When lesbian and gay parents have children who turn out to be lesbian or gay themselves, it brings new meaning to LGBT people referring to each other as “family.”
Recounting the story of how his parents’ marriage began, Ben Reid described a sadly familiar scenario lived by many generations of LGBT people: A story of growing up religious, of hiding secret feelings of same-sex attraction, of getting into a heterosexual relationship in hopes that marriage and children would make the feelings go away.
We’ve heard enough of those stories to have an idea of how they typically run their course. But this family’s tale took a twist that’s much less common — even beyond the fact that Ben, now 24 and living in Denver, is gay himself — beginning, the story goes, on his parents’ wedding night.
Ben said that’s when his father reached a breaking point, and confessed — to the woman he just married — his worry he might be gay.
“My dad broke down and told her,” he said, “and my mom said, ‘I think I am too.’”
The newlyweds, Brian and Karen Reid, must’ve met that revelation with a sigh of relief, now knowing that neither of them were alone in their quiet struggle being lesbian or gay in a heterosexual marriage — Reid said to his knowledge his parents didn’t take the question further during eight years as husband and wife.
That changed a year after Ben, the first son after two daughters, was born, when his parents divorced to chart more forthright paths for their own lives and their family.
A modern clan
“From talking to my mom about it, I think my parents split up and didn’t see anyone romantically for a while,” Reid said. “But eventually my parents sat us down as a family and explained that they were both gay.”
Ben was too young to be able to recall that family meeting. For as long as he can remember, he said, he’s been part of a distinctly modern family, of gay parents divorced on uncommonly good terms (his mother even kept her married name to this day), of lesbian and gay step-parents, and of three children plus step-siblings and eventually nieces and nephews — coming together for gatherings and holidays as the loving family where Ben would grow up and eventually bring home boyfriends of his own.
“Growing up, my sisters always said it would be funny if we all moved in together, and my mom and Jane (Ben’s mother’s ex-wife) had a room, and my dad and Matt (Ben’s father’s ex-partner) had a room,” Ben said. “My mom always included my dad for stuff like Christmas or Thanksgiving, especially after my dad broke up with Matt.”
It all feels normal, he said. “I don’t remember my parents being together and don’t remember them divorcing, but having them all together for the holidays is nice. To me it’s just the holidays.”
Of course not all observers saw the family that way — “I could tell that other people thought it was weird,” Reid said. “Until middle school I didn’t tell anyone about my family, and then I told close friends. In high school and college I started telling everyone. I wasn’t ashamed; I could just tell it was different.”
Eventually Reid figured out something was also “different” about himself. And while it’s reasonable to assume that coming out as gay would be a breeze for a child of lesbian and gay parents, Reid said he went through the same insecurities and delays that other young LGBT people go through gaining confidence in who they are. He took a while to come out to friends, came out to his mom at 16, and to his dad two years later.
“With gay parents you know what to expect as a gay person, but until you come out and experience it personally, you only know so much,” he said. “I knew my parents would accept me, but it was still hard to tell them — my parents didn’t want anything to be harder for their kids like it was harder for them.”
A family on the frontier
Cassidy Sauter, 24, grew up in a home of her two moms, Karla and Tami, and younger sister Katrina, 100 miles north of her current home of Denver in a very different world for LGBT people: Cheyenne, Wyoming. Cassidy was 5 when Tami joined the family, and Cassidy calls her a second mother — to avoid the confusion of living with two women named “mom,” Cassidy grew up
referring to her affectionately as “Tu.”
“I don’t remember a time Tu wasn’t with us,” Sauter said. “I talk to her more often than I talk to my other parents, and I’m really close to her extended family. I don’t know what it would have been like with a dad there, but it would have been different.”
Yet after Sauter came of age, she, like Reid, took time to sort out her own identity and come out.
“I had very specific hints all through growing up that I was very attracted to females,” Sauter said, “but chalked it up to being around it all the time — I didn’t think it was really me.”
