Making a Family Without a Marriage

Times Staff Writer

Taped to Gavin McNeely Odabashian’s bedroom wall is her “Hall of Hotties,” where a red paper heart marked “husband” accords special status to heartthrob Jake Gyllenhaal.

“Dark hair, blue eyes, kind of scruffy,” said Gavin, 15, listing her top hottie qualities recently as she settled in with her Spanish homework.

Downstairs, 12-year-old Baylor McNeely Odabashian hunkered in front of his “Gettysburg” computer game, remaking Confederate history in slippers he pilfered from his sister. A Darth Vader poster hangs on his bedroom wall next to one showing a dove of peace.


The siblings have a life many might envy: A 3-year-old golden retriever named Eli and a couple of parakeets named Fleebus and Zeus II. Private schools that challenge them academically and socially. And two loving parents who will soon celebrate their 20th anniversary.

But Gavin and Baylor’s parents cannot marry. They are lesbians, known around this 1911 California Craftsman south of San Francisco as “Mommy” and “Mama.” (A simple hollered “mom” will do if the request is generic.)

That makes these children supporting actors in one of the modern era’s most contentious legal and social dramas.

In California, an appeals court this month upheld the prohibition on same-sex marriage in a case that will head to the state Supreme Court.

The justices steered clear of the “procreation argument” endorsed by recent high court rulings in New York and Washington. Those courts ruled in part that the state has an interest in steering couples who can have unplanned pregnancies into marriage to promote an upbringing by a biological mother and father.

But in the California ruling, children nevertheless played a role: The justices acknowledged the state’s interest in promoting family stability in gay and lesbian households but said domestic partnership laws adequately do that.

Those pressing the case for same-sex marriage say children should not be central to the debate, because heterosexuals who can’t or don’t wish to have children are not barred from marrying. And, they say, children of same-sex unions are harmed by the exclusion.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has backed same-sex marriage rights, noting that studies show children of gay and lesbian unions fare just as well as those of heterosexual ones and that marriage enhances family stability. The American Psychiatric Assn., American Psychoanalytical Assn. and other such groups have issued similar statements.

Same-sex marriage opponents counter that such research is largely flawed by small sample size and bias, and they cite other studies of children of heterosexuals that show those raised by their biological mothers and fathers did best.

“A just, compassionate society should never intentionally create a motherless or fatherless family,” said Bill Maier, vice president of Focus on the Family and a child and family psychologist who has written a book arguing against same-sex marriage and parenting.

Largely missing from the discussion are the voices of children like Gavin and Baylor, who are part of such families regardless of the law. Their mothers, Ash McNeely, vice president of a community foundation, and Elisa Odabashian, West Coast director of Consumers Union, vowed to raise a family shortly after they drafted the commitment pledge that hangs framed on their living room wall.

Each gave birth to one child, using the same sperm donor, a family friend. Each adopted the other’s child, making them the first San Mateo County couple to do so after this state’s Supreme Court confirmed that right.

The decision placed them among the California same-sex couples who in 2000 were raising more than 70,000 children. (Nationwide, more than a quarter of a million children were being raised by same-sex couples that year, an analysis of U.S. Census data shows, although many believe those numbers are conservative.)

On a recent evening, Gavin bounded around the kitchen in her volleyball shorts (“That’s why I’m wearing spandex,” she reassured a visitor), prodding her mothers for advice on how to microwave a yam.

Mascara makes her large eyes larger, a trait her open face enhances. If she is the emotional one, her sails filling without warning, Baylor is the rudder, steady to his core. He is “wicked smart,” his sister offered, explaining why his last school bored him -- a description he rejected in favor of a specific accounting of the school’s failings.

With dirty blond hair and a “nerds have more fun” motto, he is also the “political one,” Odabashian said, whose “righteous indignation factor” has given him a strong sense of self.

“Even my braces are trying to make me straight,” Baylor joked of the biases that compel him to chastise schoolmates. “I want gay teeth!”

Before conversation turned in earnest to family structure, however, it was time for “two goods and two bads,” a dinner table twist on “how was your day?” that often elicits detailed fodder for life lessons.

Gavin reported with glee on the day’s light academic load. A bad: she couldn’t breathe in volleyball practice and got so scared she cried. Baylor’s good: His humanities assignment: to craft a skit about a fictional African nation for a globalization project, bonus song included.

The mothers took their turns: McNeely had too many unread e-mails. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had signed a meat recall bill Odabashian had supported.

Theirs is an open banter, with feelings and opinions easily shared. Still, the children are growing up with a sense of “otherness” outside their home.

“I never experienced anyone saying, ‘Oh, Gavin has two moms. She’s weird,’ ” Gavin said. “But that’s what I was always afraid of.”

Even in preschool, she said, she remembers having to explain the two Mother’s Day cards she was making. And there were perplexed inquiries in kindergarten about her family drawing.

By elementary school, she avoided the lunchroom, worried that kids would “say something horrible about her family,” Odabashian recalled. At 10, she told her parents she felt like Martin Luther King Jr. (Odabashian assured her that “mommy and I are Martin Luther King, not you.”)

“I was trapped between what the world thought and what I knew about my family,” Gavin said, munching on her yam.

Her new school -- private, small and tolerant -- has helped. Juniors participate in a homophobia workshop. Freshmen attend a diversity workshop. Last year, the freshmen made a pact never use the expression “that’s so gay.”

Once too scared to speak up, “Now ... I always say, ‘Don’t say that! You never know who that’s going to affect,’ ” Gavin said, her voice rising. “You don’t say ‘that’s so black.’ ”

Baylor’s path was different -- forged by indignation. On the fourth-grade playground, he learned that two girls had taunted others who were holding hands, calling them lesbians.

“My moms are lesbians,” Baylor forcefully told the perpetrators. “Why is that an insult?”

When a playground monitor told the girls not to “insult people,” Baylor reddened further. “Why do you think of it as an insult?” he demanded, yelling at the parent not to do it again.

Lately, anger has turned to patience. When kids say they don’t get how he can have two moms, he educates them this way, he said: “A guy grants a sperm to one of my moms so I can be born.”

So what of the biological father who granted it?

Opponents of same-sex marriage point to research on the different communication styles, ways of playing and even values passed on by mothers and fathers as evidence that children need both. Proponents dismiss that insistence as a throwback to gender stereotypes that the law has rejected.

Gavin and Baylor said they have considered the absence.

The donor (a.k.a. “The Sperm” but usually called Jay) was a steady presence in their lives before he and his family moved away, but the kids view him as a friend, not a father. Gavin only recently has begun to ponder genetic similarities: They both have dark hair and are artistic. Still, she said, the hypothetical notion of a father turns her off.

“You don’t hear as much about mothers beating their husbands or their children, or leaving,” she said. “I love being raised by women. I get to walk around, like, ‘Pass me a tampon!’ ”

Baylor rolled his eyes.

Seriously, his sister continued, their moms have instilled “great values,” teaching them never to judge others. They’re better about talking about feelings and don’t feel they have to be macho.

Baylor quietly objected. Having any other kind of family “would be weird,” he concluded. But if there’s one thing that bugs him, he said, it’s “sweeping generalizations about men.” His moms gently denied the charge but promised to watch it.

So what of marriage? For most of their lives, the kids said, they had perceived their parents as equal to married while facing constant reminders that they weren’t. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s decision to issue marriage licenses -- which prompted the current court case -- brought the prospect within reach, though the state Supreme Court halted the ceremonies before McNeely and Odabashian’s appointment.

Baylor sneered that Britney Spears could marry a in fly-by-night fling, but his moms can’t cement their love of two decades. But it was when Baylor learned of the legal rights his parents are denied that he concluded the law is “not right,” he said.

Gavin’s response is more emotional. The denial makes her parents seem like “less than,” she said.

“So many people have questioned, ‘Oh, they’re not your parents.’ It’s like they’re just dating,” she said. Marriage “would have made it easier -- for me and for them.”

Last Valentine’s Day, Gavin and Baylor participated in a demonstration organized by another teenage child of lesbian parents, marching to the San Mateo County Clerk’s counter with their mothers to request a license. The young straight couple in line in front of them breezed through. McNeely and Odabashian were denied.

When they got in the car, Gavin burst into tears.

The appellate court ruling was another blow. When McNeely and Odabashian broke the news, Baylor launched into an analysis of civil rights law that he said showed the justices erred. Gavin stared at her plate for a long time. Then, she spoke.

“That’s stupid,” she said softly.




What about the children?

The debate over whether same-sex marriage would help or harm children of the unions has raged fiercely in and out of the courts:

It would help

The American Academy of Pediatrics has backed same-sex marriage rights, concluding in a recent research review that children of the unions fare just as well as those in heterosexual households and noting that marriage enhances family stability. The American Psychiatric Assn., American Psychoanalytical Assn. and other such groups have issued similar statements.

“Those data that do exist are monotonously positive,” said Dr. Ellen Perrin, a pediatrics professor at Johns Hopkins University and author of the American Academy of Pediatrics paper. “Variables like the sharing of responsibilities between the parents are much more important to how the kids do than whether the parents are heterosexual and homosexual.”

It would harm

Opponents of the unions counter that studies of children of gay men and lesbians are flawed by small sample size and investigator bias. They point to studies on children of heterosexuals that show those who stayed with their biological mothers and fathers did best. Research on parenting differences between mothers and fathers support the notion that children need both, they add.

“A just, compassionate society should never intentionally create a motherless or fatherless family,” said Bill Maier, Colorado-based Focus on the Family’s vice president and a child and family psychologist.

Source: Times reporting