Patrick Brown always wanted to be a father. One of his first jobs was teaching grade school, and he once ended a relationship because his partner didn’t want to have kids. Brown met Dennis Kohler at a dinner party in Milwaukee. They were the same age and had a lot in common: card games, camping, […]
Patrick Brown always wanted to be a father. One of his first jobs was teaching grade school, and he once ended a relationship because his partner didn’t want to have kids.
Brown met Dennis Kohler at a dinner party in Milwaukee. They were the same age and had a lot in common: card games, camping, inline skating, gardening – and, as it turned out, kids.
Kohler already had a daughter from a marriage that ended years ago. He hadn’t given much thought to having more children. Until he began dating Brown. “If Pat would not have pursued it, I would not have pursued it,” says Kohler. “But I was happy to do it.”
The couple went ahead with Brown’s plan to have a child through in-vitro fertilization. And after a few false starts and failed attempts to get pregnant, the surrogate mom surprised everyone by delivering triplets. Suddenly, a family was born.
Kohler and Brown, both 39, live today with their children on a farm in Germantown. They exchanged wedding vows five years ago in their front yard. While they try to find time for each other – setting aside a weekly “date night” – their lives are dominated by their kids.
At 8:35 on a Friday morning, the two dads shuffle into a medical clinic with their yawning triplets – two girls and a boy. Just a few weeks shy of their third birthday, Karissa, Isabella and Derek – “miracle” babies, born almost 15 weeks premature – are scheduled for a routine check up.
“Sorry we’re a little late,” says Brown, called “Papa” by his three children, while Kohler, or “Daddy,” stacks the kids’ coats on a chair.
Though it was Brown’s idea to have kids, Kohler is the stay-at-home dad, a nurturer who babysat for his cousins as a kid and has helped raise his teenage daughter. He runs a business out of his home when he’s not folding laundry, dishing out mac and cheese or driving the kids to gymnastics.
Brown is the family’s breadwinner. He’s the 9-to-5 working parent, a never-slow-down Type-A personality who heads a nonprofit group that serves the blind. Brown’s healthcare insurance covers the children’s medical expenses but excludes his partner.
But like most modern-day parents, both dads pitch in with parenting duties. Both belong to South East Wisconsin Mothers of Triplets, both sit through endless reruns of “Sesame Street” and both have changed thousands of diapers, as many as 20 a day.
Every part of parenting is tripled, and everything the triplets do, like this visit to the doctor, becomes something of a three-ring circus. A nurse leads them into an examining room, and in short order, the acrobatics begin.
Derek, the inquisitive one, balances on a swiveling stool. Karissa, a whip-smart wisecracker, tries to scale the examining table, while chatty Isabella lifts the receiver from an office phone. “Hi, hi, hi, hi,” she chants.
The nurse patiently stands by with a thermometer.
“Okay, who wants to go first?” says Brown, trying to bring order to the room.
Derek volunteers. But he’s gotten his fingers into his soiled pants, and Daddy rushes in with a wet wipe and fresh diaper.
That state of cleanliness doesn’t last long. As his fathers turn their attention to the other two, Derek removes the diaper to scratch a rash.
Isabella decides to mimic her brother, ripping off her diaper and flinging it to the floor. Karissa makes it triplicate, and when the doctor finally enters the room, all three are scurrying around the room naked.
Outdone by their children, the fathers look a little sheepish. The doctor can’t hold back a grin.
The fact that the triplets have two dads – two gay dads – doesn’t seem to faze anyone in the clinic, although not too many years ago, when the kids were barely hours old, two nurses took Brown aside and suggested he give up one or two of his children for adoption.
“I don’t think you understand what it’s like to take care of triplets,” one nurse warned. “Dennis is going to take off and you’re going to be left taking care of them yourself.”
Brown was stunned. “It was hard to hear at such an emotionally raw moment,” he says today, and he questions whether any professional would make the same remark to a heterosexual parent.
Long past the days when many people believed homosexuality was a pathology, public acceptance of same-sex relationships has risen in recent years. While half of Americans today are against legalizing gay marriage, the opposition has dropped from 63 percent in 2004, according to a national survey conducted in March.
