Just recently, I was going through some of my old files on my computer and came across a feature I wrote in April 2010. It detailed the life of a lesbian couple and their struggle to gain custody of several children that one of the partners had in a previous relationship. The story was heartbreaking to write about and detailed how convoluted the Florida adoption law was at the time. While it is now legal to adopt in Florida for LGBT couples, I figured this piece would highlight the pain that so many LGBT individuals and couples continue to face across the nation and the globe.
It’s a sunny and mild late afternoon in the spring and 7-year-old Aly Forster is perched up on a bench at the Main Library in Jacksonville, Florida, enjoying a fantasy novel in the shade of the third floor courtyard. Aly’s mother, 26-year-old Eleanor Forster, is a few feet away, grading her daughter’s math homework, waiting for her theater class to start. She is calm and collected, a remarkable quality given her current situation. Her open nature to her life is staggering as it is a testament to her willpower. 2009 was a year of turmoil for Forster, filled with loss, love, and countless struggles. Nothing could have prepared her for what she faced and continues to deal with today.
At the beginning of the year, after discussing it with her current husband, Eleanor began a romantic relationship with a woman, Bianca Colmenarez, who she met at nursing school. By March, Forster, her husband, and Colmenarez were set to move into a home in the Riverside neighborhood.
“I was naive to think that this situation was going to work,” Forster said. “Financially, it was perfect. There would be three incomes and there wouldn’t be a divorce situation.” Unfortunately, what occurred did not match her expectations.
“The night before we were supposed to move in, he freaked out and disappeared with my daughter Kimberly and drained almost $1,000 from my bank account. I knew at that point there wasn’t going to be an ideal situation,” she said.
Forster’s daughter Aly is from a previous father that granted her custody after he went into the military. But after word got out that Forster was in a same-sex relationship, she lost temporary custody of both of her children. Forster relocated to Fernandina Beach while Colmenarez stayed in Jacksonville. Aly was eventually returned to her care, but Forster is in the midst of a divorce battle that has taken Kimberly away from her. Because of her sexuality, she has visitation rights only as long as Bianca doesn’t sleep at her home. Regardless of the marital crisis, Forster believes she’s a good parent that doesn’t deserve what has happened to her.
“The reality is it has nothing to do with my parenting. It has nothing to with whether I can do my job well. Whether I’m with a man or a woman doesn’t change who I am and how I perform in family life,” she said
Florida’s convoluted legal rights for the LGBT community
At a recent symposium held at the Florida Coastal School of Law, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights in Florida were discussed in detail. As the day unfolded, it became increasingly clear that the rights that homosexual individuals and same-sex couples have in other states are not recognized in Florida.
According to statistics from Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a civil rights organization dealing with the LGBT community, Florida ranks among the lowest legal representation for same-sex relationships. Rights to adoption and marriage are banned. Custody and financial benefits are severely limited. Homosexual rights organizations across Florida and the south have attempted to change legislation, but many of the resources have gone to the more liberal south Florida and Orlando. Northeast Florida, a historic battle zone for civil rights, has proved to be a difficult place for homosexual rights. Even with the presence of organizations such as Lambda Legal, the American Civil Liberties Union and Equality Florida, gays have a hard time blending in.
That’s where Frieda Saraga steps in.
A mother of three homosexual adults, Saraga is the president of the Jacksonville chapter of Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, a non-profit 501(c)(3) awareness organization. PFLAG strives to educate, support and increase understanding of the homosexual community.
“It’s a dialogue, not an argument,” Saraga said. “Once you try to change their minds, you’ve already lost the battle.”
Saraga believes change in Florida is possible, but that change is gradual. In order for gays and lesbians to be recognized, she thinks that all homosexuals need to be transparent about their lives in order to break down stereotypes, ignorance and social boundaries.
“Once people realize that these people are their loved ones, family members and friends, an impact has been made. Not everyone is going to change their views, but at least we can open the dialogue,” she said.
A form of dialogue for change came in 2008 when the Florida Marriage Amendment, also known as Proposition 2 came up for discussion. A citizen-proposed constitutional amendment that proposed banning same-sex marriage in a state that already banned same-sex marriage sparked a huge debate. However, it passed by a large enough margin to put a damper on any progress for the LGBT community and Florida saw more of the same.
