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Eugene Weekly : 12.21.06

Maters or Paters Familias?

Same-sex parents want their props from The Register-Guard

BY SUZI STEFFEN

May 14, 2005: Sharon and Becky Flynn proudly announce the birth of their daughter Hailey
November 1992: Karm Hagedorn and Sheryl Bernheine proudly announce the birth of their daughter Bailey
December 1993: Alicia Hays and Adelka Shawn proudly announce the birth of their son Jackson
November 2005: Molly and Kari Kenzie proudly announce the birth of their son Owen
May 1999: Chris and Anne Donahue proudly annouce the birth of their son Caleb.

Becky Dinwoodie and Sharon Flynn were waiting for a plane in the Denver airport in late 1997, returning home from visiting Dinwoodie's parents. They started playing Scrabble on the floor. This attracted the attention of several young children, and the kids came over to see what was up. "There was one little girl who didn't even know how to spell," Dinwoodie says, "and Sharon told her, 'Here, take some letters, I'll help you,' and it was right then I knew that I wanted to have children with this woman."

They waited until Dinwoodie finished law school and Flynn finished her medical residency, and they looked for jobs in a "gay-friendly community." In Vermont, they celebrated a civil union; they held a ceremony in Massachusetts, and Dinwoodie took Flynn's last name. "We knew we wanted a family, and we didn't want anyone to think that one mom was the real mom and the other was just someone the real mom was dating," Becky Flynn explains.

They moved to Eugene, where Becky had done some grass-roots organizing for the Human Rights Campaign in 1996. "We were looking for a place to put down roots," Becky says, and what they'd heard about Eugene's progressive, university town atmosphere impressed them. Plus, they're both runners, and the Track Town image proved irresistible. Sharon started working at Sacred Heart Medical Center, and Becky clerked for the Oregon Supreme Court. They bought a house. And Sharon's biological alarm clock went off.

"We talked about adoption," Sharon says, as their daughter climbs over her lap in their College Hill house. Becky says, "But Sharon just really wanted to be pregnant!" Becky's cousin stepped up as a donor so that Sharon and Becky's child would share genes with both sides of the family, and they drafted a contract so he signed away parental legal rights or obligations. "We were very fortunate; I got pregnant the first time we tried," Sharon says. And for the months of Sharon's pregnancy, everyone from birthing class peers to the nurses at Sacred Heart treated them just like any other pregnant couple. Becky says, "We felt really embraced by the community."

Hailey Flynn was born on May 14, 2005, a couple of days after Sharon was induced. And a staffer from Sacred Heart asked Sharon to fill out the paperwork for The Register-Guard to put Hailey's birth announcement in the paper. That's standard procedure at McKenzie-Willamette Medical Center and Sacred Heart as well as in the PeaceHealth Nurse Midwifery Center. In the spot marked "father," Sharon wrote Becky's name and replaced the word "father" with "other mother." The Sacred Heart staff person told Sharon that she wasn't sure the R-G would print both mothers' names. They called the paper and learned that because Becky wasn't a biological parent, the paper wouldn't print her name; instead, the announcement would read "May 14, 2005 Flynn – Sharon Flynn, of Eugene, a daughter." No Becky, as if she hadn't been there when Sharon got pregnant or during the nine months of waiting. As if she wouldn't be the one staying home to take care of Hailey during the first year of Hailey's life. As if she wasn't a parent. Of course, the person talking to Sharon said, the paper could print the name of the sperm donor as the father. Outraged, the Flynns refused.

"Everything up to that point had been wonderful," Sharon says. But the R-G's policy hit her hard: "I couldn't stop crying and crying," she says. The story grew as the Flynns found other women and adoptive parents who felt burned by the policy as well. As Sharon went back to work and Becky stayed home to raise Hailey, they kept on trying to get the response they wanted from Dave Baker, the managing editor of the R-G. Eventually, they took their complaint public and spread the word in the local LGBT community through Rainbow Rascals, a group for same-sex parents and their kids. They didn't know that the issue wasn't new, but they learned quickly that same-sex couples had known — and complained — about the policy for years.

