(Originally published in Bay Windows, January 10, 2008)
Family Under Fire
Iraq War vet tells of struggles to raise two sons while closeted
Five-year-old William and three-year-old Ryan are the children of decorated U.S. Army officer Cheryl Parker. Like other children of service members, they have dealt with cross-country moves and months without their mother while she was deployed in Iraq. Unlike the others, however, they must forgo many benefits, conveniences and support services offered to military families, or risk revealing that they have another mother, Donna Lewis. This could lead to Parker’s dismissal under the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, even in LGBT-friendly Massachusetts. (Note: Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the family.)
In the close-knit community of an army base, there is a strong chance the young children will inadvertently out their mothers. “When I tried to put William in on-base daycare,” explains Parker, “he would talk about having two moms. A lot of the daycare workers are spouses of military personnel. I don’t need somebody’s wife saying ‘What’s the deal with William Parker?’” The same applies to the other activities provided by the Army family centers, such as kiddie gym classes. “The questions start and then the lying begins, and it’s just too complicated.”
The couple is adamant, however, that however much they must lie to protect their family, they will never have their children do so. Lewis explains “We can’t take them to the commissary together anymore. One of the boys will say ‘Mom? Not you, my other mom.’ We can’t tell him ‘Don’t say that,’ because he’s going to say ‘Why?’ The best way to deal with it is just not to put them in that situation.”
The “situations” are often ones children would relish. “They had this humongous playground on one base that William absolutely loved,” says Lewis. “But if there were a lot of kids around, we couldn’t go, because he might say ‘That’s my mom, my other mom’s at home.’ That’s what kids do. They introduce themselves. If he was going to play by himself, which really sounds sad, then it was okay for him to go to the playground.” She adds, “He’s dying to play soccer, and they have on-base teams for younger kids. We have to find a team off base, away from the area. William can’t go to the swimming pool, he can’t go to movie day, the things other kids are allowed to do.”
Parker says holidays are especially hard. “We had a Thanksgiving function where all the other officers brought their spouses and children. The children were running amok in this big banquet area. I can’t bring my kids to these wonderful things because I’m afraid of what they could say. It would cost me my job.”
They also stayed away from the kids’ holiday party on base, complete with Santa and gifts for each child. “We thought ‘It’s just not worth it.’ We’ll take them to the mall again to see Santa if we have to,” Parker says. They found another alternative, in an off-base organization that has Santa “deliver” a gift that you drop off with them in advance. “We still had to sanitize our house and take down pictures,” recalls Parker, “because God forbid, Santa would be Colonel So-and-So’s retired brother or whatever.” Lewis reflects, “It’s very hard to explain to the children that you hid a picture. That is the saddest part, that even in our own home, we have to hide.”
They cannot ever live on base, where they could get free housing, but where neighbors would be more likely to question Donna’s constant presence and note the boys call her “Mom.” Parker says there are more than financial benefits here. “Living on base, you’re safer, you don’t have the same kind of traffic, you have the medical clinic, the commissary, the PX. Everything’s right there and convenient.”
Instead of spending time on base, the family often finds itself at a local mall that has a play area; momentary fun, but not a place to build lasting friendships. The worries don’t stop at the base gate, however. Parker reflects “You can be at the carnival and say something, and the person behind you could be somebody from your office.”
When the family socializes, it is most often with non-military, same-sex families. “We show them the other moms so they grow up thinking this is normal and this is great.” Lewis worries, however, that this means less exposure to straight families, a view of the world as limiting as the other way around.
As their children grow older, they will miss out on even more. “Some installations have secondary schools,” says Parker, “that often don’t have the issues with drugs and gangs that you have on the outside. If someone is misbehaving, you’re going to know about it a lot quicker. It’s almost like sending your child to a private school for free.” In order to attend school there, the boys would have to lie about their family. The same is true for a base’s teen center, an after-school hangout that also offers field trips and dance nights. “There are not a lot of opportunities like that off base that I know would be as safe,” Parker observes.
