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By Jim Larkin and Krista Bethke
Living in rural Vicksburg near Kalamazoo, Doug Gould and J.R. Reading often feel isolated from other gay families, so the Rainbow Families Great Lakes annual Family Week wraps them in a welcoming hug of understanding and familiarity.
For Deb Hemgesberg of Howell, it has encouraged her 16-year-old daughter Sarah to be more open, stand up for herself and become proactive about having a lesbian mother.
“She has no problem saying now that she has two moms,” said Deb, 45, co-president of the RFGL board of directors. “She started a new school and announced the first day of school, ‘Hi my name is Sarah and I have two moms. If you’ve got an issue with that, take it up with somebody else.'”
For single mom Leanne Pominville of Brighton, the annual weeklong parade of events in the Saugatuck-Douglas area – held this year from July 12-18 – isn’t at all about taking a political stand or fighting for rights. It’s merely about showing her two biracial children – Shayla Carbary Pominville, 10, and Anthony Carbary Pominville, 11 – that they’re not so different after all.
“It gives us an opportunity to be around other families with gay and lesbian parents and mixed race children and show them there are other kids just like them,” said Leanne, 45, who has been coming every year since the first Family Week nine years ago. “I remember the first time we came and they (her children) looked around and said, ‘Wow, all of these kids have gay parents?'”
But for most of the kids who partake in the events ranging from a pool party and kayaking to tie dying and building a float for the annual parade through Douglas, Family Week simply presents an opportunity to be themselves, become reacquainted with old friends and make new memories.
It’s the parents and noisy reporters, some indicate, who make an issue out of the gay thing.
“I like to play with my friend, Leigh, and I like the beach,” Shayla said.
“I like the tie dying and the parade,” added Anthony, who also added that he liked being with friends Skyler Hemgesberg, 11, and Robert Campbell Mercier, 12, of Flint, Mich.
“I like coming and seeing friends every year,” said Brenna Gould, 17, who has been coming with dads Doug and J.R. Reading for the last nine years, and calls her most memorable moment winning the family sandcastle building contest and having their picture in a magazine.
Indeed, a sense of family prevailed Wednesday as children of various races, nationalities and parental units made tie dyed T-shirts at the United Church of Christ Retreat House in Douglas. Joe McClendon-Brough, 8, of Miller Beach, Ind., took special care to watch over little Keaton Kretzinger, 1-and-a-half, of Findlay, Ohio. Shayla threw pitches to younger children wanting a chance at bat. Robert Campbell Mercier, 12, tried to settle down his younger brother Andre, 6. And Greg Alan Gerrans, 39, of Douglas, stood with his arms wrapped around the shoulders of son Mason, 8, whom he adopted from a Ukraine orphanage, and surveyed the easy-going, comfortable sharing.
T-shirts with messages ranging from the simple (“I Love My Family”) to the provocative (“You know what’s so gay? My family”) and those with shock value (“Queer Spawn”) were sold from a long table.
And, likewise, Family Week offers a little bit of everything.
Events for children include horseback riding, karaoke, dances, bowling and a show-and-tell, during which any and all questions are answered by a teen panel. Many of the teen and youth events are held by COLAGE, a national group supporting children, youth and adults with one or more gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender parent.
For parents, there are estate planning, adoption resources, ethnic hair and skin care and at-risk kids workshops. Family events include a beach party, ice cream social, pancake breakfast, hiking, paddleboat ride and picnic.
Leanne Pominville said she went to some of the educational workshops when she first started going to Family Week but it has since become more of a social event for her children. Despite rearing two biracial children in predominantly white, conservative Brighton, she said the family has had no issues and “we don’t want to make issues that aren’t there.”
Gould and Reading, who have been together for 12 years, also said they have had surprisingly few issues rearing Gould’s three biological children – Brenna, Joe, 16, and Hayley, 15 – in Vicksburg. Gould said he had to educate teachers when he overheard some students calling others “sissies.” And Brenna admitted to feeling sheepish when her “two dads” first took her to school, only to later discover that other kids weren’t even paying attention, much less caring who took her to school.
“They all want gay parents,” Brenna said of classmates. “They say they make fashionable food.”
Still, Reading noted that as a gay parent, it’s easy to feel isolated – not only from heterosexual parents but also from gay friends who, try as they might, can’t truly understand what it’s like to rear a family. Family Week, he said, eases that isolation.
“We come away with more of a community sense, a sense that we’re not alone,” Reading said.
Sarah Hemgesberg said she discovered the pains that can accompany growing up with gay parents when a boyfriend broke up with her after discovering she had two moms. But her friends responded by telling her the boy wasn’t good enough for her and that her moms were “cool.”
Sarah’s friend, Alex Fabits, also 16, went with her to Family Week this year and said it was an eye-opening experience. A workshop sponsored by COLAGE was particularly revealing.
“I’ve learned more about how she feels about her family here than I did when we were at home,” said Alex, who said she regards Deb Hemgesberg as her mom since her biological mom died when she was 11. “I’ve learned that people who have lesbian and gay parents don’t necessarily want to be treated like they are different when they are here. They just want to be like regular kids.
“Having gay parents in general isn’t any different than having straight parents except that their gender preference is different. People think that being gay isn’t moral and a sin and stuff, but in my opinion, love is love.”