I am sitting in a sunlit nursery on the top floor of Inder Dhillon’s Ashbury Terrace house, watching through the wide wall-to-wall windows as the Blue Angels crayon the sky in silver loops. Inder and his boisterous fifteen-month-old daughter, Meera, sit below, on a floor that is covered with toys: purple plastic dinosaurs, green Dr. Seuss books, and a yellow car with eyes. Suddenly Meera climbs out of her Papa’s lap, and crawls across the floor to the other person entering the room—an attractive man in stylishly casual jeans. “Oh, look, Dada’s here,” Inder says. Meera wants to be carried by her other father.
Dada and Papa. The desi “gayby” boom has begun, and it’s rumbling across California’s South Asian community.
“Among same-sex couples where both identify as Asian or Pacific Islander (API),” says Dr. Gary Gates, co-author of The Gay and Lesbian Atlas, “nearly 6 in 10 (57 percent) are raising a child. That figure is not very different from the 7 in 10 different-sex API couples who are raising children.” Little research has been done on Indian same-sex couples specifically, but they make up a sizable percentage of this population.
Inder, a dermatologist, and his partner, Ken, a Corporate Officer, first started talking about children in Spring 2003 when they became domestic partners. “We are both from large families,” Inder explains in his considered, correct way, “and it seemed like a natural progression to have our own kids.” Today they are a family of four: Inder, Ken, Kabir—who is two and a half—and Meera.
In Spring 2004, Inder and Ken began the process. They contacted a local agency—Adoption Connection—to start a private open adoption. First, though, the State had to certify them as Adoption Ready. Certification involves parenting classes, drug tests, submitting medical history, getting written recommendations from non-relatives, and producing employment and financial statements. Social Services also conducts what is known as a home study—a caseworker makes three evaluation visits to your home. Six months later, Inder and Ken were certified.
“Did you ever considering adopting from India?” I ask them.
Inder answers: “India doesn’t allow same gender adoption.”
He’s right. Non-citizens can adopt from India under the Guardians and Wards Act, which allows them to become “guardians.” A guardian then takes the child back to his or her country, and adopts under the laws of that country. As per the 2006 Central Adoption Resource Authority (CARA) guidelines, both married couples and single people are eligible to adopt, but same-sex couples are not.
Given that India still criminalizes homosexuality under section 377 of the IPC, these restrictions are unsurprising. In contrast, heterosexuals started paving the way for same-gender families in the West a while back, according to family historian Stephanie Coontz. “Heterosexual marriage used to be about property, status, respectability, and a strict division of labor more than about love, intimacy, and recognition of a partner’s individual qualities,” Coontz says. “As that changed, heterosexuals began to demand the right to marry against parental or societal disapproval (think inter-racial marriage) and the right not to marry if true love was not involved—even if the woman had accidentally become pregnant. This is when gay men and lesbians said that they ought to be able to gain legal recognition and social respectability for their love relationships too.”
Marriage in India, however, still remains an economic and procreative institution rather than a romantic one. Despite Bollywood’s three-songs-and-a-fight glorification of romantic love, arranged marriages are still considered the “respectable” thing. Same sex relationships—leave alone same-sex adoptions—are not even on the table.
But, as is common in a rigorous, rules driven society like India, people have found ingenious alternatives. Like surrogacy. Unlike adoption, there are no laws governing surrogacy, only guidelines issued by the Indian Council of Medical Research. However, clinics sometimes have their own regulations. According to one Reuters article, India’s most famous surrogate clinic, the Akanksha clinic in the Amul-butter town of Anand, refuses to treat gay and lesbian couples. But there are other clinics that do, such as the Rotunda clinic in Mumbai.
I ask Ken if they considered surrogacy. “We did, but we decided on adoption,” he says in the quiet refined tone that characterizes his speech. “There are so many children out there that needed a home.”
Dear Birth Mother
The matching process started with a letter—actually a professional brochure with pictures—to the prospective birth mother. The agency helped Ken and Inder write theirs, suggesting that they redo the pictures of their house because most birth mothers are suburban and like suburban looking houses.
They didn’t know how long the matching would take. For one, they were looking for biracial children—since Ken is African American and Inder is Indian—and for another, they wanted newborns because they wanted to be in the baby’s life from the very beginning. “In fact,” Inder tells me, “Ken cut Kabir’s cord, and I cut Meera’s cord.”
