News & Opinion » Pride

Family Portraits

Arizona's anti-LGBT laws have some Tucsonans packing their bags, while others are choosing to stay and keep fighting

by

11 comments

It wasn't an easy decision to leave Tucson.

After all, Laura Briggs loves this desert, as well as the family and community she grew to love during more than 16 years of teaching at the University of Arizona.

However, the Legislature's actions—especially a recent law giving married couples (aka straight couples) preference when placing children in adoptive homes—left Briggs with a broken heart, and no optimism that life in Arizona will improve in the near future.

The adoption preference law, SB 1188, was signed into law by Gov. Jan Brewer in April, and is just the latest anti-gay action to come out of Phoenix. In Arizona, lesbian and gay couples are not allowed to adopt children together, forcing one parent to be the legal parent, and the other to rely on drawn-up parenting agreements to prove he or she is also a mommy or daddy.

If anyone questions whether hatred of the LGBT community is really behind the law, look at quotes like the one from Skull Valley Rep. Judy Burges, who said it was God who "determined that it takes a man and a woman to create a new life." Based on that philosophy, only married couples make the best parents, Burges said.

In Armory Park, Briggs opens the door of her home while carrying proof that blows away Burges' theory on what's best for children—a 9-month-old fellow named Jackson, cute enough to melt even the most-hardened GOP heart.

After Briggs walks through the home she shares with Jennifer Nye, she coos at Jackson—dressed in lime-green plaid overalls with a matching baseball cap—while she puts him down gently on a play matt in the living room.

"We're happy to tell our story, because we've lived in Arizona, and we're sad to leave, and we're pissed that we feel like we have to leave," Briggs says.

"Jackson is my second child and is my youngest. My oldest was adopted through foster care. I was the non-adoptive parent, because you can only have one mom in the state of Arizona, so I know what it is like to raise a child that you have no legal relationship to."

Briggs resigned from her position at the UA as an associate professor in the Department of Gender Women's Studies, and as associate dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, to take a position at the University of Massachusetts Amherst beginning Aug. 1.

When Briggs' daughter was younger, her partner at the time—who was the legal parent—lost her job and therefore the health insurance they used for their daughter.

"She's a kid with disabilities, so she went on AHCCCS (Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System), and it happened that one time, I took her to the emergency room, and her adoptive mom had to leave, and so ... I was in charge, and the nurse was like, 'Who are you?'" Briggs recalls. "There was a long and terrifying moment when my kid, who was throwing up blood, was questioned on whether or not I could get her medical services. I had trouble getting her registered for school, and she was a kid with behavioral issues. One time, she got arrested at school for fighting. I went to the jail to see her, and I couldn't see her."

Three years ago, the UA was finally able to offer domestic-partner benefits through the state, but once Gov. Janet Napolitano left Arizona for Washington, D.C., the state Legislature nixed those benefits, although the university cobbled together a new plan for an alternative benefits package before a judge issued an injunction to keep those state benefits in place—for now.

"When Jackson was born, he was scary sick. He hovered between life and death for 11 days on a respirator," Briggs says.

Jackson, who is sitting up, begins to practice standing and walking while holding on to furniture, eliciting smiles from his mothers.

"Yeah it was scary, boy. You were totally scary, boy," Briggs coos at her son, who smiles up at his mother with his slate-blue eyes.

When it was clear that Jackson was going to be fine, he went home with his mothers, who were amazed when they saw the bill from the hospital—for $350,000, all covered by Briggs' UA insurance policy through the state.

"We were that close to losing his insurance, and if we had to pay $350,000, we would have declared bankruptcy," Briggs says.

That health insurance grew more important when Nye quit her job as an attorney to stay home and care for Jackson, because there were concerns about his health and a possible developmental delay due to a lack of oxygen during his birth.

"This meant that we were 100 percent dependent on my benefits. It was too scary, too close to not being able to be sure he was going to be OK," Briggs says.

