Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Snapshot: The Friedman-Zwerin family

Joshua, Jeff and Andy

Jeff Friedman is a former lawyer turned stay-at-home dad. He and his partner Andrew Zwerin met in 1984 as high school students and have been together for more than 22 years. They currently live in Rockville Centre, NY with their son Joshua. The Friedman-Zwerin family became involved as community activists with the Pride Agenda in February of 2007, but have been active as “out” parents in their Long Island town since adopting their son four years ago. The following is an account of the Friedman-Zwerin family in Jeff's words.

I never had the chance to register at Fortunoff's or even Target for that matter. I never had the chance to stand up before family and friends and thank them for attending my wedding celebration. More importantly, I never received that license which would officially acknowledge our relationship and declare our union as real and worthy of protections. And yet, what I have received over the last two decades is something much deeper. I have been blessed with the greatest gift of all-LOVE.

For me, it all started when I transferred into an eleventh grade chemistry class. The teacher instructed me to sit next to “Mr. Zwerin”, who sat in the far back corner of the class. Mr. Zwerin, or Andy, as everyone else knew him, was a cute boy with big blue eyes. I vividly remember the light blue Ocean Pacific pants he was wearing that first encounter. Most of all, I remember the feeling that came over me in a somewhat euphoric way just from being near him. We instantly became best friends. Andy and I went everywhere together. We became known by our group of friends as “JeffandAndy”, as if it were one word. Looking back, it was in these early days of our relationship when our souls started to become one. It was sometime after the first five or six months from our first meeting that we became more then friends. I had just turned 17 and I knew with whom I wanted to spend the rest of my life.

With that epiphany came more questions. How was I going to tell my mom and dad, my family or our friends that we were gay? I wanted to be a parent and everyone in the LGBT community was talking about AIDS, not parenting. We chose to focus on living our lives and not about answering questions. Our senior year in high school--although closeted--was the foundation of our life together. Our daily conversations concerning our goals and aspirations were only stymied by our youthfulness. After we both were accepted at The State University of New York at Albany, it seemed natural to everyone that we would room together. Our conversations
continued in Albany and so did our closet. It was here that we made our first real home together. I learned how to cook and Andy learned how to use a fire extinguisher.

Being closeted had collateral consequences. We never had the need, albeit the courage to walk into a gay bar. Andy didn’t really drink and neither of us was interested in going out to “meet” anyone. We had each other and that was all we needed. Not going out to “the bars” also meant that all of our friends were straight—and looking back I think that almost all of our friends suspected we were gay. Our “closet” was mostly in our head.

For us, not taking part in the LGBT community was merely a reality and not a point of contention. We were young, had each other, and were fulfilled. We were in love and closeted. I remember the conversation we had in Albany when we were trying to come to terms with our being gay. The words gay and parent seemed to be mutually exclusive to us. To admit that we were gay meant the improbability of becoming parents. For me, my closet door would not open until I came to terms with that perceived reality. We knew our relationship was special but we didn't think it would survive. As college was coming to an end so to, we thought, might our relationship.

I drove out to Ohio to attend law school. This was a difficult time for me. I left Andy in New York because we did not have the courage to be who we were. It took Andy only four weeks before he flew out to see me. That weekend after Andy left, I knew our relationship would last forever. It was now just a question of how. There were many trips back and forth between New York and Columbus that year. It took being apart for just nine months before Andy officially moved into an apartment with me in Columbus. As I was attending law school, Andy was getting his masters in computer science. We tried the gay bar scene for the first time and concluded that gay or straight we were not much into bars. We also started to come to terms with the fact that we were gay. By the time I completed law school I better learned not only who I was but also what I wanted to accomplish in life.

When we came back to New York I knew we needed to start opening the closet door. I could not see myself without Andy. We had been joined together in our own “holy” matrimony years earlier and we now needed to allow our family and friends to fully participate in our lives. As we moved into to a small two bedroom apartment in the Cobble Hill section of Brooklyn, we began the process of informing family, friends and co- workers that we were gay and a couple. Almost everyone had already figured that out. We had apparently outed ourselves by the way we lived our lives--by our actions and not our words.

