Families headed by same-sex parents have come a long way in Reno. There’s still a ways to go.
It’s a beautiful summer day in Reno. A white Mitsubishi Montero careens down hot asphalt streets dotted with strip malls and parking lots. Red barren mountains, casino towers and colorful electric lights rise in the skyscape.
The passengers, four blond, photogenic kids, are squeezed into the back seat, while in front, the parents navigate the barrage of weekend traffic, which is congested from construction detours, festivals and stoplights.
A driver following closely may take note of the rear bumper and window plastered with rainbow stickers or pull up beside the SUV at a red light and surmise that it’s a family car—with two mothers.
This would have been a rare sight in Reno 15 years ago. While the number of same-sex parent families has exploded across the country—the 2000 census tallied more than 600,000 same-sex U.S. households, 55 percent with children—Nevada now ranks eighth in the nation for the highest percentage of homes headed by gay couples. These households have increased by more than 700 percent since 1990.
From Ozzie and Harriet to the Osbournes, the definition of the typical American family has changed dramatically in 50 short years. Outside the TV, the definitions of “family” and “marriage” seem to be up for grabs. World leaders scramble to get their two cents in before the American Dictionary’s revised edition hits the shelf. Pope John Paul II preaches that gay-couple families are “inauthentic,” speaking to a crowd of 300,000 in St Peter’s Square from a window in his summer palace in Vatican City.
“No one but parents can know just how important it is for children to have both figures—that of a mother and of a father,” says the pope. “It is not a step forward for civilization to favor these tendencies that put in the shade that elementary truth and [the individuals who] would like to see themselves put on some legal footing.”
President George W. Bush hopes to narrow the term “marriage” with a team of lawyers. His intent is to create on a national level what the anti-gay marriage initiative did in Nevada—to constitutionally codify marriage as a contract solely between a man and woman. This could strengthen the Defense of Marriage Act, signed in 1996 by Bill Clinton, which denied federal recognition of same-sex marriages and allowed states to ignore same-sex unions licensed elsewhere. When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the nation’s anti-sodomy laws last month, many conservatives’ butts puckered with fear that laws against gay marriage were also on shaky ground.
Publicly, Bush claims that his plan is not—no it is, no it’s not—anti-gay, moral condemnation.
“I am mindful that we’re all sinners, and I caution those who may try to take a speck out of the neighbor’s eye when they got a log in their own,” says Bush. But, (and it’s a big BUT), “it does not mean that someone like me needs to compromise on the issue of marriage.”
On a state level, Nevada has long been known as being a rugged, keep-government-out-of-my-business frontier land. For homosexuals, it’s usually a good-enough state of affairs. From the 1993 repeal of the sodomy law until Question 2, last year’s anti-gay-marriage referendum, Nevada didn’t prohibit homosexual relationships nor support them.
Meanwhile, gay couples are not waiting to stand on ceremony. They’re tying the knot, signing pieces of paper to guarantee some of the automatic rights gained by a marriage certificate. Thanks to the Nevada Legislature, they’ve gained more rights regarding hospital visititation. They’re raising children. And it’s hard to consider a couple of adults raising children together as anything but a family.
While these legal and social changes may take time, some businesses, like those on Madison Avenue in New York City, are a quicker on the uptake with ready marketing campaigns for the gay community.
With gay and lesbian families now found in 99.3 percent of U.S. counties, and homosexuals making up an estimated 10 percent of the country’s population, the potential for profit is not lost on businesses. One example: Volvo is now ‘out’ with a new pitch aimed at gays.
“Volvos are no longer straight,” the company announced in 2001. Hoping to redefine the idea of the “family” vehicle, the company launched the first national car advertising campaign featuring gay families with SUVs in May.
Another example: Conde Nast’s Brides magazine is now inking out articles on same-sex ceremonies, after 70 years in print. And betrothed couples no longer need to shop at Gaymart.com for appropriate cake toppers. A more traditional site, theknot.com, has alternative figurines, too.
Economic factors have played a huge role in the acceptance and awareness of gay culture and families. So, in an age of gay cars and TV spots, how are alternative families faring in Reno, in the school systems, in the workplace? And what do the neighbors think?
