moment he realized they might be right for each other: "On our third date, Woody said, 'When I have kids ...' and I almost drove off the road. I hit the power locks and didn't let him out of the car."
In the three years since, the two bought a new house in Home Park, east of Turner Field. Hinton finished graduate school and landed a well-paying job in accounting and Bartlett already had a good career in corporate human resources. Last fall, the self-described homebodies decided to get serious about adding a tyke to their lives, eventually combining the key ingredient of motivation with a helluva lot of luck.
They soon settled on adoption over surrogacy because, as Hinton says, "There are so many kids in the world who need homes." That decision behind them, the two were quickly overwhelmed by the tangle of financially risky choices that lay before them.
Agency fees ranged from $25,000 to $45,000 for various service packages, whereas, for a flat $13,000, an "adoption facilitator" offered to troll homeless shelters, women's prisons and other places where one might find pregnant women not eager to be mothers. That price didn't guarantee that she'd find a suitable tot, only that she'd look for one.
Meanwhile, as they were puzzling over which route to take, across town, a young, pregnant college student was outraged as she watched Rosie explain to Diane Sawyer how Florida was trying to take an adopted son away from two men who'd raised him for 10 years in foster care, simply because the couple was gay.
The girl, who'd already planned to give her child up for adoption, told friends she would let it go only to a gay or lesbian family. A few days later, Hinton and Bartlett heard about the opportunity through word-of-mouth, contacted the mother and, after an informal interview, were selected as the lucky couple. They accompanied the girl into the delivery room, where Woody cut the cord as Stephen videotaped the birth of Austin Bartlett, a healthy boy of Irish, Latino and Asian ancestry.
"By the beginning of May, we were still looking at adoption agencies, and by May 15, we were parents," says Bartlett, who just completed three months of unpaid family leave granted by his company to take care of the new baby.
Hinton is up next; his employer allows two months of paid adoption leave. Neither company makes a distinction between its gay and straight employees, the couple say. Bartlett's boss even threw him a baby shower at work. When the couple visited Babies R Us, they were given a tour of the store. Friends are beating down their door offering to baby-sit. Family, co-workers, even total strangers have been nothing but supportive.
"Everyone has treated us with the utmost respect," Bartlett gushes. "All our experiences have been positive so far."
And, certainly, if little Austin is ever teased at school, he can always respond with, "My dads can beat up your dad."