"Then in April, the Legislature passed a law, very explicitly making it so that there was a preference for heterosexual parents, and that completely kills any chance that there could be second-parent adoption in this state. The combination of not being able to do second-parent adoption and being uncertain that he would be able to have health insurance made me look for another job."

Before Jackson was born—and with his future in mind—the couple got married in Massachusetts. Once in Massachusetts, Briggs will also be Jackson's legal mother—something she is not in Arizona. "And even if I didn't try to adopt him, there would be no question about his health insurance, and, in fact, he can get my pension if I should die—all things that we totally can't do here."

Nye agrees with her wife that leaving Tucson is difficult, but necessary. Nye says she always felt Tucson was a welcoming place, and she never encountered homophobia.

But when you have a child, life changes.

"When you have a child, and there isn't a culture that sees gay people as parents, that's when you start to bump up against the real official homophobia, but also the unofficial kind," Nye says.

Shortly after Jackson's birth, a confused and frustrated nurse at the hospital said she needed to talk to Jackson's "real" mother. When Nye tells this story, she laughs while shaking her head in disbelief.

When asked if leaving Tucson and Arizona constitute abandoning the progressive fight, Briggs and Nye sigh.

"I feel like there are winnable fights, and there are un-winnable fights, and this time, it seems less winnable than when I first moved here 22 years ago. ... I guess I just kind of feel like we gave it the college try, and the moment it was really clear it wasn't going to be OK to live here was when Janet Napolitano left," Nye says.

"She was the bulwark against the crazy policies, and not just the policies about being queer, but lots of policies the state has that I don't agree with—about money, immigration, poor people, tons of stuff. And sometimes, it just changes when you're a parent," Nye says.

"I feel I want (Jackson) to have the best he can have, and that can't happen in Arizona."

Dennis Yawitz and Alan Clark have something all gay families who've adopted in Arizona desperately want—a legal adoption certificate with both of them listed as parents.

Yawitz and Clark moved to Oro Valley six years ago from St. Louis, when their son, Syd, was still an infant.

Like Arizona, second-parent adoptions are not legal in Missouri. However, when Yawitz was in court finalizing his son's adoption, a woman came up to him with an offer.

"She said her girlfriend was a lawyer, and she was working with a judge and some other lawyers in St. Louis to try to change the law, and this judge was putting through second-parent adoptions," Yawitz says.

"I called them up. I found out the judge was just about to retire, and he was doing it right at the end before he left. The following Saturday, the judge came in, brought in his whole staff, and they did our adoption."

Yawitz and Clark met more than 11 years ago. Clark says he always wanted children, but Yawitz had never considered having kids. However, Yawitz was the one who began to navigate the foster-care system in St. Louis. The couple started by working with a 12-year-old living in a group home who didn't get visitors.

"He had no one who would bring him McDonald's or take him out to the movies. He had no visitors at all, so really, we got involved just to be with him. And it was so difficult the first time we went," Yawitz says.

Clark interrupts: "But after the first time, we made a commitment that we are in his life now; there was no way around it. He had no one else, so we had to keep coming and keep showing him there's a light out there."

They started bringing him home on weekends to get him out of the group home; eventually, they moved him in, and "that's when we got involved in foster-care classes."

Clark says their first foster son was a good example of why more people are needed to sign on as foster parents for kids, like that 12-year-old, who are considered "old" in the foster-care system. He had lived in a foster home with his younger brother, but the family decided to adopt the brother, and not him.

Yawitz became the kid's biggest advocate, navigating social services and getting the word out that the boy needed to be adopted. It worked, though the process was not easy.

"But he's doing well now and is living on his own," Clark says.

While the couple continued to help out foster children, they informed social workers that they wanted to adopt an infant. They were told it could take two years for an infant to become available, but six months after they finished their state licensing class, Yawitz got a call: An infant was available, and they needed to pick him up.

They didn't want to get their hopes up; they received a similar call once before, but the birth mother returned to the hospital to claim her child. This time, however, it was for real.

Yawitz and his parents, and Clark and his mother, all showed up at the hospital. Staff members took the new parents into a room and showed them how to burp, feed and change their son.