The white Montero pulls into the driveway of a cozy one-level with a chain-link fence. Piling out of the vehicle is the Faulstich-Law clan. The welcome mat extends far beyond the doorsteps. Their six-person household plays host to an entourage of friends and relatives—some of whom stay for years.
“We run a home for wayward adults,” says Mickey Law. “The big concept in our family is ‘family of choice.'”
Faulstich and Law met and began seeing each other six years ago in graduate school while both studied for advanced degrees in counseling and education psychology. Something sparked.
“It changed my life,” says Gail Faulstich, who was married when the two met, but then divorced. “It changed hers, too. It was a big move.”
Law had just ended another same-sex relationship and had two children. The working mothers were both employed with Lassen County Mental Health in Susanville, a three-hour, round-trip commute. In March, they opened a private practice called Dancing on the Precipice at A Rainbow Place in Reno, which focuses on the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. Faulstich works there full-time, while Law remains with Lassen County.
Today, they live in a house with a homespun interior, brown carpet and a plaid couch. While the family is tapped into Reno’s alternative scene, most of their social interaction is with straight society. That’s simply because conventional domestic set-ups are more prevalent.
“There hasn’t been a big difference, other than in my marriage,” says Faulstich. “We had a couple of interactions with some families where they tried to figure out what our relationship was.
” ‘Sooo,’ “ she mimics in a high-pitched, nasally tone, “ ‘You’re Sarah’s aunt?’ “
“We’ve also had a couple of families who aren’t happy about having their children interact with ours. But that’s very unusual. Well, I think being a family with two moms is normal. People expect it to be different, but it’s not.”
The Faulstich-Law clan’s children, ages 10 through 16, are at different stages of acceptance of their own lifestyle.
Andy, third in rank at 15 years of age, isn’t bothered and never was. He still lives with his father part time.
“I don’t think any of my friends care,” he shrugs, under the brim of a baseball cap. “They’re like, ‘Whatever. You have more food at your house than I do at mine.’ I think it might actually be better to have two moms, for me personally. I’ve got three women who basically tell me how to pick up chicks. It’s like three dating coaches that live with me.”
Faulstich’s two boys and Law’s two girls act like siblings and consider themselves the Brady Bunch revised.
But for Katie, it wasn’t always so easy. She hid her family status for a long time. In her eighth-grade year, she invited her circle of friends to her birthday party at the house. Pulling each aside, she whispered, “Don’t tell anyone.”
Only everyone already knew, a detail Katie found out at the end of the year when her group confessed.
“I was really glad, but I was kind of like, ‘Huh? You’re that smart?’ “ remembers Katie.
Sarah, the youngest, sits quietly by her sister. Her mind is not made up about how she feels about being part of a “different” family. And the fourth child, Faulstich’s second son, is quite clear that he does not want be out with his family in the press.
Human rights, gay rights
A hospital visitation bill was passed by Nevada’s Legislature in June. SB 386 allows a patient to designate visitor status to unmarried partners and to give those partners the right to make critical health care decisions. Though the bill wasn’t specifically designed for the homosexual population, it is a boost.
“SB 386 was very carefully approached in such a way as not to agitate,” says Lee Plotkin, Nevada coordinator for the Human Rights Campaign, a national lobbying organization for homosexual civil rights. “The way opponents of gay people operate, it’s not something that would have succeeded [otherwise].”
The bill was kept under the radar of a few religious and political groups by making it an issue of compassion.
“Marriage is one thing,” Plotkin says. “Compassion is another.” It was easier to find support for the ideas that unmarried partners should be able to visit a hospitalized loved one or be able to make funeral arrangements.
Law has not run into the visitation problems in Reno-area hospitals that she faced elsewhere, even Los Angeles. Difficulties did arise, however, in the doctor’s office. Until a rapport was established with their pediatrician, Law could not authorize care for her partner’s children and vice versa.
Within the school system, Faulstich and Law are equally involved parents. They attend the parent-teacher conferences, know the counselors, and their kids have been enrolled in the same schools for years.
