Foster kids finally find love, family with their two dads
Braiden and Michael Neubecker know that their parents will make them cocoa every time it snows. The sister and brother look forward to simple road trips and those grand family vacations with all the relatives. They love family game nights. And they know what they can accomplish when they work together.
Life wasn't as sweet before their adoption, when they were wards of the state and bouncing from home to home in the suburbs and elsewhere.
"Before I lived with my two dads, my life was horrible," Braiden wrote in her journal. "I moved five times until my dad and daddy found me."
Braiden, now 11, and her brother, now 10, say they are grateful they finally got matched with parents who are kind, good and loved them enough to adopt them and make their own family. The kids celebrated as a family Saturday at their parents' marriage in a historic suburban church. Braiden and Michael delivered the wedding rings.
"My old family never treated me well. They wouldn't stand up for me," Braiden wrote in her journal. "If my foster sister fought with me, my old mom would just sit there and watch me get hurt, so I would have to fight back. Each time I was at a foster home, the foster parents promised me they would keep me safe and treat my brother and me equally. But they always broke their promise."
David and Lee Neubecker were married in San Francisco a decade ago, but that union later was nullified by courts. Saturday afternoon's wedding at Unity Temple, the Oak Park Unitarian Universalist church that was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and where the Neubeckers are members, was made possible by a law change that went into effect June 1 legalizing same-sex marriages in Illinois. The Neubeckers worked together as a family lobbying for that change.
"We've been together for 14 years and had the kids since 2007. We're already a family," says David Neubecker, 45, before noting that marriage reinforces that bond. "Every parent wants to make sure their children are protected and safe. That's something marriage represents to a child."
Married at Niagra Falls, N.Y., in 2011, Aurora moms Beth Keenan, 37, and Geneva Fry, 29, understand how that legal union can add strength and a universal commonality to the concept of family. They have three daughters (Mary, 20, Katherine, 17, and Adrianna, 16) from Keenan's former heterosexual marriage and added twin sons (Logan and Toby, 6). The kids all have good relationships with Keenan's former husband, who agreed to let them all have the last name Keenan.
"We all have different families, but we all want healthy, happy kids who do well in school and get invited to birthday parties," Beth Keenan says. "All of us deserve the same happiness."
The Keenans and the Neubeckers are part of Rainbow Families -- a group of same-sex parents from the suburbs and beyond who bring their families together for social events, including a winter outing to an indoor water park.
"It's the same as having a mom and a dad, really," says Adrianna Keenan, a high school junior who says she plays soccer and skateboards with friends who never make comments about her two moms.
"Honestly, it's just the same," agrees Katherine Keenan, a senior cheerleader. "It's just two moms. It's no different from having a mom and a dad."
Moving from one home with a father and a mother to another home with a father and mother hadn't worked out for Braiden Neubecker. "At first, I was curious. What would it be like?" she says of her move to a River Forest home with two dads.
"It seems to be more of an issue for adults than for kids," David Neubecker says. When classmates ask about a mom or a "real" dad, Braiden says, "They are my real two dads."
"A lot of my friends will do those 'yo mama' jokes and I don't have a mom, so that's one advantage," Braiden says with a chuckle.
Surprised to discover her dads weren't legally married in Illinois, Braiden wrote a powerful essay in her journal, explaining how her family deserved the same status as ones with a mom and a dad.
"I had posted it on my Facebook just for friends, and suddenly there were more than 50 comments within a short period of time, so we deleted it because we thought it could go wild," remembers a protective Lee Neubecker, 42, founder and president of Forensicon, a computer and network security company. "I showed Braiden, and said bad things could happen and whatnot and she said, 'No, put it back up there.' She said she wanted people to hear what she had to say."
Her essay was heard by politicians in Springfield and Washington and became part of a brief submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"People were reading it and a lot of people wrote notes saying it touched them. And that made me happy to think I helped in some way," Braiden says. "I got really happy because I thought a law was going to change … and I got really happy when it did."
One of those people who did hear what she had to say was Illinois state Rep. Kay Hatcher, a Republican who represents portions of St. Charles, Geneva, Aurora, Batavia, Elburn and Yorkville. The entire Neubecker family made pilgrimages to Springfield to lobby in support of gay marriage and formed a very cordial relationship with Hatcher, who is not running for re-election.
"I think they have a spectacular family. David and Lee really could be on a poster for a successful family, whether traditional or not," Hatcher says now. Despite her personal feelings, Hatcher voted against gay marriage. As a representative of her district, Hatcher says she felt obligated to vote against the bill because 90 percent of the people who contacted her office were against gay marriage.
"As an individual, I am much more concerned about how people show hate rather than how they show love," says Hatcher, who posted Braiden's essay on her office wall and sent the Neubeckers a laminated newspaper story about the bill's passage. "The vote was very painful for me. They didn't have my vote, but they had my heart."
With Saturday's marriage serving as a legal recognition of their family, the Neubeckers can go back to being just another suburban family.
"They do so much for me," Braiden says of her parents. "I feel so safe. I believe I can do anything with my two dads."