Avi Silber, a 21-year-old college junior in St. Louis, was a little confused growing up. As a kid, he assumed that any two adults who run a household together must be a couple because his moms are lesbians.
He chuckles at the memory now. He thought Bert and Ernie were partners. Same for the three guys on “Full House” and the two aunts on “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch.”
“I don’t remember when I had the realization,” he says. “My best friend next door had straight parents but I didn’t think of parenting as a sexual relationship. I just thought they were roommates who loved each other. So me and my best friend decided to live together when we grew up.”
By now, of course, Avi and his 27-year-old sister Danielle, have it all figured out. And they consider themselves fortunate to have been raised by their moms, Susan Silber and Dana Naparsteck.
Susan, a Takoma Park attorney who specializes in family law and LGBT issues, always knew she wanted to be a mom but didn’t think it was possible.
“I’d always loved working with children,” she says. “I worked at a daycare center in college, I babysat a lot, worked at summer camps. But I just thought it was impossible to come out as a lesbian and also be a mother. So that was very different than this generation that doesn’t see it as much of a challenge anymore, but it did take a really long time to think how I would be able to have children and also be in a relationship with a woman. That took many years and lots of false starts.”
Susan and Dana got together in 1978 and both wanted kids. They moved from Adams Morgan to Takoma Park in 1981 and bought a house. Susan had worked on the first LGBT March on Washington in 1979 and met Billy and his partner Chris. The two couples spent months planning the logistics, then Susan got pregnant on the first try and Danielle was born in 1983. Avi came in 1988.
“I gave birth,” Susan says, “But we were very clear that we would be equal parents and the men were very supportive of that decision. They’ve never been anonymous sperm donors. They were very involved as parental figures.”
The Silbers’ story was never simple, but it got more complicated over the coming years. For a while, another man named Art lived with Chris and Billy. He and his current partner, Mark, also helped raise the kids and Avi and Danielle think of them all as parents.
The women are lesbians. Two of the dads are gay and two are bi. Two are black. Avi is straight. Danielle says although she’s only dated guys she’s not opposed to the possibility of falling in love with a woman and considers herself part of the queer community. Susan and Dana split up about 12 years ago but the whole group gets together a few times a year for family gatherings.
“I had an extremely happy childhood,” Avi says. “It was really nice having such a large group supporting us and it was nice having such a diverse experience and a diverse outlook on different people and different things. I have more than one of everything. I can relate to everyone in some ways because I’ve had such diverse parenting. Oh your dad’s strict? Mine is too. Oh you’re dad was at Woodstock? Mine was too!”
Danielle had a few confusing moments as well. She and her childhood pal Alida were playing house one day at about age 4 and got into a fight over who would be the mom. Susan says Dana went to see what the fuss was about and told them there was no reason why they couldn’t both be the moms.
“I looked at her rather incredulously,” Danielle says. “She said, ‘Well you have two moms.’ I thought, ‘Oh yeah, I do.’ It was the first time it dawned on me that the popular media representation was different from what my own family looked like.”
Danielle and Avi both say there were some minor bumps along the way. In middle school Avi had classmates who used words for his moms he later discovered were epithets. And Danielle remembers minor logistical challenges — like everybody in the class being given supplies to make just one mother’s day card.
“I was incredibly closeted about my family until high school,” Danielle says. “But once I did come out about it, I realized I had a strong enough foundation that it didn’t matter if my parents were gay and we’re a gay family. I had classmates who were incredibly supportive, even celebratory.”
For Susan and Dana, there were bigger hurdles involving insurance and financial matters.
“There were a huge number of these legal and benefits issues,” Susan says. “And huge financial implications when we broke up that would have been different had we been in a straight relationship.”
Susan, 62, says her own parents came a long way in accepting her family over the years. Her father is deceased; her mother lives in North Carolina.
“They evolved enormously over the years and became more and more accepting,” Susan says. “They have been extremely loving grandparents and were extremely accepting of Dana when she was with me, but I do see a huge difference when I go to weddings for my nieces and nephews in the way a whole community sort of embraces a couple. I think that is changing, though.”
Avi and Danielle both say they’ve told their story — even once to Barbara Walters on “20/20” — so many times it’s second nature to them now. Avi calls it “muscle memory.”
“Some of my friends have heard it so many times I just let them tell it now,” he says.
Danielle, who lives in New York City and works on refugee issues, never tires of it but does grow weary of what she calls the “exotification” of her family.
“Because the reality is that all families are interesting and different and have different components and issues and different extended members,” she says. “The real danger is creating a confining structure of what families are.”
How different was it on a practical level? Danielle laughingly says she’s the only person her age who loves raw tofu because it reminds her of her childhood.
She says Susan is a mother who “challenges my brother and I to be the best people we can be and pursue the hobbies and work we love … and to do whatever we can to heal the world.” She calls Dana, who was unavailable for an interview, “incredibly loving” and a mom who “always puts her children first.”
And her fondest family memories have nothing to do with the gay community — they could be lifted from any family photo album.
“Being at Rehoboth and Bethany Beach as a family and we just had so much fun,” Danielle says. “Swimming, playing in the sand, this mechanical horse that we got photos on every year, eating watermelon, boardwalk fries, just lazing around and playing cards. Being a family.”