The Day That Hallmark Forgot

Forming a Family

Fatherhood, for all that it welcomes even the least qualified heterosexual, is for a gay man the most exclusive club of all. To have a child by any method, but especially by adoption -- where, in effect, you steal the fruit of heterosexuality -- is an extreme act of infiltration. And yet the responsibility for young lives is so neutering and normalizing that you soon identify more with what you've infiltrated than what you've left. Seen by most people as a parent rather than as a homosexual, you almost forget that beyond the near circles of family, friends, and (if you're lucky, as we are) neighborhood, most schools, states, and social rituals still prefer to exclude you. All due respect to the Grinches, but Mother's Day is the least of it.

When I met Andy, he had already adopted one boy, whom he named Erez; before the first of our various potential anniversaries passed, he adopted another, whom we named Lucas. Each was just a few weeks old when he came home from an agency in the Southwest whose clientele of birth mothers was predominantly Hispanic. Because the agency operates in a state that is vigorously conservative (its sodomy laws remained in force until Bowers was overturned in 2003), Andy would have been the sole legal parent in each adoption regardless of my arrival on the scene. But by the time I had to teach my younger boy what name to call me, it was clear that I was becoming a father whether the law acknowledged it or not.

And the boys, no less and no more so than biological offspring, were becoming like their fathers. Not physically, thank God; one aspect of our inheritance we're happy not to pass along is pasty skin and skinny legs. If you know the boys' genetic background and look closely, you can see that they look rather different from us and each other: Lucas with his tawny skin and jet black hair, Erez with his linebacker build. Otherwise you will see them as they really are: each other's brother, our sons, New York Jews. We needed no document to show we were a family; we felt like one. And yet each time a milestone was marked -- each time I had to explain myself at a birthday venue, or adapt a preprinted form to reflect our reality -- I felt illegitimate. (How many times can you cross out the word "mother" and write "father"?) It wasn't the way I was being treated by the people around me that made me feel this way; most people are kind. It was my own sense that the secret infiltration of an exclusive club -- passing, in effect -- was an act of bad faith, no matter how lovely the gift you emerged with. Anyway, I had the gift; now the club had to be changed.

Cutting Through the Red Tape

The process has not been speedy, though it was a Judge Turbow who eventually saw us in a Brooklyn court on a fine spring morning in 2003 for the "finalization" of my stepparent adoption of Erez and Lucas. We had begun the process almost two years earlier and sometimes it seemed as if the applications had gone permanently AWOL in the backlogged court system. But there we all were in our ties and jackets, waiting what seemed like one last interminable hour-and-a-half in the dingy courthouse hallway, as other families got called in and then emerged, wet around the eyes. While Andy chatted them up and I stewed in my own nervousness, Erez studied his Yu-Gi-Oh! cards and Lucas drew characters from Captain Underpants, as if to prove how utterly normal they are.

When it was our turn, we were ushered into an uninspiring law library and introduced to the judge. The boys reacted in their characteristic ways. Erez manfully went up and shook his hand (much as I had kissed damp great-aunts in my childhood) and recited his full name and birth date as if he were at a spelling bee. Lucas, uncowed and uncowable, told the robed judge that he looked like he was graduating from college. (Turbow, who has a semi-combover, took this as a compliment.) A clerk presented me with forms I had signed so long ago and asked that I confirm my signature. Then the Judge, flourishing his pen, signed too. He said it was "neat" that the law, at least in New York, now allowed the recognition of families that, not so long ago, were invisible as far as justice was concerned. He forgot to say, but was surely aware, that there was something still unfair about the process, even leaving aside the thousands of dollars in legal fees it took us to get there -- fees that would have been unnecessary if Andy and I could be married.

Truth be told, I forgot that too, at least for a moment. Back outside, before heading off for school, Erez wished me a happy Father's Day, even though it was April. Lucas said, "We're officious now!" Of course, we always were.

Parents Are Talking

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