In 1992, Karm Hagedorn and Sheryl Bernheine had been trying for a while to have a child. "Sheryl kind of wanted to be pregnant," Hagedorn remembers. They finally met someone who knew a good, local donor, and Bailey Bernheine was born in November at Sacred Heart. Hagedorn, who grew up in Eugene and had been involved in the lesbian community for a long time, says that despite the fact that she and Bernheine were one of the first local lesbian couples to have a child, they had already heard about the policy at the R-G. So instead of crossing out "father" or writing in "other mother" or "also a mother," Hagedorn simply wrote her name in the "father" space. "[The name] Karm was different enough that nobody blinked," she remembers, "or if they did, they blinked in the right direction." The birth announcement carried both Hagedorn and Bernheine's names. But as the Flynns learned, other couples both long ago and more recently had not been so lucky.

Adelka Shawn and Alicia Hays had their son Jackson in December 1993. Without calling the parents, the paper omitted Shawn's name when they printed the birth announcement for Jackson although, Shawn says, the envelope containing the congratulations and copies of the birth announcement came addressed to both of them. Local LGBT activist Sally Sheklow wrote a letter of complaint to the R-G for Shawn and Hays. And when Caleb Donahue's parents, Chris and Anne, had him at the PeaceHealth Nurse Midwifery Center seven years ago, they didn't even think it was an option for a same-sex couple to try to put in a birth announcement. "This is not a new problem," Flynn says.

But Molly and Kari Kenzie didn't know about the policy when Molly gave birth to Owen in November of 2005, six months after Hailey Flynn was born. The Kenzies had been together for several years when they were married in Portland in March 2004. "When you find your person, you talk about those things before you get married, and we knew that kids were in our future for sure," Molly says. She got pregnant on their second try.

"We had quite a wonderful experience," Molly says. "[Our status as a same-sex couple] didn't seem to be an issue, so we were not on guard at all." At McKenzie-Willamette, where Owen was born, a nurse gave them the birth announcement form for the R-G, and Molly crossed out father and put Kari's name with "mother" written in. Life with a newborn was too busy for them to track the birth announcements, but soon, they received three copies of the announcement from the R-G. They couldn't believe Kari's name wasn't there. "It was like a slap in the face," Molly says.

Kevin Miller, now the editor of OSU's alumni magazine, was a senior editor at the R-G when the Flynns began the process of trying to change the policy. He sympathizes with parents who feel anguish over the policy. "For me personally as an editor, this was one of the most painful dilemmas that I ever dealt with," he says. He wanted to find a way to get the names of both same-sex parents in, but he knew the paper's policy. After 25 years of working at the paper, he adds, he "respects the newspaper publisher's right to decide what does and doesn't go into his newspaper."

Todd Simmons moved to Eugene with his partner Gustavo Martinez-Padilla because they knew they could adopt in Oregon. In Florida, where they had lived, they looked into adoption, "but you really can't unless you're willing to lie; it's the only state that by statute forbids gays and lesbians from adopting." And they weren't willing to start a child's life with a lie. Simmons says they've felt "a warm embrace by the social services agencies of the state" and that the adoption training was sensitive to the needs of gays and lesbians. "The only hitch with this has been The Register-Guard, and they are excluding a large number of people, adoptive and gay and lesbian parents," he says.

The Flynns were incensed as they heard more and more stories like their own. In October 2005, they sent a letter to the city's Human Rights Commission quoting what they had heard from Dave Baker through the first few months of Hailey's life. "He did a survey of 12 other newspapers regarding how those papers handle the birth announcement issue and he plans to use that information to come up with some sort of R-G birth announcement policy by next week," Becky wrote. But time dragged on, and instead of meeting with parents and others upset by the policy, the R-G stopped returning the Flynns' phone calls.