“Opposition to gay marriage has fallen across the board, with substantial declines even among Republicans,” says the Pew Research Center. Gay adoption is now supported by 46 percent of Americans, up from 38 percent in 1999, according to the center’s survey.
Yet homosexuality still deeply divides Americans. Children’s books have been written about same-sex parents, including the primer Heather Has Two Mommies. But the image of two gay men or lesbians arm in arm can repulse people. Gay or lesbian parents are seldom represented in popular media. And the notion of triplet toddlers with two gay dads just seems wrong to many people.
A movement to narrow the meaning of marriage has been playing out in America, and proposals to ban same-sex unions will be on the ballot in November in at least eight states, including Wisconsin. Its supporters say the proposed amendment to Wisconsin’s constitution will protect the sanctity of traditional marriage.
The amendment would not change Kohler or Brown’s paternity rights. Although Brown is the biological father of the triplets, the couple went to court a few months after they were born to guarantee that Kohler had equal parental rights and responsibilities. He can make medical decisions and sign school permission slips, and if the two ever broke up and Brown was granted primary custody, Kohler would be required to pay child support.
But to Brown and Kohler, the amendment would cast societal doubt on their five-year marriage and turn their roles as parents into something second-rate and outside accepted boundaries.
“I wonder if the kids will ever question our marriage, since the country they live in doesn’t recognize it,” says Brown. “My heart hangs low at the thought of my kids having to experience the feeling of being ‘less than’ by people observing our family…This isn’t right, and it isn’t in the best interest of the kids.”
Sandy-haired and more reserved than his partner, Dennis Kohler has a blue-collar background. Born and raised just outside of Canton, Ohio, home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Dennis is the younger of two sons. His mother was a clerk at Kmart; his father worked at Hoover Co., the vacuum manufacturer.
Kohler pulled down As and Bs in school but shied away from sports. He bowled every Saturday with his brother and cousins and skateboarded along the streets of a new subdivision near his home. “I wasn’t a nerd, I wasn’t a jock,” he says.
In high school, Kohler had a steady girlfriend. But he also remembers having same-sex attractions as an adolescent. “I told myself, ‘No, I’m not gay…’ I didn’t want to be gay.”
Kohler met his future wife when they were sophomores at Miami University in western Ohio. She was from Milwaukee, and after they graduated, they eventually moved to Wisconsin, marrying in 1990. Three years later, their daughter was born.
Kohler had earned a business management degree and bought his brother-in-law’s home maintenance business – plowing, mowing lawns, washing windows. Raised a Methodist, he’d stopped going to church. He gave up on God, he says, after a close friend died of cancer. But after marrying, he switched to his wife’s religion, getting baptized as a Presbyterian with his baby daughter. “I wanted to be religious,” he says. (To protect the privacy of his daughter and former spouse, Kohler asked that their names not be revealed.)
In his early years of marriage, Kohler met a married man who also was a father – and gay. It made him feel a little better about himself. “My reaction was, Oh my God, I’m not a freak. I can have these feelings. I can be married and still be gay.”
But he couldn’t share those feelings with anyone else. “Looking back today, it’s like, duh, what was I thinking? I attribute it to denial, major denial.”
Over time, all of the denial got to him. One day, in a panic, he called an older cousin in Ohio. He pleaded with him to meet halfway between Milwaukee and Canton. They met at a hotel and talked all night. “The next day,” says Kohler, “I came out to my wife.”
His wife was sure they could work through the crisis, and Kohler agreed to talk to their minister and a counselor. But after five months of agonizing over the decision, he moved out.
Unlike the comical estrangement between TV’s famed gay man-straight woman pair, Will and Grace, the separation was intensely painful. “There were tons and tons of anger and tons and tons of sadness,” says Kohler. “We would cry together.”
Today, nine years after his divorce, his homosexuality is not an issue with those who are close to him, he says. He sees his mother every other month and gets along well with his ex-wife. And he lives just 10 minutes away from his daughter, now a teenager and a big sister to the triplets.
“It was the best of times and the worst of times,” he says of his personal awakening. “I was finally coming out to myself, but I was hurting the most important person in my life, my wife.”
