Imagine this ad appearing in your local paper: “Tri-racial gay
family seeks warm, accepting and safe community. Good schools a plus.”
How would you respond to such an ad? How would your neighbors respond? Do you know your neighbors well enough to know how they would respond? It was such an ad that my partner, an Anglo-American, and I, an Asian-American, had in our minds as we searched for a community in which to raise our newly adopted, Latino-American son.
At the time, we lived in a typical American suburb – rows and rows of ‘50s-style houses perched on a California hillside complete with yucca trees and crabgrass, automatic garage door openers and large picture windows that allowed neighbors to look at each other, but seldom interact. And while we were surrounded with love and acceptance from our family and friends, not a single neighbor came over to wish us and our newly adopted baby boy well. It was not that we were gay. They were simply adhering to the unwritten rule of our neighborhood and so many across the country: Look, but never, never interact.
Long before we adopted Rafael, we had decided to search for a different type of community where our child would feel accepted and included in spite of the fact that he had two fathers who did not look like him. A community that would treat us like any other family, even though we do not represent a “traditional” American family. A community that would support us and endeavor to understand the unique issues that we would face.
For most gay and lesbian people, raising children involves an inordinate amount of hardship. According to the laws in most states, unmarried couples, gay or straight, are unfit to adopt children. And since marriage is not an option for us, the only way we could adopt a child was for one of us to do so as a “single” man, while the other disappeared from legal sight. None of the documents mentioned any word of our relationship, let alone the existence of another man in the house.
When Rusty went to South America to adopt Rafael, he could not mention my name to the other adopting families for fear that he would be discovered. Seven weeks and 10,000 miles separated us from what should have been one of the most profound and joyous experiences of our relationship. A long, complicated, and expensive legal process followed before I was granted equal custody of Rafael. It was experiences like these that furthered our resolve to find a supportive community.
Having heard about cohousing through a newspaper ad, we decided to take a tour of Winslow Cohousing in Bainbridge Island,Washington. Cohousing is a kind of intentional neighborhood – each family has its own living space, but there are facilities held in common as well as frequent shared meals. Not many people were out on that crisp January morning, but we were greeted warmly by those we met. We brought forth our concerns, and our future neighbors were both sincere about their enthusiasm and honest about their shortcomings. Their biggest fear, it seemed, was not whether we would fit in with them, but whether they or their children would fall short of our expectations! As luck would have it, a home was available, and we moved in eight weeks later.
One of the first things that struck me about living in cohousing was how normally we were treated – especially Rafael. So many things set him apart as unique and special: he is adopted, he is from South America, he has two fathers, he lives in a multi-cultural household. But among the 35 children at Winslow Cohousing, he is just another kid, treated with the same respect as all the rest.
Likewise, Rusty and I are treated like any other adults in the community. Sure there were the initial questions: “Which one of you is Rafael's mommy?” “Is Rusty your wife?” Inevitably, such questions would come from the children, although it seemed that the adults were often just as curious. We would answer in a straight-forward manner, and satisfied, the children would go about their lives.
Our 6-year old neighbor was overheard defending the argument that two men can get “married.” He used us as his example, and his word was accepted. For the most part, the curiosity has long disappeared, and we are, simply, Kevin and Rusty – Rafael's dads.
The acceptance provided by our neighbors and the greater community of Bainbridge Island means that we do not have to hide our relationship behind closed doors. We can be a family, fully and freely – something so many others take for granted.
Surely there will be difficult issues and situations, especially as Rafael enters school. We are doing our part to prepare ourselves and our son for such situations. Surrounding ourselves with people who accept, embrace, and even defend us has been a key factor.
I recently spoke to a teacher at the local elementary school. She told me that she can distinguish cohousing children from the others in two ways: 1) Because they have daily contact with such a variety of adults, they can relate to her much more easily; 2) Whenever a cohousing child is being bullied, the other cohousing children are right there to provide support and protection.
This support and protection will greatly contribute to Rafael's self-esteem. Rafael has already developed a unique charm and a disarming sense of humor that draws people into a world that is completely healthy and natural to him. During a recent visit with his godmother, Rafael proudly proclaimed, “I have two daddies! How many daddies do you have?” When his godmother replied that she only had one, Rafael asked, “What happened to your other daddy?”
One of the greatest advantages of living in a cohousing community has been the consistent presence of women in our lives. Rafael has a number of cherished “mother figures” in the community, with whom he interacts on a near daily basis. While we did not seek or expect this, it has been a wonderful bonus.
Our neighbors have taken the time to hear our stories and build relationships. We, in turn, have opened our hearts and our lives to them, taking the risk of walking through the doors of our community – only to discover that they remain open. Living in cohousing allows us to look beyond the surface and discover that our core values of respect, love, and community are indeed the same.
It is a typical Saturday morning. Our door is wide open as Rafael and his friends run about, screaming with wild abandon. He has already had three breakfasts – the first sitting in our home, the second at the neighbors' place across the way, and the third at another neighbor's home down the footpath. That our child, whom two gay men adopted from a land 10,000 miles away, can feel such a level of acceptance in this neighborhood is truly the essence of community.
Kevin Fong is a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of YES! A Journal of Positive Futures. He lives on Bainbridge Island, Washington, with his partner and son.
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