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Children raised by gay parents come of age in Maryland

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This year's Baltimore Pride is the first since marriage equality was passed in the state, but far from the first for Marylanders who grew up with gay parents.

A recent study released by the Williams Institute, a think tank at the UCLA School of Law, found that 20 percent of same-sex couples in the Baltimore region are raising children. Just five other regions in the country had higher percentages. Based on data from the 2010 U.S. Census, Maryland now ranks 12th for the highest percentage of same-sex couples raising children.

Though the stats reflect recent population data, these couples have been around in the state for decades. We decided to talk to two such families, who raised children in the state as young adults and now have children who are adults themselves. We discussed their family life, how things have changed for them — or not — when attitudes in the state and nationwide have shifted more in support of gay rights and marriage equality. What have been their ups and downs, their struggles and their moments of happiness?

Here are their stories.

'That looks familiar'

Ken Travers and Bob Harris mark their anniversary by their first kiss.

That moment was exactly 33 years ago on the day we spoke last week. They still remember it well. "He was wearing a pink T-shirt," said Harris.

But their long relationship has also included many hidden kisses. The couple met at a bar in Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C., when Travers was married and had three children. One of his children, Kate Oliver, was 4 when she met Harris. Travers, now 66, ended up divorcing Kate's mom and coming out at the same time. He has been with Harris, 64, since, and mostly had one day a week with his children until a bitter custody battle ended and he split time more evenly when Kate was 13.

"When joint custody was reached with the kids, it was like me having the first full breath in a decade," said Travers.

Oliver, now 37, was silent for a while as she listened to her father speak. She sat with them in their screened-in gazebo behind their home in Silver Spring, in a quiet neighborhood of winding streets, full blooming trees and mothers walking their children in strollers. Travers and Harris' Maltese, Lucas, sat on her lap.

"If we didn't maintain this illusion of separate bedrooms, of us not touching or showing affection around the kids, my lawyer said to me that I'd never see my children again," said Travers.

"We knew, and we knew that we weren't supposed to know or say anything," Oliver said.

Eventually Oliver had what she called her "a-ha moment." In high school, she had a teacher who was gay, and saw him once riding up an escalator with someone who was clearly his partner. She called out his name and waved. They heard her and reacted. "I saw the man with my teacher step back a little and then step off the escalator like they didn't know each other," said Oliver. "I thought, 'That looks familiar.' I had seen my dad do that his whole life with Bob."

Oliver's voice broke; her eyes watered. Her father sitting next to her silently looked at his daughter. It had been ingrained in Travers and Harris' life to not be outwardly couple-y and affectionate. Even now, 33 years in, Harris, who was also once married with children, said he still hesitates when a patient recognizes Travers, an obstetrician. He still feels himself moving to distance himself.

Oliver said her relationships with her father and Bob have "evolved" over the years. She's been direct since high school with people who asked about her "gay dads." She eventually married and has two young daughters. Harris, once a trauma nurse, recently quit his job to provide child care for Oliver's children — children's playsets sit in their backyard, just beyond a manicured fish pond. To them, Travers is Grandpa, Harris is Pop Pop. Oliver has pushed for marriage equality in Maryland, talking with lawmakers in Annapolis, sometimes bringing along her daughters who would clutch pictures of Grandpa and Pop Pop.

Both Travers and Harris said getting married in Maryland now would be mostly symbolic. "Legally, [getting married] wouldn't impact us much," said Travers, who has set up power of attorney and other financial structures already with Harris. "But we want to marry in Maryland, having seen how hard my daughter worked it for it. It was really touching how hard she labored for it."

They have had a commitment ceremony. In 2007, the pair celebrated in Hawaii, where they plan to move when Travers retires (they later had a civil union in the same state). Oliver and her family were there to watch what she rarely ever got to see between her father and man he has loved for so long — a kiss.

"Even then, we thought, 'Oh my god — do we kiss?" said Harris. They did, in front of everyone, in front of their granddaughters.

And one later said, "I saw you!"

