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When I married my husband at the turn of the decade, equality was still just an aspiration. Partners were being denied hospital visitation rights. Gay couples were prohibited from adopting children in many states. In 2011 we were pulled out of a Pennsylvania bar and detained by police because our driver’s licenses — which still bore our separate, unmarried names but our shared address — made the authorities think they must be fake.
“Why is your address the same?” the officer interrogated. “Are you 2 brothers or something?”
Darren is African-American, and my heritage is a mix of English and Scottish. Had we been a category on Family Feud, “brothers” would not have been one of the audience picks.
“We’re married,” I replied, with equal parts amusement and annoyance.
“You’re married?” the officer stuttered.
“This is the first I’ve ever come across something like this.”
“Well, it won’t be the last,” my husband said, trying to wrap up the interaction.
We were held for another painful hour while the officer made a fool of himself and we gave him an earful. In the end, the mayor (who happened to be a friend of mine) got involved and offered his apologies and promises of sensitivity training in the police force.
But what if we hadn’t known the mayor? What if the officer who detained us hadn’t been motivated by forgivable naïveté, but rather by bigotry or animus? This time we had been trying to order drinks at a bar. What if next time one of us were trying to visit the other in the hospital, or prove that our son really belonged to us?
I wondered whether the time had arrived when we could build our queer little family without worrying that someone might call it into question.
Eventually, we decided to hyphenate to make sure no one had any opportunity to separate us from our loved ones.
When we moved to Massachusetts in 2013, words like DOMA and DADT seemed long ago and far away, and we were surrounded by friendly faces. We started talking about adopting, and for a moment, I wondered whether the time had arrived when we could build our queer little family without worrying that someone might call it into question.
We knew that the call could come from anywhere in the U.S. When the call came, it beckoned us back to my home state of Pennsylvania.
If Massachusetts led the foray into twenty-first century thinking, Pennsylvania is, if not bringing up the rearguard (thank you, North Carolina), at least in the fourth quartile.
The state has yet to shed some of its outdated ideas, such as Confederate flags, abstinence-only sex ed, and smoking as a fashion statement. My husband and I have generally tried to move through the place in such a way that someone might mistake us for friends.
I was unprepared to lose that ability to cover so abruptly.
We spent 5 days with our son at the Pennsylvania hospital where he had been born. Every day we rang to be buzzed in by the nurses, we rehearsed the same exchange:
“Can I help you?”
“It’s Jonathan and Darren Freeman-Coppadge, here to see Baby Boy Campbell.”
Not once was this sentence ever understood. I usually needed a breath halfway through.
“The Freeman-Coppadges, for Baby Boy Campbell.”
It was hard to know what to call the child. (His mother had named him Adonis, but 2 gay guys cannot raise a son named for the archetype of male beauty. Not even in 2016. Not even in Massachusetts.) We were adjusting to the idea that he was ours — we practiced phrases like “our son” and “my boy” — but calling him by his birth name seemed to undo all that mental adjustment. As long as he was Adonis Campbell, we felt like self-conscious imposters.
Had we been a category on Family Feud, “brothers” would not have been one of the audience picks.
It wasn’t until we were pushing his stroller into Walmart (not a liberal haven) that we realized our days of covering were officially over. If the homophobes were blind or kind enough to ignore us before, there is no mistaking our relationship now that we have a child in tow. We are officially flaunting it, to use their terminology.
Darren and I have learned to live in the tension between how we want to be in public and what we sometimes settle for, recognizing that the discrepancy says more about our perceived safety than about our pride or self-acceptance. But our son will be learning lessons from us long before he has the language to process them. What will he see? Will he notice his Papa avert his eyes when passing strangers? Will he detect it if I’m less affectionate with him or with my husband in public? Will shame and fear crystalize in his psyche before he can comprehend the nuance of my dubious justifications?
These are active questions for me, ones that only get worked out as I lean into the discomfort of finding my place in a heteronormative world. So many straight couples I know in Massachusetts carry different surnames, a privilege they enjoy because no one will ever tell a man and a woman that the child in their arms doesn’t belong to them. I’d like to think the same is true in 2016 for gay couples, but stories from Florida, Alabama, Indiana, Idaho — stories from this decade — still terrify me.
Our son’s name is 30 characters long. It is a line of trochaic tetrameter. It will never fit on his credit cards. It does not have natural nicknames. But it is a declaration — a long-winded, cumbersome proclamation of his rightful place. It tells his story, which is not streamlined. God knows what he’ll do when he gets married. Maybe by then the world will have become a place where I don’t have to rely on copies of marriage certificates and adoption affidavits in my glove box, my freezer, my safety deposit, and my briefcase to prove that I belong to my loved ones. Maybe by then I won’t have to wonder if “family friendly” events are meant to include or exclude mine. Maybe by then we’ll have grown into our aspirations for equality, and the Freeman-Coppadges will be equal in more than name.
Jonathan Freeman-Coppadge is a writer and a new father. He is the fiction editor at Oyster River Pages and he teaches English at Groton School, where he lives with his husband and their son. Check him out on Twitter @jdcoppadge.