About four months after Syd's adoption, they decided to move, unsure if St. Louis was where they wanted to raise him.

"We had a choice between Seattle, California, Arizona or Florida. (Yawitz's) parents were moving with us, so we all had a decision, and we all said Tucson. So we all picked up and moved," Clark says.

Even though Arizona's laws are far from being gay-friendly, the move ended up being perfect for their family. Yawitz and Clark today live near Yawitz's parents, a few friends and Yawitz's sister.

"We made the right move," Yawitz says. "We joke that we're a modern sitcom."

Clark works as an IT staffer for a national CPA firm with offices in Arizona. Yawitz, who was laid off from his job a few years ago, has gone back to school and is majoring in social and elementary education. He works in the special-needs preschool at his son's school, Copper Creek Elementary.

Yawitz says the fact that their son has two fathers hasn't been a big issue at school. This year, when it came time to make Mother's Day cards and gifts in class, Syd's first-grade teacher had him do his projects for his Dad and Daddy.

When the school was planning a father-daughter dance, Yawitz went to a meeting and convinced the school to make it an inclusive family dance. "Not only is there someone like my son, but there are tons of single parents, (or kids) living with their grandparents. The idea of families is more diverse now."

Day-to-day life has improved for them in Arizona. Syd is African American, and when the two white fathers walked with him around St. Louis, it wasn't unusual for African Americans to question why they had an African-American baby.

"Here, no one seems to care about the two dads or Syd's color. In St. Louis, there was a whole cultural thing. We cut his hair because it was growing, but a friend at work who is African American was mad at us, and told us, 'You can't cut his hair before he is 1,'" Clark remembers.

In Tucson, Yawitz discovered a shop that specializes in African-American hair, and the owner gave Yawitz a crash course. Last year, the shop gave Syd dreadlocks.

While life seems idyllic, the fathers admit there are pressures and worries.

"Whenever we have to donate or do something for school, I always feel like we have to be the best. ... I worry they're looking at us, and looking at us to make mistakes," Yawitz says.

"I always volunteer my time to be part of everything, because I don't want them to be able to say, 'Well, (Syd is) being raised by two gay dads, so obviously he's not getting this or not doing that.' It's more to protect him from anyone saying anything. I do feel that. I don't know if it's real or not, but I do feel that way."

Another issue involves insurance for Yawitz.

"I can't have him on my insurance. I can have Syd on my insurance, but not Dennis. Each year during my review time, I put it in my little blurb, 'Please have my partner on my insurance benefits.' They haven't done it yet, but it is a nationwide firm. I could see it happening in the future," Clark says.

As we chat, Syd gets out his guitar and sets up sheet music, but his dads suggest that he practice in his bedroom. He goes into his room for a short time before returning to the family couch to watch cartoons. A little later, he walks to the table and smiles broadly at his dads.

"It's time for some attention," Yawitz says, smiling back.

When asked what people should know about their family, Clark says that they strive to be good—but just like other families, they aren't perfect.

"I don't know if we are typical, but I know Syd doesn't know anything different," Yawitz adds. "He's doing great in school, and everyone in school accepts him, and he doesn't get hassled. If more people could see families like us and realize kids aren't being affected, maybe they'd change their minds.

"We are contributing to our community. It is normal."

The views of the desert vistas from Chris Mathias and Joanna Arnold's home in the Tucson Mountains are incredibly beautiful—but you need to watch where you walk, lest you trip over a toy or two.

Mathias and her partner, Arnold, who gave birth to Cole, now 4, have been together for 13 years. Mathias works at the UA as an assistant director for IT support, while Arnold works for the College of Medicine. Cole goes to preschool at the Second Street School.

Their life, they say, is so normal that it borders on boring. It is also frustrating.

"I can't adopt him," Mathias says about Cole. "I have no legal right to him. It's ridiculous."

It's all enough to make the two women consider moving back East, where Mathias is from. Arnold was born and raised in Tucson.