However, Law recently had a problem proving her residency which involved a utility bill and some red tape. The power bill is in Law’s name; the water bill in Faulstich’s. Law was told by school administration that a power bill would not be adequate proof of address.
“It’s just dumb stuff, like ‘Hello!’ “ says Faulstich. “ ‘You recognize us. We’re active in the children’s lives. You know our children. Why are you being this way?’ “
“There are annoying little things that happen all the time,” says Law.
The fact that Law can’t claim Faulstich and the boys on her insurance policy irritates her to no end. Their insurance provider, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, recognizes alternative households. It was Lassen County’s call to keep the family on separate policies, which results in more premiums and more deductibles.
“All that money we could be putting away for college,” mourns Law, shaking her head.
As a whole, the Faulstich-Law gang is unified, confident and outspoken about their family status. They regard their situation as normal. But, they are not typical–even for an alternative family.
Their courage appears to be a rarity here in Reno. More than 200 e-mail inquiries went out to gay families in the area to interview for this article, but only four responded.
“Someone has to [take the lead],” says Faulstich.
It’s not the first time the family’s been out in public. They were the poster family on anti-Question 2 brochures the first time the question was on the ballot in 1996.
On a time line, 15 years does not mark a generation. But it’s long enough to mark society’s changes in attitudes toward gay families.
In the late ‘80s, Lydia started raising her then 10-year-old daughter Kara, with her partner Pat. The times were such, according to Lydia, that is wasn’t particularly welcomed to be “out.”
The lesbian couple knew of no other local homosexual family households until their daughter reached high school. That’s because there weren’t many. Gay households in Nevada numbered 613 in 1990. Only 10 years later, U.S. Census data shows, the number had leapt to 4,973.
“I have younger lesbian friends now who are considering children,” says Lydia, 52. “Sometimes I’m shocked, to tell you the truth, how ‘out’ they are. I’m very proud and astounded at gay people who are 20 years younger than me, who do have the courage to get pregnant and walk down the street holding hands, and that sort of thing. But I also fear for them.”
Lydia says she’s from a different age–an age when people did lose their jobs over their sexual preferences, and boys did get beat up in parking lots.
“I admit it’s paranoia,” adds Lydia, who experienced prejudice first-hand after a girlfriend dropped by her office. When she returned to work the next day, a check was cut and she was asked to leave. No questions answered. No questions asked.
Interviewed by phone, Lydia withholds both her name and her profession because, she says, in her field, her position is still at risk.
“I know a lot of people that would use this [article] to string me by the neck,” she says.
In the early years, her family life was lived in secrecy. Lydia attended school functions while Pat, who played a supportive role in Kara’s life, such as helping her with homework, stayed home.
One of the most disturbing moments in Lydia’s memory was when an elementary school counselor started sniffing around and asking Kara pointed questions: Do you see your father? Are you comfortable with your living situation? Are you having problems at home?
It made Kara uncomfortable.
“It only exaggerated Kara’s sense of being different at an important time when she needed to feel normal,” says Lydia. “Sometimes I think that well-meaning people—counselors, social workers—invade kids’ privacy in terms of, ‘Are you OK being raised by same-sex parents?’ And as well-meaning as they think they’re being, what it does to the child is make them question, ‘Why?’ “
Sometimes the stress came bubbling to the surface. When Kara was around 13 years old, she asked her mothers, “Can I catch this?”
“We kind of chuckled,” says Lydia. “I laughed and said, ‘No, no, no. This isn’t something you catch. You’re either straight or you’re gay. Why do you ask?'”
“I think that it’s really hard on you,” answered Kara.
“That scared me,” says Lydia. “She was aware as a kid that there were difficulties in my life due to my sexual orientation. She was concerned about being homosexual herself, not because she thought it was perverse, but because she saw through me it was socially difficult.”
Lydia remembers long hours and restless nights agonizing over her decisions to come ‘out’ with close friends. She worried what her straight friends would think but she felt the disclosure needed to happen in order for the relationships to grow. To her relief, the usual reaction was: “Oh, for God sakes. Everyone knows that.”
