Same-Sex Parenting On The Rise In The South

Recent census figures show that same-sex parenting is on the rise. And some of the cities with the highest proportions of gay and lesbian couples with kids are in the South. Host Michel Martin speaks with two gay dads — one in Houston and another in Washington, D.C. — raising adopted children with their partners about their experiences and challenges. Also joining the conversation is Sarah Warbelow of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC).

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We have the latest in our short essay celebrating Black History Month coming up. Today's focus is on a civil rights leader whose name we think you'll want to know if you don't know it already.

But, first, we're going to continue our focus on the secret lives of families are often hidden aspects of American family life. As we just discussed, new numbers from the Census Bureau show an increase in the number of same-sex couples who are raising children. That's across the country, but especially in metropolitan areas in the South, which now boasts some of the highest percentages of same-sex couples with children in the country.

We wanted to talk more about this, so we've called upon Sarah Warbelow. She's state legislative director for the Human Rights Campaign, which advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.

Also with us, Rocky Galloway. He and his partner are fathers to two-year-old twin girls. And with us from Houston, Texas is Tim Surratt. He and his partner are the fathers of an adopted 17-year-old boy and a four-year-old daughter. I welcome all of you. Thank you all so much for joining us.

Ms. SARAH WARBELOW (State Legislative Director, Human Rights Campaign): Thank you having us.

Mr. ROCKY GALLOWAY: Thank you, Michel.

Mr. TIM SURRATT: Thank you.

MARTIN: So, Sarah, why don't you just start off by painting a picture for us. What's the scope of same-sex parenting around the country and how widespread is the phenomenon?

Ms. WARBELOW: It's incredibly widespread. In 96 percent of counties throughout the United States, same-sex couples are raising children. And sometimes those children come into families because one of the parents is a biological parent and the other parent is looking to adopt. And in other circumstances, the couple is looking to adopt together, a child who is not biologically related to them.

MARTIN: Now, I think one of the things that I think was surprising to many people about these new numbers is that the states that have legally sanctioned same-sex marriage tend to be in the northeast, like, you know, Massachusetts. And so people would think that would be the place where the numbers are larger. But the largest increase is in southern metropolitan areas. Why do you think that is?

Ms. WARBELOW: Well, there's a real emphasis on family throughout the South, which is not to say that people in the North are on the West Coast don't care about their families. But the focus on having a family and having a family being part of what defines you as successful, is much greater throughout the South. Couples in the Northeast and on the West Coast, regardless of sexual orientation, tend to focus on career earlier in their lives and wait a little bit longer to become parents, if becoming parents at all.

MARTIN: Rocky, why don't you jump in here. You were raised in Mississippi.

Mr. GALLOWAY: I was.

MARTIN: And you're living in Washington, D.C. now. Why did you want to be a parent?

Mr. GALLOWAY: It's something I've always wanted to do. Being raised in Mississippi in the Deep South, family was very important to us and it remains important to us. And so I always knew that children would be a part of my life.

MARTIN: You did. Even though when you came out as a gay man that you thought that was still going to be part of your life?

Mr. GALLOWAY: I felt that there was still - I have god children and I felt that children would still be part of my life. I just didn't know how it would manifest. And once I met my partner, and we decided it's something we wanted to bring into our lives, it all happened and it's just been - it's been really wonderful.

MARTIN: Big change, though, right?

Mr. GALLOWAY: Huge change.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GALLOWAY: Bringing twin girls into your lives, when you already have full lives, it's been amazing.

MARTIN: Tim, what about you? You and your partner have two children you adopted. But as you were telling us earlier, you initially, your son first came to you when you were a single dad. Would you mind telling us why you wanted to be a parent?

Mr. SURRATT: You know, I was in my 30s and I was just thinking, you know, for a few years - and this was 20 years ago, I'm 50 now - I was just thinking about how, you know, my life is enriched by the families that are around me. And I stared talking to my lesbian friend, started dropping the hints that, you know, if they wanted to have a baby, I'm here to help type thing. Of course they were starting to move further away from me.

About 15 years ago it wasn't as popular for, I don't think, for gays to have families unless they had been married to a straight person and then had a family. And next thing I knew, after talking about so much, all of a sudden I had the opportunity from a family member to adopt and really rescue a child and it's been a great experience. And that's how it started.

MARTIN: Well, you know, there are some states that have actually moved legislatively. Sarah, maybe this is a question for you, to try to stop same-sex couples or same gender living individuals as single parents from adopting children. Has that legislative effort - it seemed like that got a lot of attention in recent years. Has that stopped?

Ms. WARBELOW: No, it's continuing. And, in fact, this year alone we've already seen three states that are introducing bills to limit adoption, either to married couples or at least to prohibit unmarried cohabitating couples from being able to adopt.

