By Larry Bingham
April 5, 2004
Over the past several months, this audience no doubt has heard others discuss this issue: congressmen, candidates, ministers - even the president. But what Justin McGuire has to say tonight is a fourth-grader's take on the subject, told from experience.
What Justin will say here he has already said many times. Once, he spoke at a press conference outside the Maryland General Assembly in Annapolis. On the same day, he testified before a state House of Delegates judiciary committee hearing. He appeared at an American Civil Liberties Union press conference outside the U.S. Senate. He spoke at a town-hall meeting in Columbia. He addressed a crowd of 500 at the Johns Hopkins University, and people liked what he said so much they gave the boy with braces and long eyelashes a standing ovation.
This night he is about to speak to a gathering of predominantly gay couples at a town-hall meeting sponsored by the largest gay-rights advocacy group in the state, Equality Maryland.
He already has sat through tonight's panel discussion, although none of the topics - civil unions, partner benefits, constitutional amendments - interested him enough to draw his attention from the world of the video game in his hands.
Before the night is over, he will hear a man read passages from the Bible, criticize lesbians like his moms and call the white-haired minister moderating the discussion "an agent of Satan."
None of it, though, will keep Justin from his game.
What Justin is about to say is typed out and printed, so it will be easy for him to read. He's only a little nervous about speaking to the crowd. It helps that he didn't have any math homework tonight, and he feels confident about tomorrow's spelling test.
On the 1 1/2 -hour drive from his home in Overlea, he read the guidebook for his new game, Golden Sun: The Lost Age, which he bought with his own money. He read it even with his baby sister, Maya, who is 15 weeks old, crying.
When the time comes for Justin to speak, he has to bend the neck of the microphone down to where he can reach it. The sleeves of his Harry Potter shirt are pushed up past his elbows. He scratches his back, sets the toe of one sneaker on the heel of the other, and begins.
When he's done, he hurries back to his game. It seems the world is in trouble again, and it's up to Justin McGuire to save it.
The boy who became a spokesman for the gay-marriage movement in Maryland did not know there was a gay-marriage movement for a long time.
If you had asked Justin five years ago if there was anything unusual about his family, he would have said no. He has had two mommies for as long as he can remember.
There's his biological mom, Kathy McGuire, a 36-year-old accountant who picks him up from school and helps with his homework. He calls her "Mommy." Then there's his other mom, Whitney Conneally, a 35-year-old chef who has been a part of his life since he was 8 months old. She's the one who fixes his lunch, makes sure he's ready for school, and gets him to the hard levels of his video games when he gets stuck. He calls her "Whit."
Then there's his dad, Pat Depkin, who Justin sees at least once a week.
Justin has heard the story of how his moms have been friends since they were 12 years old and growing up in Bel Air. Kathy didn't know she was attracted to women, and she dated men - including one man off and on for eight years - until Justin was born. She sent Whitney a birth announcement and later confessed her feelings. Whitney felt the same. They moved in together, bought a house and a minivan, and their life hasn't seemed so different from the lives of other families in Justin's eyes.
"That's the funny thing," says Justin's uncle, Tim Conneally. "I don't think he was even aware of the issue. I mean I'm sure he was aware of it, but not that it could be such a big deal to some people or worthy of getting on the news."
There was the time in day care when he told his playmates that Kathy was his mommy and Whitney was their dog Farley's mommy.
Then there was the time "prejudice" was one of his spelling words, and his friend Michael said people are prejudiced toward gays like Justin's moms, and Justin corrected him, saying the word he meant was lesbians.
One thing is certain: If you had asked Justin five years ago what he thought, he would have said something.
"He doesn't mind giving oral presentations in class," says Carla Swauger, his teacher at Fullerton Elementary School. She describes Justin as "one of the most well-rounded" and "grounded" students she has seen in 15 years of teaching. "I asked him if he was nervous talking in front of adults rather than students, and he took it very casually. I said, 'You're so lucky to see government in action.' And he said, 'Yeah, well, it was pretty neat.'
"It was a fourth-grade answer," she says, "and sometimes it's hard to remember that because he's so mature and his conversations are so intelligent."
Never shy, Justin danced to a Pokemon rap song at his school's talent show when he was in the first grade. In the third grade, he put on a fake mustache and did an impersonation of Hagrid from the Harry Potter books. This year, he's thinking of doing stand-up comedy. Here's one of his jokes:
"What is the best day to go to the dentist?"
Justin has performed at Pumpkin Theatre, and he stole the show when he played the role of the weatherman in a modern retelling of Frosty the Snowman.
He is such an outgoing kid that when he went to the bookstore for the midnight arrival of the last Harry Potter book, he was interviewed by a television station. He liked the spotlight and was upset another time when a reporter overlooked him and interviewed his two moms.
That happened in February. Kathy had heard Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. say something about gay marriage that she found so offensive she got on the Internet, went to the Human Rights Campaign Web site, and asked how she could get involved. The family wound up being profiled and pictured on Equality Maryland's Web site, and that led to the TV interview.
Kathy told Justin after the interview aired that the next time an opportunity arose, he could speak if he still wanted to. The press conference in Annapolis was scheduled a few days later.
"I was going to be totally fine if he chickened out," says Kathy. "There were about 20 big, giant cameras facing the podium with five microphones on it and all these politicians speaking, but Justin got up there."
