Same-sex parents manage stigma, 'normal' lives

BY SARAH BULMER | MAY 04, 2011 7:20 AM

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Nick Pearce could never understand why his elementary-school classmates were so curious about his parents, particularly their sexual orientation.

"Someone would ask me, 'You have a mom and a mom? That's weird,' " the now-16-year-old West High sophomore said. "And I said, 'You have a dad and a mom? That's weird.' "

As Nick entered junior high, the questions turned into bullying. He said he asked his principal and other teachers for help, but his requests were often ignored.

"I filed eight grievances in two years for people calling me a faggot and people making fun of my parents," he said.

But any struggles from having two moms haven't quelled his sense of family pride. Now, he is involved with Colors, his school's gay, lesbian, and straight alliance group.

Nick's experience is similar to that of many local same-sex families, who say intolerance and misconception of gay parenting often comes from a lack of exposure.

For two years, Iowans have been witness to tumultuous battles over gay marriage: the Iowa Supreme Court's 2009 decision legalizing same-sex marriage, the ousting of three justices who voted in favor of the decision, and the recent calls to impeach the remaining judges.

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And the debates have thrust some families into the spotlight as the fight over the legality of gay marriage and the health of children raised by two same-sex parents rages on nationally and in Iowa.

Local same-sex couples and their children said their their core familial values are just like any other Iowa family: based on love, understanding, and honesty.

For Nick's parents, Romy Bolton and Julia Moffitt, coming out to their children was an important part of their upbringing.

"We knew we had to change our lifestyle and be much more upfront because we had children and we need to represent [being gay] as a perfectly acceptable way of life," Bolton said. "We're just the same as anybody else."

On a recent Wednesday, Nick sat on a leather couch in his living room with his parents and two sisters, Allie Pearce, 13, and Allison Gerstenberger, 18. Coco, their German Shepard-golden retriever mix, lay at Moffitt's feet, chewing on a toy.

Allie, Nick's full biological sister, said she doesn't choose to talk about her family very much in school, but her peers often stigmatize her when they find out about her parents.

"Sometimes, people hear about it from other people, and they ask, 'Are you gay, too?' and then they stay away from me a lot, but I'm pretty used to it now," she said.

But the family is able to joke about some of the wilder misconceptions.

"One girl in my home-economics class thought that if you breast feed from a lesbian, you become a lesbian," Nick said and laughed.

Critics often argue that having gay parents can seriously hinder a child's development.

"Boys need the masculine example of a father," said Bryan Fischer, director of issue analysis at the American Family Association, a group promoting "traditional" families. "They need to see the way a husband treats his wife so that they will be able to imitate that when they become adults, and young girls need the example of a nurturing mother, and they need the model of how a wife relates to her children and to her husband."

Nationally, acceptance of gay parenting seems to be shifting, according to a February study from the Pew Research Center. The survey classified nearly 3,000 participants into three categories based on their overarching attitude towards changing family structure: Accepters, Skeptics, and Rejectors.

The majority of both Accepters and Skeptics — 81 and 67 percent, respectively — said gay parenting either makes no real difference on society or it is a good thing. And, according to the Gallup Poll, 54 percent of Americans support adoption rights for gay couples.

The Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics published a study on psychological adjustment of 17-year-olds in 2010 that revealed that those raised in lesbian families "demonstrate healthy psychological adjustment."

Of same-sex couples in the 2000 U.S. Census, the most recent figures available, only 39 percent were raising children.

However, the effects of gay parents on children remains hotly debated politically.

Sharon Malheiro, the head of One Iowa, the state's largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender advocacy organization, said criticism of gay parents is partly based on fear, partly on political strategy.

Rep. Kim Pearson, R-Pleasant Hill, was one of the Iowa legislators who filed a resolution to impeach the remaining four Iowa Supreme Court justices who upheld gay marriage in 2009. She said she believes homosexuality is a behavior, not an unchangeable characteristic.

"I don't believe a behavior should be elevated to protected class status," she said.
Earlier this year, many same-sex families nationwide found a new spokesperson of sorts for their issue: University of Iowa student Zach Wahls.

Wahls emerged on the national stage after he delivered a passionate three-minute speech defending his "normal" and loving family in front of the Iowa House, which was debating a resolution that would clear the way to banning gay marriage in Iowa.

His parents, Terry Wahls and Jackie Reger, have raised two children who are full biological siblings. Zebediah Wahls, 16, is a student at West High and Zach, 19, is a sophomore at the UI and a former Daily Iowan writer.

Terry Wahls said more exposure to same-sex-parent families will help boost understanding.

"There aren't as many faces to that story yet, and the more we have the easier it is to see we're just as ordinary just and boring as everyone else," Terry Wahls said.

Shortly after the video went viral on YouTube, Wahls' sister anticipated the worst.

"When it first went viral, I wondered if I would get any negative response for the video directed towards my family," the 16-year-old said. "But to my lovely surprise, nothing."

And now, with gay Republican supporters such as Fred Karger, who is gay himself and planning to run for president, and Ted Olson, there is hope, Terry Wahls said.

"It's not a Republican issue. It's not a Democratic issue," she said. "It's an American issue."

Despite complex moral debates, one of the main points local same-sex families continue to stress is their normalcy.

Jon Trouten and Marc Holbrook are the adoptive parents of D'Angelo Holbrook, 10, and the legal guardian of Leslie Kennebeck, 18.

"Do we stand out?" Trouten recently asked D'Angelo as he supervised his children making Hamburger Helper in the kitchen.

D'Angelo shook his head. "Nuh-uh."

"Are we pretty boring?" Trouten then asked.

D'Angelo nodded, smiling, and the whole family burst out laughing.

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