First Person

I watched my moms fight for acceptance. Today, as a gay man, I honor them for their love.

Tiernan Bertrand-Essington (far right) with his family

One particular scene has played out in my mind dozens of times.

I am at a casual dinner with my family. My older brother wears a baseball cap after a long day at work, and my two moms – a retired police officer who habitually takes the side of the booth facing the front door, and a retired teacher who leans her head on my other mom’s shoulder as the waiter takes our plates away. At the end of the night, one of us makes a comment about how good the food was, and why did we ever stop coming here?

I love my family. It’s a good night.

The waiter comes back and stops us mid-conversation with a simple question – “will this be on one check, or two?” looking between the two ladies with similar haircuts and Eddie Bauer jackets (are they sisters?) and the two young men who…could be their respective sons?

“Together,” someone eventually surrenders, and we all look down at the table for a long moment before deciding collectively not to talk about the question we were just asked. After all, maybe every family does get that question. He just wanted to be sure. Still, as we leave the restaurant, I can never shake the feeling that something has been taken from us.

Families with same-sex parents are no strangers to questions like this. In fact, most would put this kind of microaggression at the bottom of a list that would include long stares, insensitive comments, and questions such as “who is the father figure in your house?” Yet the research continuously shows that children of same-sex parents fare just as well as children raised by opposite-sex parents in areas of development across the board, including academic performance, cognitive development, social development, and psychological health.

Cindy & Bridget Bertrand-Essington

My parents, Cindy and Bridget, gave birth to both my brother and me through artificial insemination. I likely will never see or meet my sperm donor, and my curiosity about him does not stretch far beyond what he looked like at my age. Growing up with two moms, I spent my childhood taking every opportunity I could to celebrate the uniqueness of my family in our rural Illinois town. Every harsh “your mom” joke thrown my way was met with a sharp “which one?” and always followed by an eruption of laughter in my middle school cafeterias.

If you would have asked me, our family was not “different” at all, unless by “different” you meant “unique,” and by “unique” you meant “cool.” In that case, yes, we were very different, hyphenated names and all.

I’ll never forget watching then-19-year-old Zach Wahls – now an Iowa Senator – speak to the Iowa House of Representatives about his two moms during the fight for marriage equality in 2011.

“The sexual orientation of my parents has had zero effect on the content of my character,” he testified. I was in middle school when this happened, and just beginning to realize that I myself might be gay. These words opened up a world of radical self-acceptance for me, and two years later at 15 years old, I would skip a day of school to march with my moms at our own state capitol for marriage equality, sandwiched between two other members of our open and affirming church in the back seat of a car.

Cindy & Bridget Bertrand-Essington

On Mother’s Day, I celebrate memories like this that made me who I am, but I also look back on the less positive formative moments, times when I watched my parents,  trailblazers to have two children together in the mid-1990s, work twice as hard to earn a fraction of the respect every other parent took for granted. I watched them leave a family member’s funeral, unwelcome. I watched school employees force explanations out of them, inquiring about blood relations and our living situation. I watched my mom march down our neighborhood street and knock on the door of my second-grade bully’s house to have a word with his parents; Jake never threw rocks at me riding my bike again.

I will never forget the night that I came out to both of my parents, my chest exploding under my sweatshirt and a lump in my throat. Of course they reacted well, but my biggest fear was how this might be another hurdle for them to jump through. Would they suddenly be the lesbians who turned their son gay? The endless research and data (not to mention, one glance at my straight brother with his fishing and hunting gear) would dispel this idea. Nevertheless, the fear remained, and still lingers. Years after leaving home to go to college and start my life, I look back and laugh at anyone who might have suggested that having two moms led me to be a gay man myself.

“If anything,” I tell them now, “they showed me every day how women should be treated in a marriage.”

I returned home to be with my family eight weeks ago at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and that part hasn’t changed one bit.

On this Mother’s Day, let us salute the many same-sex parents who must go the extra mile to make sure their kids feel loved just the way they are, and accepted just the way their family is. Here’s to the moms who have to work overtime for their children to live happy lives, and then beyond that to make sure their children don’t have to see them working overtime.

Here’s to a future that we get to witness and create because of people like moms.

Tiernan Bertrand-Essington is a writer, filmmaker and literary critic. He lives in Los Angeles. Check out his author interviews on TheBookTuber.