The introduction of Amendment One to North Carolina in September of 2011 has sparked a dialogue across the state both for and against the proposed legislation. In a state where same-sex marriage is already unrecognized, the amendment would ban legal recognition for all unmarried couples, regardless of sexual orientation, and strip protections already in place for thousands of North Carolinians and their children. What on the surface appears to be a piece of legislation that serves to further marginalize same-sex couples will have far-reaching effects on issues of child custody, domestic violence protection laws and legal issues such as power of attorney rights.
Proponents of the amendment defend their stance by saying it is to protect the definition of a family and a marriage as a union between one man and one woman. The reality is that this definition is dated and does not accurately represent what a family is today. Gone are the days when the nuclear family (think classic TV families such as The Cleaver’s from “Leave it to Beaver”) represents the norm in terms of a modern family structure. Today families come in all shapes and sizes; married couples, unmarried couples, long-term friends living together, same-sex couples, mixed families and adopted families are only a few of the ways in which people cohabitate.
Television has always served to emulate reality through their programming and ABC’s “Modern Family” offers a more realistic perspective of what America looks like today; sure we don’t all live in fabulous homes in the Los Angeles suburbs, but you get the idea. We are a mixture of different make-ups of families. The unifying theme that defines a family, regardless of its makeup, is love.
In September 2011 Justin Cook began a documentary project photographing long-term committed same sex couples and interviewing them to learn their stories. He hoped to show the public that these families are normal people with real love and real lives, so better decisions could be made on May 8. Cook was not alone in his passion to tell the stories of the many families who will be impacted by Amendment One and he soon partnered with “LOVE FOR ALL,” a similar project by Lisa Gotwals and her group of photographers known as CLACK. They have since joined forces and created COMMITMENT | NC, a project which brings these families’ stories to life through images and word.
25 years and still going strong
In 2007 qnotes featured a story about Wesley Thompson and Trey Owens and their struggle as Owens was diagnosed with a rare form of Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia. The couple has recently been featured in the COMMITMENT | NC project and their love is still as strong as it was from the beginning. The couple initially had to set up powers of attorney, both living will and healthcare proxy, as well as last will and testaments in an effort to establish one another in each other’s lives. “We had to spend thousands to be granted what a married couple automatically is granted through the act of marriage” says Thompson.
Following Owen’s battle with Leukemia, the two were engaged to be married in the summer of 2006 while attending his oldest brother’s fifth wedding. “Trey asked me if I would still marry him” Thompson recounts. “I had asked him 10 years earlier and he declined, stating there was no benefit to it. He felt that if his brother could get married in the church with God’s blessing five times, we could at least get married once.” The two held their wedding in Vancouver, BC on their 20th anniversary, down to the hour they met, 7 p.m. on Nov. 18, 2006.
When looking at legislation such as Amendment One, Thompson tends to take a religious angle in his discussions about the topic. “Amendment One is a thinly-veiled religious movement based on the supposed teachings of Jesus; however, Jesus never mentioned same-sex marriage nor did He mention homosexuality. He did, however, discuss divorce. Why is divorce not being addressed as an assault on the sanctity of marriage?”
A houseful of love
[Ed. Note: Adam and John are pseudonyms used at the request of the family.]
Adam and John have been together as a loving and committed couple for 10 years and have four children that they adore. Early on in their relationship, the two discussed the idea of adoption. Adam was in a previous long-term relationship of 14 years where his previous male partner had two biological daughters. Adam wanted to be able to share the special bond he witnessed between his previous partner and his biological children with his love, John.
Prior to their attempt at adoption, John thought the notion would not be remotely possible, especially in NC where same-sex adoptions and marriages are not recognized. For Adam and John, all four of their adoptions happened under different circumstances. “All of our adoptions were unique” says John. “They actually all seem to have found us. They are all very wonderful gifts that we never in a thousand years expected.”
Their first son came through the NC Foster-to-adopt system. “We had excellent support from our local licensing agency, Lutheran Family Services, as well as Mecklenburg County Court and Guardian Ad-Litem” recalls John.
Their second son was a designated adoption from a friend of a friend. The birth mother was very young and wanted to place her child for adoption at birth. Adam and John’s third son was an agency adoption. According to John, their experience with the adoption process and working with Adoption Information Services went smoothly and was very encouraging for them.
Their fourth son was an unexpected adoption request from the same agency they worked with for their third adoption. The adoption specialist from their third son was working with another girl at the time who was looking for a family to adopt her child. The specialist reached out to Adam and John to see if they were interested.
With Amendment One looming overhead, the couple is concerned about its implications for the state and for other families like theirs. “The biggest fear is with insurance coverage. Not so much with our family since we have a unique situation where we are covered under a single plan” says John. “We are, however, totally opposed to the inference that only a married heterosexual couple has worth. In our opinion this legislation should never have seen the light of day! This proposed amendment is divisive, exclusionary and far oversteps any sort of fair, just or equal representation for all people.”
Elaine, Annika and William
In April of 2010 Elaine and Annika decided to adopt. They had first become foster parents and were open to the idea of adopting. Initially, the two attempted to adopt an older child from an orphanage outside of the United States, but they were denied because they are a same-sex couple. The two had heard of couples who were able to adopt from foreign countries by one partner filing for an adoption as a single person, but Elaine and Annika wanted to be honest throughout the entire process.
The two researched agencies that were gay-friendly and through the Human Rights Campaign’s website they were able to find agencies that would work with same-sex couples. “We ended up choosing AdoptHelp in California and had a reasonable good experience” Annika reported. “Enough so that we are using them again for a second adoption.”
Even while working with same-sex friendly agencies, the two still faced problems in trying to adopt. Ultimately, only Elaine or Annika could adopt their child. Annika was the adoptive parent which left Elaine a legal stranger to their son William. In order for both of them to have legal protections over their child, Elaine had to sue Annika for partial custody of William. This was if something happened to Annika, Elaine would have the legal right to keep William and pursue her own adoption of him. They also had to have a child’s medical power of attorney drawn up so that Elaine could make medical decisions for him. Despite these frustrations, Elaine and Annika have already begun the process for their second adoption and they are prepared for whatever comes ahead.
Annika believes that legislation like Amendment One is a means to send a message across the country that the people as a whole do not want gay marriage. “It’s destructive in many respects, but if it passes, it will not have an immediate effect on my family. Same-sex marriage is already not permitted in NC. Same-sex adoption is already not permitted in NC. We already have no rights, so there’s not much they can take away. The harshest impact, for us, is the message of hate that it will send, making us feel more marginalized and hated by the voting majority.” Annika and Elaine have been together for seven years.