The Flynns were at their wits' end, Becky says. Because the statute of limitations for discrimination was about to run out, she filed a civil rights complaint with Oregon's Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI). And through Eugene's EQuality Network and other LGBT and queer-friendly organizations, including the Religious Response Network, the Flynns began to gather signatures on a petition to the R-G and planned a "Mother's Day Rally" at the paper. The groups placed an ad in the EW to protest the R-G's policy, and more than 200 people signed the petition. During the May 11 rally, 15 people walked in to cancel their subscriptions, according to Jeff Wright's R-G article about the protest. The Flynns have kept track of more than 50 households that have canceled their subscriptions about the issue.

At press time, Dave Baker and editor and publisher Alton Baker III hadn't returned EW phone calls, but the news department's birth announcement staff confirmed that the policy was to list only biological parents. "The staff members we've talked to at the R-G have all been so nice and have been totally on our side," Sharon Flynn said. Becky added that Dave Baker was also very helpful when the Flynns first complained "until he talked to Alton Baker, and then he stopped returning our phone calls." In her October 2005 letter to the Human Rights Commission, Becky wrote that Dave Baker "warns that he has tried to make other changes at the newspaper in the past and has, at times, been unsuccessful."

"Actually, it's kind of a moving target," says Todd Simmons, who has been working on the issue for the EQuality Network. "They said that their policy was being applied equally to all couples, unmarried heterosexual couples too, but they've been unable to show that they've given any couple a DNA test to prove paternity." Now, he says, he's hearing more about it as a First Amendment issue. And the Flynns are frustrated with the time it's taking. "They say, 'You're rushing us; we're studying the issue,'" Becky says, "but we know that 12 years ago, another family complained."

Jeff Wright, the R-G reporter who wrote about the May protest for his paper, says that he knows some staff members have emailed the publisher to express their desire that the paper change its policy. The BOLI complaint, however, may cast things in a different light. "Is the paper a place of public accommodation or is it not?" Wright says, "If we're not a public accommodation," he says, "then there is no jurisdiction" for BOLI to rule. Becky Flynn wrote to the Human Rights Commission that the R-G identifies birth, wedding and death announcements as a public service; this, she believes, means the announcements are a public accommodation.

Kevin Miller says that he finds the complaint upsetting because the government cannot tell papers what to print. Freedom of the press, after all, is enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Becky Flynn says it's not a First Amendment issue. "They're trying to make it sound like it's a David and Goliath issue between the paper and the government, but the government has a responsibility to make sure public accommodations do not discriminate against protected classes," she says.

Will the complaint help? The civil rights investigator in charge of the process is on a month's extended leave and will issue her report when she returns early in the new year, Flynn says. Simmons says, "We hear that the R-G is interested in changing the policy, but that they feel a little under pressure" from the complaint and the public nature of the protest last May.

But Simmons and other activists ask why the R-G changed its mind so quickly on another issue in the announcements section: printing photos with obituaries. When the paper announced that for space reasons, photos would no longer be published, Sharon Flynn notes, there was a public outcry with many letters to the editor. "And they changed back," she says. Molly Kenzie also wonders why the paper could be flexible about the obits but not the birth announcements.

Although activists have noted that other papers in Oregon publish the names of both same-sex parents in birth announcements, the R-G's service is free; some other papers charge for announcements. The Oregonian publishes birth announcements in a "Celebrations" section twice a month. Same-sex and opposite sex couples and single parents can pay for and get their names in those birth announcements, and the paper publishes announcements of adoptions as well, says Frank Brown, who works in the paper's Paid Announcements division. The Oregonian's birth announcement form has a line for "Parents' names," but does tilt toward opposite-sex couples in asking for maternal and paternal grandparents' names. In Salem, The Statesman-Journal also publishes a list of births along with graduations, engagements, anniversaries, birthdays, retirements and promotions, among other landmark occasions, in a "Milestones" section on Sundays. Perhaps something as simple as changing what the section is called would help, activists say.

"A number of people have made suggestions that [the R-G] change the heading from birth announcements to something more general like Family News or Family Developments," Simmons says.

Sharon Flynn is ready to keep fighting. Holding Hailey up to wave bye, she says, "Every year near Hailey's birthday, until the policy changes, we'll be out there."