Family Values

What if every time the state legislature was in session, your right to raise children was up for debate, and bills that might take your kids away were getting closer and closer to the governor’s desk? This is what it’s like to be one of the 84,000 gay parents in Texas.

ON A CRISP SUNDAY EVENING LAST FALL, Della Nagle stood in the living room of her suburban San Antonio home and ordered everyone to get ready for church. Nagle, who is 45, has taught junior high for most of her career, and you can hear it in her voice—a tad louder than necessary, with a preference for short, declarative sentences that leave little room for adolescent mischief. Three of Nagle’s five children play in the church ensemble—in fact, they are the ensemble—so they had to be on time for services. Daniel, the oldest at sixteen, sat at a makeshift computer desk beneath a tchotchke-covered wall in the living room, absently tapping at a keyboard as he waited for the family to assemble. First down the stairs was his thirteen-year-old sister, Sammie, bearing a clarinet case. “It sucks,” she announced. “I’d rather sing.” Her purple T-shirt read “I’m in charge here, the parents are just for show.”

When everyone was finally gathered in the back of the family’s cluttered red minivan, Daniel, who had recently obtained his learner’s permit, began lobbying to drive. “I need the highway practice,” he said. (His very first attempt had resulted in a collision before the van had left the driveway.) His driving problems notwithstanding, Daniel, who has a thin mustache and a mop of thick black hair, is uncommonly bright. He attends a medical arts magnet school, where he is at least a year younger than his fellow seniors. He is a whiz at calculus, and he somehow managed to pass the Advanced Placement physics exam, even though he only took the regular physics course. He is applying to Yale for this fall.

Though he has grown into a confident young man, Daniel’s birth was shrouded in secrecy. From the beginning of her career as a teacher, Nagle had hidden from her colleagues and supervisors the fact that she was gay. She and her partner of four years, a fellow schoolteacher named Ruth Pinkham, lived together and were raising two teenage girls from Pinkham’s first marriage. When the couple decided they wanted a child of their own, Nagle told her supervisor only as much as she had to: that she was planning to have a child by artificial insemination and that there was no man in her life. But an unmarried pregnant teacher, regardless of her sexuality, was taboo in 1990. (It still is in most districts.) Her principal offered her a choice: She could transfer to a cafeteria job at a different school until she had the baby, or she could invent a phantom husband.

I needed my job,” Nagle recalled. “So if that’s what it took, that’s what I did.” She procured a random photo of a soldier and brought it to work, claiming to have married him in a whirlwind romance over Christmas break, while he was home from a deployment in Germany. Since she already kept her home life walled off from her colleagues, maintaining the ruse was not difficult—once she got through the surprise wedding shower her fellow teachers threw for her. Another tall tale—a live-in boyfriend with a vasectomy—got her through the door at the University of Texas Health Science Center, which was disinclined to admit a single woman as an insemination patient. Nine months later, Daniel was born.

When she got pregnant again, Nagle realized her boss’s patience had run out, and she moved on to another school in San Antonio. The family grew larger five years later, when a pregnant teenager came to Nagle and Pinkham looking for help. Unable to find an adoptive family, they decided to adopt the baby girl themselves. By this time they were raising three children on the salaries of two teachers, and Nagle and Pinkham decided they had enough kids. That all changed in 1999, however, when Nagle learned that her sister’s three daughters had been taken into state custody because of an abusive father. Nagle stepped in and offered to take care of the kids, though it took a year to convince Child Protective Services ( CPS), the state foster care agency, to let them move in. Nagle and Pinkham also had to convince an East Texas judge that their household was the best place for the girls. To their surprise, he seemed impressed by the fact that the couple had held a small wedding ceremony in their local church, even though they knew it wasn’t legally binding. “He pointed out that we went to all that trouble,” Nagle said, “while the girls’ parents never even bothered to get married.”

Despite the unusual provenance of each of Nagle and Pinkham’s children, in one sense the family is quite typical. There are more gay couples with children in the South than in any other region. Texas in particular has been at the forefront of the gay parenting boom: According to a study of the 2000 census by the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, homosexual couples in Texas are more likely to have children than those in almost any other state. Nationally, about one in four gay couples has children; in Texas, the figure is closer to one in three. San Antonio, surprisingly, has emerged as an unlikely gay parenting mecca, with the nation’s highest percentage of gay households with children. The reason for this is unclear, though it may have something to do with the city’s sizable number of Catholics, like Nagle and Pinkham. A good number of these children are being adopted following foster care placements through CPS, though the agency can’t say for certain how many. (Foster care is a temporary arrangement supervised by the state; adoption is a legal proceeding granting permanent custody.)

Gay adoption was virtually unheard of before the seventies, but over the past thirty years it has become in many ways institutionalized. Just as there are sperm banks that cater to lesbians and certain foreign countries that are known for their “don’t ask, don’t tell” adoption policies, there are now private agencies that are known for

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