Outspoken Generation Welcomes Maya Ulin-O’Keefe

We’re delighted to welcome Maya Ulin-O’Keefe to our Outspoken Generation Program. We asked Maya to tell us her story, and this is what she wrote:

I was born to two women in Maine, but I grew up in the mountains of North Carolina, where my brother was born. As a five-year old, I answered my classmates question of why I don’t have a dad with, “Because I have two moms.”

I did have a very happy wonderful childhood, with some slight bumps that children with a mom and a dad would not have had to experience. My parents put up with all of my 5am mornings of “Let’s play! Let’s play!” when I was little. They made my lunch for me every day, and I would wake to my mom’s songs about how peanut butter and jelly go well together. We went on countless walks through the woods, and my moms taught me to how to love nature. They drove me to so many soccer practices and soccer tournaments, swim meets, school plays, Debate tournaments. They are my number one fans.

Every Sunday morning, I would climb into their bed right between the two of them and we would read the comics section in the newspaper together and they would explain the jokes to me. We read Calvin and Hobbes, Peanuts, Sherman’s Lagoon, Denis the Menace, and Garfield. They would always read to me before going to bed and usually give in to my begging of just one more chapter. We progressed from Blueberries for Sal to Childhood of Famous Americans books about Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks and Elizabeth Blackwell to Little Women. We read stories about strong powerful women who challenged the status quo and lived their lives the way they wanted.

In 2003, my family moved to Vermont for a year, to establish residency so that my two moms could legally adopt my brother and me. Even though we were both born into this family, this was necessary to obtain legal parental rights. Before the adoption, I was not legally connected to one of my mothers and we had to fight to get my brother on my mom’s health insurance policy because he was not legally connected to her.

As a nine year old, I did not understand what was happening. I had heard about adoption. It was for kids who did not have parents or relatives who could take care of them. It was for kids who lived in orphanages and got adopted by their future parents. It was for kids who needed a family. I did not see myself as a child who needed a family. I had parents who, I thought, loved me and could take care of me. I did not live in an orphanage. Maybe my parents would choose me, out of a line-up of kids? Maybe I would watch as my parents walked down the line and picked out their child. And maybe that child wouldn’t be me.

When my parents returned home after the “adoption”, they showed me “the papers”. It turned out to be just my new birth certificate from Maine stating that I had the legal protection of two parents. Just because my parents performed a civil union in Vermont, it meant nothing in North Carolina and so even though my brother was allowed on my mother’s health insurance, we still had to fight to include my other mother on our family health insurance policy. We did have privilege. We were able to move to another state to get our rights. However, we did have to move back to a state that did not accept our family. Because that is where my mom’s job was.

Maya Ulin-O'Keefe and Family

Maya Ulin-O’Keefe (Right), and Family

Whenever my family went out to a restaurant, at the end of the meal the server always asked us, “Do you want one check or two?” Up until two years ago, I didn’t realize this meant that my family was not seen as a family. But my friends at Bryn Mawr tell me their parents were never asked this question. Just mine. Every time a server asks us this question, it just reminds me how people still don’t see us as a family, even today.

The fall of my junior year of high school, 2012, my theater class performed the play: The Laramie Project. My theater director had to fight the school at first to allow us to stage the play at all. We took it to a competition, which we won, and then we moved on to the State Theater competition, so then our school had to allow us to perform it on school grounds as well. We talked with the guidance counselor, as a group, to help us work out our feelings and emotions toward this very intense play. I kept picturing my mothers in that situation. Because around this same time we were putting on this play, I, the history nerd, found a box of my mother’s old papers. And I found that, in 1984, she had applied for a position at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. We could have been living in Laramie, Wyoming when Matthew Shepard was murdered. So, I was grappling with that while putting on this very personal and political play. And one of my close friends, after I talked to him about it, went to another of my friends and complained to her that I was making this play too personal.

That next semester, when I learned that North Carolina citizens were going to vote on a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman, I was not going to sit around and let the public pass that amendment. So I decided to start with my high school, conservative as it may be, and educate my classmates about the harms this Amendment posed to my family and others. On the morning I announced to my entire high school my plan for an Anti-Amendment Club, I took a deep breath, stepped forward, produced two sentences… and started crying. I stood there while my entire high school watched me cry. But I was able to pull myself together and finish my announcement, asking people to meet at lunch to discuss the Amendment further.

When I walked into the room for the meeting, I found a standing-room only crowd. I never believed this would happen at my conservative high school. However, my school’s administration fought against my club and my school’s principal wanted to make sure that my club’s views remained politically neutral. For the weeks leading up to the vote, a smaller group of students continued to meet, however we were not allowed to make our actions public. We got some bumper stickers up on cars, a few parents put signs in their yards, and our group participated in a local phone bank to educate voters about the harms of the amendment.

However, the worst part for me was not the administration telling me my family did not deserve all of our rights, but it was when my friends stopped talking to me when I stood up for my family. In North Carolina, everything is fine as long as you stay quiet about your differences. So as long as I pretended I had a “normal” family and as long as I did not talk about my differences, I was okay. But I had never hidden away the fact that I had two moms. Some of these people had known me since I was two, had been over to my house, and yet the minute I opened my mouth to defend m y family, they left me without support. When the Amendment passed, my parents told me that one day the state would consider us a family. And, as usual, they were right.

While many students at my high school did not want to consider us a real family, I had a lot of support from the faculty and staff. At our senior sports awards, each athlete was given a rose to present to his or her mother, the athletic director gave me two! I proudly marched out to the middle of the court when my name was called, in front of all of my friends who had marginalized me when I publicly fought against the Amendment, in front of my school’s principal who had told me that it was too political to lead a club that would stand up for my family, and in front of the opposing basketball team from one of the most conservative high schools in the county and I presented my two mothers with two roses.

I called my moms when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of gay marriage and the first words out of my mom’s mouth were: “I did not think this would happen in my lifetime.” We celebrated that night with rainbow sherbet.

While we are in the 21st century, there are still many stereotypes that my family has to combat. I had a friend at Bryn Mawr tell me that, while she thought my parents were okay, she did not believe in gay marriage because it was against the Bible.

The HB2 bill passed in North Carolina last year, and I remember calling my mother trying to figure out what happened. Learning about it while I was sitting in Philadelphia, made me feel so powerless. I could not help my parents or be there for them. And once again, my state is not making us feel welcome, like citizens. They are denying my family the rights we deserve. So, while my parents are now legally married with all of the rights that married couples receive, I keep thinking about how, even though this has helped my family out enormously, it is still not enough. I have been going through life where every few years a major political event happens that is personal to my family and endangers my health, well-being and communities.

I want to connect with more kids with LGBT parents because I did not grow up knowing many. I also think this is the time for us to speak out and to help people understand. I would like to be a part of this. I am interested in helping Family Equality Council share our stories and get the word out that we are a pretty cool group of people and our parents are only one part of our identities. And that we come from pretty amazing families with some great stories to share.