Gay parents redefine home life in New Mexico
The nuclear family is having a meltdown. Father, mother and 2.5 children were once considered the golden rule for domestic bliss in the United States. But that's changing—fast. Now only about a quarter of all households are considered nuclear. Single people, same-sex couples and, more and more, parents who just don't "fit" into any ready-made classification fill the majority of American homes today. And we think that's great.
This is the Land of the Free, after all. Why merely tolerate our differences when we can celebrate them? And, June being Gay Pride Month, we thought we'd celebrate one growing segment of life in America: families headed by gay and lesbian parents.
Of course, there's no way we could begin to encompass the whole spectrum of what kin is. But this is a start—like snapshots in a photo album. Here, we profile four Albuquerque clans that are evaluating, challenging and redefining what the word “family” can mean on their own terms.
Happy in Their House
In spite of hoops and hurdles, these moms built a stable home
"Every family's going to be different. You just have to remember that you have to be thankful for what you have." That's sage advice from Rebecca Rosales to her 11-year-old stepdaughter Danae, who sometimes wants to know why her family can't just be "normal." Having two moms isn't always easy, especially when all your friends from the Catholic school you go to won't attend your sleepover birthday party. "All the kids, for some reason, couldn't go," says Rebecca. "The parents know about our situation, whether it's spoken or not."
So many "normal" families aren't headed by two loving parents, says DeAnna Armijo, Rebecca's partner. "She's in the best environment she could ever be in as far as growing up open and educated," says DeAnna. The child of one of DeAnna's previous relationships, Danae met her mom's new partner Rebecca when she was just 3. "She really doesn't know any different," says DeAnna. "It's a whole family partnership. Danae relies on Becca just as much as I do."
Regardless of the great parenting skills they’ve worked to cultivate, Rebecca just had to undergo a scrutinizing adoption process for her own child, 3-year-old Madison. Their youngest calls Rebecca "Mommy" and DeAnna "Honey." The couple, together about nine years, asked a longtime friend if he would be the donor for Madison's conception. DeAnna carried the baby.
Though the donor is happy to have whatever level of involvement with the toddler the family is comfortable with, and though Madison has always had two mommies and no daddy, Rebecca underwent the yearlong inspection required by the state of New Mexico to adopt her child. "Being a lesbian couple, you have to adopt your child as if you were adopting any child from another state, city or family," says Rebecca. "You have to go through the whole process, background checks, blood work, $5,000."
The bureaucracy took its toll. "It takes a year to adopt your own kid," DeAnna adds. "All the hoops—having to hire a social worker to come to your home and interview—that was hard for us to swallow."
Add to that all the usual concerns of parenting—bills, taxes, discipline, the quality of schools. Still, in spite of the hurdles, DeAnna and Rebecca say their family has become more accepted over the years. As a completely out couple, they're comfortable, for instance, being in the Alibi and fear no repercussions from their jobs or supportive immediate family. But they continually confront the portrayal of family in the media their daughters consume. Heterosexual couples dominate even the kiddie cartoons Madison takes in. Entrenched in Albuquerque's small and close-knit lesbian scene, plenty of other families help offset the stereotypical notion of family that even modern-day TV presents.
Rebecca comforts pubescent Danae with the idea that their family is not an anomaly. "We're not the only ones like this," she tells her. "Some people aren't going to agree with it, but it's OK, because we're happy in our house."
Mommy and Mimo
Loving parents get plenty of support from family and friends
“We just don't accept anything less than acceptance,” says B.J. Felter. “We feel out the water, and if it's really cold, we don't swim in the pool.”
Having an unconventional family is never easy, but most families are unconventional in one way or another. Felter and her partner, Kelly Clark, feel lucky to live in Albuquerque, which, in their opinion, is very hospitable for alternative families. They were both born and raised here, and neither can imagine leaving. “A lot of places around the country have far more hatred, more crimes against gays,” says Felter. “Albuquerque is a great city.”
She met Clark while Clark was tending the same bar as one of Felter's friends. Felter pursued her for a long time, and eventually persistence paid off. They've been together for more than six years, and they're the happy parents of two beautiful kids. Clark gave birth to both after taking part in the artificial insemination program at UNM. Taylin, who's three, calls Clark “Mommy” and Felter “Mimo.” The new addition, Teagan, is just one month old.
