Making a case for marriage

Nigel Simon and Alvin Williams have good jobs, a nice home, a loving relationship and three thriving children. What they don't have -- and are suing to get -- is the right to marry.

By Stephanie Shapiro

Sun Staff

January 23, 2005


It was a minor miracle. Somehow, Kiran, Tiara, Alonzo and their parents awoke in time for the 8 a.m. service. They threw on their Sunday best, jumped into the minivan and drove the 20 minutes from their Upper Marlboro home to Covenant Baptist Church in Southwest Washington, D.C. Breathlessly, but with moments to spare, the family slides into a pew toward the front of the church.

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.

By the time they reach home again, it's 11 a.m. and the gang is ravenous.

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.

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."

When the ACLU began seeking gay couples to join its lawsuit, the couple eagerly stepped forward. "It's historic. We want to be a part of it, not sit on the sidelines," Williams says.

Simon says he once assumed that "things like marriage and having children were out of reality for me," he says. "[We want to] to let people know it is a reality."

Compared with the civil rights movement and women's struggle for equality, the drive to sanction gay marriage has progressed, in many areas, with lightning speed. Five years ago, the concept of civil unions was practically unknown. Now, gay marriage is permitted in the Netherlands and Belgium, and was recently endorsed by Canada's Supreme Court. The Massachusetts Supreme Court has upheld the right of gays and lesbians to marry, and San Francisco City Hall last year witnessed the union of thousands of gay couples - unions later voided by the California Supreme Court.

"Canada didn't crumble [as a result of the marriages]. The Netherlands didn't crumble. The United States is not going to crumble," Williams says.

Still, couples like Simon and Williams face fierce opposition to their desire to legally marry or head a family. Last year, President Bush announced his support for a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage. Last November, voters in 11 states approved gay marriage bans. This month, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal challenging Florida's ban on adoption by same-sex couples. Last week, a U.S. District judge, citing the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, ruled against two Florida lesbians who wanted their Massachusetts marriage recognized in their own state.

In Maryland, a recent Sun poll found that 48 percent of likely voters object to civil unions for same-sex couples. During the legislative session just under way, opponents of same-sex unions in the Maryland General Assembly plan to introduce a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, as well as a measure that would bar same-sex couples from adopting children.

On Thursday, Defend Maryland Marriage, the Traditional Values Coalition, The Christian Coalition of Maryland and other anti-gay activist groups hope to draw thousands to a "Pro-Marriage Rally" in Annapolis. "We want to be perfectly clear. We do not hate those who live the homosexual lifestyle," reads a statement on Defend Maryland Marriage's Web site. "Those who would label the defenders of traditional marriage as homophobes or with any other mean spirited word should know that we love and pray for all men. It is due to that love that we find it our duty to defend families, children, and civil society as we know it."

Shifting tactics within the gay rights movement itself also have rattled gay marriage advocates. Williams and Simon say they were disappointed after last year's elections when the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay advocacy group, appeared to back off its strong, pro-marriage message. Unwilling to compromise on the marriage issue, the men consider any retrenchment a betrayal that leaves couples in their situation all the more vulnerable to an unsympathetic black community.

Conservative black clergy and their congregations who consider homosexuality a sin played a pivotal role in last year's victories for gay marriage opponents.

In 2003, a national poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 60 percent of black respondents opposed gay unions. In December, Martin Luther King Jr.'s youngest child, Bernice King, led thousands of people in an Atlanta march against gay marriage.

In Maryland, Del. Emmett C. Burns Jr., a Democrat from Baltimore County and pastor of Rising Sun Baptist Church in Woodlawn, is one of the General Assembly's most vocal opponents of gay marriage. During last year's legislative session, Burns sponsored a bill that would invalidate same-sex marriages performed in other states or countries. The bill was defeated. "The very fact that [same-sex marriage] is on the agenda of the nation is a disgrace," Burns, an African-American, said at the time.

Clergy such as Burns and their churches "have been bamboozled," Williams says. Their leaders are allying with conservative whites who, at one time, used the Bible to discriminate against them because of their skin color. Now, he says, they're reading from the same page as their historical oppressors.

Dennis W. and Christine Y. Wiley, co-pastors of Covenant Baptist Church, where Williams and Simon worship, share the couple's belief that gay marriage is not a sin. Their stance has cost them several church members, and prompted a degree of tension within the congregation.

Still, drawn by Covenant's ad in the Washington Blade, Simon and Williams found in the 500-member church "a safe place for us where the children are not going to hear hate messages," Simon says. When he, Williams and the children joined the church, the Wileys jubilantly introduced them to the congregation.

"Are these two loving individuals in a monogamous relationship as we require heterosexuals to be?" Dennis Wiley asks. "If so, then why should we deny them the opportunity to unite together in a permanent way?"

The needs of kids like Kiran, Alonzo and Tiara can be overlooked in the search for grace, Wiley says. "I think religion in this country, especially the more conservative, fundamentalist Christian versions, has tended to focus more on the personal and individualistic salvation rather than looking at the collective and communal kinds of ways in which we can be liberated."

Many African-Americans reject any parallel drawn between the cause for gay marriage and the civil rights movement. They see no comparison between their struggle for equality and gays' desire for the legal protections of marriage.

"The black church tends to be liberal in the area of civil rights, as long as it pertains to our own struggle, but we get very conservative when it goes beyond that," Wiley says.

