The sanctuary is bright, and the service, filled with hymns and "holy hugs" among congregants, offers joyful possibilities for the new year. While their parents listen to the sermon and bow their heads in prayer, the three children, dressed neatly in sweaters and sneakers, draw pictures and play silently with electronic reading games. At the end of the service, the adults and the kids, games put away, split up to attend Sunday school classes.
Kiran wants to go to the Red Lobster.
"Too bad," says his Daddy Al. "We're going to the Old Country Buffet."
Kiran is undaunted. From his spot across the living room, snuggled in his Daddy Nigel's lap, the 7-year-old repeats his appeal with a beguiling smile.
"You gotta job?" Daddy Al asks his son.
"Yeah," he replies. "Being a kid."
His parents, Alvin Williams and Nigel Simon, can't argue with that. When Kiran came into their lives at age 4, he didn't speak and hid in fear from them. At birth, he had been whisked away from a drug-dependent mother in Baltimore, and suffered abuse in his pre-adoptive home. He was labeled a "special needs" child. Three years later, Kiran's life is all about being a kid. A smart, second-grade kid flourishing under his adoptive parents' care.
Daddy Al, Daddy Nigel ("Da'Nigel" to the kids), Kiran, Alonzo, also 7, and Tiara, 8, half siblings who joined the family in July, pile yet again into the minivan, stocked with a forgotten fruit cup and Blues Clues video, and drive to the Red Lobster in Suitland, about 10 miles away. All so the kids can order macaroni and cheese (slathered with ketchup by Kiran) and chicken fingers, the same delicacies found as easily and more cheaply at the Old Country Buffet.
It is one of those overcast Sunday afternoons when families must reckon with things that can no longer be put off: homework, laundry, the week ahead. But Williams, 50, and Simon, 35, appear genuinely unfazed. Tedium, they have come to realize, is as much a part of parenthood as elation. "I could not love these children any more if they were my own biological children," says Williams, a reed-slim man with intense, closely set eyes and a thoughtful demeanor.
The men and their children, Simon says, are bound to one another, just like the three black figures in the fabric sculpture that hangs in their home. Each figure, in African dress, holds the hands of the others in an intricate knot of love.
"That's what a family is," Simon says. He is a tall man with a wide open face and shoulder-length braids. "You have two black gay men raising three children. To others, it may seem odd; to us, it's our family," he says.
That simple, if unconventional, idea has led these two men to become activists as well as parents.
In July, Simon and Williams became one of nine gay couples challenging the Maryland law that bars same-sex marriage. The plaintiffs are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, which is working with the advocacy group Equality Maryland to educate the public and organize political support for the lawsuit.
Given cultural expectations for gay black men, Simon and Williams might be considered radicals simply because of the typical middle-class life they lead: preparing pancake breakfasts on Saturday mornings, driving kids to martial arts class, joining the PTO. "People are learning that what's stereotypical isn't us," Williams says.
With the welfare of their children at stake, though, Williams, a dentist in private practice, and Simon, a program manager for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, say it's not enough to dissolve stereotypes. "I want everything these kids are due," Williams says.
Without the right to marry, gay couples are excluded from hundreds of rights, benefits and responsibilities that heterosexual married couples share. If they could marry, the entire family would be entitled to Williams' military benefits as well as tax breaks, Social Security benefits and safeguards in case of a parent's injury or death. Without being married, their individual wills are subject to challenge from family members.
Although the two co-own their house and vehicles and share a bank account, every other measure they've taken to ensure legal protection has required two separate processes, Williams says. "In the eyes of the law, we're still two strangers," he says.