Modern Family: Thoughts on Same-Sex Parenthood

The unconventional couple I know is doing marriage right.

My nephew grant and his partner of 27 years, Earl, were married in Hawaii on January 3. They make their home in Chicago with their four children—three daughters and a son—born via surrogacy. I don’t suppose it was easy blazing their lifestyle trail a couple of decades back, although in a big city, one is more likely to fit in … or disappear.

I am a conservative by nature—not the crazy Tea Party variety, just the old-fashioned kind like my father, who believed in small government, working for a living, and upward mobility born of ambition and chutzpah. Dad paid for everything in cash. If he didn’t have the money, he didn’t buy it. Given that, I doubt he would have liked bailouts very much. Dad was kind and generous, but set in his ways. He was still living when Grant, his first grandson, and Earl became a couple, but he didn’t seem troubled by it. I’m not sure if he knew the truth.

I’d like to believe I’ve always been more progressive, although had Grant not been a family member, I might not have embraced gay marriage, thinking it too liberal. But when the issue becomes personal, intolerance fades until it vanishes completely.

Grant and Earl’s kids are tended with love. They live in a large condo in the city and, during the summer, a country house with a tire swing and screened-in porch, the acreage sheltered by towering oaks. The children have opportunities some families only dream of, such as the best private schools and lessons in everything from snow skiing to piano to horseback riding. When I saw a video of their middle daughter, 11, dancing solo ballet with talent and grace, I cried at the beauty of it.

All the children are tutored in German, and, at 13, the oldest child speaks the language fluently. On a summer day, she became a Bat Mitzvah beneath the majestic oaks, with family and friends gathered on a hillside while she chanted the service in flawless Hebrew. The kids have taken an African safari, attended summer camps in Germany and Switzerland, and toured Europe. Parental resources—both emotional and financial—are obviously directed their way.

When a situation is presented to you face-to-face, the distance to your heart seems shorter.

Happily for our entire family, some of whom were confused by Grant’s choice years ago, the couple is now afforded the same legal privileges as married heterosexuals, thanks to the recent passage of an Illinois law recognizing same-sex marriage. Lord knows, given my political bent, I never expected I would feel so accepting, but when a situation is presented to you face-to-face, the distance to your heart seems shorter. One can learn of others’ plights through news sources, books, and movies, and even be moved to act. But when real life intervenes, you do more: You care.

Ever since my friend Sharon died at 55 of breast cancer—and I had a nasty brush with the disease myself—I have wanted to hug every woman I see wearing a flowered scarf on her head. When my son was in medical school at Emory University, he led me to the standing-room-only pharmacy at Grady Memorial Hospital and explained that some of those patients could be waiting for days for their medication. He showed me a row of plastic bassinets filled with beautiful, innocent babies, born to drug-addicted or destitute mothers, who would undoubtedly head to foster homes. I had to see these things firsthand in order to shake a common it’s-not-my-problem conservatism. Grant doesn’t see gay marriage as a conservative-liberal split, however, and maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s more of a closed-minded vs. open-minded divide.

» Same-sex marriage became a personal issue for Paul’s fellow columnist Philip Gulley, too.

It troubles me that divorce is so well-accepted, when that unfortunate situation is usually far worse for a family than gay parents are. I have heard of children no older than toddlers from broken homes asking their grandparents where they will be sleeping that night—whose house?—and why their mommy and daddy don’t love each other anymore. In a chilling 1978 Atlanta magazine essay about his own marriage breakup, author Pat Conroy called divorce “the death of a small civilization,” and he was right. The ripple effects are unending. I suspect Grant and Earl’s children, even without the presence of a traditional mother, will lead more trouble-free lives. Through the years, nearby aunts, enthusiastic female cousins, and a gentle grandma have been trusted role models. As Grant observes, most kids have a pretty good sense from an early age where the gaps are in their immediate families and, if given license by parents, are able to get at least some of what they need from others.

None of this is to suggest same-sex marriage is any more of a guarantee of harmony and permanence than heterosexual unions. There will still be breakups and devastating illness and death. Unstable homes will produce screwed-up children. But the couple I know and admire is doing it right.

Once, as a child, I attended summer camp in North Carolina. When I disembarked from the train, I was puzzled by two drinking fountains on the platform: one for “colored” and the other for white. Who could imagine such bigotry today? Lucy and Ricky slept in separate beds on TV, “good girls” used to marry as virgins, and marijuana was for hippies. Times change, and our mindsets must change with them, or we risk becoming obsolete. As gay marriage becomes commonplace, the gapers will stop gaping. Grant’s family will be indistinguishable from anyone else’s.

“It is hard to imagine anything more tame,” Grant sums up, “than two people raising children.”

Any two people.

Illustration by Andrea Eberbach

This column appeared in the April 2014 issue.