When Steve Sokoll read the letter from the Lower Merion School District, he was furious.
He and his partner, dentist Ira Sheres, had relocated from Rittenhouse Square to Haverford in 2002 to raise their two kids. It was a risky move—there certainly weren’t rainbow flags fluttering on every flagpole. But they knew they couldn’t stay in Center City.
When their son had started preschool at Greene Towne School on Arch Street, they’d discovered something rather odd: City parents were unfriendly (not just to them, but in general). They could have searched for a new home in the region’s traditionally gay enclaves: Mount Airy, New Hope, Collingswood. Instead, they followed the lead of several friends—same-sex parents just like them—to this tony though decidedly un-gay pocket on the Main Line. And they did this for two reasons: the town had excellent schools and a reputation for being liberal. That’s how they found Gladwyne Elementary, where they enrolled their kids.
“We looooved it,” says Sokoll, 51, sitting on the front porch outside his stately stone Tudor with the requisite trampoline in the woodsy backyard and, hanging inside, oil paintings of the kids—Max and Rosie, now 14 and 11. They weren’t the first gay family at Gladwyne, but they were the only one while their kids went there for nine years. And throughout, other parents welcomed them with open arms. The kids were never teased. Every time Sokoll saw the principal, he’d say, “Give Ira my best.”
Then, a couple of years after they moved in, came the library incident.
Since the school community seemed so forward-thinking, Sokoll (a child psychiatrist who treats lots of kids with same-sex parents) thought it would be useful to donate a book, And Tango Makes Three, to the library. Written for preschoolers to third-graders, it’s about two male penguins who are “a little bit different.” The story chronicles the penguins raising a baby—inspired, in part, by a true story of two penguins at New York’s Central Park Zoo.
Unfortunately, the district didn’t go for it. “I found your gift to the classroom to be unacceptable,” an official wrote in a letter to Sokoll, suggesting that the book would be best suited not for the kids’ shelves, but the “parent shelf.” (“Whatever that is,” Sokoll says.) He argued up the district’s chain of command, but the answer came back loud and clear: No.
“It was so cowardly of them,” Sokoll says. And it made a glaring point: Lower Merion was definitely no Gayborhood.
The Gay Migration
Raising children in the Gayborhood would be a love-fest for many gay and lesbian parents (except perhaps when baby starts wailing while “mama squared” and stroller take up two tables outside Valanni during Friday happy hour). There’s built-in acceptance, camaraderie, safety, and families that look just like yours. But good city schools are hard to find, and houses are small. With no backyards. For swing sets.
Which is why more and more LGBT parents are “coming out,” so to speak—and not just to West Chester anymore, but to areas like a remote farm in Berks County where there are as many religious billboards as there are cows.
“Yeah, we were nervous,” says Doug Metcalfe, who moved his family from West Philly to 12 acres in Robeson Township in Berks earlier this year. “We’re still nervous.”
It’s no wonder. This gay exodus is relatively new to many LGBT families. Back in the early ’90s, “Our membership resided almost exclusively in city limits,” says Marc Berman, chair of Philadelphia Family Pride. Not anymore. Sure, 40 percent of members still live in Philadelphia County, but there are 27 percent living in Montco and 12 percent in Bucks, and the rest splits up pretty evenly among South Jersey, Chester and Delco. “With the increased visibility of our families,” Berman says, “LGBT parents see they can raise their families wherever they prefer.”
But there are trade-offs, like librarians who just don’t get it, bullies who target kids, and neighbors who may even shout crude names over the fence.
“Our friends in Philly said, ‘You’re moving to Redneckville out there. Are you sure?’” says Metcalfe, who always dreamed of owning lots of land—and did lots of research on school districts before he took on the hour-long commute into the city, where he works at the Ronald McDonald House. (His partner, Brian, is a physician at nearby Reading Hospital.) “Our friends were far more concerned about our move than the people who lived out here.”
In four months, they’ve not had a single complaint. Ninety percent of their neighbors came to the open house they hosted after moving in. Kids have come over for play dates. There are other same-sex parents at the Robeson Elementary Center in Birdsboro, where their daughter Helen, nine, goes to school, and where their five-year-old, Sara, will enroll in 2012.
“Once you become parents, whether you’re straight or gay, you make friends around the circle of friends your children have,” Metcalfe says. “You find common ground, not because you’re gay, but because you’re parents.”
Escaping the Parent Trap
Maybe the reason so many transplants to the ’burbs are finding it, for the most part, a non-issue isn’t that the country at large is becoming more accepting (though it must be noted that in a 2008 study by the Williams Institute, the top five states with same-sex couples included Utah and Wyoming). Maybe it’s because in lots of ways, being a “parent” is a great equalizer. Dirty diapers, tantrums, and worries over the right school, the right friends, the right time to get ears pierced—those things don’t discriminate.
“Our school has all kinds of activities,” says Nicole Andreacchio Smith, 33, who is raising three daughters in the Parkwood section of the Northeast with her stay-at-home partner of eight years, Holly Stewart, 31. “Other parents and kids see us there and realize, ‘They’re just like us.’”
It helps that there are a dozen other same-sex couples with kids at School Lane Charter School. And that one of the kids’ teachers there bought a book about different types of families (including two-mom ones) to share with the class. And neighbors—whom they don’t even know—even honk in support when they see the rainbow flag on the moms’ car.
“We both grew up in the Northeast,” says Smith, who is a customer service rep for World Imports. “All of our friends are here. We wouldn’t live anywhere else.”
When their middle daughter Isabel, now 10, was teased by a classmate who taunted, “You have two moms and you’re strange,” she shot back, “I’m just as strange as you are.” And that was that.
“I don’t know if people don’t care anymore,” Smith says, “or if they’re just getting used to seeing more and more of us. But people are definitely more accepting of two moms and two dads. Even here.”