Pat Brown grew up in the small town of Glendive on the edge of the Montana Badlands. His boyhood was happy-go-lucky. “I grew up like Huckleberry Finn,” he says, building forts in the dusty meadows and catching tadpoles in a mayonnaise jar. He was the fourth of five children born to a housewife and a dentist.
Brown went to Sacred Heart Catholic Church with his family every Sunday and attended parochial grade school and public high school. Early on, he knew he was somehow different than his schoolmates. “As a kid, I would rather play dolls with my sister than trucks with my brother.”
In high school, Brown had his first sexual encounter with a male, a student in key club. “I knew I was gay,” he recalls, but he tried to steer himself into heterosexual relationships, “subconsciously trying to ‘fix’ myself.” He dated girls and once had sex with the minister’s daughter. “And it felt good, though not the same as with a man. It was physical but not emotional.”
Years later, Brown remembers hearing about legislation in Montana to require homosexuals to register with law enforcement agencies, similar to a sex offenders’ registry. The proposal failed, but the idea sickened him. “I remember thinking, ‘I will never move home to Montana.’”
Like other eastern Montana prairie towns, Glendive – population 5,000 – is easy to leave, its boundaries ringed by dairy farms and oil wells, its town center flanked by a rail yard, the Yellowstone River and Interstate 94.
After graduating from high school in 1986, Brown left Montana, landing at St. John’s University in Minnesota and then the Jesuits’ Creighton University in Omaha. Again, he dated women “to prove to myself I wasn’t gay,” he says. But the internal struggle wore on him, and after graduating, at age 23, he admitted to himself and friends that he was gay. He kept the news from his parents.
Brown moved around after college. He helped run a medical clinic on the Haiti and Dominican Republic border for a few months, then signed up for a 30-day silent retreat at a Jesuit novitiate in Minnesota. There, he made up his mind to follow a vocation of charity and helping the disadvantaged.
Missioned by the Jesuits, he taught at an inner city grade school and assisted people with AIDSat a ministry in Minneapolis. He cared for Alzheimer’s patients at a nursing home in St. Paul and volunteered at a homeless shelter in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
In 1992, Brown moved to Milwaukee, sent by the Jesuits to teach theology and art at Marquette University High School. But after two and a half years with the Jesuits, he couldn’t reconcile his sexual orientation with the Catholic Church’s doctrine condemning homosexual behavior as a sinful “act against nature.” He decided to leave the Jesuits and the church.
On a Christmas visit home, he told his parents he was gay.
The news shocked his mother. “I had no clue,” she told her son, brushing aside his admission. His father was equally dismissive. “You haven’t yet found the right woman,” he said.
The topic is still taboo in his family. “In Glendive, the Brown family has the reputation of being the Walton family,” says Brown. His mother frets about the family’s social standing, while his father, associating homosexuality with AIDS, believes his dental practice would be hurt if word got out.
Brown is the family “misfit,” as he calls himself. Of his four siblings, one sister is “exceptionally supportive,” one brother “tries hard” but doesn’t want to talk about Brown’s sexual orientation, another brother “does not want his kids to know I’m gay” and an older sister – once his closest sibling – hasn’t let Brown see her children for the past six years.
His only family confidant is his 97-year-old grandmother in Montana. He shares everything with her – thoughts and feelings about his life, his children, his partner.
Brown and Kohler met at a mutual friend’s house in the fall of 2000. Brown was dating another man at the time and, with a fourth friend, they began playing canasta every two weeks. From there, a romance grew.
Two years later, the couple moved into a 120-year-old farmhouse in rural Germantown. In their circular gravel driveway, they held a commitment ceremony – they call it their wedding. Both grooms wore khaki pants and short-sleeve dress shirts. Kohler’s necktie was blue, Brown’s purple. A catered dinner was served outside, followed by square dancing in their horse barn.
Although Brown’s parents attended, they’ve telephoned the couple only once in four years, he says, “to say they were praying for us.” For months after the triplets were born, Brown sent his parents baby pictures and videotapes. But he’s convinced they’ve never hung the photos or watched the video. It wasn’t until the triplets were 2 that his parents first met their grandchildren during a brief two-hour visit to Glendive.
The hurt ran deep. “I would pull off the interstate on my way to work, crying because I missed my family,” says Brown.
