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Making a case for marriage

It was a minor miracle. Somehow, Kiran, Tiara, Alonzo and their parentsawoke in time for the 8 a.m. service. They threw on their Sunday best, jumpedinto the minivan and drove the 20 minutes from their Upper Marlboro home toCovenant Baptist Church in Southwest Washington, D.C. Breathlessly, but withmoments 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 theirparents listen to the sermon and bow their heads in prayer, the threechildren, dressed neatly in sweaters and sneakers, draw pictures and playsilently with electronic reading games. At the end of the service, the adultsand 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 hisDaddy 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. WhenKiran came into their lives at age 4, he didn't speak and hid in fear fromthem. At birth, he had been whisked away from a drug-dependent mother inBaltimore, 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 akid. A smart, second-grade kid flourishing under his adoptive parents' care.

Daddy Al, Daddy Nigel ("Da'Nigel" to the kids), Kiran, Alonzo, also 7, andTiara, 8, half siblings who joined the family in July, pile yet again into theminivan, stocked with a forgotten fruit cup and Blues Clues video, and driveto the Red Lobster in Suitland, about 10 miles away. All so the kids can ordermacaroni and cheese (slathered with ketchup by Kiran) and chicken fingers, thesame delicacies found as easily and more cheaply at the Old Country Buffet.

It is one of those overcast Sunday afternoons when families must reckonwith things that can no longer be put off: homework, laundry, the week ahead.But Williams, 50, and Simon, 35, appear genuinely unfazed. Tedium, they havecome to realize, is as much a part of parenthood as elation. "I could not lovethese children any more if they were my own biological children," saysWilliams, a reed-slim man with intense, closely set eyes and a thoughtfuldemeanor.

The men and their children, Simon says, are bound to one another, just likethe three black figures in the fabric sculpture that hangs in their home. Eachfigure, in African dress, holds the hands of the others in an intricate knotof love.

"That's what a family is," Simon says. He is a tall man with a wide openface and shoulder-length braids. "You have two black gay men raising threechildren. 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 becomeactivists as well as parents.

In July, Simon and Williams became one of nine gay couples challenging theMaryland law that bars same-sex marriage. The plaintiffs are represented bythe American Civil Liberties Union, which is working with the advocacy groupEquality Maryland to educate the public and organize political support for thelawsuit.

Given cultural expectations for gay black men, Simon and Williams might beconsidered radicals simply because of the typical middle-class life they lead:preparing pancake breakfasts on Saturday mornings, driving kids to martialarts class, joining the PTO. "People are learning that what's stereotypicalisn't us," Williams says.

With the welfare of their children at stake, though, Williams, a dentist inprivate practice, and Simon, a program manager for the U.S. EnvironmentalProtection Agency, say it's not enough to dissolve stereotypes. "I wanteverything these kids are due," Williams says.

Without the right to marry, gay couples are excluded from hundreds ofrights, benefits and responsibilities that heterosexual married couples share.If they could marry, the entire family would be entitled to Williams' militarybenefits as well as tax breaks, Social Security benefits and safeguards incase of a parent's injury or death. Without being married, their individualwills 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 twoseparate processes, Williams says. "In the eyes of the law, we're still twostrangers," he says.

While permitted to adopt children in Maryland, gays and lesbians must alsogo through a "second-parent adoption" process that can be costlier and moretime-consuming than the adoption procedure for married couples. The processalso leaves children in limbo during the period before both parents sharelegal guardian status. That means Simon and Williams can expect a prolongedwait before the adoption of Tiara and Alonzo by both men is finalized. Untilthen, they are considered the children's foster parents.

Before they met seven years ago, Simon and Williams, both products of themilitary, navigated their respective "don't ask, don't tell" worlds whilesearching 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 hishomosexuality. 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 thetime a military police specialist with the U.S. Army National Guard, was beingtreated at Bethesda National Naval Medical Center for a broken ankle incurredduring a training exercise.

A friendship blossomed. "We developed a great bond. It wasn't just physicalattraction 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 ofadopting 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 motherand stepfather, discovered that his partner was a neat freak. On the otherhand, "I'm very carefree," he says.

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

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

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

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

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

"We spent time working with him and praising him and loving him," Simonsays. Now, "Kiran's at the top of his class. He's solid. All of his teachersare impressed. He's doing really, really well," he says of his son, whorecently 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 childrenwith special needs you can't expect immediate results," he says. "You needtime."

