Why having a family is easier than ever for Central Florida and Tampa Bay’s LGBTQ couples

By : Holly V. Kapherr
Comments: 0

When Randy Lowe met Joshua Melendez five years ago, both men were entering their 50s. “I just kind of assumed that having a family wasn’t going to be an option for me,” says Randy, who runs the event coordinating business Lowe and Behold, and had recently lost his partner, Jason, to brain cancer. At the time, Joshua had been taking care of two young boys occasionally on weekends to give their single mother a break to run errands or have a moment to herself.

Randy loved having the boys around. It was then that the couple realized they wanted kids. “I thought, ‘Wow. This is really beautiful to have these little boys with us,’” says Randy. He decided that if he and Joshua ended up together, he wanted to pursue options to have a family of his own.

After a year, Joshua and Randy moved in together and started the process to become foster parents. Five years later, Joshua and Randy are fathers to two little boys they fostered and later adopted. Their home and hearts are full.

Adoption and fostering by LGBTQ couples became legal in Florida in 2010, the last state to overturn gay adoption bans. The law was signed in 2015. Since 2010, hundreds of couples have been able to foster and adopt thousands of children in need, according to Equality Florida.

There are 594,000 same-sex couples in the United states, and 20 percent of those couples have children. Sometimes the children are biological or biological from a previous marriage. But as of the 2010 U.S. census, 4 percent of those children are adopted.

According to AdoptUSKids.org, there are 14,000 children in foster care in the state of Florida, and same-sex parents are four times more likely to be raising an adopted child than hetero couples.

The couples in this story are both LGBTQ and straight, and so are their children. Stretched from Orlando to St. Petersburg, their stories show that blood is no longer thicker than water, and the ties that bind are the colors of the rainbow.

Starting from scratch

When Randy and Joshua decided they wanted to start a family, a friend told them to consider fostering. “We started the PRIDE classes with about 60 other people. Only 20 of us actually made it through the classes. Even less than that probably got certified as foster parents,” says Joshua, reflecting on he and Randy’s journey to become parents themselves.

PRIDE classes (Parent Resource for Information, Development and Education) are the required courses to attend to be considered for foster family certification. “For 13 weeks, it was intense,” says Randy, “and you could just see on people’s faces that, man, this just wasn’t gonna be for them.” The PRIDE classes cover home safety, child psychology and other important topics for prospective foster and adoptive parents, especially those who have never lived with children before.

After that, home study is required. “They get into your life,” says Randy. “They want to know everything about you. So, we were fully transparent.” Randy disclosed his previous drinking problem, and feels that his sobriety has been a mental preparation for parenthood.

During the home study, multiple agencies perform random visits to your home and ensure it’s a suitable environment for a child. “Some people just aren’t cut out to have the health department come knocking at 10 o’clock at night and start rummaging through your refrigerator looking for expired food,” says Randy. “They come around and poke in the front yard to make sure the septic tank is fine.”

Joshua says, “It took about a year, but after that craziness is over it’s the best thing in the world.”

Randy and Joshua entered the foster care system with the intent to adopt. They wanted to grow to love a child—preferably a little girl named Mikaela, according to Randy—and become fathers the first go-round. It didn’t so much work out like that, though.

“This is where the story gets wonderful, but you just don’t know what is going to happen, no matter how hard you plan,” says Randy. The most important function of a foster parent, according to Joshua and Randy, is to love your foster child as much as you can until their parents can get their act together and be a parent again. “We knew that—but I don’t think we really heard it,” says Randy.

The agency called Randy at work and told him that he and Joshua had been approved. Also, they had an immediate placement for them: two twin 14-day-old baby boys. “The case worker got out of the car with two baby carriers. Then, she basically said ‘Good luck!’ and there we were with two precious bundles. Our whole life just changed.”

After fostering the babies for a few weeks, the twins went to live with their grandmother, who had been advocating to take them since birth. Joshua and Randy were crushed. Then, two boys, two-year-old Robert and newborn Jacob, were placed with them almost immediately after. “Our case worker told us that it was pretty much a sure bet that we’d be able to adopt them,” says Randy.