"We worry about who is going to take Cole to school today, what's for dinner, and what schools he will go to when he gets older," Arnold says. "When we talk to our straight friends, we know it's not so different—except when he has to learn to stand to pee, then we have to call someone. We are hopelessly lacking in Y chromosomes around here."

Cole begins making his way across the family's living room, making beeping noises as he moves several toy construction trucks across the floor. When he shouts, "Mommy," both women turn to look at their son.

"See how we both turn to look? That's the way it is around here," Mathias says.

While life for their family is "normal" in most ways, Arnold admits they do have to consider things that other families probably never think about. When they were looking for a preschool for their son, they chose the Second Street School because of its progressive reputation; they knew their family would be accepted.

When they had to find a pediatrician, Arnold asked friends and co-workers which doctors wouldn't mind when Cole showed up with two mommies.

Health insurance is also a concern: If the state is allowed to take away domestic-partnership benefits—an issue that remains mired in the court system—that could be an issue, especially if Arnold lost her job. Since Mathias isn't the legal parent, she wouldn't be able to put Cole on her health-insurance plan.

There are also the little things, like how Arnold reacts when Cole talks to a store clerk about his family.

"He's telling the shoe salesman that he has two mommies. I find myself cringing, wondering how the person is going to react, but so far, no one has ever said anything," Arnold says.

Mathias adds, "And we have the same daily concerns that any good parents, I think, would have. We're very boring. We don't go to nice restaurants anymore, only kid-friendly restaurants."

They count themselves as lucky because they have a variety of friends and family members who are supportive. Before Cole was born, they had three baby showers, two thrown by older friends of Arnold's mother. Arnold's mother also calls every so often with an invite to her LGBT-welcoming church, St. Michael's.

"We do have this great network of friends and family who are always supportive. But I do look at our straight friends and realize there's a lot they take for granted," Arnold says.

Civil rights is one thing that most straight people rarely think about. But it's often on the minds of Mathias and Arnold, and it has them thinking that moving away from Tucson may be a good idea, to make sure Cole has every opportunity.

"In the end, life is short, and sometimes, you have to make these kinds of decisions," Mathias says.

Leaving Tucson and Arizona is also on the minds of Adam and Mike Lovallo, but there are costs and careers to think about—so the best alternative may be to stay and fight the good fight.

Adam explains that the couple is upside down in their mortgage, and they can't simply transfer to another job, due to their careers in behavioral health. "And how are we going to afford a place like California? We are kind of stuck here, so we're hoping to make changes here in Arizona."

Last year, the Lovallos adopted 8-year-old Martín, and all three now share what was originally just Adam's last name.

"We figured that if there were any issues, like at the hospital, God forbid, they see Lovallo, and see that we're all related, especially since only one of us is able to adopt," he says.

Even though President Obama recently asked hospitals across the country to accommodate LGBT partners and families, Mike says they were thinking ahead when they decided to use Adam's last name, especially when they made the decision to have children.

"When we first met (Martín), we asked, 'How do you want to pronounce your name, Martín or Martin? He said, 'Martín.' 'Perfect. Love it. Sounds great.' And then when we got close to adoption day, I said, 'Look, you're going to have my last name, and you're a part of our family, but I want you to have something from your other dad, too. How about his (name as your) middle name—Miguel or Michael? ... He said he wanted Michael. OK. I explained to him, 'Your birth parents made you and are represented in your first name; I'm represented in your last name, and your other father is represented in your middle name.'"

Mike and Adam say they first thought they would just go into the adoption system, but they ended up being a foster family to start, because the state offers financial assistance to purchase items for the children, from clothes to bedroom furniture. They are considering a second adoption in the future, since Martín has asked for an older brother, but they want to wait a couple of years.

Martín bounds into the living room and curls up against Adam with a junior Scooby-Doo novel in one hand.

"How far have you gotten?" Adam asks.

"Keep reading," Mike adds. "He needs to keep reading."

Both fathers work in behavioral health and work with families and children, and both are keenly aware of the need for more families to adopt.