As black men nurturing a family, Simon and Williams must confront a worldrife with images of deadbeat dads, promiscuous players and otherwiseirresponsible males, both gay and straight. With such powerful stereotypesinforming social assumptions, shedding an undeserved reputation is asdifficult as living with it.

"If you're black, everything escalates," Williams says. "I would think thata white person in the same situation would still have the same prejudiceagainst 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 raisechildren. "Why is it [more] OK to grow up in a crack house with heterosexualparents than to have safety and security with homosexual parents?" he says.

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

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

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

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

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

Still, couples like Simon and Williams face fierce opposition to theirdesire to legally marry or head a family. Last year, President Bush announcedhis support for a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage. LastNovember, 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 adoptionby same-sex couples. Last week, a U.S. District judge, citing the 1996 Defenseof Marriage Act, ruled against two Florida lesbians who wanted theirMassachusetts marriage recognized in their own state.

In Maryland, a recent Sun poll found that 48 percent of likely votersobject to civil unions for same-sex couples. During the legislative sessionjust under way, opponents of same-sex unions in the Maryland General Assemblyplan to introduce a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, as well asa 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 todraw thousands to a "Pro-Marriage Rally" in Annapolis. "We want to beperfectly clear. We do not hate those who live the homosexual lifestyle,"reads a statement on Defend Maryland Marriage's Web site. "Those who wouldlabel the defenders of traditional marriage as homophobes or with any othermean spirited word should know that we love and pray for all men. It is due tothat love that we find it our duty to defend families, children, and civilsociety as we know it."

Shifting tactics within the gay rights movement itself also have rattledgay marriage advocates. Williams and Simon say they were disappointed afterlast year's elections when the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay advocacygroup, appeared to back off its strong, pro-marriage message. Unwilling tocompromise on the marriage issue, the men consider any retrenchment a betrayalthat leaves couples in their situation all the more vulnerable to anunsympathetic black community.

Conservative black clergy and their congregations who considerhomosexuality a sin played a pivotal role in last year's victories for gaymarriage opponents.

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

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

Clergy such as Burns and their churches "have been bamboozled," Williamssays. 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 marriageis not a sin. Their stance has cost them several church members, and prompteda degree of tension within the congregation.

Still, drawn by Covenant's ad in the Washington Blade, Simon and Williamsfound in the 500-member church "a safe place for us where the children are notgoing to hear hate messages," Simon says. When he, Williams and the childrenjoined the church, the Wileys jubilantly introduced them to the congregation.

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

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

Many African-Americans reject any parallel drawn between the cause for gaymarriage and the civil rights movement. They see no comparison between theirstruggle 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 longas it pertains to our own struggle, but we get very conservative when it goesbeyond that," Wiley says.

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

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

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

As one of three black couples with children who are plaintiffs in theACLU's Maryland lawsuit, Williams and Simon want to show that gay marriage isnot just a white issue. "I'm part of a family. I'm part of a church. I'm partof a community. When you do this, you're hurting me," Williams says.

As far as he is concerned, there is no qualitative difference between thecivil rights movement - which, among many other things, led to thelegalization 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 relationsmirrored those across the deep South. "Social injustice is part of what I grewup with," he says.

When he, his sister and several others desegregated the local elementaryschool 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 "wouldsit outside with a shotgun," he says.

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

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

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

Williams had to adjust to her son's relationship with Simon. "It wasn'tanything I was used to in the beginning, but it doesn't seem to be a problemin 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 tryto go along with them."

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

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

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

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

The couple seeks the guidance of family and friends in bringing up thekids. "That's what's great about having family resources," Simon says. "Likeevery 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 atthe church to speak to Tiara about such topics as menstruation. "They have anaffinity with us and are comfortable with us and will tell her the rightthings," Simon says.

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

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

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

As Daddy Nigel, Daddy Al and their kids wait for their after-church lunchat the Red Lobster, the lawsuit and its symbolic implications take a back seatto reality: They are a family, and plan to remain a family, no matter what theoutcome. 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, herparents say, "is a parrot flying the sky."

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

At home after lunch, Tiara, Alonzo and Kiran change into shorts andT-shirts, hang up their church clothes and scatter through the house. Abudding artist, Tiara displays a self-portrait that shows a beaming littlegirl with braids standing before a brilliant blue house. A friend liked it somuch 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 intofour parts.

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

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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