On a brilliant fall day in September of 2013, 20 people gathered in my backyard in Tillson, New York, for a special occasion – the legal marriage of my moms.
The wedding was intimate – a long awaited celebration that was full of “ceremony” that drew from a variety of cultures and religions, as a reflection of both Judith, my birth mother, and Estella, her partner of 17 years. All guests dressed in white and donned beads of the Orixas (God and goddesses) of the Candomble—an Afro-Brazilian religion from northern Brazil.
I led the procession by burning Palo Santo, the bark of a mystical tree from Estella’s home country of Colombia. My younger brother, Patrick, played the gyil, one of my mother’s many instruments from around the world, until we all gathered under a Mandap, an Indian wedding canopy where the marriage would be officiated.
My older brother, Phillip, read a poem while we watched my parents pour water back a forth into each other’s Tibetan singing bowls in a personal ceremony symbolizing their love.
The multicultural, creative and non-conventional rituals of this wedding ceremony were indicative of who we were as a family. Each ceremony was chosen for its meaning and how it best illustrated the love of my parents. The wedding celebration was not confined by culture, religion or social norms, and neither was love of my parents who were of the same gender.
Yes, I have two mommies but it was not always so.
I was a lucky individual to have loving parents. The sex and “gender” of those parents have varied during my upbringing. My mother and father, married 10 years with three children, got divorced when I was about 7 years old. At that point my mother was the primary caregiver of my two brothers and me. She worked tirelessly to provide everything that was needed economically and, most importantly, emotionally.
My mother kept a tradition of honesty in our family and made sure that whenever something came up involving the family that we would talk about it openly. Nothing was ignored. Good or bad, we dealt with issues and feelings head on and learned to interpret the world around us in a fair and caring manner. So when my mother told my older brother and me that she had fallen in love with a woman we talked about it. At the time it did not strike me as something significant. It made my mom happy, so I was good with it. This was during my preadolescence when I was way more concerned with my own issues than what my mom was up to.
All that changed during the summer when I was 11 years old.
I remember it was a sunny day and my best friend and I were lying by the pool when my younger brother, who was six, told my friend: “My mother has a girlfriend.” I had never told anyone that my mother was a lesbian, so my friend thought he was making stories up and told him to stop. But, my brother continued to state his case harder. I just sat there mortified, trying to hush my brother from “spilling the beans” on our family’s secret. My smart and inquisitive friend decided to take the question head on and unabashedly went up to my mother and asked if she was a lesbian in a relationship with a woman. My mother, in her strong commitment to honesty, told her yes it was true. Seeing my friend’s expression of shock and watching the gears in her head start to process this fact made me freak out, and I ran into the bathroom and cried for a long time.
I don’t know if my friend kept the information to herself but the next time I saw her she did not make a big deal of it. She was more curious than anything else and probed me with questions. She was interested in the what, why and how. These questions were easy on the one hand because my friend had also experienced the divorce of her parents and witnessed their exploration of other partners and possible stepparents. On the other hand it was difficult because she expected it to be so different. This is when it dawned on me that there were larger social implications to my mother’s same-sex relationship.
Here’s what I can tell you about having lesbian mothers as a teenager in 1990’s: The community started to perceive my family as “other.” It stirred up many questions, and exposed social fissures and taboos.
The neighborhood I grew up in was very religious, meaning many of my neighbors went to church regularly and held true what they learned there—especially the ideas of “family values.” These notions of “family values” encouraged animosity towards our household since we did not fit into the traditional biblical mold – consisting of one man and one woman. A neighbor stopped by to tell my mom she was the devil for divorcing my father. My childhood friend from across the street was forbidden to hang out with me because of her relationship with another woman. Whispers of my family’s “depravities” would reach my ears from all parts of the community.
This milieu of bigotry and fear of the “other” extended far beyond my neighborhood and was pervasive across the United States. It manifested itself in a law passed in 1996 called The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). DOMA prevented the federal government from recognizing any same-sex marriages for the purpose of federal laws and programs, like pensions, inheritances, Social Security and health insurance, even if those couples were legally married in their home state. In congressional debates leading up to the passage of the law, many proponents of the law validated their discrimination of same-sex couples by associating homosexuality with “promiscuity, perversion, hedonism, narcissism, depravity and sin,” as observed by Gerry Studds, an opposing congressman. Sadly, the law passed with an overwhelming majority.
These notions of “family values” and homosexuality discouraged me from wanting people to find out about my mom being a lesbian in my community.
I kept my mother’s sexuality a close secret when I was in middle school and for most of high school, even my best friends didn’t know. During a sleepover when I was 14 that all changed. Teresa, Mary and I were up to our usual shenanigans of sneaking into Teresa’s parent’s liquor cabinet and smoking a couple of cigarettes that I nabbed from my mother in our furtive way to avoid suspicion from Teresa’s mother who was home at the time. We were giddy, a little intoxicated and playful. While in Teresa’s room we half-heartedly played the game “truth or dare” where players either answer a question truthfully or perform a “dare” or action presented by the other players. In the spirit of the game, I dared my friends to kiss. With a slight hesitation they complied, but than something happened that I did not expect—they were enjoying it and kept going! I began to feel very uncomfortable. I finally interrupted them by saying “hey guys…..?”, there was bit of a pause to get their attention and I said, “you are really freaking me out because my mom is a lesbian.” This surprised them. They were silent for a moment, and slowly became aware of what they were doing. Mary cried a little and we all awkwardly went to sleep.
Teresa did not put much thought into what happened that night, but Mary did. Mary had trouble processing what it meant and needed to talk about it. She wanted to talk to my mother. This was not because she was a lesbian but more because she was comfortable with my mother and knew she would talk honestly about life with no judgment or condescension (despite our age), because she had a wealth of diverse and wide-ranging experiences. Taboos in the community made it difficult for her to go to her own parents so she sought help from my mother to process her experience.
Mary’s main question was “does kissing a girl mean I am a lesbian?” My mother assured her that this kind of exploration of her body and what felt good was very natural. When things happen outside of the mainstream paradigm of society many people hide and feel ashamed of things they did in fear of prejudices that might rain down upon them. When there is more social openness to difference, people can be themselves and truthfully figure out how they, themselves, feel.
Growing up with two moms showed me that there was not a single mold for a person’s gender and sexuality. Having this “alternative” family structure allowed for discussion and deep thought into what it really meant to me. I was never forced into rigid gender stereotypes, but encouraged to discover who I was through thoughtful deliberation. When thinking is not confined then we become sure of ourselves and approach the world with more self-confidence. In fact, many studies have revealed that children of same-sex parents are confident and rank high in self-esteem.
During my lifetime acceptance of same-sex marriages has grown dramatically in the United States. A 2015 Pew study found that 73 % of Millennials and 57% of all adults favor legal recognition. When I was an adolescent in 1998, only 35% of adults were in favor of same-sex unions.
Even some of the members of my mother’s first family struggled with her sexual orientation. My mom grew up one of 11 children in a very catholic household, so I have many aunts, uncles, aunt-in-laws, uncle-in-laws, and cousins. In such a large family there are a variety of beliefs and religions represented. My mother’s lesbianism rarely came up as a topic of discussion except when one of my aunt-in-law’s religious beliefs compelled her to talk to me about it.
This relative believed that to be with another woman was a «sin». Out of concern for my mother’s “salvation” she told me that God would forgive my mother’s sin if she were to accept Jesus in her heart. She went on to say «don’t you want to be with your family in heaven?» This line of questioning surprised me, especially since I did not grow up religious and it pushed me to deal with these questions and give a response.
I could not accept that my mom was «sinning» based on the genitalia of the person she loved. I would not accept this idea because when Estella entered our lives all I could see was a healthy, supporting and loving relationship that I could look up to. In addition Estella became a huge stabilizing force to our entire family while giving each one of us unconditional love from the moment she became our second mom.
How can love be a sin? How could something so positive be considered bad? Witnessing the positive effects of Estella’s contributions to my family, I could never believe in a God that would condemn anyone for something so superficial as ones sex or gender. I was 15 years old at the time and my aunt made me search and question ideas of morality, and helped me find my own truth, which is now a process I go through whenever social pressures push me to take something at face value.
The truth is having two moms is no different than having a mom and a dad. And being a stepparent is no easy task in any family!
With a parent that is there from birth, a child witnesses the sacrifices and commitment of that parent who feeds, cloths, teaches and consoles them in times of need. The parent you know can scold, discipline, and tell you what to do because you are cognizant that they have your well being at heart. Children are often skeptical of someone new coming into the family because their intentions are unknown. Trust is not inherent and needs to be earned.
Estella did just that. Since the beginning she never tried to be a replacement “parent” but was just there for all of us. Estella had a respectful, supportive and loving relationship with my mother while never trying to intervene in any obtrusive way with the children. She let us know that she was there for us not only verbally but also through her actions of selfless giving, both materially and emotionally, which is indicative of a true parent.
Estella is an example of a great stepparent because she chose to love my brothers and me despite all the adolescent challenges we presented. And her actions spoke clearly about how much she cared.
When I graduated from high school I was accepted at Hunter College in Manhattan. With my limited funds, I was able to attend Hunter in large part because Estella let me live in an apartment she owned in Manhattan. I worked hard to get good grades but I also found learning and adventure in the great diversity that is New York City. Estella watched me work hard, study and grow a community of friends. I could tell she was proud of my growth as a person and she wanted to make sure nothing would hinder my path.
One evening after I had a year of college under my belt, Estella told me that she was having a will drawn up so that if anything should happen to her I would inherit the apartment. At that moment I started to tear up due the profound meaning of this gesture. She was thinking of my future long before I was thinking about it. And it sent the message to me that she planned to be part of my future as a parent. Her consideration of my well being as an individual and daughter went beyond her relationship with my mother. This is an action of a parent and was just one of many that solidified our love for each other.
Putting me in her will was even more poignant at that time because she and my mother could not legally marry each other and receive the inheritance rights conferred on legally wed heterosexual couples, among many other benefits of legal marriage.
My brothers and I recognized our parents as a married couple from a young age even if our neighbors and country did not. The courage of my family and other families like ours who have stood up and demystified “alternative” family structures, has helped shift public opinion and change the fabric of our nation during my lifetime.
In 2003 Massachusetts was the first state to legalize gay marriage, and many gay couples traveled there to get married regardless if it would be recognized by their own state of residency.
Not my mothers.
My mothers insisted they get married in their own state, and that it was up to us, the younger generation, to change the laws in New York State. In 2011, under the Marriage Equality Act, same-sex marriage was legalized in the state of New York.
But my moms still weren’t satisfied.
It wasn’t until June 26, 2013, the day that The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was stuck down and ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court—the highest court in the United States of America—that my mothers called me to give the joyous news: they were finally getting married.
Just a few months later, in our backyard, close friends and family were witness to their official union – one that could finally be recognized by the state as well as the federal government.
As a 29-year-old woman it was an important day for me. It was a day I could celebrate and show my appreciation for having two amazing parents who gave me unconditional love, which has made me the person I am today.