MARTIN: Is there any regional theme to where these legislative initiatives are taking place? Is that all over the country or is it mainly in one part of the country?

Ms. WARBELOW: They are disproportionately throughout the South; areas like Arizona, Kentucky, Tennessee and then places like Utah, Mississippi already have these laws in place.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask Rocky, and Tim, both of you this question, when you first started thinking about becoming a parent did you think about kind of the legislative climate or thinking whether the jurisdiction or the part of the country you live in would support you as a family, as a parent? Was that part of your thinking or not? Tim?

Mr. SURRATT: That was a shock to me because, you know, here my brother's girlfriend had this baby and she was born drug positive. There was all kinds of mess going on. It would have never occurred to me that they didn't think, you know, that he could come and live with me.

You know, I'm very conservative. I'm, you know, work a regular job. I'm very active in the community. My whole life is dedicated to helping make other people's lives better and it was quite shocking to me that George Bush was our governor at that time and he was trying to pass a law to prevent gays from foster parenting, which was what I was going to have to do to my son, was to be a foster parent, that's how it started. And I thought that's so odd because I guess they'd rather him be in a crack house with or homeless than with a very stable home environment. It was very shocking.

MARTIN: Rocky, what about you? Now you live in Washington, D.C., which is known as a pretty, what would you say, diverse environment...

Mr. GALLOWAY: Progressive.

MARTIN: ...progressive, tolerant environment.

Mr. GALLOWAY: Exactly. Exactly.

MARTIN: And a lot of same-gender-loving people have a lot of political power in the city for some time. There's openly gay members of city council too.

Mr. GALLOWAY: Certainly. Certainly.

MARTIN: And even, you know, prior mayors going back years have been very supportive of the gay community, so perhaps that wasn't part of your calculation. But what about sort of more broadly neighbors, friends, community, family?

Mr. GALLOWAY: And so the legislative landscape wasn't a big factor in it. What was concerning to us was the fact that we could do two-parent adoption, that was very important to us, not having to one-party adopt and then having to do a second parent adoption later. So, fortunately, we live in D.C. and you can do two-parent adoption.

So the legislative landscape didn't play a large role in to it. We were focused on becoming parents and our experience has been wonderful. People have accepted us as parents and we joined this whole new broader community of parents and gotten the support and love and nurturing from that community.

MARTIN: Well, you know what, and also, I hope you don't mind my mentioning Rocky, that you and your partner are both African-American, and there is this notion that the African-American community is less supportive of same-sex couples in general.

Mr. GALLOWAY: Yeah. Yeah.

MARTIN: Has that been your experience?

Mr. GALLOWAY: It has not. And I don't know whether we live in this bubble called Washington, D.C. or not, but it has just not been an issue for us. What we found is that people get behind raising children and when they see that's what's going on and they see that youre loving and caring and nurturing children, people get behind that. So some of the things that on the outside, on the boarders, get - they fall away. People certainly just - they embrace us and they help us, they support us, they offer us advice - whether we take it or not - and we move forward.

MARTIN: You know, we were talking with Brian Powell earlier about his research into this question and he says that there's actually this interesting dichotomy in the African-American community; that on paper a lot of African-Americans will say that they dont believe that homosexuality is right or that they feel its wrong...

Mr. GALLOWAY: Right.

MARTIN: ...but on an interpersonal level are actually very supportive.

Mr. GALLOWAY: Very. Very.

MARTIN: Particularly where kids are involved, which is well, you know, come on over.

Mr. GALLOWAY: Exactly.

MARTIN: Is that your experience?

Mr. GALLOWAY: Thats my experience. Certainly. Because in the African-American community we've always had extended families. So we've had aunts and uncles and grandparents caring for our children and some of those have been gay, you know, and so it's a part of the fabric of our community. Always has been and always will be.

MARTIN: We're continuing today's focus on the secret lives of families or the hidden lives of families, or more broadly, the American family today and aspects of family life that we may not talk very much about.

Our guests are Sarah Warbelow of the Human Rights Campaign. She works on legislative issues involving the parenting rights of same-gender-loving people. We're also talking about with two fathers who with their partners are parenting. Rocky Galloway is a dad in Washington, D.C. and Tim Surratt is a dad in Houston.

Tim, what about you? Have you had any pushback against your being a parent?

Mr. SURRATT: You know, for the most part it's been really great. But one experience recently that we had was when we were applying to a private high school in Houston, Texas. And my son is extremely bright and very articulate and very athletic and they really wanted him until, you know, they called me and said, you know, we do want your son. We have a place for him in this private school. And I said that's great. I just want to be sure you know that, you know, that he does have two dads and I think that's important for you to know. We're not going to be in your face or anything. We just want you to know just because we like to live openly and we're proud of who we are. And literally on the telephone she said - she stopped completely and said: we have no place for groundbreaking, we have no place for you or your family or your son in our school, and sorry, we're not going to allow him to go to our school.