In part, Williams believes, the problem lies with African-Americans who resent the notion that whites are laying claim to the civil rights legacy for their own purposes. "The black community assumes that white gay activists are trying to infiltrate and tell us what to do," he says.

When a person who is white and gay claims discrimination, "The first thing out of a lot of people's mouths is, `They're white. They don't know,' " says Jasmyne Cannick, a spokesperson for the National Black Justice Coalition.

"Strategically this year, you will see a lot more African-American gays and lesbians more active in the movement and more visible," Cannick says. "We can't continue to allow white people to be the face of the gay and lesbian movement."

As one of three black couples with children who are plaintiffs in the ACLU's Maryland lawsuit, Williams and Simon want to show that gay marriage is not just a white issue. "I'm part of a family. I'm part of a church. I'm part of a community. When you do this, you're hurting me," Williams says.

As far as he is concerned, there is no qualitative difference between the civil rights movement - which, among many other things, led to the legalization of interracial marriage - and his ambition to marry his partner. "Hatred is hatred," he says.

Williams is from Elloree, S.C., a rural hamlet where uneasy race relations mirrored those across the deep South. "Social injustice is part of what I grew up with," he says.

When he, his sister and several others desegregated the local elementary school in the mid-1960s, "white people would come by and shoot at our house, trying to scare us," he says. To protect his family, Williams' father "would sit outside with a shotgun," he says.

In 1972, Williams entered South Carolina State University, a historically black college close to his Orangeburg County home. Four years earlier, three students were killed and 27 were wounded when state police opened fire on a campus protest aimed at desegregating a bowling alley. The shooting, which attracted far less coverage than the 1970 Kent State shootings that left four students dead, is remembered as the Orangeburg Massacre.

During the Christmas holiday, Williams, Simon and their family drove to South Carolina to visit his mother, who was celebrating her 80th birthday. "My mom loves [Nigel] like a biological son," Williams says.

By phone from Elloree, Olive Williams says of the couple: "They're doing a good job with the family. The kids seem very happy and everything."

Williams had to adjust to her son's relationship with Simon. "It wasn't anything I was used to in the beginning, but it doesn't seem to be a problem in any way."

The mother of four says it's not for her to tell her children how to live. "I try to go along with what they want and whatever they decide to do. I try to go along with them."

Only after he met Williams did Simon tell his mother he was gay. "When I came out, she wasn't happy. It took time to get used to the fact that I wouldn't have a wife," he says.

Simon's mother, who has since moved close by, has grown to accept the life he shares with Williams. The couple, in turn, has become a bedrock for extended family members, whom they see often.

This summer, when Simon's father visited from Trinidad, he cooked curried goat, rice and peas for the family as Tiara and Alonzo adapted to their new home.

Williams' daughter, Nikki, lives in Atlanta. He rarely saw her after leaving home when she was 4. They have grown close again and are in frequent contact.

The couple seeks the guidance of family and friends in bringing up the kids. "That's what's great about having family resources," Simon says. "Like every parent, you won't have all the answers."

Raising Tiara, in particular, will require a woman's wisdom, they realize. They've designated Simon's niece and one of Williams' fellow choir members at the church to speak to Tiara about such topics as menstruation. "They have an affinity with us and are comfortable with us and will tell her the right things," Simon says.

Once a month, the couple and their kids gather with the support group that they helped to establish, Gay Men of Color Adoptive Families. Their December meeting took place at the Little Gym in Springfield, Va., where 14 kids frolicked while their parents traded adoption hassle stories, snapped lots of photographs and joked about how children have a way of taking over your space.

With 21 adult members from the Washington metro area, the group represents a demographic that came starkly to light in a 2004 study drawn from Census figures. It found that 14 percent of all same-sex households in the United States include at least one person who is black. More than half of those couples are raising children, according to the report, produced by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in collaboration with the National Black Justice Coalition.

And because same-sex black couples are more likely to have kids, work in the public sector and make less money than their white counterparts, they have more to lose from anti-gay family initiatives, the report concluded.

As Daddy Nigel, Daddy Al and their kids wait for their after-church lunch at the Red Lobster, the lawsuit and its symbolic implications take a back seat to reality: They are a family, and plan to remain a family, no matter what the outcome. Besides, right now everyone is busy being silly.

Daddy Al is a "frog in his pond with his family," Kiran says. Da'Nigel is a "bird flying the sky," the kids decide. Because she is so chatty, Tiara, her parents say, "is a parrot flying the sky."

Williams and Kiran find "Barbados" and other words hidden in a puzzle on the kids' menu. Across the table, Simon, who, like the kids, wears a white napkin tied around his neck, mediates a squabble between Alonzo and Tiara concerning a yellow crayon. "Why don't you break it in half, then you'll both have a piece of it?" he asks. Tiara snaps the crayon in two.

At home after lunch, Tiara, Alonzo and Kiran change into shorts and T-shirts, hang up their church clothes and scatter through the house. A budding artist, Tiara displays a self-portrait that shows a beaming little girl with braids standing before a brilliant blue house. A friend liked it so much she copied it, Tiara says.

Alonzo says his stomach hurts. He rests on the couch at Williams' suggestion, and is soon up and about again.

Clutching his math homework, Kiran climbs next to Daddy Al. "I need help," he says. The two get to work on a problem that involves a sandwich cut into four parts.

The rest of this Sunday will not be a day of rest. Simon has gone to the gym, there are chores to do, groceries to buy and a big pile of laundry to wash. But for now, Williams is content to be sitting next to his son, adding fractions, and basking in the tedium of family life.