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Making a Family Without a Marriage

The son and daughter of lesbians think of their mothers as a wedded couple. Reminders that they aren't often arise.

October 16, 2006|Lee Romney | Times Staff Writer

Taped to Gavin McNeely Odabashian's bedroom wall is her "Hall of Hotties," where a red paper heart marked "husband" accords special status to heartthrob Jake Gyllenhaal.

"Dark hair, blue eyes, kind of scruffy," said Gavin, 15, listing her top hottie qualities recently as she settled in with her Spanish homework.

Downstairs, 12-year-old Baylor McNeely Odabashian hunkered in front of his "Gettysburg" computer game, remaking Confederate history in slippers he pilfered from his sister. A Darth Vader poster hangs on his bedroom wall next to one showing a dove of peace.

The siblings have a life many might envy: A 3-year-old golden retriever named Eli and a couple of parakeets named Fleebus and Zeus II. Private schools that challenge them academically and socially. And two loving parents who will soon celebrate their 20th anniversary.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday October 24, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Lesbian couple: An information box accompanying an article in the California section Oct. 16 about the children of a lesbian couple identified Dr. Ellen Perrin as a professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University. She is at Tufts-New England Medical Center's Floating Hospital for Children in Boston.

But Gavin and Baylor's parents cannot marry. They are lesbians, known around this 1911 California Craftsman south of San Francisco as "Mommy" and "Mama." (A simple hollered "mom" will do if the request is generic.)

That makes these children supporting actors in one of the modern era's most contentious legal and social dramas.

In California, an appeals court this month upheld the prohibition on same-sex marriage in a case that will head to the state Supreme Court.

The justices steered clear of the "procreation argument" endorsed by recent high court rulings in New York and Washington. Those courts ruled in part that the state has an interest in steering couples who can have unplanned pregnancies into marriage to promote an upbringing by a biological mother and father.

But in the California ruling, children nevertheless played a role: The justices acknowledged the state's interest in promoting family stability in gay and lesbian households but said domestic partnership laws adequately do that.

Those pressing the case for same-sex marriage say children should not be central to the debate, because heterosexuals who can't or don't wish to have children are not barred from marrying. And, they say, children of same-sex unions are harmed by the exclusion.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has backed same-sex marriage rights, noting that studies show children of gay and lesbian unions fare just as well as those of heterosexual ones and that marriage enhances family stability. The American Psychiatric Assn., American Psychoanalytical Assn. and other such groups have issued similar statements.

Same-sex marriage opponents counter that such research is largely flawed by small sample size and bias, and they cite other studies of children of heterosexuals that show those raised by their biological mothers and fathers did best.

"A just, compassionate society should never intentionally create a motherless or fatherless family," said Bill Maier, vice president of Focus on the Family and a child and family psychologist who has written a book arguing against same-sex marriage and parenting.

Largely missing from the discussion are the voices of children like Gavin and Baylor, who are part of such families regardless of the law. Their mothers, Ash McNeely, vice president of a community foundation, and Elisa Odabashian, West Coast director of Consumers Union, vowed to raise a family shortly after they drafted the commitment pledge that hangs framed on their living room wall.

Each gave birth to one child, using the same sperm donor, a family friend. Each adopted the other's child, making them the first San Mateo County couple to do so after this state's Supreme Court confirmed that right.

The decision placed them among the California same-sex couples who in 2000 were raising more than 70,000 children. (Nationwide, more than a quarter of a million children were being raised by same-sex couples that year, an analysis of U.S. Census data shows, although many believe those numbers are conservative.)

On a recent evening, Gavin bounded around the kitchen in her volleyball shorts ("That's why I'm wearing spandex," she reassured a visitor), prodding her mothers for advice on how to microwave a yam.

Mascara makes her large eyes larger, a trait her open face enhances. If she is the emotional one, her sails filling without warning, Baylor is the rudder, steady to his core. He is "wicked smart," his sister offered, explaining why his last school bored him -- a description he rejected in favor of a specific accounting of the school's failings.

With dirty blond hair and a "nerds have more fun" motto, he is also the "political one," Odabashian said, whose "righteous indignation factor" has given him a strong sense of self.

"Even my braces are trying to make me straight," Baylor joked of the biases that compel him to chastise schoolmates. "I want gay teeth!"

Before conversation turned in earnest to family structure, however, it was time for "two goods and two bads," a dinner table twist on "how was your day?" that often elicits detailed fodder for life lessons.

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