Kohler takes a conciliatory tone. “His mom is definitely trying and, I believe, doing the best she can under the circumstances.”
Brown is less forgiving. “I really don’t think about them very much any more. They want me to live in their box. But I can’t.”
Last February, the state Assembly approved a proposal to ask voters on November 7 whether Wisconsin’s constitution should be changed to ban same-sex unions and limit legal rights to unmarried gay partners. The constitution would be amended to read: “Only a marriage between one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in this state. A legal status identical or substantially similar to that of marriage for unmarried individuals shall not be valid or recognized in this state.”
Backers of the amendment see the legalization of gay and lesbian unions as a threat to the institutions of marriage and family. According to the Wisconsin Coalition for Traditional Marriage, citizens now have no legal protection against “court-imposed legal homosexuality marriage” because same-sex unions were sanctioned by Massachusetts courts two years ago. A constitutional amendment would protect traditional marriages, not discriminate against homosexuals, they say.
“Homosexual ‘marriage,’” states the coalition’s web site, “is a vast, untested social experiment with children. No society, at any time, has ever raised a generation of children in homosexual families.”
Opponents say the amendment would be the first time Wisconsin’s constitution denied rights to a select group of people, an irony in a state that in 1982 became the nation’s first to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Under the amendment, domestic-partner laws and private employment policies could be undone, claim opponents, and rights forfeited by same-sex partners, including the right to automatic hospital visitation, a partner’s retirement benefits and workers’ compensation benefits if a partner is disabled or killed on the job. Same-sex parents without court-ordered paternity could also lose rights to joint custody and visitation if they divorced.
Since 1998, similar proposals to outlaw same-sex unions have passed in 20 states – red states and blue – by wide margins. In the Wisconsin Assembly, the proposal passed overwhelmingly, 62-31, but grass-roots organizers opposing the ban hope they can turn the tide at the polls.
Opposition group Fair Wisconsin opened offices in all 72 counties. Four former governors – Patrick Lucey, Martin Schreiber, Lee Sherman Dreyfus and Tony Earl – came out publicly against the referendum, as did the Wisconsin Medical Society, the League of Women Voters, the Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Groups and faith organizations representing Baptists, Evangelical Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Jews and Episcopalians.
Neither Kohler nor Brown had been particularly political until this referendum. Now they’re angry. The amendment feels like a threat to their family’s future. Kohler has joined the Milwaukee chapter of the Human Rights Campaign political action committee, while Brown has volunteered to speak out at a Milwaukee fundraiser and at his church.
“It doesn’t come down to a person like me or a family like mine,” complains Brown. “It’s totally political.” The Republican-controlled Assembly first approved the measure in 2004, he says, and waited a year before placing it on this November’s ballot in order to draw out the Religious Right, whose members presumably will vote to defeat Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle.
“They’re using us as a token,” says Brown.
Long before he met Kohler, Brown had begun researching in-vitro fertilization. Talking one day to a colleague – a single mother who knew he was gay – he half-joked about hiring her to carry his child. Weeks later, not long after Brown and Kohler began living together, the woman told him she would do it: She would be surrogate mom to his child. They agreed on a fee: $20,000.
The search was on for a doctor and a batch of unfertilized eggs.
Turned down by one Milwaukee physician, they contacted a doctor at the Medical College of Wisconsin. But the college was skittish about receiving controversial media coverage, says Brown. Likewise, a Chicago physician also declined because of the potential for bad press. Finally, a friend of Brown’s recommended a doctor in Los Angeles.
The men flew to California. At the Pacific Fertility Clinic, they paged through a catalog of egg donors, studying family backgrounds, education records and medical histories of potential donors.
“It was creepy,” Brown recalls, “like we were shopping for a genetic pool for our children.”
One anonymous 22-year-old woman caught their attention. According to her file, she liked music and volleyball. Her SATscores were good. And, gazing into a photograph of her in a hot-air balloon, they could see her smile.
From the clinic, they bought 39 of the young woman’s eggs, 18 of which proved to be viable. But the identity of the biological mother of their children would be unknown.
