Across the darkened hallway, cupping his tiny body to mine, I carry baby Nate to the changing table. A few weeks old, he feels secure on my chest, and most nights he scarcely wiggles. But the second I move to set him down, his arms shoot overhead, palms upward, fingers grasping for anything that will stop what must seem to him a perpetual fall.
This horrified flailing is just a reflex, really, a holdover from our ancestors’ time of clinging to the simian mother in the jungle. As every infant must, Nate enacts anew our ancient evolution. Yet he also plays out the modern questions that demand answering all our lives. Here he is, lately hauled from the rosy womb and thrust, alone and screaming, into this vast universe. Who will claim him? Who will care for him? Who will catch him as he sinks through space?
The answer, for him, is his mother—the one who bore him—and me, the woman who calls his mother my wife. If you had met Sarah and me before Nate arrived, you might or might not have recognized us as a couple. Perhaps you would have noticed that our wedding bands match, or perhaps not. We were out where we wanted to be, which was just about everywhere, and we passed when it was convenient—in the backs of cabs, where we were often taken for sisters; at small-town diners on vacation; with chatty neighbors. Confident in our identity and the marriage we made for ourselves, we took the liberty of dissembling, as much for decorum as for safety.
Contortions like that might work for an adult, but they won’t do for a baby. To prevaricate in front of Nate is to chip away at his sense that the world can be trusted, and right now that faith is all he’s got. I have to give him truth, and I can, though I must swaddle him in a rickety cradle of queer rights patched together and longed for. Only three states explicitly bar gay adoption; New York isn’t one of them, so Sarah and I have begun the tortuous, expensive, humiliating process—yes, Your Honor, we attend church regularly and keep our clothes on in the living room—of turning me into a legal parent. It’s an ordeal we’re grateful for. Judges elsewhere have ripped children from the arms of their biological mothers just because they fell in love with women. Gay fathers, who are often completely dependent on adoption, fare worse.
In a case made famous in March by Rosie O’Donnell, the state of Florida intends to parcel out to a mom-and-dad couple the now healthy son of two men who have fostered him since he was abandoned as an infant with HIV. This is why I feared that my paternal grandparents in Mississippi, on reading my letter explaining about my wife and the son on the way, would travel here and somehow snatch him from me. Instead, they sent us a letter full of powerful love and addressed to Laura and Sarah Conaway.
By claiming me, they arrested my fall, the way I will Nate’s. Others back home have not been treated so kindly. In October, Lambda Legal Defense filed suit on behalf of two Vermont women who adopted a child from Mississippi, then couldn’t get officials there to release a new birth certificate. We intend to take Nate down South in October, carrying papers documenting our legal standing, but what if no one will honor them? These plaintiffs learned that their son, in the eyes of my homeland—and in some way, of Nate’s—has no name, no age, no date on which he entered the world. He is no one. He does not exist.
As a gay parent in training, I’d been taught that we must defend our right to have children, enroll them in the kindergarten down the block, and take them to the zoo on a family pass. But the day those nurses handed me a squalling Nate, I realized we must also defend our children’s lives, sometimes on the level of flesh and blood, more often in terms of their full ticket as human beings. We must give them a deep, unshakable sense of legitimacy that this world can never grant them and therefore can never take away. Sure, lesbians face the risk of being booted from restaurants or stared at on the subway, but for Nate the greater harm would come from my pretending, for even one of his heartbeats, that his mother is not my beloved and I am not his parent.
I must stand beside him and catch him every time, or he will just keep falling. Our language has no distancing euphemism for progeny, no equivalent of the neutered “partner.” Nate either is my child or is not, and while I’ve been willing to camouflage my love for Sarah, I’ll fight anyone anywhere who tries to make me cover up this boy or weaken the tie between us.
For me, defending him begins with putting solid ground beneath his feet on which he can learn to stand. That means giving up the notion of ever passing again. I must be his ima—the Hebrew word for mother that we’re having him call me—with store clerks and civic matrons, in his presence or far from home. For each time I let a stranger’s reference to my “husband” slide, I let go, however briefly, of my grip on this vulnerable son. This baby has pulled me from the closet where I had sometimes retreated—not by convincing me I’ll live better outside, but by showing me he cannot thrive within it.
I always knew passing for straight was a privilege, but I’ve never been so ashamed of myself for doing it. Where I come from, this was how you got along, how you got a job or went to school in peace or rented apartments. My maternal grandfather—a seminarian and Methodist circuit rider—is now thought by some in our family to have passed for white when in actuality he was of mixed African and European descent. It could be he wasn’t white, but he believed he improved his family’s fortunes by hiding.
That kind of slip-through isn’t available to everyone. Maybe they’re too poor, or their shoulders are too butch, or their hips swish an extra beat, or their skin is just a shade too dark. It’s those people, the ones who can never run, with whom I’m newly fixed in solidarity. Nate will notice people looking askance at his mother and me, just as kids watched Jim Crow poll workers asking their mothers how many bubbles were in a bar of soap. He’ll witness slights and slander, but if I endure them with dignity and righteous anger, he’ll be the stronger. Better my child has the courage to hold up his head than the instinct to duck it.
Nate will have to work at this, of course. He has to work at a lot of things, from getting his thumb in his mouth this morning to mastering speech one day. Sometimes in the schoolyard he’ll be D’Artagnan, all grace and flashing sword in defense of principle. Other times, he’ll be Peter at the crucifixion campfire, insisting he knows the condemned man not. I cannot take that struggle from him. It’s neither my duty nor my right. In all its pain and triumph, its comedy and loss, this will be his life. He will make sense of it. I know he will. He’s my son.