The pair has benefited enormously from their supportive families and friends. You might expect a lesbian couple to have horror stories about insensitive or even cruel treatment at the hands of family members. After all, the world hasn't changed that much. But this isn't the case. Felter had an extremely close relationship with her mother up until she died of brain cancer. Her older sister, a strong and loving presence, now plays an almost maternal role in the couple's lives. Likewise, Clark's family has accepted Felter with open arms, treating her like one of their own.
Most of the couple's concerns are the same ones faced by any new family. Clark is a teacher, and Felter is an EMT. They've budgeted their finances so Clark can stay home to take care of their daughters full-time until they're old enough to attend school.
Not surprisingly, since the birth of Taylin, child-rearing has been a defining element of their lives together. To take one example, they initiated the family area at Albuquerque's upcoming Pride celebration. The festivities have always had a colorful party atmosphere for singles and couples, but it hadn't offered much in the way of entertainment for families with small children.
“We wanted to give families a place that's appropriate for kids, where they could have fun,” says Clark. “We've got two bouncers this year, pony rides, clowns, art supplies, balloon animals and a lady who brings in lizards and birds.”
Life is good. Obviously, the couple has had obstacles to overcome, but they seem more inclined to dwell on their blessings than their hardships. Like any parents with young kids, they aren't getting much sleep these days, but they're having a good time nonetheless.
“Our lives are so normal,” Felter laughs. “We mow the lawn, pay the bills, change the diapers. We're just like everybody else.”
Both are worried, however, that the movement to bring full civil rights to homosexuals has hit a stumbling block since President Bush came to power. “When society starts talking about making constitutional amendments so we can never move forward,” says Felter, “it starts to give people who are prejudiced a sense of power. I've noticed that, and it's a little scary to me. But there are a ton of organizations fighting every day for our rights. Thank God for them, because who knows where we'd be without them.”
She looks down at Taylin, who's awkwardly cradling her baby sister in her arms.
“I just hope when these kids are 30, they don't have to even think about that kind of thing anymore.”
A Long Night's Journey into Day
From closeted kid to proud grandparent
Julian Spalding is a slender man who sports a bolo tie and tidy goatee. His glasses frame kind, limpid eyes that have witnessed 63 years of sweeping change. (Mostly for the better, he says.) Learning to be comfortable with himself has taken just as long. He's discovered humans are complicated creatures.
For instance, Julian has the air of a pragmatic realist—as his 10-year post as owner, publisher and editor-in-chief of Albuquerque Arts magazine demands—but he's a spiritual seeker and an optimist, too. He's also a gay parent and grandfather.
"There's probably no similarity between me and my grandfather--let's start there," he says. "I'm not trying to emulate who a grandfather is supposed to be or who a father is supposed to be. And I'm not trying to be a father in the way anyone else has been a father. I'm just a father the way I am."
That could be, at least partly, because he's had to wing it. Growing up in 1950s America meant a dearth of role models for what it is to be gay—much less a gay parent.
"Things were still very, very repressive. There were no gay people out in the open," he says, but quickly corrects himself, "I mean, there were a few—maybe Quentin Crisp or Allen Ginsberg—and they were really out there and really weird, so you didn't identify with them."
Summoning the strength from some still-unknown part of his being, he came out to his parents at 16, who were basically accepting, if confused. He eventually moved from Santa Barbara, Calif., to Los Angeles for college. There, at 23, he met "a wonderful woman." They fell in love and were married. It was 1967—the Summer of Love—and the ceremony was held in MacArthur Park. They moved to New Mexico soon after.
"The only gay life I knew or anybody knew at that point was one-night-stands and going to gay bars. I didn't even realize it was possible to have a long-term relationship with a man. It just wasn't in my awareness," he says. "So I thought in order to have a long-term relationship it had to be with a woman. Besides, we fell in love. Just because your orientation is not the same doesn't mean you can't fall in love."