Using samples of Brown’s sperm to inseminate the eggs, it took three attempts at the L.A. clinic to successfully implant eggs into the uterus of the surrogate mother. In the first attempt, three eggs were implanted and the mom miscarried twin embryos. In the next, hormone injections were increased to enhance the chance of pregnancy, but implantation again failed. On the third try, doctors used eight eggs and boosted the hormone dosage even more. This time, implantation took. Five embryos grew, three of which survived.
The surrogate mother went into labor in her 24th week of pregnancy. After eight days of off-and-on labor, the triplets were born April 6, 2003. All three newborns were more than three months premature – together they weighed less than five pounds.
Doctors and nurses at Columbia St. Mary’s Hospital in Milwaukee wrestled with a host of post-birth complications. Each sibling’s eyesight had not properly developed, and Karissa was the first to undergo corrective laser surgery. She sailed through the operation and other neonatal treatments and was discharged at three months.
Derek, though, had major lung problems and required a hernia operation. But after four months in intensive care at St. Mary’s and then Aurora Sinai hospitals, he was stabilized and sent home, his condition vastly improved.
Isabella had severe complications. At 1 week old, she was transferred to Children’s Hospital. Doctors performed eye surgery and heart surgery to correct a faulty valve. As the operation began, surgeons discovered internal bleeding from a break in her intestines.
Her chances of survival were poor, doctors said.
“They told us to give her morphine and let her go,” says Brown. But the dads wouldn’t give up. “They went ahead with the surgery at our request.”
The intestinal repair was made and a colostomy performed. But while incubated for an extended period, a lung ruptured and a vocal cord was lacerated. She also suffered a brain bleed for a day.
Transferred to Aurora Sinai at 2 months, then back to Children’s because she wasn’t eating well enough, Isabella finally went home to her family after five months, a feeding tube in her stomach and thick glasses over her eyes, but thriving. “Today she’s cognitively and mentally just fine,” says Brown.
On top of the $55,000 spent by Kohler and Brown for in-vitro fertilization costs, hospital care for the infants totaled about $850,000, say the dads, nearly all of it covered under Social Security’s Title 19 medical assistance program because the children were considered disabled.
“Ten years ago, the babies wouldn’t have survived,” says Brown. “It’s really a miracle.”
Down a quiet country road on the eastern edge of Washington County, Brown and Kohler’s 17-acre farm is a paradise for three 3-year olds and a teenage girl. The dads board six horses and a pony named Fritz. Two cats roam the barnyard, while chickens and ducks cluck and clack inside a coop next to the swing set.
Friends have been generous, donating a swimming pool, trampoline and wooden jungle gym. A rusty basketball hoop droops from a backboard and a rope swing hangs from a willow tree.
To make room for a garden, the gentlemen farmers chopped down seven trees in their front yard. While Brown grooms the flower beds, Kohler cares for the garden, growing everything from broccoli, beans and corn to pumpkins, cantaloupe and blackberries. The harvest is so huge that Kohler invites neighbors and friends to help themselves to whatever they want.
On a Friday in summer, Kohler and Brown hold a rummage sale in their barn. Kohler’s older daughter sits at a folding table collecting money from customers, while the triplets run barefoot in the yard.
Kohler strains his peripheral vision to keep track of the triplets as customers pull into the driveway. “Karissa, you need to get down,” he shouts and jogs over to a rundown Allis Chalmers tractor, on which the girl is precariously balanced.
Karissa has momentarily outflanked Carolyn Jahn, a retiree from Hubertus who’s caring for the triplets. A former physical therapist with four grown children of her own, Jahn is one of many surrogate grandparents from the fathers’ church, Unitarian North in Mequon.
Jahn says she has no qualms telling anyone the triplets have two dads. “It’s been a real joy seeing the kids develop,” she says.
She herds the triplets to the trampoline. They spin and bounce and soar into the air, giggling as they tumble into each other.
“Derek needs a diaper, Derek needs a diaper,” Isabella sings, falling onto the nylon mesh. Still not fully potty trained, her brother has soiled his shorts – for the second time that day.
“There’s been a few accidents,” says Jahn, and she scoots him into the house, stands him in the bathtub and turns on the shower.
