When the daughter of close friends received her medical degree a few weekends ago, I worked long and hard to make sure our tribe of teenage boys looked sharp for the celebration. But their behavior needed no help at all. My husband, Tim, and I watched proudly as our boys chatted easily with guests, checked each other’s table manners and politely thanked kind women who swooned over their good looks and gentlemanly ways. Yes, we are proud dads. Our boys are smart, loving kids and good citizens.
Our concerns go beyond manners, of course: Tim and I make sure that our boys are safe and loved, that they work diligently at school and look for other ways to expand their horizons, and that they always know they can turn to us. In short, we are their parents. The fact that we are a gay couple is beside the point – but we face obstacles every day because of who we are.
Tim and I were legally married in the District of Columbia in January after more than two decades together, but in our home state of North Carolina, we are legal strangers. Because of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and North Carolina’s ban on marriages like ours, we can’t even both be legal parents to our four boys, three of whom were adopted from North Carolina’s foster care system.
In practical terms, this means logistical challenges with schools and hospitals. “Who’s the father?” is a constant refrain. It means thousands of dollars more each year on health insurance and a legal bill for documents proving our relationship, which opposite-sex couples don’t even have to worry about. But most important, it means our sons – Torin (13), Justin (16), Derrick (17), and Brandon (24) – face second-class status every day, even after finally finding their forever family.
Tim and I are good citizens. We’ve worked hard to educate ourselves, and we give back to our community because we care. Still, a family member once said to me, “I love you, but I don’t agree with your lifestyle.” I replied: “My lifestyle is probably no different than yours. We go to work, care for our children, meet with teachers, cheer at our kids sporting events and negotiate with them to wear something besides skinny jeans.”
The bottom line is, our children see us as their parents, not their gay dads, and we are working every day to be the best parents we can be. Tim’s parents raised three boys in their 50 years together before his dad’s death. My parents, a Korean War veteran and a homemaker, raised nine children. Our families taught us the value of hard work and family.
Today, we are working to teach our children the same values, but we stand on a shaky foundation. If Tim or I were to die, our children would be left in legal limbo, because of the adoption laws, and financial straits because we are not entitled to receive Social Security survivor benefits, even though we are legally married.
We have done our part. Our children deserve to be raised in a family that is not treated as second-class just because of who we are. If we truly believe that we must put children first, then we must respect all families.
Mark Maxwell and Timothy Young speak regularly on the topic of marriage equality and child advocacy. Mark is a Ph.D candidate at Walden University. His dissertation describes the impact of North Carolina’s second-parent adoption policy on same-sex couples who adopt children from foster care.