Ten years ago, when Aimee Gelnaw and her partner Margie Brickley first took their son Zach, now 17, to Provincetown, Mass., the reception they got from beachgoers in the gay summer resort town was distinctly chilly. The Gelnaw-Brickleys still vacation in Provincetown, but now they beach, bike and attend social and educational events with hundreds of other families that look a lot like theirs. Provincetown's annual Family Week, launched in 1995 with 45 families, draws more than 400 each August.
The recent decision by Rosie O'Donnell, an adoptive mother of three, to come out as a lesbian was a reminder that more and more gay people are having families. For the most part, gay families are just like other families, dealing with soccer practice, homework and daily chores, but the kids and parents in these households must also cope with special problems that range from confronting discrimination to being the only kid with two moms at the PTA meeting. "Gay-specific issues include whom to come out to, isolation and the need for validation--especially for kids," says Terry Boggis, director of Center Kids at New York City's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center.
To meet those needs, the gay community, once primarily the domain of single adults, has begun to respond with an array of support services, including potluck dinners, websites and conferences, sponsored by groups like Family Pride Coalition, which focuses on the needs of gay parents, and Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere (COLAGE), which is dedicated exclusively to helping the kids. Even gay and lesbian community centers have begun adding family activities: in the past two years, centers in Los Angeles and San Francisco have launched family programs with services like Parent and Me, for parents with newborns.
The new gay family consciousness isn't limited to the coasts either. In Denton, Texas, Karen, a mother of two, formed a network to share such experiences as handling the questions her children got at school about why they do not have a dad. This spring near Tama, Iowa, the Iowa Conference of the United Church for Christ will launch Rainbow Family Camp, a weekend retreat for gay families. And this past June saw the debut of the glossy bimonthly And Baby, a magazine for gay and lesbian parents. Many of its articles are the usual child-rearing-magazine fare, but others, like "Finding a Gay-Friendly Physician," deal with situations unique to gay families. Sold in every state, And Baby has already spun off a call-in radio show, Tuned In to Modern Parenting, airing in over 50 cities, including Phoenix, Ariz., and Providence, R.I.
What these new services do, in one way or another, is help gay families connect with one another. Ken Yood, president of L.A.'s Pop Luck Club, a group of gay dads and their kids, says the club started with "a few guys sitting around a kitchen table searching for a community interested in family at a time when most of our friends were hitting the bars." Finding others who are just like them is particularly important for kids in these families. Nicole Smith, 15, found COLAGE's website after her mother Melissa came out as a lesbian four years ago. Now Nicole, who lives in rural Menomonie, Wis., has new friends in her own area and e-mail pen pals across the country. These friends, she says, "helped get me through a hard time."