With their young son in mind, gay parents fight marriage ban

Melanie, left, and Vanessa Alenier spend time with their son, Ethan. The Aleniers were denied a marriage license last week.
Melanie, left, and Vanessa Alenier spend time with their son, Ethan. The Aleniers were denied a marriage license last week.
Published Jan. 26, 2014

For the moment, his world is nearly perfect.

A continuous romp of beach days, flag football practices and like-minded cohorts in a wondrous place known as preschool. If bedtime comes too early and baths too regularly, that's just the price a 5-year-old must sometimes pay.

For the time being, he is unburdened by social injustice.

He isn't too worried that Momma and Mommy were denied a marriage license last week, or that they have joined five other couples in a lawsuit with Equality Florida to overturn Florida's same-sex marriage ban. He doesn't grasp that the women who adopted him when no other relatives wanted him are not a real family in the eyes of his community.

For now, Ethan knows only that he is loved by two parents.

"We're not trying to redefine marriage,'' his mother Melanie Alenier said. "Like everyone else, we believe it is a commitment between two people in a loving relationship. We're just saying it doesn't necessarily have to be one man and one woman.''

It's been a little more than five years since Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment that banned gay marriage in the state. It is not an exaggeration to say the world around us has changed since then.

Seventeen states now recognize same-sex marriages, including 11 that have come onboard since December 2012. The Supreme Court ruled last year that the federal Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional, and polls show residents across the nation are growing more accepting of gay marriage.

There are legal, medical and financial benefits that come with a marriage certificate, and that is more than enough reason for gay and lesbian couples to fight an insanely discriminatory and unconstitutional law.

But, of course, there is more to this story than mere legalities.

There are neighbors. There are families. There are children. There are people such as Melanie and Vanessa Alenier of Hollywood who took in Ethan when he was nine days old because his birth mother, Vanessa's cousin, was unable to care for him.

They would eventually spend a year fighting the Department of Children and Families in court because the state said they were welcome to be Ethan's guardians but they could not legally adopt him because they were gay.

When an appeals court ruled Florida's gay adoption ban unconstitutional in 2010, the Aleniers were among the first same-sex adoptive parents in the state.

And now, four years later, the state is telling them they are welcome to live together and raise a child together, but they are not allowed to legally wed.

"I'm guessing most couples aren't thinking about the legal benefits of marriage when they decide to get married,'' Vanessa said. "In that sense, we're like everyone else. To me, those legal benefits are just a bonus.

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"We want to get married because we're a family in every sense of the word. Almost all of Ethan's friends have parents who are married, and he's already aware that we're not. It isn't a big issue to him now, but it breaks my heart to think that one day he might feel any sadness over the idea that somehow he is part of a second-class family.''

The case may take some time to work its way through the court system, but it's hard to imagine that a gay marriage ban won't eventually be overturned. Just like the adoption ban before it, there is no legal defense to discrimination.

The bigger question may be whether Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi continue to waste taxpayer funds supporting this hopeless battle for their own political currency among conservatives.

"What the state is saying is gay people are lesser citizens and don't deserve the same rights as everyone else,'' said attorney Elizabeth Schwartz, who has represented the Aleniers in both the adoption and marriage cases. "It's inconceivable the courts won't see this ban as the unconstitutional and discriminatory act that it is.''

Meanwhile, there are other pressing issues to consider.

There is a basketball hoop in the front yard. A Fit Kids class at the YMCA. There are barbecues and bedtime stories and the best classmates a 5-year-old could ask for.

"Ethan lives in a world where everything is perfect and good,'' Vanessa said. "To him, there is no such thing as blacks and whites or gays and straights. All he wants to know is what's for dinner and when are we going to play basketball?

"As he gets older, he's going to recognize that things are different, that his family is different. But it's important that he knows we are as much a family as anyone else.''