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Children of same-sex couples tell their story

When Molly Heller had friends over to play as a child, she made a lot of preparations. And they didn't involve asking for Cokes or cookies.

First, she pulled the pink triangle magnet off the refrigerator. Then, all the lesbian-friendly books and record albums had to be hidden. She scoured the house to remove any love notes between her mother and her mother's girlfriend. Just for good measure, she told her mother not to wear her Birkenstock sandals, because, of course, everybody knew that lesbians wore those. As for the bathroom wallpaper festooned with women, she just sighed.

"You de-gay the house," said Heller, now 33. "I was absolutely paranoid about my friends finding out."

A lot has changed since Heller and her sister grew up in a small town in Connecticut in the 1980s, when they knew no other children who had gay or lesbian parents. Gay families with children have gone from a rarity to part of everyday life in many communities. Gay marriage, once a distant prospect, is an imminent legal reality, at least here.

But in a nation where the phrase "that's so gay" is a commonplace slur on playgrounds to describe anything weird or distasteful, some things haven't changed much for the children of gay and lesbian households.

Interviews by the Globe with nearly two dozen children in families across the region found some still struggling to sort out their feelings about being unlike their peers in this one important way. Some still shrink from a neighbor's gaze in hopes that their secret will not be found out. Many others are so proud of their families, and happy in their lives, that they are prepared to clamber up the State House steps to trumpet the cause as the Legislature prepares to resume debate this week on gay marriage.

Still more say they wander somewhere between, generally secure but still coming to terms with how to make their way down this tributary of a changing mainstream.

They are members of the "gayby boom" as some call it. Estimated at between 6 and 14 million in the United States, the children of same-sex parents are an expanding cadre of eclectic experience. Many of the older ones have divorced parents, one of whom now has a partner of the same sex. There are a large number of children born to lesbian couples, ever more so as donor insemination becomes more commonplace. And more and more gay male couples are building families through surrogacy or adoption.

How these children fare, how they are like and unlike the children of heterosexual parents, has come up often in the wake of the Supreme Judicial Court ruling in favor of gay marriage. In this charged atmosphere, it is a conversation that can quickly become a shouting match.

There are, in fact, few places to turn for clear answers. Some researchers who have studied whether such children are more likely to be gay or have behavioral problems suggest the answer is no. But there have been very few large, long-term studies; most are considered too small to be conclusive. The scientific study of gay childrearing is at an infant stage.

And so, for the moment, it is left to the children to speak.

A far more welcoming place

Children like 11-year-old Deanna Makinen, a stocky fifth-grader with rod-straight blonde hair and her mother's vivid-blue eyes. Deanna has been talking a lot about her two mothers lately and is working on a computer presentation about gay marriage to present to her church. An amiable girl, she nonetheless gets angry when she hears criticism of gay-parented families on television. Or in the newspaper. Or in the State House.They are talking, after all, about her family.

"Most of these people have no idea what a gay and lesbian household is like," Deanna said. "It's just like any other family."

Deanna lives in a modest brown-shingle bungalow in Exeter, N.H., with her 9-year-old brother, Troy; their biological mother, Debora Masterson; and Barbara Richards, her mother's partner. Their father, to whom Masterson was married for 9 years, lives in a neighboring town, and the children spend alternate weekends with him. They have three cats, a dog, two hamsters, and 10 sea monkeys. All the animals are female, except for some of the sea monkeys.

"They're the only other guys here," shrugged Troy, although he does not seem to mind in the least.

It is generally believed by therapists and counselors that children of gay men and lesbians whose parents were formerly married have somewhat more difficulty than those born to or adopted by a same-sex couple. The trauma of divorce colors any child's experience. But Troy and Deanna were only 2 and 4, respectively, when their parents separated, and they cannot remember a time when Richards was not around, cracking jokes or throwing a ball to them. Both children listen intently as their mothers describe to a visitor how they met six years ago in the women's studies section of Barnes & Noble.

"Oh, I love this story!" exclaims Deanna, jumping up and down before curling up in Richards's lap.

For Deanna, the world appears a far more welcoming place than it did to the Heller girls. There is a national organization called COLAGE (Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere), which cosponsors an annual Family Week in Provincetown, a mecca for many gay families and a place for their children to meet. There are guides and films and sitcoms on the subject of gay-parented families. There are online discussion groups, a host of special summer camps, even a service that provides an "aunt" or "uncle" of the opposite gender of their own parents.

