By Yimou Lee
For Reporting Texas and KUT.org
AUSTIN — When Michelle Randolph was diagnosed with breast cancer in August 2010, she thought it was just an “added journey of life” many families had been through. She had a decent job and insurance that paid the medical expenses; her family, friends, coworkers and neighbors were supportive, and the doctor said that her body would be clear of cancer cells after six weeks of chemotherapy.
But the $113 million budget deficit that dealt a crippling blow to the Austin Independent School District in January changed everything. It eliminated Randolph’s teaching position at Hill Elementary School and along with it, her health insurance. Her partner, Emily Parks, still has a job as a social worker for the state, but she couldn’t protect Randolph and their children from their financial difficulties. The Texas state government does not cover health insurance for its employees’ same-sex partners.
“It’s a little frightening right now to think about what we are going to do in terms of insurance,” Randolph said. With the chemotherapy expenses, which cost her $500 a month before her COBRA insurance ran out in August, and expenditure for their children — ages 4 and 7, one adopted from Texas Foster Care System and the one she gave birth to — it hasn’t been an easy time for the family.
“It’s ironic that the Texas state government trusts me to be a teacher to teach kids and my partner to be a social worker to help people,” said Randolph, “but it doesn’t trust us to be married and have kids like other families. We deserve the same right.”
But plenty in Texas disagree, with 76 percent of state voters in 2005 approving a ban on gay marriage.
“Homosexuals enjoy the same constitutional rights as anyone else. They want special rights,” said Pat Carlson, president of Texas Eagle Forum, a conservative and pro-family interest group. “The city of Fort Worth extends same-sex partner benefits to its employees. These benefits even include sex changes yet the city has a budget shortfall. Why should my tax dollars pay for benefits for a lifestyle that I believe to be wrong?”
High Numbers of Gay Parents in State
Life can be hard for all parents, but it offers particular challenges for same-sex parents. They face hurdles, big and small, that most families don’t encounter. Because one child’s birth certificate has a blank space in the “father” column, the Parks-Randolph family had trouble registering for summer camp because the staff questioned the legal right of the second mother, whose name is not on the certificate.
Jeff Lutes and his partner, Gary Stein, worry about disapproval whenever dining at a neighborhood restaurant in Austin. The two have three adopted children, one from China and two from Texas. “We just never know when we might face rejection,” Lutes said.
Such challenges might be more prevalent in Texas than many imagine because the number of gay parents living here is higher than the national average. Gary Gates, a demographer at the University of California, Los Angeles, said while 22.8 percent of same-sex couples are raising a child under the age of 18 years in the United States, the figure in Texas is almost 27 percent, higher than in California and New York.
According to an American Community survey that examined the number of same-sex parents in the United States, Texas had three cities in the top 15: San Antonio was No. 1, with 33.9 percent of same-sex couples raising children. Houston was No. 7 (27. 2 percent) and Dallas No. 12, (24.9 percent).
Gates said the more socially conservative a place, the more likely it is to have a higher number of same-sex parents residing in it. Gays living in socially conservative places tend to come out much later in life. “As such, they are more likely to have had different-sex relationships earlier in life and more likely to have had children,” he said.
“It’s ironic that it appears that the social stigma can be a contributor to the emergence of larger portions of lesbian and gay parents and families,” Gates said. “In addition to the general stigma and discrimination, access to health care insurance for partners and children can be more difficult in areas where employers are less likely to provide partner benefits.”
Legal protections are least available in the South and the Midwest, which have the highest percentage of same-sex parents. In Texas, the only legal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are the 2001 hate-crime laws based on sexual preference.
In his 2008 book, “On My Honor: Why the American Values of the Boy Scouts Are Worth Fighting For,” Texas Gov. Rick Perry linked homosexuality to alcoholism. In June, after New York approved same-sex marriage, Perry first said that gay marriage is an issue to be decided by the states — “That’s their business, and that’s fine with me.” But after his comments alarmed some conservatives, he later signed the National Organization for Marriage’s pledge, saying that if were elected president, he would support a federal marriage amendment.
“I said the other day that the 10th Amendment frees New York State to define marriage as they please,” Perry later said in a speech. “But the traditional definition suits Texas and this governor just fine.”
Even in Austin, described by the gay community as a haven for them because of its eclectic and progressive lifestyle, same-sex parenting isn’t easy.
“Why shouldn’t all lesbians go to hell?” The random question asked by a girl in her classroom helped Nicole, a seventh-grade teacher, decide that she would never come out at the middle school, which she describes as “extremely conservative.” Nicole teaches science in an Austin school with a predominately African-American and Hispanic student body. She asked that her last name be withheld because she fears losing her job. “If the administration finds out, it’s not going to be easy,” she said. “We live a pretty comfortable life now. It’s not worth it.”
When Nicole was pregnant from an anonymous sperm donor, she realized she had to figure out a better explanation to answer the never-ending questions from her students.
“I don’t lie, but I don’t really tell the truth either,” she said. “When the kids asked me, ‘Who’s your husband?’ I say Mr. Ida, which is not quite right but it is still true. When they ask me: ‘Is the guy who’s with you on the street the other day your husband?’ I respond that I was with a lot of friends. I don’t know which one you are talking about.”
Nicole’s partner, Ida, understands why school administrators and parents are not open to discussing gay parenting and marriage.
“During junior high school, parents think that you are very influential to their kid’s life,” Ida said. “The kids haven’t decided what or who they are going to be.”
“They can make your life hell,” Ida added. “It has been done before and that still happens.”
Children of same-sex parents confront their own versions of hell. Samantha Hutchinson-Cloud, already feeling shunned at Forbes Middle School in Georgetown, lost her best friend after both of her mothers attended a birthday party — her friend’s parents forbade her from continuing her friendship. Her biological mother then decided to let her attend a high school in Austin.