In a 1960s suburban-style ranch house not more than 100 yards from the front door of Kohler and Brown’s farmhouse live Roger and Jan Pagel, a neighborly couple who’ve lived here for decades. When the newcomers first moved in, Roger Pagel ducked under his pine trees to say hello. Over time, a familial bond grew between the Pagels and the unusual family next door.
At 71, Roger is a retired carpenter and jack-of-all-trades. He’ll lend a hand to Kohler and Brown when something needs fixing. Roger mows their lawn in return for storing his powerboat and tractor in their barn. Now and then he’ll play sheepshead with the two dads and their friends.
Jan, meanwhile, is on call 24/7 as an emergency babysitter. Now 65 and retired, she worked for years at St. Francis Hospital, sometimes caring for babies in the nursery. She’s “Grandma” to the kids next door and has turned her backyard shed into a playhouse.
Jan has two grown children of her own; Roger has three. They have known the triplets since they were “purple globs lying in those incubators,” Jan says. “Dennis and Pat went through a lot those first two years, up all night with those kids.”
“I remember Dennis told me they were gonna have triplets,” Roger says, “and I laughed. I knew what it was like to have three kids – not all at the same time, though…I give them credit. They are a lot better parents than most. They do things with their kids not a lot of parents do.”
The two families are very different but very close. “We walk into each other’s houses; our doors are always open,” says Roger. Anytime Jan wants fresh vegetables for dinner, she steps next door to Kohler’s bounteous garden. “There’s nothing like Dennis’ tomatoes,” she says.
While the Pagels are surrogate grandparents, they in turn rely on the two men next door for a measure of care. Roger was diagnosed with leukemia last spring, and Jan has suffered for years with lupus. “It helps me to know that if I need someone quickly, they’ll come,” she says.
The Pagels are hesitant to talk about Brown and Kohler’s sexual orientation. “That’s their business,” says Roger, looking out of the kitchen window. “I keep my business here, they keep their business there. They don’t hide anything. They don’t play games in front of you, but they don’t hide anything.”
Jan is unsure how she will vote on the ballot proposal banning gay unions.
“You’re brought up all your life to think one way…” She pauses and shrugs. “If I was made to sit down and put my mark one way…I can’t answer that. I can’t say I’m 100 percent for it. But I can’t say I’m 100 percent against it either.”
Roger is not as ambivalent. “When God created people, he created man and woman for a reason,” he says. “If people want to live together, that’s their prerogative. But when our Lord created people, there was a reason for two different genders. Not only people, but the birds, the bees, the animals…Everything was made one way or the other.”
Neither Roger nor Jan belongs to a church. Roger was raised a Lutheran and Jan a Catholic. But because both had been married previously, their marriage was frowned upon by Jan’s priest.
“I used to go to church,” says Roger. “I was baptized, I was confirmed. And I married a Catholic. What that priest told me…” – his voice grows louder – “…I was dirt on the floor. Now I don’t go to church anymore.”
Jan, too, feels rejected by the church. “Just because I was Catholic and divorced and remarried, I can’t go to communion anymore.”
Jan’s 90-year-old mother, Eldora, has lived with the Pagels for 20 years. Though bound to a wheelchair, her mind is active and alert. She loves to see the triplets and is unconcerned about Brown and Kohler’s homosexuality. “It’s no news to me at all,” she says, noting that her sister’s grandson is gay, too. “There is no new news.”
The Unitarian Church North in Mequon is an octagonal structure built of stone and faded barn wood, an architectural replica of the Clausing barns that once dotted Ozaukee County. The church’s eight acres are landscaped with prairie flowers and graced by a gazebo and pond.
On most Sundays, the church’s parking lot is jammed with cars bearing John Kerry bumper stickers and peace doves. Unitarian North describes itself as a “welcoming congregation” to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, “welcoming not only their presence but the gifts and particularities of their lives as well.” The church supports same-sex marriages.
Both Kohler and Brown had misgivings about their Christian backgrounds. “How can I raise my kids in a church that tells them Papa is bad?” Brown had asked himself.
So, shortly after learning they were “pregnant” with triplets, they attended a Sunday service at Unitarian Church North. “At the first service, two women were arm in arm in the pew in front of us,” says Brown. “It was wonderful.”