The father of the two boys was on a plan to get his life back together within six months. That kept getting extended, and the boys remained with Randy and Joshua. The men built a relationship with the boys’ father and offered him any help he needed in order to see the children. “One piece of advice I got from another foster parent was this: ‘Just tell the child’s parent that you are gonna love that child as much as he or she does. And that’s all you’re going to do every day.’” That’s what Randy told the children’s’ father.

Joshua and Randy spent four years fostering Jacob and Robert and building a home with them—even with the understanding that it could all be taken from them at any time. “It was torturing me because Robert was so happy. He went from the angriest little boy to a happy, happy child,” says Randy. “It was miraculous.” With the help of counseling, Robert learned to control his anger with breathing and communication.

One day in January, after months of back and forth about whether the boys’ father would be able to have his kids back, the father called Randy one day when he was setting up for an event. “He said, ‘Randy, I want you to adopt the boys.’ I passed out,” he says. “I told him that must have been the hardest decision he’s ever made as a man. But I also said, ‘We are going to love those boys. And you are going to be so proud of them. You made the best decision for your boys.’”

Adding to the equation

Jessica and Jessie Seldin (yes, they are both named Jessica), both aged 44, went to Boston to tie the knot in March of 2011. Jessica already had two adopted daughters from her previous straight marriage, Zoe and Isabella, who Jessica adopted from Ukraine. “I went through infertility issues and we were just out of money,” says Jessica. “It came down to either a gamble (IVF) or a sure thing (adoption). We went with the sure thing.”

Jessica’s marriage dissolved when her younger daughter, Zoe, was five years old. A year later, she met Jessie at a bar in Ybor City. “It went quickly, as it usually does with lesbians,” says Jessica. “We totally U-Hauled it.” Her daughter, Isabella, who was 11 at the time, had already decided she liked girls instead of boys. Jessica says, “Bella knew she was gay before I knew I was gay.”

When Jessica and Jessie decided to get married, they wondered what it would be like to incorporate Jessica’s daughters into their lives and how they would react if the women got married. For all their wondering, it worked out beautifully. “Bella was thrilled to have a house full of girls,” says Jessica. Zoe, now 14, didn’t take it so lightly at first. “She asked me, ‘So, that means you’re a lesbian?’ I said yes. And then she put down her sandwich and said, ‘I’ve lost my appetite’ and went into her room,” says Jessica. About 15 minutes later, Zoe came out of her room and finished her sandwich, she and Jessie have been close ever since.

Jessica always maintained a very open relationship with her daughters about their adoption. “They didn’t look like us, so that was a giveaway, especially Zoe, who is biracial,” says Jessica. She maintained a verbal relationship with both girls’ birth families—both Isabella’s birth parents in Ukraine and Zoe’s mom, who until her recent death, lived in Orlando.

“Parenting with another woman is not much different—we will fill ‘roles,’” says Jessica. “I am the heavy and Jessie is the ‘go ask your mother’ type. But she does more of the day-to-day tasks that my ex wouldn’t have done like pack lunches and drive the girls to events and activities.”

Because Jessica has two adopted daughters of her own, she wasn’t daunted when it was time to decide to build their family further. She and Jessie are now foster parents for two girls, aged 11 and 12, who had been removed from the home of one of Jessie’s family members. “The girls’ father’s family is very religious and they were not OK with the girls coming to a same-sex home,” says Jessica. “But they have adjusted to being with us very quickly.”

The girls have already asked Jessica and Jessie if they could stay if their parents don’t work their plans. The women said yes.

“We have never felt discriminated against here in St. Pete. It is such a loving an accepting community,” says Jessica.

Isabella is currently a student at USF. When she was a senior in high school preparing for her Bright Futures Scholarship, she chose to volunteer with Metro LGBT Centers, a community-based organization that offers physical health and mental wellness services to queer youth in the Tampa and St. Pete area.

“Because she came from such a supportive home, she was so surprised at these kids and the lack of support from their parents. She ended up dedicating more than 500 volunteer hours to Metro,” says Jessica. Isabella also worked with St. Petersburg District 5 Commissioner Steve Kornell to pass a ban on conversion therapy for LGBTQ youth.