Theirs wasn't a "fake" marriage, he's careful to stress. His wife knew he was gay. It's just that they loved each other and assumed, incorrectly, that Julian could change.
"We were married for nine years and had three great children. And that's when I fell apart."
Each parent was going through a painful process on their own, Julian says. He was estranged from his children after the divorce. But he and the kids started a healing process of their own a few years later.
"Then their mother died almost 10 years ago," he says, "and that changed everything. I just became very close with my kids."
The marriage couldn't last, but the fruits of it—a wonderful family and Julian's understanding of himself as a person, partner and parent—have continued to grow.
He just celebrated 20 years of commitment with his partner, Terry. Julian’s biological children are all in their 30s now. (He also has two step-daughters from the marriage, for a grand total of five kids.) Some have children of their own, which has made Julian a grandpa. (Although Terry prefers not to be called "grandpa.") He talks to them frequently and flies out to L.A. as often as he can to spend time with the kids who don't live in Albuquerque.
"There are no rules," Julian reflects. "We're creating our own rules as we go along. I'm living with my partner in my home, and my kids have all visited us. It's the relationship that I have."
"I am who I am," he says, invoking the spry wisdom of Popeye, "and if somebody else can't handle it, it's their problem. It was a long journey, and here I am at 63 years old—and I don't feel like I'm old like my dad or my grandfather were at this age," he laughs.
Jessica Cassyle Carr
Who and What Am I Really In Love With?
For one unconventional household, the answer lies within
Up a precariously winding road in the Sandia foothills, amid a host of conifers and high desert flora, sits a large house looking out over the city. The trees, the sky, the air, the light amount to the sublime, while the human life unfolding here is beauty beyond the pale. Twelve people make up the four generations that live here. Last week at a family dinner, we sat down to eat and listen to Lydia, Tom and Anthony (mostly Anthony) tell their life stories.
In 1971, as the car that brought them from California finally sputtered out, two gay hippies on an acid-inspired journey, Anthony and his then- (purple hot pants-wearing) boyfriend Jim, showed up in south Louisiana. In California, Anthony was a 19-year-old religion major involved with the gay movement. In Louisiana he met Lydia.
Jessica Cassyle Carr
"It's interesting. I was living with a man and a woman who were both my lovers. I took one of them with me and ran into another triangulated relationship that just seemed comfortable. Lydia was completely comfortable with everything, and she'd never met any gay people."
Anthony and Lydia set out together on what would become a decades-long journey. On Florida's Lake Talquin they began a community of wanderers and criminals based on Gandhi's unconditional love. They hitchhiked around the East Coast and caught a ride with Baba Ram Das, author of Be Here Now. They became students of the Indian inner-contentment teacher Prem Rawat, or Maharaji. Meanwhile, Lydia became pregnant.
"I was 20 years old. I was gay. It's a miracle! When Lydia found out she was pregnant with our child, I was ecstatic even though it was the last thing on my mind." The pair went on to start Waldorf schools around the South and West, finally settling in Albuquerque in the early ’80s and having two more sons along the way.
Here in town, Tom and his former wife, looking for a place to school their son, enrolled him in Anthony and Lydia's in 1987. Twenty years later the school is gone, the children are grown, but Tom and Anthony remain. "He's one of the smartest people I've ever met. He's also one of the klutziest people I've ever met. I know, besides Lydia, I haven't been in a relationship that's more giving and open and unconditional, and I've had a number of lovers within these relationships."
In 1989, upon moving into their house, the families initiated their unintentional community. Inhabitants have rotated over the years, and today the three live with their grown son, his wife, their three small daughters, Anthony's brother and mother, another son and a friend.
"We have people in this house that live a totally monogamous, wonderful, involved family relationship, and that may be even more viable than most relationships," Anthony says. “That's why I can never speak about polyamory and more than one lover. I just feel that isn't the secret here. The secret is: 'Who and what am I really in love with?' To me, that real lover is that experience within me. That's what I pay attention to. That's where the miracle comes from, and everything that's a result of that is just a part of the dance."
Full disclosure: I'm good buddies with Anthony and Lydia's youngest son, Shenoah. However, I didn't know his rad parents all that well until now.