That finally changed when Sauter was 22 and dated another woman. “My mind was blown,” she said. “It all made sense.”
When Sauter came out to her parents, it turned out that her father, Jeff — who’d had her with him on weekends while she was growing up — had already been considering the possibility.
“He said he already knew I was gay since eighth grade,” Sauter said. “I was concerned he would have thought it was only because of my mom — he’d taken her to court after the divorce saying it was an unfit household.” For the 1990s it wasn’t an unusual kind of custody dispute, but by the time Cassidy was grown it turned out that worrying about someone’s sexual orientation was long in their family’s past.
Decades earlier, Tami founded the Montessori school that Cassidy and her sister attended as children — that’s where she and Sauter’s biological mother met, just after the divorce from Sauter’s father.
“The marriage just wasn’t working,” Sauter said, “and they got a divorce, and when (my mom) met Tu I guess she realized the reason why she wasn’t happy. I think she couldn’t put a finger on it until she met Tu.”
But growing up as a child in a same-sex parented household — with two moms attending parent-teacher conferences or escorting the kids to community events — still isn’t easy in the small, conservative city of Cheyenne.
“I really liked it at home. It was very open, very comfortable and very close,” Sauter said. “Outside, it was hard. I got made fun of a lot and I would take it more personally than my sister.”
Sauter’s sister Katrina is a natural LGBT advocate; “she’s 110 percent a gay rights activist,” Sauter said. “When she meets people she finds out in the first 10 minutes their thoughts on gay people deciding if she should keep talking to them.”
But when Katrina’s junior high school classmates began circulating text messages about her moms, it was Tu who took up the fiercest banner for the family.
“The text messages were saying ‘send this to 10 people’ and saying Katrina was gay because she had gay moms,” Sauter said. “It went around the whole school. It was Tu who dealt with that — she just marched into the school and ripped the principal a new one. She’s more of the protector. If someone was in trouble or needed to call the school, it was always Tu.”
At the time of the text message incident, Sauter’s moms and sister had just moved to Fargo, North Dakota, while Sauter stayed with her paternal grandparents so she could stay in her hometown for her senior year in high school.
“I was captain of the swim team, Senior president — a goody two-shoes and didn’t want to leave,” she said. “And it turned out Fargo was even worse than Cheyenne for gay people.”
But despite such challenges, Sauter — now a graduate student in social work at the University of Denver — maintains fond memories growing up in an uncommon family in the rural state
“Thanksgiving is always the most fun at my moms’ house,” she said. “It’s very non-traditional; we all get to pick our favorite dish, so it’s like mac and cheese with shrimp, and stuff that doesn’t even go together.”
“It’s awesome growing up with two moms,” she said. “Everyone should be so lucky.”
Meanwhile Reid said having so much in common with his parents gives them a special, closer bond. “I felt like my dad could relate a lot easier to my life. He says ‘you know, gay guys can be like this, and this,’ so he does know a lot about the world I live in.”
But what’s it like running across your father (of all people) in a gay bar on what was meant to be a night out with friends?
“It’s never been awkward,” Reid said — he said it happens often, and in another strange connection, Ben’s ex-boyfriend had a roommate who turned out to be acquainted with his dad — just facts of life in a mid-sized city where the bar-going LGBT nightlife is the population of a smaller town. But he said it’s never bothered him. He said, “Maybe if I ran into him at a strip club or something, that would be weird,” (adding, his dad does go to BoyzTown, but Ben doesn’t, so it “just works out”), but a father and son running into each other at a strip club would be an odd surprise for straight men, too.
Reid said his friends will often say they saw his dad out, and he’ll find time to spend with all his parents — his dad, his mom, his mom’s wife Gayle — each year at (of course) Pride. But in the end, they’re just like any other family.
“I don’t understand why people think being a gay parent is anything different from being a straight parent,” Reid said. “If you want to have kids or adopt, go for it and fuck what other people think. I never felt like I wasn’t loved.”