Since the subject of gay marriage moved to center stage this year, Deanna has, increasingly, been speaking out. She recently attended a hearing on a bill opposed to gay marriage and is hard at work on a presentation for her family's Unitarian church. Deanna feels strongly that her mother and her mother's partner should be allowed to marry because, she says, "They love each other. Why not? A family can be made of anything."

Which is not to say that Deanna has not had bouts of anxiety about her family arrangement. She is apparently the only child with same-sex parents in her school, where her mother's sexual orientation is well known. Masterson, a special education aide at the town's other elementary school, and Richards attend events at the children's schools together.

Deanna has met a number of children like herself at Family Week, and, more recently, at a local COLAGE group. Children of same-sex parents are generally believed to cope best if they know other children who have gay or lesbian parents, and Deanna wishes she knew more. She is anxious about entering middle school, where she has been told that tolerance for the idea of gay parents -- indeed, for anything viewed as different -- is low.

Although Deanna's classmates have been supportive, she is always uncomfortable when she hears "that's so gay" in the schoolyard. Once, she recalled, a girl at camp, having learned that Deanna's mother is a lesbian, asked, "Isn't there something wrong with that? Isn't there something wrong with you?"' Deanna said she "just cried and avoided her."

When her 11th birthday rolled around in January, she was uneasy about the slumber party she had planned.

"I was really worried that their parents might find out and not want me to be friends with their children." Nothing like that happened.

"It was very affirming for her," Masterson said. "But this is something she is definitely thinking about more as she gets older."

The middle school years can be a difficult time for any child. For those of same-sex parents it can be even more so, experts and the children themselves say, partly because of the dread of being labeled "different," but also because they are dealing with their own budding sexuality. Some rage at their parents. Some beg them not to attend school events or to express affection toward each other in public. And often, rather than endure complicated questions, some stop inviting friends over to the house.

Molly Heller remembers thinking to herself when she began to suspect at age 11 that her mother was a lesbian, "Boy, this is going to be really hard if she is gay."

Heller's mother, Linda Heller, 61, recalls that her girls were furious with her at first.

"They cried. They said: `How could you do this? Can't you just be friends?' That lasted for a while. And then I got to the point where, enough already. They could not berate me for four straight hours."

In retrospect, Molly Heller, a social worker in Cambridge who helped found COLAGE with her sister, Anna, says her experience has made her "more open-minded, more attuned to discrimination in society." But as a child, it meant many lies. The Heller girls lied to the neighbors about their mother. They kept their big secret from their friends until they were teenagers. They kept a lot of what they were feeling from their mother, too.

"They kept a lot of it quiet because they didn't want to hurt my feelings," said Linda Heller, a therapist who lives in New London, Conn.

Keeping the secret

Keeping the secret has also been the way for two teenage siblings who agreed to talk only if their names were not used. Born to a married couple who divorced when they were 3 and 6, they are now 14 and 16 and live with their mother, a lesbian, and her partner in a trim white house in Belmont.

They learned their mother is a lesbian six years ago, when their father told them. They love their mother and her partner, and they laugh a lot together. But outside the household it is a different matter. Neither of them knows any children of gay parents. And neither of them has ever told a single friend about their mother, although they suspect that many of them know. For a long time they did not have friends to the house, hoping to avoid the questions that always arise. "They'd say, `Who's that woman?' " said the boy, a lean 14-year-old in a red T-shirt and jeans.

"Where does she sleep?" said his sister, who shares his thick dark hair.

"It's hard to have people over," she continued. "I mean, we live in a small town. I don't know how people would react, but I don't want to find out."

And then she started to cry. "My mother's life doesn't bother me at all. It's just all that I have been through."

What she has been through is a complicated divorce. Both children say their father, whom they see regularly, is sarcastic about their mother's sexual orientation, and they asked that he not be contacted for this story. The 16-year-old has told her mother not to attend school events with her partner, in part because she is concerned they will encounter her father but also because, she adds tearfully, "I don't want to be known as the girl who has two moms."

Her brother, on the other hand, has no problem with the two women coming, saying, "If people ask, I just say she is an aunt."

And they can joke about it, too. The boy says one bad thing is when all three women in the house get their periods. "If someone drops something at the table everyone goes, `Ooooooooh.' I just try to stay away for a while."

As for the question many ask about the children of same-sex parents -- Will they be gay? -- both smile.