MARTIN: What?

Mr. SURRATT: And this was three years ago in Houston, Texas. And I was so floored and it was so unexpected that I wish I had recorded it but who would've thought that such a thing would be said in this day and age?

And on the flipside of that, our son is in a private Catholic school and they had exact opposite reaction. When we told them they said tell us what to do, we'll talk openly about it, we'll let the people know. Youre our first gay parents ever, which wasn't the case because we knew gay parents that were already there.

But, yeah, I guess we were the first ones to just let people know hey, we're gay. We're not going to be any different than anyone else but we just want to let you know in case something comes up, you know, let us know and we'll help you handle it. And so it was very surprising.

MARTIN: Tim, and you dont mind my asking you this or pointing this out I hope, that you are white.

Mr. SURRATT: That's correct.

MARTIN: And your partner is also white?

Mr. SURRATT: He is and our children are both Caucasian. Yes.

MARTIN: Your children are both also Caucasian. And I'm just wondering if that plays a role in your feeling a need to tell people up front that you are two dads. Maybe you could help us understand like why you feel a need to say to people you need to know.

Mr. SURRATT: Thats a good question. I don't know why I need to. I think I've been so politically active my whole life and just wanting to be part of the process. And when we first brought our son to school when he was in kindergarten, the teacher separated him from the class because she thought the class would get AIDS. And so we were very early on, I mean we were on the news and the newspapers, you know, when I first adopted him because not very many gay people had adopted kids.

And so we just like to explain to people what our lives are like in case they have questions. It'd be no different than if I had cancer, I would tell people hey, I have cancer. I just want you to know and say you don't have to talk around it. You're welcome to talk to me about it if you have questions and things like that. I just want to make the road easier for the people behind me and I think that's why I bring it up.

MARTIN: What about your kids, though? How do you think they understand their circumstances? Obviously, you are equipping them and arming them with what they need, as all parents do. But how do you think they feel?

Mr. SURRATT: I think they feel great about it. We've made them very proud because we're not ashamed of who we are and we're not out there raising a flag and walking with a flag about it. Were just proud of who we are and it's just a its just such a small part of who I am, being gay. More than that I'm a dad. I'm a friend. Im a neighbor. Theres so many other things to who I am other than being a gay dad.

But we equip them with it. Weve spent a lot of time. My son has been to 17 national human rights dinners. He's been to all kinds of things from the Human Rights Campaign to educate him on how to respond when his friends talk about him having gay dads. And much of the time we're very, very, very active in the school, so the kids love us and know us. So I think if people know you theyre less likely to discriminate against you.

MARTIN: Rocky, what about you? Final thought from you. Do you feel in a way that you - like Tim says, he feels in a way that hes a pioneer, right?

Mr. SURRATT: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And as a pioneer, he also feels, I think - I'm a little putting words in his mouth - feels the responsibility to be a role model.

Mr. GALLOWAY: Right.

MARTIN: Do you feel that way?

Mr. GALLOWAY: I do. I do, actually, because we were the second couple to get married in D.C. last year and that was a very important step for us to take. And we took it primarily because we wanted to just give a face to this movement that was happening in D.C. I mean people tend to think of it as a white gay male movement. And here we are two African-American men, who live in D.C., who are raising two beautiful daughters. Who could have a problem with that? And who wouldn't want our families to be treated the same as any other family?

MARTIN: Sarah, I want to give you the final word and ask you what's the next frontier here? Do you see - what do you see in the legislative landscape? So much of our conversation last year was on the move toward sanctioning same-sex marriage but we see now five states and the District of Columbia already permitting same-sex marriage. We see some effort on the part of the new Congress to intervene in that, and in the District of Columbia in any way. We talked about that on the program earlier this week. What, legislatively, what are the major trends that you see?

Ms. WARBELOW: We're going to see a real divide. So in many places across the country, Illinois for example, the governor just signed a civil unions law earlier this week and we're seeing several other states move towards marriage equality, civil unions. And then on the other hand, we are seeing a long with some interests from the federal government, states moving negative legislation, making it harder for same-sex couples to care for their families and raise their children.

MARTIN: To be continued. Sarah Warbelow is state legislative director for the Human Rights Campaign. Shes also a mom, we should mention that. And she joined us in our Washington, D.C. studio with Rocky Galloway, who, with his partner, is raising two-year-old twin daughters. And Tim Surratt joined us from Houston, Texas, who, with his partner, is raising a 17-year-old boy and a four-year-old girl.

Thank you all so much for joining us.

Ms. WARBELOW: Thank you.

Mr. SURRATT: Thank you for having us.

Mr. GALLOWAY: Thank you, Michel.

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