For couple Patrick Tubbs and Dusty Atha, anti-gay adoption laws have caused distress and turmoil for would-be parents. In the wake of Anita Bryant’s 1977 “Save Our Children” campaign, both gays and lesbians were prohibited from adopting children in Florida, effectively becoming the only state that explicitly forbids adoption by same-sex couples and by homosexuals. Florida also prevents second-parent adoption, which adoption without a biological parent from losing any parental rights. Yet, by some unclear, unfiltered laws, gay couples are able to foster children.
But hope has been restored for Tubbs and Atha to start their family. The couple been together for over six years. Tubbs is the more outspoken of the couple. He describes himself as a pragmatist and a realist. Atha, the more sensitive one, tends to avoid confrontation.
“We compliment each other pretty well,” Tubbs said.
Fed up by the legal battle in Florida, they have managed to bypass the system by using a surrogacy agency located in California that is under the jurisdiction of California law. They have been on a waiting list for a year.
“I thought that kids would be unattainable since I was gay and in the state of Florida where adoption is illegal for gay people,” Tubbs said. They have reached out to Growing Generations, a surrogacy agency in Los Angeles that caters to the LGBT community. They came across a match, but had to put it on hold as they were in the middle of building a new home to raise children.
“I considered moving short-term to another state when I discovered Growing Generations. When I found them, I found a way to get around Florida law without moving out of Florida,” Tubbs said.
Florida is in a complex state of mind when it comes to parenting issues. For Tubbs, Atha, Forster and Colmenarez, the laws have put a strain on their relationships and livelihoods. The progress Tubbs and Atha have made gives some sort of a beacon to Forster and Colmenarez, but both women are trying to remain realistic about the situation at hand.
“It has been very difficult,” Forster said. “I have been completely floored in court.”
The divorce hearings and custody battle have left Forster only seeing Kimberly every other week. Forster makes time to see her outside of her scheduled time by attending school events.
“It’s not time I get, it’s time I make,” she said. “I have to make time to see her outside the classroom.”
The courtroom setting has been less than positive for Forster.
“I was questioned about my sex life. The judge asked me about crazy things like what if Aly comes to the bedroom door? The judge worded the order the way he wanted it and absolutely trashed my testimony. They made it the way they wanted it to sound so it would hold up in court,” she said.
The legal process has been a strenuous emotional battle for Forster.
“It’s hard. Bianca and I have been together and it’s a steady thing. It’s hard to deal with assumptions that I’m a bad parent simply because I’m a lesbian,” Forster said.
But Forster’s woes aren’t only legal ones. She said she has had a hard time dealing with social interactions as a result of her relationship with Colmenarez.
“We drive past play groups in Fernandina to go to play groups in Jacksonville because I don’t feel it’s appropriate to walk into a play group with her and not know what the reaction is going to be. It could be fine, but it’s likely that it’s not going to be. I don’t think that’s fair for Aly to get ousted because my lifestyle is not acceptable,” Forster said.
Explaining the relationship to Aly has been another tough challenge for Forster because of Aly’s young age. The line between what is okay and what isn’t has been something Forster and Colmenarez deal with on a daily basis.
“I don’t hide my relationship from Aly, but at the same time I’m not sure she exactly knows. She understands that she and I are together in some sense of what she understands as together. She has been exposed to other same-sex couples. She knows that people love who they love,” Forster said. “We’ve talked about what society wants to define as normal versus what individuals are and what’s between those two lines. She’s been made aware of that.”
For Colmenarez, the relationship has been a learning experience.
“At the beginning when all of this was going on, we weren’t sure what was going on. Almost every week it was like, what are we doing? Am I doing the right thing? Is this the right thing for the girls? I think it goes both ways. She’s a lot more emotional than I am so I’ve been able to take a different approach,” Colmenarez said.
More reserved than Forster, Colmenarez stressed the importance of keeping things together the way they are despite any negative reactions.
“We got to do what we got to do,” she said. “It’s been hard. A lot of people don’t deal with any of this stuff in their lifetime. We kind of have all of this in one fabulous package. It makes you wonder if you’re doing the right thing and nobody can answer that for you. I just try to give the girls as much as I can.”
Currently, Forster’s divorce hearing is at a standstill. She would like an agreement to split custody with her ex-husband, but is wary that the battle will continue on for quite some time. It is unclear what the results will be for Forster, but the case is a fine example of the problems the LGBT community faces in Florida.