"People think you will be gay, but I think it is just the opposite," said the girl. "For myself, I am very attracted to the opposite sex."

The children's mother, a 48-year-old attorney with a cap of silver hair, is aware of her children's anxiety. Over the years she tried to find other gay parents with children but says until recently she could not. She has always encouraged the children to be open, but, in fact, they have not talked much as a family about the situation.

"I think my mistake was not equipping them with the answers," she said. "But that is my whole quandary. I don't know the answers."

Neither do her children. Like many children of same-sex parents, her daughter has become less concerned about what outsiders think as she has gotten older. But she knows the path ahead will not be easy.

"I am all for gay marriage," said the girl. "But the fact is that one-half the world is for it, and the other half is not. And that half is going to make it really hard for the children."

`Family forever'

If there is a single factor that therapists find bears most strongly on the experience of children with same-sex parents it is, not surprisingly, the way their parents carry themselves. Parents who are comfortable with their own sexual orientation, but who do not avoid talking with their children about the difficulties they might encounter, are generally those whose children fare best.

For Rob Cullinane and Todd Brown, the subject of children -- when to have them, and how to raise them -- has loomed large since their second date.

"I said, `Before we go further, I think it is important for you to know that I want children,' " recalled Cullinane, 39. "He was a little taken aback, but he didn't run away screaming."

Sixteen years later, Cullinane and Brown are the fathers of two blond boys, Tim, 13, and Ross, 8. They live in a long gray bungalow in a suburb outside Boston with a pool and an elegant red holiday sleigh parked out front. The boys, who were adopted separately, call Cullinane "Daddy" and Brown "Dad."

Both fathers are exuberant. They talk a lot. Cullinane, 39, who teaches third grade, does more of the daily caretaking of the boys such as carpool and cooking. Brown, 40, a lawyer who wears square black glasses, does the big school projects and teaches Sunday school at the local Unitarian church. Both men have coached the boys' sports teams. But, if the truth be told, the boys whisper, the two dads are quite different.

"Dad is a softy," exclaimed Tim. "Daddy is stricter. He just wants us to read, read, read."

The foursome live at the heart of a large extended community of family and friends. They are also a part of an informal group of about a dozen gay fathers who get together regularly to pick apples, celebrate Halloween, and swim in the pool out back. Although the boys know only a few children with same-sex parents in their town, they have a large group of friends with two dads.

Some families with same-sex parents make a deliberate effort to bring adults of the opposite gender into their children's lives. Alternative Family Matters of Cambridge -- which provides counseling and services for gay, lesbian, and transgendered families -- even has an "aunts and uncles" program that matches volunteers to children. But Cullinane and Brown find incomprehensible the question of whether they should seek out women to help round out the lives of their boys.

"My children are not being brought up on Mars," Brown said. "They have aunts and grandmothers they are very close to. If you are a living breathing part of humanity you cannot escape people of another gender being part of your experience."

Both boys say they do not miss having a mother. Tim lived with his biological mother until he was 4, while Ross remained with his for one month.

"I don't really care about who is in the family, as long as you're cared for," said Tim, a shy boy with braces. "Not everyone needs a mother. Not everyone lives with two parents. They live with an aunt or grandparents or whatever."

"A mother?" said Ross, the actor in the family. "Never." And then he threw himself into Brown's lap, exclaiming with a laugh, "Mom!"

Brown glanced at Cullinane: "Do you think it's time to tell the kids they don't have a mom?"

Nor have these two dads, who are well known in town, had any difficulties in the community. Both boys have been strongly supported within their schools.They all laugh at the memory of the time an older student approached Tim in the lunchroom and asked about his fathers, "Does your mom sleep with both of them?" Tim responded, "Are you clueless? They're gay."

Marriage is a big topic in the household. Both boys would like to see their fathers tie the knot. "Yes! Yes! Yes!" said Ross, jumping up and down. "Because they haven't been able to for 16 years," he said. "Because straight people can, so why can't they?"

But what really interests them more are their `Family Forever' books. They are small albums their fathers made for them before they were adopted that tell the family's story in photographs and text. Ross's is blue and green with a green leaf on the cover, while Tim's is covered with pink and blue flowers: each of their names are beaded on the side. The story begins, "Many years ago when Timmy's Dad and Daddy met each other. . ."

And it continues: "They always knew they wanted to be parents. They met a little boy named Timmy. They knew right away that adopting Timmy would be a great way to begin their forever family."

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