SEATTLE — They don’t greet you so much as they burst upon you, these three little guys with impish grins that punctuate their beautiful dark features. Here they come, a rumbling, tumbling, laughing, yelling, skipping, crying pack of naughty and nice, snips and snails and puppy dog tails and everything else that is American boyhood.
Meet the Brothers Z: 4-year-old twins Zach and Zayn, and their younger sibling Zeth, fast approaching 3. In many ways, they are typical denizens of the hilly suburban neighborhood where they have lived most of their lives. They spend their days in preschool while their parents both work in the telecom industry. The family owns an SUV and a pickup. They shop at Costco and go to church on Sundays. They work in the yard. They watch Disney movies on their big-screen TV.
But Father’s Day will be a double celebration at their house because the brothers have two daddies — Geoffery and Devin, foster parents for the boys for three years before adopting them.
“All we’re trying to do is raise three healthy boys to be participants in society,” said Geoffery, Devin’s partner for a decade.
That’s a modest description for what the county judge who finalized the adoption in December called an act of heroism. The boys, taken from substance-abusing and incarcerated biological parents, faced long odds against growing up together. Given their treatment by the birth parents, there were far more questions than answers about physical and emotional issues that might arise for them down the road.
"You are heroes in our community," Judge Mary Yu said, beaming from the bench while the boys frolicked about the courtroom, the whole family decked out in red-and-white Mickey Mouse ski sweaters. “Who’s going to assume the burden of taking care of children like this, children who possibly have been neglected or set aside in some way? … People like you, who step up. Thank you.”
Some states bar gay adoption
While the adoption was facilitated by the state and lauded by the legal system in Western Washington, it divides Americans along political and religious lines and would have been prohibited by law in some other states simply because Devin and Geoffery are gay.
Devin and Geoffery, both 44, can celebrate Father’s Day on Sunday secure in the knowledge that their ranks are growing. Gay, lesbian and bisexual people across the nation are pushing for parental rights and increasingly are seen as a valuable resource by the child welfare system in dealing with the tens of thousands of American children who need foster and adoptive homes. And while they are nagged by recurring attempts by political and religious interests to rally followers around anti-gay issues, they are generally too busy juggling juice boxes and car seats to notice.
“We are just like you, other than that it’s two men instead of a man and a woman,” said Geoffery, sitting on an overstuffed leather couch in the living room of the family’s aquamarine split-level house, which overlooks the Puget Sound. “We live life the same way you do. We put our pants on one leg at a time just like you do. We have the same routines and the same requirements to keep our household going.”
The couple, who asked that their last name be withheld for security reasons, decided to become parents about five years into their relationship, which began in January 1999 when they met online and discovered they both lived in Oklahoma. Devin’s previous relationship had ended with the death of his partner from AIDS, and Geoffery and his lover of five years had broken up. They moved in together three months later and by summer had decided to start a new life together in Seattle. They liked the region’s beauty, its economic opportunities and its tolerance.
Empowered by marriage ceremony
In 2004, when a county in the neighboring state of Oregon began allowing gay marriages, they rushed to Portland to tie the knot. Although Oregon voters later nullified those marriages with a constitutional ban, the ceremony “was kind of empowering for us, to feel that we really were a family,” Devin recalled. Their union has since been recorded under Washington’s 2007 domestic partner registry, which gives them many — but far from all — of the rights and responsibilities of marriage.
Their musings about adding children to their family turned into action six months later when, having ruled out a surrogate birth, Devin went online to research adoption and found a 3-year-old boy who “looked just like Geoffery.” They were told by adoption counselors that the boy would certainly be spoken for by the time they went through the application process, and he was, but “he was the catalyst that started the process,” says Geoffery.
The next five months brought reams of paperwork, background checks, classroom and home study to prepare them for parenting. By the time they were done, they had decided they wanted to adopt two kids, siblings, Devin said, because “they would form attachment between the two of them that would allow them to attach to us.”
Geoffery even had his heart set on twins so they told their adoption worker they hoped to adopt “twins, twin boys, or twin boy and girl, under 2. And she said, ‘That’s a nice fairytale, but don’t expect it.’”
In February 2005, however, the fairytale came true. They were asked to become foster parents for the twins, then 13 months old. At the same time, they were told that the boys’ mom was pregnant again and asked if they’d consider adopting their little brother. A little over three months after getting the first call, they were a family of five.
Because there had been some possibility of the birth mother or another relative keeping Zeth, “We didn’t do a whole lot to prepare,” Devin said. Suddenly, “they called us and said, ‘The baby’s going to come home with you. Come to the hospital and get him.’”
“They gave us a disposable bottle with two bottles of formula and two diapers,” Geoffery said. “And that was it.”
Health issues and therapy
Zeth’s sudden arrival was just one of many challenges they’ve faced. The twins have an array of issues related to their early childhood, including diagnoses of post traumatic stress disorder and probable attention deficit disorder. One was recently diagnosed with a fetal alcohol condition and they expect the other will be as well.
“We go to therapy a lot,” Devin said.
To the casual observer, the only outward signs of the twins’ special needs are their high energy level and sometimes aggressive behavior. While even that could be seen by some as within the normal range of little boy behavior, they are clearly what used to be called “a handful.”