“Austin has a little more tolerance than Williams County, where religion is a dominant factor, but in either place there is still discrimination,” said Samantha’s mother, Dana Cloud, an associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.
On the first day California legalized gay marriage in 2008, Jeff Lutes and Gary Stein got married on a beach in Malibu in front of their three children and a dozen close friends. But Lutes knew, legally speaking, that the marriage was only valid as long as the family stayed in California on vacation. The realization caused him to cry during the ceremony.
“I had trouble going through my vows,” Lutes said, “and I didn’t expect that coming. After all, we all know that [same-sex marriage] means nothing in Texas.”
Because they are denied the 1,138 legal protections that come with marriage — like property rights, social security benefits and taxation — the Lutes-Stein family bought some of the most basic rights, among them, will filing, which costs $720 for both parents; directions for disposition of remains, $180; and designation of guardian before need, another $180. They spent $1,325 on legal costs associated with obtaining partner documents to gain the power of attorney, health care decision-making and inheritance rights granted through legal marriage.
“All the rights we bought come with a $50 marriage license,” Lutes said.
But same-sex families can’t protect themselves completely, especially in granting medical power of attorney. Because Texas law doesn’t recognize same-sex relationships, it allows virtually any interested party to challenge the legitimacy of a partner’s decision-making abilities or visitation rights. Family, friends, clergy, neighbors, even a medical professional could deny access and bring a lawsuit.
“That’s why when you are a same-sex family member, you might want to be prepared with those legal documents,” said Suzanne Bryant, an adoption attorney in Austin.
While 10 states permit second-parent adoptions and others bar it or are unclear on the issue, Texas is among the 16 states granting adoptions for same-sex parents in some jurisdictions — in some counties, the judges will permit the request, others won’t. “Nothing in Texas law says same-sex parents can or cannot adopt a child,” Bryant said. But that doesn’t mean adopting a child is easy for them.
Some prospective parents go “judge shopping” for second-parent adoption — a legal procedure allowing same-sex parents to adopt their partners’ biological or adoptive child. When talking about it, Bryant put her index finger on the lip and said, “Hush!” By working with only a few judges who “understand gay families” in the past 20 years, she has never lost a case.
“It depends on the judges and how they interpret the law,” she said. “So, it’s really a matter of knowing where to go. If you go to the wrong judges, they will deny it. There are so many prejudices that sometimes the judges don’t understand that.”
Some same-sex parents don’t know that they can apply for second-parent rights, while in other cases the biological parent or the parent who first adopts the child refuses to give up sole control. But most same-sex families can’t afford the time and expenses for second-parent adoption, which costs around $5,000 for the attorney and includes a six-month home study. Yet without legal status, the second-parent might not be able to see the child if the couple breaks up, no matter how long they lived together.
Bryant became an adoption attorney for gay families because of the legal problems experienced by a close friend. The friend and her former partner had adopted a child, whom she couldn’t see after the couple broke up. Every year, her friend sends a birthday card to the child, not knowing whether it’s received. “She keeps copies of the cards so that when the child is 18, she will be able to say that I thought about you all these years,” Bryant said. “But between now and then, there is no legal relationship.”
“But I still get calls from people all the time saying, ‘We broke up and she took the child away. What can I do?’” Bryant said. “It’s not your business if you are not one of the family members. You don’t even have a right to file a court case.”
Many same-sex couples can’t afford to buy their way out their challenges, contrary to the common perception that gay America is affluent. According to the 2009 American Community Survey, the average income for different-sex parents is $97,434 compared with $88,025 for same-sex parents. Meanwhile, home ownership for different-sex married parents with children is 77 percent, compared with 63 percent for same-sex parents.
In her dual battle against unemployment and breast cancer, Michelle Randolph faces the most common economic trouble confronted by same-sex families: no domestic partner insurance benefits. They are offered at only 211 of the Fortune 500 companies, 198 of more than 3,000 colleges and universities, 6,811 out of 114 million private employers, and 10 of 51 state governments. Texas, where Emily works in the Department of State Health Services, is not one of them.
Even in states with domestic partner benefits, same-sex couples have fewer tax breaks since without federal recognition of their status, health coverage is taxed as income. For example, a gay employee who earns $60,000 a year and receives domestic partner benefits for his or her family would pay $875 in taxes for that coverage while a heterosexual employee in an identical situation pays nothing, according to an analysis from the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, a national civil rights organization seeking LGBT equality.
Without federal recognition of their marriage, the Parks-Randolph family does not get financial breaks like child tax credits. “We have to hire a special tax expert to help us figure out the best strategy for both parties to see which one is more beneficial to take this credit or to claim that child,” Parks said.
Collectively, the resulting difference in Social Security income for same-sex couples compared with married heterosexual couples is $5,588 less per year, according to the research by M. V. Lee Badgett, an economist and associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
“We deserve those, too,” Randolph said.
‘I Will Do What I Need to Do’
“I’m glad I live in a state whose citizens still support traditional marriage,” said Pat Carlson, president of Texas Eagle Forum.
With legal marriage not on the horizon in Texas, same-sex parents here try to construct their own rights. Ida said she is going to apply for the second-parent adoption.
“Everything is frustrating for us, but I won’t get mad,” said Ida, speaking with her baby in her arms. “It wastes too much energy to be mad, and I would rather save it and use it to be more productive. I will take it when we still have the opportunity to adopt. I will do what I need to do.”
“I still want to go to every small town in Texas with my wife Nicole and my daughter Elena and be comfortable about it,” she said.
“But will I? No, it’s Texas. I am still very aware of that.”