March 15, 2013 | by Santiago Melli-Huber
Parents for a year
Mark Johnson, Richard Concepcion, gay news, Washington Blade

Mark Johnson (left) and his partner, Richard Concepcion with their AFS exchange student Adrian. (Photo courtesy of the couple)

AFS-USA is reaching out to the LGBT community to find host families for international students.

Formerly the American Field Service, AFS is a leader in international student exchange programs, with participants from more than 40 countries. American families are paired with a student for one year, during which the student lives as a member of the family, attends school and learns about American culture first hand.

In an effort to expose gay couples and individuals to another option to grow their families, the D.C. chapter of AFS is looking for host families in the LGBT community for the upcoming school year. Families interested in hosting an international student can visit afsusa.org for more information.

Taylor Johnson, a 15-year volunteer with AFS working in family selection, is working to encourage more LGBT families to host. As a gay man and a marriage equality supporter, Johnson hopes to combat stigmas against gay families.

“There’s a lot of negativity in the press and the general population about gays and gay families,” Johnson says, “and I think that might be from lack of exposure. If people see gay families having good experiences with children, that will help reduce that.”

Johnson has mentored three students with gay host parents with positive results for the host family as well as the students. “They really opened up their homes and it changed their lives in ways they had not anticipated, suddenly having a child without having really had a child all those years. Any family is welcome: gay or straight or single or multi-generational, they’re all legitimate families in the eyes of this organization.”

According to Johnson, AFS contacts the parents of the exchange students and asks permission before pairing their child with a gay family. He sees this practice as discriminatory, though he recognizes it can help avoid issues regarding incompatibility. Johnson said they have sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asking the State Department to remove the policy.

One gay couple in the D.C. area, Richard Concepcion and Mark Johnson, is currently hosting a student, Adrian, from Switzerland. They became involved in AFS after receiving an e-mail from a local LGBT listserv asking for host families. The couple reported no negative reaction from anyone regarding a gay couple hosting a student.

Johnson says Adrian was never uncomfortable with the idea of a gay host family and that the young man, in general, hates seeing discrimination of any sort.

Some AFS students have told Adrian they’re jealous he got “a gay couple.” Other host families have praised the couple’s efforts.

Entrusting their son’s wellbeing to a gay couple was never an issue with Adrian’s parents. “They related to us that they couldn’t have asked for better parents for Adrian to be paired up with,” Concepcion says. He has two grown daughters of his own.

Adrian’s younger brother is applying to participate in AFS, and while the decision of pairing a student with a family is in the hands of the organization, Adrian’s parents would like Concepcion and Johnson to host their other son, which the couple said they would definitely do.

The couple has been hosting Adrian since October and they’ve had a great experience. “I’ve never had a kid before,” Johnson says, “so it’s been really educational on my part.”

Jen Watson and Brigid Monaghan, an engaged lesbian couple, hosted a gay student from the Netherlands, Victor, in 2008. Victor, now 21 and studying psychology at the University of Gronigen in the Netherlands, had originally been assigned a family in Pittsburgh that ultimately withdrew with little notice. What began as a temporary, two-week allocation to Watson and Monaghan’s home quickly became a strong family bond. The couple, their son, and Victor spent the next year together as a family.

“We fell in love with him pretty quickly,” says Watson. “One of the first things his mother said to us is, ‘It’s so great that you have Victor. I think you’ll really be able to understand him. It’s terrific that you guys are who you are.’ It was a reassurance to her that it was an accepting household.”

“He had said that he was prepared to be in the closet for the whole year,” Monaghan says, “depending on what the culture was.”

While all parties were grateful for Victor to have been paired up with an accepting family, Watson and Monaghan praised Victor’s open personality and confidence, saying he would have done equally well with a straight couple as long as they were cool with it.

“He’d have been fine,” Monaghan says. “His parents are straight.”

The couple described the experience as being like real parenting, complete with sibling rivalries between their son and Victor. It led to a lasting bond between theirs and Victor’s families. The couple said they have recommended the program to others.

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