"He deserved a family," Adam says about Martín. "It breaks my heart. If we could adopt all those kids, we would."

Mike says when he was in his 20s, he thought about having children, but he just figured it "wasn't in the cards, and then I met Adam, and he mentioned to me that he wanted to have kids. It didn't take me long to warm up to the idea, but I did have to re-evaluate that."

The couple went to California to get legally married, even though Arizona does not recognize the marriage.

"But still, at least, we are legally married somewhere, even if it is just a state of mind in Arizona. It put me into a better position to think of adopting as a realistic option," Mike says.

The Lovallos would like to draw up more legal documents to protect Mike's position as a parent, but they can't afford to hire an attorney right now.

"That's why we think all of us having the same last name will help, and I've signed over things to give (Mike) permission, but to me, it is very shaming that I have to give my husband permission to be able to pick our son up from school, or pick him up from summer camp, or pick him up from the doctor," Adam says. "It is a sense of shame that I have to write my husband a permission slip. It's blatant discrimination. ... To me, he is just as much the father as I am, and even the judge acknowledged, 'You are both the parents. Even though the state doesn't recognize it, I recognize that you two are both the parents.'"

The new marriage-preference adoption law is chilling, Adam says, adding that "married" is clearly a code word for "straight."

"Look, clearly, if the child is better off with the gay couple, why shouldn't they be with the gay couple?" Adam asks. "If a gay couple can legally marry, they would be legally married. You are at the mercy of these arcane laws. ... When people see families like our own, yes, our son has two dads, but he is part of a family, and that's all that really should matter."

Regarding the adoption process, Adam thinks about an example one of his teachers used in the foster and adoption licensing class he took at Devereux, one of several agencies in Tucson that works with potential foster families, and the only one that offers a program especially for LGBT families.

The teacher held up a new, crisp $20 bill, and asked everyone if they would want the bill. Everyone raised their hands. She folded the bill and asked if they still wanted the bill. Of course, all of the hands rose. She kept folding it and kept asking, until the bill was completely crumpled.

"'Do you still want this damaged $20?' she asked us," Adam says. "Of course we still wanted it. That's the child. I always thought about that, and that's when I understood why we were there."

Adam says Martín's experience at Howell Elementary School has been positive. During the first day of school last year, the teacher saw Adam's wedding band and told Martín, "Your daddy can pick you up, or your mommy can pick you up."

Adam remembers: "(Martín) said, 'I don't have a mommy; I have two dads.' 'That's cool,' she said, and she learned very quickly to get with the program, and she did. She was great."

Because Martín is Mexican American, there are questions and double-takes from some, but adopting a child of a different race was never an issue for Adam and Mike.

"That's particularly frustrating, seeing gay couples spending thousands of dollars on a surrogate, when there are so many children, older in particular, who are free for adoption and ready to be in a home. What are you doing creating a brand-new child? Why are you doing that when there are so many wonderful kids out there like our son?" Adam asks.

Mike says getting their families on board with their adoption plans was very important. While Mike's family is scattered around the country, Adam's family mostly lives in Tucson.

"Adam took a hard line on it to make it understood among his family that this was a decision he was making, and he threw down the gauntlet: 'You're going to support me in this decision, or you're not, and then we need to talk about that now.' It was important to him that his family support him," Mike says.

It was also important that Adam's family knew ahead of time that Martín was not white, and that Adam expected his parents to treat his son as they do all of their other grandchildren.

"They have been wonderful and invaluable," Adam says. "To be able to watch him at times when he's sick, they are there to help. I'd rather he's with family than with strangers, and he's really bonded with them."

Martín bounds into the living room once more, with the Scooby-Doo book still in his hand. He curls up against Adam and looks at his father, beaming. When I compliment Martín because of his smile and his handsome cleft chin, Adam smiles down at his son.

"Yeah, you're Mister Handsome, all right," he says.

Comments (11)

Showing 1-11 of 11

Add a comment
 

Add a comment