They were matched within a week.
“Gay Dads actually get matched faster,” says Ken, “because most young women like the idea of being the baby’s only mother.”
The baby’s mom—Kabir’s mom—was around 7 months pregnant at the time of the matching. She was a 22 year old in St. Louis who already had one child.
“One of the big things for her—and later for Meera’s mother as well,” says Ken, “was that we lived in California—which is sort of romanticized. She had never seen the ocean and she wanted her baby to see the ocean. When we told her that he could see the ocean from our house, she was thrilled. After the adoption, she called and asked, ‘Has he seen the ocean yet?’
“And we said, ‘He has seen both oceans, the Atlantic and the Pacific.’”
About a month after having been matched, Inder and Ken arranged to meet Kabir’s mother for the first time. They flew into St. Louis on a Friday, and they were supposed to meet with her for brunch on Saturday morning. At 8 a.m., they received a call from her. She said, “My water just broke.”
Ken and Inder then did something very practical—they rushed to the mall and bought clothes and flowers for the baby and dolls for the older child. Then they rushed to the hospital and the baby was born.
Kabir arrived 30 days early, in February 2005, almost a year after Inder and Ken started searching for him.
“After that we had to finalize the adoption with the birth state—it’s called Interstate Compact,” says Ken. “It took about two weeks, and all of that time we were staying at a Residence Inn with a newborn! And then we booked tickets to fly back. That was the first time it hit us that we had a baby—when we bought three tickets: Ken McNealy, Inder Dhillon, and Kabir Dhillon McNealy.”
They were almost done. Post-placement visits followed, and finally, a few months later, Dianne Feinstein’s daughter, Judge Katherine Feinstein Mariano, made the adoption official and gave Kabir a teddy bear.
A year later, in July 2006, Meera came into their family in the same way. All three of them, including Kabir, were in the hospital when Meera was born.
Things a Daddy Should Know
Inder leaves to get Kabir, who is napping in his room. I ask Ken if their parenting experiences have been different from those of heterosexual couples. He doesn’t really think so, “We all want the same things for our children.”
He remembers an incident: “Once, we were both traveling with Kabir, and the security guard at the airport asked us, ‘Where is the mother? At home?’”
“The socialization of child rearing is very Mommy-centric,”he continues. “For instance, I was planning to subscribe to Parenting magazine, and the subtitle was ‘Everything a mommy should know!’”
So what about the things a Daddy should know?
Family rituals and gender roles have changed remarkably over the last 40 years, says Dr. Coontz: “Heterosexuals began to repeal the laws that until the 1970s and 1980s had assigned different roles to husbands and wives. Men (but not women) were legally obliged to support the family; women (but not men) were legally obliged to keep house, rear the children, and have sex (which is why marital rape was not illegal until the 1980s).” When those laws were repealed, Coontz explains, marriage roles began to be a matter of individual choice and negotiation.
And what hasn’t changed is changing. Ken, for instance, has learned how to do Meera’s hair. And where to buy footless tights and leggings. “I’ve joined a mommy chat board and they are a few Daddies on it—not that I want to reveal my handle,” he grins, “but it’s Daddybear—and I’ve asked questions like where to buy footless tights and what is age appropriate for ear piercing. I had this question as to when you wear both bloomers and tights, which one goes on the outside and discovered that whatever is matching is on the outside.”
He says mock seriously, “I don’t want my daughter talked about!”
Many Indian families, in contrast, are still very gender structured. The mother is the primary “ground” and “host” of South Asian families, says Dr. Alzak Amlani, a Bay Area psychologist. “When two men choose to raise children, there is a lot of concern that the child or children do not have a mother. There is plenty of pity towards the children who have no mother. At times the grandmother and other maternal figures will ignore the homosexual aspect of the family and offer mothering to the children anyway.”
Inder and Ken have been lucky. “Inder’s mom, my mom, and his sisters are all very close to the kids,” says Ken, “We believe that it is important to expose Meera to feminine influence, and we celebrate holidays like Mother’s Day.” He adds, “We also have a full time female nanny. We had many male nannies apply but we decided that there was enough testosterone in the house!”
Inder returns with a just-awake Kabir, who is a shy, quiet boy with beautiful eyes. “Our families are our biggest support groups,” he says, “We both have large, extended families. One Thanksgiving there were 60 people in the house. 110 people were there for their birthdays.”