Our professional lives grew as well. I became a partner in a small law firm and Andy was being rapidly promoted in his job in the IT department at a division of Time Warner. We purchased a co-op in Brooklyn Heights, and then a lake house in Pennsylvania that we use as a second home. We also started to travel the world. Although we still almost never went to gay bars in New York, we have managed to see them in such places as Hong Kong, Bali, Buenos Aires, Rio, Mykonos and London. As the years passed, we did everything we set out to accomplish. It was time for the family we created to expand.

The process of adoption had its emotional highs and lows. We were fortunate to work with an agency that was quite accepting of our family. We were unsuccessful in our quest to adopt a child in both Guatemala and Russia. Those rejections, besides taking time and money, were emotionally difficult. We also discovered problems with adoption in the U.S. It appeared that we were being discriminated against because of the fact that the biological mother or father can require that prospective parents be a married couple. As most LGBT people cannot marry, we were not considered qualified to be on the list of potential parents. The whole process of adoption took us years. By the time we were informed about our son Joshua, we were just about ready to give up.

The day we found out about Joshua was hectic. I was running around doing some last minute packing for a trip we had planned to San Francisco. The trip was going to provide us the opportunity to recharge and to discuss our options about the future of our family without children. It was 2:30 pm when I received the phone call from our adoption coordinator informing me that that a young woman was on the way to the hospital to be induced. We would be the parents of a boy sometime the following morning. We had always assumed that we would have at least 60 days notice before becoming parents--not just 17 hours. After my sister helped us quickly order an entire baby's room worth of stuff, with car seat in hand we made the trip to the hospital where we would meet our son. The second I held Joshua in my arms I knew he was ours. Without a single medical record on hand to make an informed decision, we took Joshua into our family. I think it was the proudest day of my life. Being successful in our careers was insignificant when weighed against the rewards of adopting. I never believed a gay couple, us, JeffandAndy would ever be parents. What a successful, unbelievable, unimaginably joyous day in our lives.

Having Joshua eventually meant moving from our apartment in Brooklyn to our home in Rockville Centre, a suburban community in Nassau County. Joshua gave being “out” a new meaning. I thought I was fully out until I witnessed my son outing us to everyone. The employees at the local grocery store, the cashier at the Rite Aide, the rabbi, the nice lady at the mall, the teachers, the administrators, the sanitation workers, all have been told by Joshua that he has two daddies and no mommy. He is also very proud of that accomplishment.

Being a stay at home parent is nothing like I expected it would be. No one ever warned me how much laundry there was. No one ever warned me of the somewhat protected and exclusive woman's group called the “soccer moms”. It has been somewhat of a challenge breaking into a domain that has traditionally been held by women. Gender role discrimination was something of a shock to me. However, raising Joshua is not only my most important task--it is the one I enjoy most. To watch your child develop on a daily basis is so amazing and mere words can not describe it.

We have also started to connect with the greater LGBT family. I knew the LGBT community has always been there for us, what I didn't know is how accepting and warm it is. We have become ground breakers and outspoken regarding LGBT issues in our small conservative town. We have been the first openly gay family at the doctor's office, the school, the camp, the temple, and in the neighborhood. We have been educating by our mere presence. News flash: there actually are healthy, well-rounded families headed by same-sex couples. And we are a living example.

Last year, at 38 years old and with no prior signs of problems, I experienced a sudden heart attack. This was a real shock. My “husband” of then almost 21 years filled out the papers at the hospital, but he was still unable to sign them. At such a stressful time in Andy's life, he should not have been confronted with this form of discrimination. How harsh to inform us that our relationship is not worthy of the same respect that married couples share. I have never witnessed a hospital worker ask a wife to prove her relationship with her husband; they just sign the paperwork. Yes, we each have a health care proxy, but we do not always carry it around. It was a good thing that my mother lives nearby and was able to sign all the necessary papers.

As my health has improved and another year has passed I still am in awe with how truly blessed I am. All of my adult life, the past 22 years, I have spent with the man who still gives me that euphoric feeling when I am near him. I have also been blessed with a beautiful son, who is now almost four. Every time we celebrate a holiday at home with our extended family it makes me smile. I still don’t have the china from Fortunoff’s that I wanted. But more significantly, I know I have the life I’ve always dreamed of having.

This is the first in a series of “snapshots” of LGBT New Yorkers and their families.

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