Parker would pay for such opportunities, but observes a big advantage to being with other children of military personnel: “Their dads and moms are at war, too. If nothing else, the boys would have a bond because those kids know what it is to be scared. I’ll be gone a lot before I retire. My kids aren’t going to have that support. In a non-military setting, the kids don’t understand. This war is something they read about in the news. It doesn’t affect them.”
Discrimination impacted their family right from the start. When Parker was trying to get pregnant with William, the Army refused to pay for her artificial insemination because she was not married. It cost them thousands of dollars. When Lewis was pregnant (with insemination again paid for out of pocket), she had to go on welfare to get the insurance coverage for Ryan’s birth.
The couple then had to pretend Parker was a single mom of two. She couldn’t do a second-parent adoption of Ryan because adoption papers, showing Lewis as the other mom, would be a matter of public record. (The same is true for marriages.) Instead, they filed paperwork to give Parker guardianship. She explains, “The Army only recognizes Ryan as a dependent, a ‘custodial child,’ not as my son. He’s my son,” she says with conviction. “I don’t fight it because he still has all the rights and privileges as William. If I fight that battle, then I’ll lose the war. My job is what provides for my family.”
If the boys get sick, Parker must leave work to take them to the free on-base hospital, because the Army does not see Lewis as having any standing to dictate their medical care. “Not that I can’t stop what I’m doing,” Parker says, “but it’s so unfair if Donna wants to do those things, and other stay-at-home moms get to waltz right in and get their kids seen.”
Each time Parker is transferred, they have to pay Lewis’s relocation expenses, whereas the Army pays for legal spouses. “If I have to pay $1500 for Donna’s move,” Parker says, “that’s $1500 I could have spent on my kids’ education or some other way that would benefit them.”
The financial and practical hardships are tough, but the couple struggles most with the emotional ones. When Parker’s unit returned from Iraq, Lewis and the boys did not attend their homecoming parade. Parker will soon have a promotion ceremony, which for married officers involves their spouse and children. The boys will stay home with Lewis that day, unable to see their mother rewarded for her work and commitment. When Parker retires, her children will not see Lewis presented with a bouquet and a retirement certificate signed by the President of the United States like other spouses, a gesture of appreciation for her role in caring for the family during Parker’s years of service.
Parker and Lewis know a few other military same-sex couples with children, but not enough to form a support network in the shifting world of deployments and postings. In an email, Victor Maldonado of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network says it is impossible to tell how many such families there are, for the law prevents them from identifying themselves.
Parker expresses the feelings of many LGBT service members when she asks “How do I fight for the rights of others when mine are so restricted? They’re taking convicted felons into the military, but I’m beneath a convicted felon.” The worst part is, she says, “Because of that, my kids have to suffer.”
Parker knows people will ask “Why doesn’t she just quit?” She gives a soldier’s answer: “I’ve known I was gay since I was probably five years old. I’ve known I wanted to be in the military since I was ten, when I saw the marching band go by. This is something that’s been in my blood. It’s easy for people when things get tough just to quit and move on to something else, but I refuse to let them take away my dream. I’ll go out kicking and screaming. It should be your right to defend your country, with no strings attached.”
She wants her children to have a positive view of the military, too. “All I want them to know right now is that the military gives me a good job, it benefits them. They won’t know that I have to live in such fear and secrecy until they absolutely have to. I’m hoping by the time they get old enough, things will be different. I’m being optimistic, but it could happen.”
Lewis adds “We want them to be honest, and we want them to be themselves. We’ve already talked about it — if that means they out us and we lose everything, then to us, that’s God’s will. I am not going to try and teach my babies to be good, upstanding citizens and in the same breath say ‘Lie.’ I can’t. It doesn’t work.”
That’s a sense of values the military should be proud to embrace.