'They are it'

Sometimes a family fits together so perfectly, the interactions seem effortless

As Rose O'Neill and her partner of 20 years, Tessa Pagones, posed for pictures with two of their children, the jokes flew. In the kitchen of their home in Westminster, they laughed about doing poses from the film "Zoolander." How about "Blue Steel"? Rose suggested. No, "Le Tigre," responded her daughter, Kelly O'Neill.

They all complement one another. Just a look to another family member can silently convey a feeling or a thought. There's never just one person laughing — they laugh together. As a family.

"The household is laid back," said their son, James O'Neill, 29. "They're accepting of what we want to do with our lives. This house is a drama-free zone."

And they all nodded in agreement. As a family.

Rose O'Neill, who turns 56 at the end of the month, met Tessa Pagones, 46, through riding and showing horses. They were friends for a few years; Rose O'Neill was married when they met. They became a couple a few years later, when Rose's biological children were young — James was 9; middle son Colin O'Neill was 3; Kelly was a newborn.

"My mom and dad had split up, and Tessa being a part of our lives was nothing like an imposition for us," said James. "It was never a problem. I never really cared about what they were or what other people said. I remember hearing the word 'gay,' and I asked Mom what it was and she told me, and talked about her and Tessa."

Even as a toddler, Kelly gravitated to Pagones. "I remember meeting her and her looking at me," said Pagones. "She was wary of strangers, but she kind of backed up slowly and ended up somehow sitting in my lap."

"When I was 5, I got an understanding of what marriage was," said Colin, 25, who was with his family in the kitchen, on a laptop via Skype from his home in West Philadelphia. "I always had this concept of love without boundaries."

The three children spent time divided between their father and their mom and Pagones. O'Neill and Pagones moved to Westminster a decade ago, and eventually Kelly and Colin came to live with them. Colin took comfort in moving in with his moms after he came out himself.

There has been much happiness over the years, but difficulties. At one point O'Neill and Pagones broke up — O'Neill considered trying to make things work with her husband. "It was like all of a sudden my kids were gone," said Pagones. Eventually Colin helped guide his mother. "I remember telling her, 'You don't need to try to make it work.'" As he said this, a face and voice on a laptop, his mom, standing behind the screen, seemed to connect with her son in a remarkable way. She smiled to herself, pondered his words, put her head down, and lifted it to reveal a look that acknowledged that her child had been right.

"I would hear people say meanly, 'You have two moms,' and I would say, 'I know,' he said. "That stopped the show."

The children were never embarrassed — they were proud. Their moms were heavily involved in their children's school activities: sports for James, music for Kelly and Colin (though O'Neill mentioned that she once volunteered to help with Girl Scouts and was never taken up on it). And the three noticed a change in their mother. "Beyond her just being happier and her true self, she became more adventurous — it was always 'Let's go here and do this' when before everything was planned," James said. "There was much more confidence."

It was their love and support that helped get them through some trying times. They said that some neighbors who learned the two were a couple stopped speaking to them. James was once told by a friend's mother that "We'll pray for your moms." Other times, interactions have been humorous. Pagones recalled a man who came to their house when they first moved in, asked them if they had husbands, and when they told him no, he said, 'Hell, I guess you girls know what you want."

Through 20 years and a rough divorce —O'Neill and her husband are now civil, she said — the couple has had a commitment ceremony, but has not married. "We're holding out for DOMA," said the women, almost at the same time, referring to a possible repeal of the federal Defense of Marriage Act law.

"I feel the whole gay factor has been a large 'So what?' for us," said Pagones. "And I would really like society to catch up."

But they will celebrate another wedding soon. Colin just got engaged to his partner and plans to marry in his moms' backyard, perhaps next spring. "At the end of the day I take comfort in having three amazing parents who love me," Colin said. "I wouldn't change anything for that."

Would the kids want their mothers to get married?

"If anyone deserves to get married, it's you guys," said Kelly. "They are it."

They are "it" as in good parents? As in a model of love?

"Both," said Kelly.

"Absolutely both," said James.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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