March 15, 2012 | by Joey DiGuglielmo
We are family

Renee Perrier (left) and Karen Combs with their daughter, Amaris Perrier-Combs, 3. (Photo courtesy of the family)

Amaris Perrier-Combs can count from one to 20.

She’s working on the alphabet. She’s fully potty trained. She speaks in full sentences. The three-year-old’s parents are noticing new skills emerge all the time.

“The latest thing I’ve noticed is she’s starting to put words to her feelings,” says Renee Perrier, a local social worker who’s raising her daughter with partner Karen Combs in D.C.’s Brookland neighborhood. “She can say, ‘I’m mad,’ or, ‘You hurt my feelings,’ or, ‘I’m happy,’ or, ‘I had a great day today.’ We’re able to have a dialogue now.”

It might sound like typical child development stuff for her age, but Perrier and Combs say it’s doubly touching to them — because of the greater number of steps same-sex couples have to take to become parents but also because of some things in Perrier’s past.

“It’s easy to see she’s just totally comfortable in her own skin,” Perrier says of Amaris. “It took me many years of therapy to be at that place, so to see her have that confidence is really amazing to me. She’s hitting all the milestones in terms of development and she’s having just a very wide circle of cultural and diverse experiences. She’s just an incredible child.”

Like many same-sex couples in the region, Perrier and Combs took the Maybe Baby classes offered by Rainbow Families D.C., a local LGBT family resource non-profit. It’s an eight-week class designed for LGBT prospective parents, single or partnered, who are considering parenthood and interested in learning more about the options available for building a family. It’s $125 for an individual or $250 per couple for the class. The fee includes a one-year membership to Rainbow Families D.C. (rainbowfamiliesdc.org).

Perrier and Combs found it incredibly helpful.

“I like that it was not just inclusive but just as the title suggests, it’s for people who are considering as I like to call it ‘purposeful parenting,’” Perrier says. “This really helps you make an informed decision — is this for us, is this not for us, because maybe it isn’t. Where are you in that process? They’re very knowledgeable about it and you’re with a group of people who are considering the same things. How do you conceive? Known donor, unknown, anonymous — all those things are invaluable.”

The group offers two or three “sets” of the classes each year. Originally a program of Whitman-Walker Health under its Lesbian Services umbrella, Rainbow Families D.C., which grew out of an AOL listserv group, started overseeing the classes about four years ago. It has about 300 LGBT families on its roster who pay the $35 annual membership fee, which keeps the group’s expenses covered.

And the classes have been popular — there’s always a waiting list for the upcoming sessions. Classes are held separately for men and women. Men have shown increased interest in the classes in recent years, organizers say.

“It’s been wonderful to see, particularly among men,” says Ellen Kahn, board president. “I think more and more men are saying, ‘This is how I see myself, this is the future I want … you see more men at the Rainbow Families events pushing a stroller or chasing their kid around … the opportunities are greater than they were 10 or 20 years ago. We’re still a minority, you’re still going to be one of maybe only five families in your school and there are still a lot of people who don’t get it … so not all our work is done, but that’s one of the things we talk about, the legal issues and support in the workplace. Those are the kinds of things you get to do in the eight-week sessions, the practical things, the legal things, adoption, what’s real life look like, what are the friendly neighborhoods and so on.”

Terrence Heath, back, and Richard Imirowicz and their children Parker, 9, and Dylan, 4. (Photo courtesy the family)

Kahn, who’s been volunteering in the women’s classes for years, knows a lot of this from first-hand experience. She and her partner Julie have two kids — Ruby, 12, and Jasper, 8. She says a lot has changed in the years since they started their family. Kahn says in addition to the increased interest from gay men, lesbian couples are starting their families at younger ages than in previous years.

“The median age used to be like 37-38, now it’s like 31-32,” Kahn says. “These younger couples are getting married if they can and they’ve got their plan and they’re more aware that they’re going to have kids. My generation, it was like, can we do it, how would we do it, there was this sense of stepping into new territory but our current generation of men and women have seen more positive representations of LGBT parents and the opportunities are greater than ever, so it’s interesting. It’s almost a more traditional approach to family building where you get married, have a kid …. There’s a lot more confidence and certainty and that’s been wonderful to see.”

Richard Imirowicz, a local child psychologist who’s adopted two sons — Parker, 9, and Dylan, 4 — with his partner, Terrance Heath, took the classes first by himself then again after he and Heath began their relationship in 2000.

“I just always knew I wanted this,” Imirowicz says. “Even as a kid, I’d be in church and see the Catholic stages of life — baptized, married, have kids — and I just knew I wanted a family except I also knew I wanted to marry a man, not a woman.”

He says the classes made the process of starting a family “very comfortable and real.”

Heath now co-facilitates Maybe Baby classes and says he “wants to make sure it’s a resource available to other people.”

Lisa Prillaman and her partner, Heather Murray, chose another path — a sperm donor for Murray for what they call “the good old-fashioned way.” Their daughter is 9 months old and they declined to give her name.

Prillaman says the course helped them weigh their options.

“It was very helpful in getting us going,” she says.

From left are Matthew O’Hara, Elijah O’Hara, Mackenzie O’Hara and Patrick Koontz, a D.C. family. (Photo courtesy O’Hara)

Matthew O’Hara had gone through the class and was a foster parent to his son, Elijah, 5, before he and his partner Patrick Koontz got together and jointly adopted Elijah’s sister, Mackenzie, 3. They’ve set up house together on the Hill.

O’Hara says the hurdles to same-sex parenting can feel overwhelming and daunting but those with tenacity can make it happen.

“It definitely has this element where everything feels so intentional,” he says. “You have lawyers and social workers and all this stuff swirling around, you have to take training, you have to be CPR certified but I had a colleague tell me several years ago, she was an adoptive mom, a straight woman, and she had adopted two kids and she told me that adopted kids find you and I always remember that when I get overwhelmed with all the rigmarole. It’s not all bad — a lot of it is good stuff, but it can be crazy and chaotic because you have all this going on in addition to the potty training and on top of jobs, but more and more, you know, when we feel stressed about getting everything done or feel tired or we’re worrying about finances or which D.C. schools are good enough for our kids, it’s just the way it goes. I’m very proud of the house we set up and how it all came together.”

Joey DiGuglielmo is the Features Editor for the Washington Blade.

2 Comments
  • It’s encouraging to see some article real estate used to highlight issues for LGBT families and those wanting to start families. My hope is that you continue to do so and include content that isn’t just about starting a family. We have our share of successes and challenges throughout our lives as LGBT parents and families, and it would be lovely to read about all of that.

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