Members rallied to help the new dads – cooking, shopping and relieving the parents at night so they could get some rest.
On a sunny day, Kohler and Brown are in the lower level of the church leading a Sunday school session for preschoolers. It’s a regular commitment for the dads, an hour and a half of glorified babysitting for kids of parents at the service upstairs.
After the service, families queue up for a monthly pot-luck lunch. They sit down with paper plates of baked beans and hot dogs, and Brown stands to speak about the importance of this church, of how it has functioned like an extended family.
“My mom isn’t involved with my family. That is her choice,” he says. “But our kids have about a dozen grandmothers.” Just days earlier, he had driven to Madison to protest against the proposed amendment to ban gay marriage.
“There were people there from my church,” he says, his voice cracking, “fighting for me and for my family.”
As Papa speaks, a crying Derek toddles up to him, wanting to be held. Without skipping a beat, Brown hands him to Daddy. The crying stops.
It’s a Thursday evening and Brown and Kohler take the family to Jazz in the Park, the weekly summertime festival at Cathedral Square. Weaving through the crowd, they head straight to the playground.
The trio is loosed. Derek climbs backward up the slide. Isabella spins in circles until she drops dizzily to her knees. Karissa zigzags through the maze of children, laughing.
The fathers keep watch, eyes flitting from one child to the next to the next. They open bottles of beer and talk with friends.
“This is just what I needed,” says Brown. All week, he felt stressed and disconnected from his family – rising at sunrise and in to work by 6 a.m., a long day on the job. And more commitments in the evenings: events for work, a meeting at the church. “When do I get to be dad?” he asked Kohler.
The dads buy a giant bag of kettle corn and divvy it up. They find a patch of grass away from the lawn chairs and wine carafes. People beam at the family of five, charmed by the barefoot triplets and curious about their caretakers. The lush sound of a saxophone drifts into the warm night air, and a dog wanders up and sniffs Derek’s feet.
Soon the sun drops behind the skyline and the family packs it in. Bedtime approaches.
Two days later, the family plans to attend a different kind of festival – Milwaukee’s PrideFest, an annual celebration of gay and lesbian culture. Kohler arrives first and marvels at all of the families. “It’s great to see all the strollers,” he says, watching two women with a toddler pass.
Brown has gone to pick up the kids from a babysitter, where they had spent the night. Kohler is manning an information table for the Human Rights Campaign. Trying to add to the group’s mailing list, he offers passersby bright, complementary strings of colored beads – yellow, red, green, blue, all the colors of the rainbow.
Suddenly the children catch his eye, and he drops to a knee for a group hug. It’s been 12 hours since he’s seen the triplets. He gives each of them a string of beads.
Brown hoists Derek onto one shoulder and Karissa on the other, swinging them from side to side like a drunken gorilla. Kohler boosts Isabella over his head and around his neck, and she drapes purple beads over his eyes.
And this is how it goes, an untroubled day of fun at a festival where drag queens in feather boas parade unabashedly alongside a young woman in a “My girlfriend doesn’t know I’m a lesbian” T-shirt alongside two gay fathers with their triplets.
“It’s not like we ever get too many comments when we’re out in public,” Brown says. “Sometimes we get a look like, Uh huh. But here it’s so much more open. I can walk around holding Dennis’ hand.”
A man about 20 approaches Brown as he juggles Karissa and Derek. “I want to have kids someday,” the man tells him. And Brown is moved. “I never would have said that when I was his age,” he says. “I guess we’ve come a long way.”
Outside the festival grounds, the battle for the moral high ground wages on. At the main gate, a group of men and women hand out leaflets and use a bullhorn to discourage people from entering the festival. Two protesters raise a hand-painted banner – “Sodomy is still against God’s law” – and fervently recite from the Book of 1 Corinthians: “Be not deceived: Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners shall inherit the kingdom of God.”
Meanwhile, 63-year-old Susan Seiler stands alone on the sidewalk, weathering the blasts of the bullhorns. She carries her own homemade placard fastened to a long pole.
“I just feel like this is where I belong,” Seiler says, and high above her head she brandishes her message: “God blessed me with a gay son.”
Kurt Chandler is a senior editor of Milwaukee Magazine. Photographs by Peter DiAntoni.