A Home for LGBTQ Youth

According to the Human Rights Campaign, LGBTQ youth are vastly overrepresented in the foster care system. There are more than 400,000 children and young adults nationwide in foster care, and the percentage of youth in foster care who identify as queer is larger than the general LGBTQ youth population.

Unfortunately, queer youth also report being mistreated and abused in the foster system in greater number than straight youth. Currently, 20 states have non-discrimination laws or policies for foster care to protect LGBTQ youth from bigotry and maltreatment in the system. Thirteen of these states protect sexual orientation and gender identity. The remaining seven protect against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation only.

Florida is in neither of those categories.

That’s why, when Christina and Nathan Wilson of Orlando were asked to foster an African-American boy who had started dressing in female clothing and identified as gender-fluid, they were up for the challenge.

Christina and Nathan met in seventh grade were married after college. They tried for four years to have a child biologically, but “it was near impossible,” says Christina. “We immediately thought to go to fostering,” she says. They had been fostering animals for a long time prior to the decision, so the leap wasn’t huge.

Nathan is a private investigator, a detail he likes to share with the kids they foster to communicate that, when they get to his house, they’re not going to get away with much. Christina works for Community-Based Care of Central Florida, which administers Seminole, Orange and Osceola counties’ child services to more than 3,000 vulnerable children.

The couple is currently in the process of adopting one of the eight children they have fostered.

“We were so overwhelmed at first,” says Christina. “We don’t have kids of our own. But we learned to trust our instincts.” Nathan agrees, “Our philosophy for fostering is simple: We do what’s best for the child as if they were our own child. That’s it.”

They focus on fostering teenage boys, a population that’s particularly vulnerable to abuse, neglect and falling through the cracks in the child welfare system. “It is really a struggle to place teenage boys with either foster or adoptive homes. People are scared to foster them. But we both only had brothers growing up, so we are in a position to know what to do when there’s a problem,” says Nathan.

The couple says the whole process of fostering was a whirlwind, but once the kids started coming to their home, they realized that every child was different and would have unique needs.

That was particularly true with Jamie*, who was a few months away from turning 18 when they met him. Jamie had previously been homeless and was working in a strip club. According to Zebra Coalition, 26 percent of LGBTQ youth who come out are told by their parents to leave home. Often, they don’t know of anywhere to go.

Jamie, who also suffered from mental health disorders, was living in a group home that was kicking him out because he had set the kitchen on fire. “We didn’t care about the problems he had. We just wanted to love him,” says Nathan. “We tell case workers not to tell us about the kids’ problems. Just tell us what we need to know to make it through the night.”

Jamie preferred to dress in women’s clothing and was experimenting with his gender fluid identity. “We didn’t have any experience with that,” says Christina, “but you never know until you try.”

Jamie adjusted well to living with Nathan and Christina. According to them, one of the biggest challenges was finding clothes that would fit with Jamie’s gender fluid style. “Nathan told the agency that it was non-negotiable. Jamie had to have money for the clothes he needed to live true to himself,” says Christina. “We had so much fun. He could fit into cuter clothes than I could!”

Nathan recalls, “I told them, ‘I’m paying for it, but I expect reimbursement.”

Nathan and Christina took Jamie to events where he could interact with other gender fluid and transgender peers. “He didn’t have anyone to hang out with,” says Christina. “He didn’t have a peer group.” The couple was happy to help Jamie find his way in the world.

Now, Jamie is living on his own. “He’s struggling,” says Christina, “but he comes and stays with us during the holidays and comes for dinner. He refers to us as his mom and dad.”

The Wilsons are in the process of becoming a specialized therapeutic foster home through Devereaux, the foster agency they work with. These special foster homes specialize in offering services to the LGBTQ youth community as well as other higher-need populations.

“People are amazed that we focus on teenage boys,” says Christina. She advises anyone thinking about fostering children to just jump in. “Go to a training session and see if it’s something you’d be interested in.”

Nathan agrees. “We’ve heard ‘I could never do it’so many times. Don’t put your artificial roadblocks in place. At the end of the day, it’s what’s best for the kids.”

*Name changed to protect identity.

Share this story: