March 17, 2011 | by David J. Hoffman
A rainbow of resources

Family activist Ellen Kahn with her two daughters. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Today we know there is not just one way to see family.

Instead, we see many different forms and fashions of family, not captured by one cookie-cutter model.

Ellen Kahn, a lesbian, understands full well what it means to choose parenting. She studied families as a profession after all, in her career as a social worker. She directs the Family Project at Human Rights Campaign, so it is her personal project as an advocate and educator. But also she brings her passion for family building home to Silver Spring, where she lives with her partner of 22 years. They were married in D.C. last year and have two daughters ages 8 and 11.

As she spoke of the so-called “gayby boom,” she stopped to say that today parenting has become “a commonplace choice” for LGBT people, and that “there are various paths” to get there. “Now,” she says, gays “can see yourself with kids, if you want.”

As a barometer for the continuing boom in LGBT parenting, she says to look at “Mayby Baby,” the eight-week class for LGBT prospective parents, single or partnered, who are “maybe, just maybe,” she says, “considering parenthood and interested in learning more about the options for building a family.”

This “gayby-boom” and attendance at the “Maybe Baby” classes — offered by Rainbow Families, a D.C. area group (Kahn is its board chair) — according to her “began to spike in about 2006,” at first more so among women, “but now there’s a steady increase among men also.”

Family planning, she says, is really what it’s all about. And increasingly, it also includes a choice to become a temporary parent, through foster care, as well as a permanent parent, whether through maternal surrogacy or sperm donors or regular adoption.

Whether it’s becoming a foster parent, or taking the step to adopt a child already in foster care, Kahn says that “in general in our community more and more folks are saying ‘I need to get educated’ about foster care and adopting kids from foster care,” and that such decisions often include “waiting a little longer for younger kids, or on the other hand, when they don’t see themselves as changing diapers,” to decide instead to become a foster parent or adoptive parent to someone older, even like the self-identified LGBT teenagers that Kenya Grant-Murphy places in foster care but ideally wants to see in permanent homes.

“The push has come for us to place LGBTQ self-identified children,” says social worker Grant-Murphy, referring to the new contract, which went into effect Feb. 1, between the District of Columbia’s Child and Family Services agency and KidsPeace, where she has worked for nearly two years as a family resource specialist.

Founded in 1882, KidsPeace, which is a private charity with services in nine states including D.C., Maryland and Virginia, sees this challenge as a priority, including “Q” — for questioning — in its categories of sexual orientation, especially as they apply to youth. For KidsPeace, says Grant-Murphy, the philosophy is one that brings “a unified, comprehensive approach to treatment” of troubled and at-risk kids.

“We look at this as a case-by-case scenario,” she says, “where the goal is permanency for the child,” whether that comes in the form of the child’s return to its biological family, adoption or guardianship, but it can also include a transitional approach to help a child, to meet an immediate need that’s temporary in nature, in foster care placements that she says “can be as short as a week, in an emergency situation, but ideally not longer than 18-24 months.”

Under the new KidsPeace contract with the D.C. government, “we have to have a certain number of homes available for LGBTQ kids,” she says, “because if we get such a referral, we want to be able to place that individual right away.” Currently she has four homes she calls “affirming” for such kids, each one housing an LGBT young person, two of them clearly “out,” a 16-year male and a 17-year-old female. The other two have not disclosed their orientation yet, she says, “but there are behaviors” that suggest such a same-sex orientation.

KidsPeace is seeking more foster homes in the D.C. metro area — as well as people willing to adopt or become a guardian — who are willing to take on the special challenges of housing such kids. But she points out that to become a foster parent is necessarily “an intrusive process,” for any foster parents, who can be either a single parent or a two-parent household, and she declares emphatically that, “we don’t discriminate.”

Foster parents must become licensed through a process that begins with an application and is followed by a background check with documentation, evaluation of references, training and interviews and home study. Each foster parent is eligible to receive a monthly stipend, the amount for which is determined by whether the placement is what Grant-Murphy terms “either more traditional or more therapeutic.”

Families take many forms. Sometimes it’s one of the parents who comes out as LGBT, not the child. Sometimes it turns out to be both. Just ask Alison Delpercio, who works with Kahn at HRC’s Family Project by day. But in her spare time, this 26-year-old has a special mission — to reach out to those young people trying to “navigate,” as she calls it, the choppy waters of adolescence while facing the added challenge of learning that a parent is gay.

She knows the feeling. When she was 15, her father told her that he is gay, and she admits today that, “my initial reaction was one of fear, because I didn’t know what this meant for my family.”

“My feelings were, ‘What does this mean for my family and what will change,’ and also ‘How can I support my dad through this?’” Today, she says, “I wish I’d had something like COLAGE when I was younger going through this, because then I felt like I was the only person in the world who had a gay dad, until I met with other families just like mine, and that was amazing.”

Based in San Francisco but with a local chapter in D.C., COLAGE — Children of Lesbians and Gays — is a national movement, she says, of young people and adults with one or more LGBT parents. Delpercio joined the local chapter in early 2009 and began to “co-facilitate a monthly youth group for middle-schoolers,” kids in sixth through eighth grades, “who have one or more LGBTQ parents, to help them lose their feelings of isolation, and so they can learn from each other.”

Delpercio, who came out herself as lesbian when she was 20, says she is proud of how her own family toughed it out when her father disclosed that he was gay five years earlier, because she says that “it was a struggle but we have come out stronger.” For one thing, she says her mother has been “supportive” of both her ex-husband and her daughter. Her mother is straight, Delpercio says, but she is an “active ally to the LGBTQ community.”

More information is available at metrodc@colage.org.

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