While permitted to adopt children in Maryland, gays and lesbians must also go through a "second-parent adoption" process that can be costlier and more time-consuming than the adoption procedure for married couples. The process also leaves children in limbo during the period before both parents share legal guardian status. That means Simon and Williams can expect a prolonged wait before the adoption of Tiara and Alonzo by both men is finalized. Until then, they are considered the children's foster parents.

Before they met seven years ago, Simon and Williams, both products of the military, navigated their respective "don't ask, don't tell" worlds while searching for meaning in their personal lives. That in itself was a struggle.

"For a long time, I didn't want to be this way," Williams says of his homosexuality. He was married previously, and fathered a daughter.

They found each other at a discussion group in Washington for gay men. Williams had recently retired from a career as an Army dentist. Simon, at the time a military police specialist with the U.S. Army National Guard, was being treated at Bethesda National Naval Medical Center for a broken ankle incurred during a training exercise.

A friendship blossomed. "We developed a great bond. It wasn't just physical attraction or material," Williams says. "We talked a lot."

They took a couple of cruises together and fell in love. Within 10 months, they were living together.

As a couple, the two men devoted much of their free time to US Helping US, an HIV/AIDS service program that they still are involved in. The idea of adopting children didn't surface until they had been together for three years. "It wasn't, `Let's have a family!' We had to figure out who we were first, whether we could live together in harmony," Williams says.

Simon, a Trinidad native who grew up in the Virgin Islands with his mother and stepfather, discovered that his partner was a neat freak. On the other hand, "I'm very carefree," he says.

For his part, Williams found that Simon refused to let him to go to bed angry if they argued.

Simon, Williams says, also helped him accept his identity as a gay man. "I would say he's given me the strength," he says. "I wasn't as out. I pretty much went with the flow. I wasn't quite the activist. I was not ashamed, I was reserved."

In 2000, the men celebrated their commitment with a holy union ceremony before friends and family. The two men exchanged gold bracelets, each decorated with an Ankh, the Egyptian symbol for physical and eternal life.

In 2001, Kiran came to live with the couple. When they registered him for school, he was placed in a special education class.

Kiran's new parents read to him, used a phonics teaching system to supplement classroom work, and made sure he had a tutor in his aftercare program. Within a year, Kiran was transferred out of the special ed class in one school and placed in a regular kindergarten class at another, Rosaryville Elementary School.

"We spent time working with him and praising him and loving him," Simon says. Now, "Kiran's at the top of his class. He's solid. All of his teachers are impressed. He's doing really, really well," he says of his son, who recently brought home a straight-A report card.

Simon learned a lot from Kiran as well.

"It has truly increased my level of patience. When dealing with children with special needs you can't expect immediate results," he says. "You need time."

As black men nurturing a family, Simon and Williams must confront a world rife with images of deadbeat dads, promiscuous players and otherwise irresponsible males, both gay and straight. With such powerful stereotypes informing social assumptions, shedding an undeserved reputation is as difficult as living with it.

"If you're black, everything escalates," Williams says. "I would think that a white person in the same situation would still have the same prejudice against them as we would. But the world would not look at them as harshly."

It angers Simon to think that he and his partner are deemed unfit to raise children. "Why is it [more] OK to grow up in a crack house with heterosexual parents than to have safety and security with homosexual parents?" he says.

Pauline Moore, a Baltimore foster care mother, met Williams and Simon after they adopted Kiran, who had lived in her home until he was 3. At the time of their visit, she was caring for Tiara and Alonzo as well. "I saw how they were with Kiran," says Moore, who has helped to raise 40 foster children. "They are good to him and took good care of him and they loved him. That's what children need nowadays, a lot of love."