Strangers approached him afterward and said he was a brave kid. U.S. Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts shook his hand in Washington, the Washington Blade wanted to do an interview, and Nightline expressed interest. Yet Justin didn't think much about any of it.
"He doesn't see the significance of what he is doing the way we adults do," says Justin's dad. "This is his world, and he's OK with it. That's the message, in his own way, he's trying to get out."
Word about Justin continued to spread, and it wasn't long before adults started coming up to meet him even before he spoke. All of a sudden, Justin knew how Harry Potter felt when Harry went to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry for the first time and discovered his reputation had arrived before he did.
In the minivan on the drive home from Hagerstown, Justin is going through caverns, fighting beasts, looking for hidden treasure, trying to light two lighthouses because doing that will save the world.
Nothing can distract him from this game, not even his baby sister, who does not readily fall asleep in the car despite the stereotype that all babies fall asleep in cars.
Justin was excited to have a baby sister. So were his moms, who started trying to have a baby together two years ago. They wanted a blood tie, so Kathy was artificially inseminated with sperm from Whitney's brother. Whitney will adopt the baby, and they both will be Maya's legal parents.
Kathy was working with a client on the Eastern Shore on 9/11 and couldn't get in touch with Whitney for hours. The losses that so many families suffered that day made Kathy and Whitney think differently about their family. The very next month, Kathy surprised Whitney with a trip to Vermont, where they were wed in a civil-union ceremony on Oct. 20, 2001.
The desire to "have something on paper" is not something Justin can comprehend. Many of the legal issues are beyond a fourth-grader's understanding. He has been taught the structure of the state and national governments, but the nitty-gritty of how laws are made doesn't appear in the school curriculum until the fifth grade.
Kathy and Whitney believe Justin is learning something a school can't teach.
"I think it's fantastic that he's had a chance to go to Annapolis and see how people debate things, and also to Washington," Whitney says. "It's great he's getting a handle on how our country is run."
A few members of their families raised concerns about Justin's going on the lecture circuit. One was Kathy's mom, an elementary-school assistant principal who worries about violence. Another was Whitney's brother, who worries a little "because there are ignorant people out there."
"I thought about backlash and 'hate mail' and all that kind of stuff but, maybe wrongly, I thought I could protect him from that if it happened," Kathy says. "If you soul-search about something and you feel strongly and you are doing something for the right reasons, then you shouldn't let fear stop you.
"Justin felt strongly and we were comfortable knowing we weren't pushing him, and we weren't trying to use him in any way. He had something he wanted to say, and we believe he should learn to say it."
When the time comes in Hagerstown, that is precisely what Justin does.
His mom speaks first. "It's just the three of us tonight because my partner had to work," Kathy begins. "We've put ourselves out here to say this is what a gay family looks like, to the public, so they can understand we're not scary - or even that exciting."
The crowd laughs and claps and then grows quiet again as Kathy takes a step back to let Justin have the podium. The first thing he says is "Hi." Then he says his name, his grade and where he goes to school.
No one in the audience makes a sound.
"Some people think that having two moms is bad, but I don't think so," Justin says. "When I go over to Zack's or Michael's house - they have a mom and a dad - I see that they are loved the same way that Mommy and Whit love me.
"This summer, since my mom has the new baby, I am looking forward to staying home with my new sister, instead of going to day camp every day. But we have to wait and see if Whitney's job will let Mommy and me onto their insurance. I love my parents and my sister, and they love me. I want to spend time with them, like my cousin did when her mom had a baby. I don't get why some people, like the insurance company, don't think we are a real family.
"Since my sister was born, my moms and me are trying to decide what her last name should be. I want it to be the same as mine, but that would not be fair to Whitney if everybody had the same last name but her. If my moms were married, they could already have the same last name. Then everybody would know we are in the same family."
A representative for the ACLU helped Justin polish this speech before the press conference last week in Washington. He went through it later and put some of it back in his own words.
"In school, we are taught a lot of different things - and in social-studies class, we're taught about what makes America great. We learn about freedom, equality and why discrimination is bad. My parents say that in America, my sister and I can be whatever we want to be, as long as we are willing to work hard. But some people are saying that just because one of my moms is not a man, they aren't real parents and should not be equal, no matter how hard they work. They want to amend the Constitution to say that my family legally does not exist. That just doesn't make sense to me, and it's sort of disturbing.
"Some of my friends, when they first hear about my family, think it's weird and different. My parents always say, 'Different isn't good or bad. It's just different.' And once they get to know my family and me, they see that we're just like them. If my classmates can see that we're a family, why can't Congress?
"Thank you," Justin concludes.
He doesn't stick around for the applause.
It is dark when Kathy turns onto their street. Maya is finally asleep, and Justin still has the world in his hands. His mom tells him to turn off the game as they pull into the driveway.
Once, when Justin let his grades drop from As to Bs, his moms took away his Game Boy during the school week and said he could only play Friday through Sunday. When Friday finally rolled around, Justin woke Kathy at 5 a.m. She had to explain that she meant he could play after school on Friday.
Justin turns off the game, climbs out of the minivan, and goes into the only house he has ever known.
There was a time when Justin said he was going to have nine kids when he grew up, and each kid could have a pet of his own choosing, so long as no one chose a tiger.
Why, someone asked him later, does he want to have nine children?
Justin's answer, like a lot of the things he says, went straight to the heart of the matter.
"I'm just a family guy, I guess."
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun