Welcome to the Gayborhood
Same-sex couples are finding a sense of community in the suburbs-even as they remain in legal limbo
Emily Claire Remillard is surrounded by toys, a living room full of brightly colored plastic. But none of them is as interesting as my old-fashioned, shiny silver tape recorder, so she crawls over and grabs the intriguing gadget.
Clearly she wants to be interviewed. But at 11 months, her grunts and gurgles are a bit hard to translate. So I have to make do with her parents.
They’re a typical suburban couple: two professionals who own a white house on a leafy street in Silver Spring and commute downtown to work. They have a nanny, a mortgage and a station wagon. But there’s one difference: Emily Claire’s parents are both moms.
Michele Remillard, 42, was a student of mine at George Washington University 20 years ago and has produced TV shows since then (including The McLaughlin Group and The Beltway Boys). Tina Celenza, 34, is a physician’s assistant specializing in AIDS research. They’ve been together eight years, and moved to the suburbs when they got serious about parenthood.
“The first question my mother asked me after I came out was, ‘You’re still going to give me grandchildren, right?’” Michele says. “I remember on one of our first dates we talked about what we wanted out of life, and I asked Tina, ‘Why didn’t you become a doctor?’ and she said, ‘Well, it’s a lot of years out of my life and I really want to have a child, I really want to have a balanced life.’ And I’m, ‘Oh, my God, that’s exactly what I want!’ ”
Montgomery County reflects a trend in suburbs across the country: the growth of “gayborhoods”—gay-friendly communities catering to young families. Think Dupont Circle with strollers and swing sets. In 2010, according to the U.S. Census, there were nearly 3,000 same-sex couples in the county—an increase of almost 50 percent in the past decade.
The pattern closely resembles the immigrant experience everywhere. A few pioneers settle down, decide they like the area and spread the word.
Takoma Park started the process in the 1980s, and gay families then moved west to Silver Spring and east to communities such as Hyattsville and Mount Rainier in Prince George’s County. Ellen Kahn, who works for the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C., says that when she and her partner moved out to Silver Spring 16 years ago, there was one lesbian couple on their street.
“Now there are 10 or 12 families no more than a football field away,” she says. “There’s a critical mass, your kid is not the only one in school with two moms. You need to know that there are other people like you. I feel safer and less conspicuous in Silver Spring or Takoma Park.”
That “critical mass” spawns specialized services. Tina and Michele use lesbian lawyers and doctors with offices nearby. Their church has a gay pastor who comes to dinner with his partner.
But finding a comfort level is not the same as achieving equality. Same-sex marriage is now legal in six states plus the District of Columbia; Maryland tried and failed to pass a similar statute earlier this year, and although Gov. Martin O’Malley has promised to sponsor a new measure this January, gay couples here remain trapped in a “completely fuzzy” legal limbo, Michele says.
She and Tina were officially married in Vermont two years ago. Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler issued an opinion last February directing local agencies to recognize those out-of-state unions, but not every benefits manager or school secretary or emergency room nurse has gotten the message.
After the wedding, Michele tried to put Tina on her health insurance at work. “They said, ‘We don’t offer domestic partner benefits,’ and I said, ‘She is my wife,’ ” Michele recalls. “There was a back-and-forth on that and I said, ‘I can have my lawyer clear this up for you.’ We didn’t have to go that far, but I’m sure we’re not the only ones who had to educate their employer on that.”
Kahn says gay couples are “constantly coming out” and educating the straight world. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve crossed out ‘father’ on a form and written in ‘mother’ or ‘parent,’ ” recalls the mother of two daughters.
Gay parents live in fear of an emergency, and all have horror stories of partners barred from ambulances or hospital rooms. Michele formally adopted Emily Claire after Tina gave birth, and they put their key documents—marriage license, adoption papers, powers of attorney—on flash drives and cellphones that they carry at all times. “The legal situation is very loose, so we have to be protected to the hilt,” Michele says.
Critics argue that same-sex couples are somehow undermining the institution of marriage, but the exact opposite is true. They are reinforcing the institution by wanting to join it so badly. And to have children, they often need to show their commitment to each other in very tangible ways. It took Tina and Michele years of stress, and $50,000 in fertility treatments, before they had Emily Claire. (I know two gay men who are spending more than $100,000 to hire a surrogate mother.)
The women can now laugh about their struggle to have a child, and they compare the selection of a sperm donor to “online shopping.”
“Our donor is a really good-looking Italian surgeon,” Michele says with a touch of pride.
“You pay extra for that,” Tina adds. When I express surprise, she replies, “Oh, yeah, there are different levels of sperm.”
The premium or “doctorate level” comes only from men with advanced degrees, and costs twice as much as lower grades. Tina and Michele admit, a bit sheepishly, that they only considered top-tier fathers, but they also included some “quirky” qualities in their wish list. It helped, for example, that their donor had the same “favorite food” as Michele—lasagna. But he also had a serious drawback: He was a Dallas Cowboys fan, while Tina roots for the Eagles and Michele for the Redskins. “It was not quite a deal-breaker,” Michele says with a laugh.
Children of straight couples share genes from both parents, but with gay families the partner who is not the biological parent can sometimes feel excluded. That’s why Emily Claire has Michele’s last name, Remillard.
“She won’t have my DNA,” my former student says as she pries my tape recorder away from her daughter. “But she will have my name. And my values.”
Steve Roberts teaches journalism and politics at George Washington University. Send ideas for future columns to firstname.lastname@example.org.