Here’s where the embracing, extended Indian family—with its Aunties who want to fatten you up for your own good and third cousins whom you have to see every month because they are family—can actually be a powerful support structure. But often, in South Asian communities, Amlani explains, there isn’t much support from the family for same-sex partnerships. His answer, then, is to have a support system outside the family: “The couple will have to ‘create’ their own family based on values and needs of their nuclear family. This often means less connection with the South Asian people and more with white Americans.”
Inder and Ken do face some other issues that heterosexual parents don’t. Immigration, for one. The Federal Defense of Marriage act defines marriage as a “union between one man and one woman” (This means that opposite sex spouses can be sponsored, but same-sex partners can’t).
Inder relates an experience that they had while passing through immigration on their way back from Canada: “We’d filled out one form as a family, but the immigration agent was very surly to us and told us that the government does not recognize us as married and that we should fill out two forms. Ken replied by saying that we were not married—we were domestic partners—but he still insisted that we fill out two forms.”
I wonder about discrimination: are they afraid that the kids will be discriminated against? But they are calmly confident. “All of us face some degree of discrimination,” Inder says, “Race, color …”
Ken agrees, “We hope to equip them with enough confidence to cope.” That preparation has already begun. “Kabir is starting pre-school. We didn’t want them to go to a pre-school where they would be the only children from a same gender family,” says Ken, “so he goes to one where families come in all shapes and sizes.”
Is this rainbow-colored optimism? Not in California. In India, on the other hand, social discrimination would be a major concern. Homosexual couples are rarely imprisoned under section 377, but they may be harassed by the police, or by their own families. In 2004, the relatives of two gay men attacked them after they exchanged vows. A lesbian couple was asked to vacate their Delhi home by their landlord after they got married. In some extreme cases, same-sex couples have committed joint suicides.
Politically, the LGBT movement in India has just begun. In 2003, an NGO called the Naz foundation filed public interest litigation against section 377. The same year, the first gay parade was held in India. And numerous same-sex marriages are happening in different parts of the country. People continue to find their own innovative, intricate solutions. In 2004, a married woman in Kerala threatened to commit suicide if she couldn’t be with her lesbian lover. The blackmail worked: her husband married her lover too, and now all three live together.
Interestingly, as author Ruth Vanita describes in her influential book Same Sex Love, Hindu mythology has several references to same gender offspring. Lord Ayyappa, for instance, is the son of Vishnu and Shiva. And speaking of alternative family arrangements—remember Draupadi? Even now, as rigid as Indian religious thinking is in some ways, it’s equally fluid in others. A Shaiva priest who conducted a lesbian wedding told Vanita that marriage was “a union of spirits” and “the spirit is not male or female.”
All this goes to suggest, perhaps, that in India, social validation matters more than legal validation. Indian marriages do not require licenses and are rarely registered. They are sanctioned by family and community, and it is the permission of family and community that most couples seem to want.
And that permission is growing, again in uniquely Indian ways. A 2006 BBC story about Wetka Polang and Melka Nilsa, a lesbian couple in Orissa who married each other in a public, tribal wedding ceremony, reports that the couple faced opposition at first, but after they paid “fines” to the village—a pair of oxen, a barrel of alcohol and food—everyone relented. Supposedly, the two women were planning to adopt the son of Polang’s elder brother. So maybe same gender families are forming in India too, in quiet Eastern villages, unrecognized by law, unassociated with any kind of revolution, but just as content as the ones in tranquil San Francisco.
The Starbucks Test
Ken shows me an empty Starbucks coffee cup with the name “Meera” on it. “Before the children were born,” he says, “We decided to see if the names that we had chosen for them could be pronounced easily. So we went to Starbucks and ordered coffee under those names. We called it the Starbucks Test. If the barista spelt it right, the name passed.”
I am impressed. Yet another clever way of working within the system to do something non-traditional. And I am reminded that this family is assimilating in two different ways—not only are they a same-sex family, they are also a multicultural one.
But neither Ken nor Inder would have things any other way. “There is a saying in adoption,” says Inder, “Your children will find you and we absolutely believe they have.”
Sandhya Char writes from San Francisco.
Daddy and Papa, PBS documentary about same-sex parents in the United States
I Exist, documentary about the Middle-Eastern LGBT community