The daughter, who moved to major cities, such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, thinks Reno is way more conservative by comparison.
“There necessarily had to be a lot of secrets and a lot of hiding,” says Kara. “Though I think I imposed a lot of that on myself as well, to protect my mom from people who are ignorant. That’s a shame because we are a very strong, supportive family, but we weren’t acknowledged for that because we were shut out from the world.”
After being so closeted, for so long, a shining moment came at Kara’s college graduation. It was but an instant—the significance imperceptible to anyone else in the room— in which she thanked Pat publicly for all her support.
“It was just so freeing,” recalls Kara, who is just starting to reconnect with her father after he stepped out of the picture when she was a child. “She should have been able to be acknowledged a long time ago.”
Here come the brides
Partners Caren Jenkins and Farrell Cafferata sit side by side, dwarfed by the long conference table in a quiet back room at Temple Sinai. Cafferata wears a yarmulke atop bleached-blonde hair.
At the Peppermill last October, Jenkins and Cafferata tied the knot under a red velvet huppah, or canopy, signifying the home they are going to build together. Their ‘covenant of love’ ceremony borrowed elements from traditional Jewish weddings. It was officiated by Rabbi Myra Soifer, one of the first 10 women ordained in the Jewish faith in the world, who performed her first same-sex union ceremony 25 years ago. Some of her Methodist, Lutheran and Unitarian colleagues of Reno are performing similar ceremonies.
“The crunch issue for church and clergy comes about the marriage thing,” says Soifer. “A bazillion congregations are opening and welcoming. That’s the easier step. I mean, that’s what the Catholic Church would claim to be—as long as they [homosexuals] don’t do anything about it, right?”
Other religions have a different definition of welcoming. For example, Episcopalians in New Hampshire elected an openly homosexual man as their next bishop in early August.
At Jenkins and Cafferata’s ceremony, some 200 guests participated in the festivities. In the eyes of the state, however, the pair is still very single. Since the union was not state sanctioned, they got to skip the blood tests and doling out money for the marriage license. But what they will have to do—like any homosexual couple looking for security in life-long commitment—is jump through a lot more legal hoops.
Regardless, Jenkins and Cafferata returned to northern Nevada from the Bay Area a year-and-a-half ago with the primary objective of getting hitched and starting a family through in-vitro fertilization.
“Nevada’s a great place to live,” says Jenkins. “It’s a great place to raise children.”
Weighing the pluses and minuses, the couple concluded that though the Nevada community may be less tolerant of lesbians raising a male child, reservations like this would be more easily overcome than the ubiquitous drug scene and violence in the educational systems of the big city.
Jenkins rubs her stomach, bulging at seven months.
“We are both the parents of this child growing in my tummy, but it’s not automatic,” says Jenkins, a lawyer who has the first distinguishing marks of gray manifesting in her dark brown hair. “We have to place in motion certain legal processes in order to have that happen.”
In Nevada law, there’s no such thing as second-parent adoption for same-sex couples. It’s not illegal, but the system does not provide for it. Both Clark and Washoe County courts have been issuing adoption decrees to gay couples on a regular basis. If one of these adoptions is ever challenged, Jenkins notes, then the law will become clear.
“If it’s qualified as such that there’s no parental rights for a parent of the same-sex gender, all of those adoptions with either be invalidated or will need to be dealt with in some way,” explains Jenkins, whose legal practice focuses on family law.
On the community level, Jenkins and Cafferata say they’ve felt little discrimination. There is, though, the occasional epithet, like ‘dyke,’ shouted as they stroll down the street hand in hand.
“It’s not our problem,” says Cafferata. “It’s more about them.”
Still, there is potential to give the tourism industry a financial shot in the arm if the state would give families the legal recognition it has given to less wholesome activities, like gambling and prostitution.
“If Nevada would just wake up and allow gay marriages, it would be drowned in the number of people who have way too much money and nothing to do but get married,” says Cafferata. “And those Elvis weddings would be … would be … “ She halts mid-argument and laughs, “… frightening.”
Editor’s note: In instances where only first names are used, the names have been changed.