Devin, whom the boys call “Papa,” and Geoffery, who is “Daddy,” have enjoyed watching their sons’ personalities take shape. “Zach thinks everything through,” said Devin. “Zayn is more the life of the party” and “Zeth is kind of the best of all of us … pretty even-keeled and very loving.”
The dads themselves are a couple of soft-spoken teddy bears — Devin with a neat salt-and-pepper goatee, Geoffery with earrings and trendy glasses — who seem born to parenting. “I’m much more the mama of the family,” Devin said. “I’m the one they run to a lot if they’re scared. … He’s more the daddy … more kind of the disciplinarian.”
In addition to the boys’ special needs and the issues that every growing family faces, from poopy diapers to spilled milk, Devin and Geoffery occasionally face awkward parenting moments that spring from being a gay couple. Earlier this year, one of the twins became fascinated with a pink dress in the preschool’s costume box and decided he wanted to be a princess for Halloween.
The dads know that’s not an unusual idea for a young boy, but “I don’t want to be the gay family with all the kids in pink dresses, even though I’m supposed to be tolerant,” Devin mused. Since Halloween is months away, they put the issue on the back burner, but made it clear to teachers that it is fine with them if their son wants to wear the pink dress at preschool.
Aside from the daily routine of work and preschool, the family spends a lot of time in their large yard, where Geoffery has planted 7,000 flowering bulbs, 60 fruit trees, 400 berry bushes and 100 azaleas and rhododendrons. He has also cultivated a colony of 5,000 mason bees, non-aggressive pollinators prized by horticulturists, from an original group of 20. “They boys actually got to watch some of them hatch,” he said.
Then there is their church, which has been a great source of spiritual support and help with the boys. Devin, a music major who trained in opera, and Geoffery are both members of the choir. While some campaigns against gay rights are church-based, the family has been embraced by their Presbyterian fellowship.
“It’s wonderful,” said Janet, an associate pastor. “We cherish our diversity. Our church is glad to have them in the choir, we’re glad to have their children with us. It makes us better, more of who we are, by having them with us.”
‘Gay people can do this’
While the men prefer to avoid unnecessary conflict with people who reject their lifestyle (they ask doctors, day-care providers and others in advance if they have issues with gay families), they are irritated by the judgment gay parents sometimes face and acknowledge that they try to set a good example that “gay people can do this,” said Devin.
“Where do the (foster) children come from?” Geoffery asked. “They come from dysfunctional, broken, heterosexual families. … If you took all of the children away from gay and lesbian parents in the United States today, what would the foster system look like?”
A recent national study by the Urban Institute and the Williams Institute at UCLA actually put a price tag on that: “A national ban on gay, lesbian and bisexual foster care could cost from $87 million to $130 million. Costs to individual states could ranges from $100,000 to $27 million.”
The Family Equality Council, an advocacy group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender families, reports that gay and lesbian parents are currently raising 4 percent of all adopted children in the United States, or 65,500 out of 1.6 million. Nationwide, gays and lesbians are raising 3 percent of all foster kids, or 14,100 out of 500,000, the council says. The top five states in terms of kids adopted by same-sex parents are California, with 16,458; New York, 7,042; Massachusetts, 5,828; Texas, 3,588; and Washington, 3,004.
The Urban-Williams study noted that gay and lesbian partners who adopt kids tend to be slightly older than the average adoptive parents (43 vs. 42), more highly educated (54 percent have college degrees vs. 31 percent) and earn much more (median household income of $102,474 vs. $73,274).
100,000 in foster care awaiting adoption
Meanwhile, the need for foster homes grows daily and more than 100,000 foster kids across the nation await adoption. “Given the constant need for more adults to care for children who are in the overburdened child welfare system, gay, lesbian and bisexual people are an important new source for child welfare officials to tap,” the Urban-Williams study concluded.
Despite that, “Anti-parenting legislation (aimed at gays) spiked in 2006 following all the anti-marriage ballot measures,” said Cathy Renna, spokeswoman for the Family Equality Council. “We’ve defeated all measures except one between then and now (about 23 measures total) and we’ve passed more pro-parenting measures since 2006 than our opponents have passed anti-parenting measures.”
However, six states — Florida, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Dakota and Utah — maintain some sort of bans on adoption or foster parenting by gays and lesbians.
The restrictions are not based on any data or cases about gay parenting. For instance, the Florida law, passed in 1977, was intended to send a message to gay people that "we're really tired of you" and "we wish you'd go back into the closet," its sponsor, state Sen. Curtis Peterson, said at the time.
Current arguments against gay marriage and gay parenting remain rooted in abhorrence of homosexuality. The Family Research Council, one of the nation's most vocal anti-gay groups, believes simply that "homosexual conduct is harmful to the persons who engage in it and to society at large, and can never be affirmed. It is by definition unnatural."
As they face their future and all of its unknowns, Geoffery and Devin admit, like honest parents everywhere, that it can be daunting. “My confidence is slipping,” said Devin. “I had no idea what we were in for and I still don’t.”
“When you want children, it really is a fairytale,” said Geoffery. “But we’re both believers that everything happens for a reason and these boys are in our lives for a reason and we just walk through it on a daily basis.”
“The payoff is that we made a difference,” said Devin.
© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints