By Tom Holmes
The stories of two Oak Park same-sex couples illustrate how far society in general has changed in the last 30 years.
When Leah Fowler was a teenager in the early 1990s, she would, from time to time, have crushes on girls she knew, but she resisted the possibility that she might be gay.
A visit to her Presbyterian congregation in Atlanta by the openly gay theologian Chris Glaser gave her an opportunity to claim her orientation. Her faith had become important to her, and Glaser provided a model of how a person could be a Christian and at the same time gay.
As her sexual identity became clearer, Fowler struggled with being "different" for the rest of her life. She had come out to herself and a few other people during her first year of college, but it was during a year of study abroad that she decided to come out more fully after she returned home.
"It was while I was in Beijing," she recalled, "that I learned how to be 'other.' I didn't know the language, I was white, and I was taller than everyone. People would stare at me. I got used to being the one who was different."
Chris Gajilan knew she was a lesbian while in high school. It was her parents who resisted accepting that reality. "At the time I knew better than to actually admit I was gay," she said. "I had gotten a scholarship to this private all girls school in [New York] city, and I knew if I admitted I was gay, my parents would yank me out and send me to a coed school."
Karen McMillin, who grew up in Coal City in the 1950s and '60s didn't even know homosexuality was a category until she went to college at Eastern Illinois. She had dated boys in high school "but could never figure out why it didn't click. When I went to college," she continued, "and met gay people, and then someone explained to me what that meant, I knew I had found my home. It was like a light bulb went on."
Like Gajilan, McMillin's parents had a hard time accepting, much less understanding, their daughter's sexual orientation. A three-year estrangement followed, during which they didn't communicate or see each other.
Emily Gage didn't acknowledge her sexual orientation until she was ministering as a Unitarian Universalist pastor in Joliet. For most of her life, she identified as heterosexual, although she continued to have questions about her orientation. Then she fell in love with a member of her congregation.
"Lots of my friends were gay and lesbian," she recalled, "and my religious movement has always been comfortable with that, but when I realized, "Oh wow, I'm in love with her,' it felt OK."
In the ensuing 15 years, they have seen many cultural and legal changes.
The U.S. has been gradually moving toward an increased recognition of LGBT rights. In 1993 the Hawaii Supreme Court issued a ruling in support of gay marriage. In 2000 Vermont was the first state to adopt a civil unions policy. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down all sodomy laws in 2003. In 2004, Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriages. On Jan. 31, 2011 Gov. Quinn signed into law the Illinois Civil Unions Bill, and there is talk that on Valentine's Day, the State Legislature might pass a bill legalizing gay marriage.
On a personal level, however, the two couples have become, in Emily Gage's words, "just like everybody else." They finished their schooling and pursued careers. Gage was ordained and now serves as minister of faith development at Unity Temple here in Oak Park and McMillin teaches driver's ed at Glenbard South High School. Fowler, who was ordained in the United Church of Christ, is associate pastor for youth and adult education at First United Church, right across the street from Unity Temple, and Gajilan is a producer for Oprah Winfrey.
Like most people eventually do, they fell in love and got married. Gage married McMillin — that member of her church with whom she had fallen in love — in Evanston in 2008. Fowler married Gajilan in New Jersey in 2007.
All four wanted a church wedding. "It was really important to us religiously to use the language of marriage," Fowler explained. "It raised some questions in our church [in New Jersey], because they'd had same-sex commitment ceremonies or holy unions but had reserved the language of marriage for heterosexual couples. We really pushed them on that because a wedding was what was happening between ourselves and God and our gathered community."
Fowler said, "To me a wedding is about making vows. To make those vows in a religious space is really holding them up high. It was no less to us than what heterosexuals do. A civil union sounds like a document, a piece of paper."
Like many couples, all four talked about having children, which included discussions about how to integrate careers with family. "I was raring to go as soon as we got married," said Fowler with a laugh, "but Chris wasn't ready yet. Vocationally she wanted the chance to do something different. That was a goal of hers before she wanted to have children."
Becoming pregnant proved to be more difficult than they had anticipated — just like the 12 percent of reproductive-age adults in the U.S. who, according to the Centers for Disease Control, have fertility problems. They tried alternate insemination for a year, and when that didn't work, they turned to in vitro fertilization (IVF).
The couple decided that Fowler would be the birth mother but were able to use the sperm of a Filipino donor, which enabled them to have a baby who shared Gajilan's ethnic heritage. On Feb. 15, 2012 the couple became the proud parents of a girl, Kai Gajilan Fowler.
Gage and McMillin also tried alternate insemination, but when that was unsuccessful, they chose to go the adoption route instead of IVF. On Feb. 1, 2011 they received the news that they were to become parents. They now try to keep up with their 2-year-old toddler Paul.
Gajilan said she would have felt a bit self-conscious about being a two-mom family elsewhere, but not in Oak Park and not at First United "because there are lots of families that look like ours. We've just felt constant support."
They also were not alone in facing the issue of being able to conceive. "I found out a lot of people in my congregation have struggled with fertility issues," Fowler said, "so I was able to write about it and share with my church."
Like many parents, the two couples work hard at balancing work and family. Fowler and Gajilan take Kai to First United on Sunday morning, which proves to be a challenge for Fowler because she's on the job.
"One thing we're getting used to," said Fowler, "is sharing Kai with my work and my work with Kai. One Sunday I was leading the time for sharing — when the children come forward — and Kai was going around the circle and pressing all the older children's noses. It was a little distracting, but the church seems to enjoy having her in the mix. I think the church is a space for families. I think it's a good way to model."
One indicator of change in society and the church is the fact that, though First United has an LGBT support group, those meetings are infrequent and not well attended.
"It's because folks are already involved in children's ministries or the worship committee," Fowler explained. "People find more connections across the different ministries rather than needing to be in a specific queer, gay and lesbian ministry. Not to say that's not sometimes needed, but I think [support is] needed more when you think you're the only one."
Gage and Fowler have also thought the issue through theologically. For Unitarians it's a no-brainer. "In Unitarian Universalism," Gage said, "we talk a lot about the inherent worth and dignity of every person."
Fowler, whose ordination is recognized by both the Presbyterian and UCC churches, ties the issue to baptism. "In our baptismal vows," she said, "we're promising to still be the church for them as they grow up — as they come to be heterosexual or bisexual or lesbian or transgender — we keep that baptismal vow to them to help them become the person God calls them to be."
What confuses some people, according to Gajilan, is that she and her wife don't "look gay," i.e. they don't fit the stereotype. They look like everybody else. She said that, in Filipino culture, the media presents a lot of stereotypically gay people, i.e. male "queens" and "butch" women.
"When you don't fit the stereotypical image people have of being gay," she said, "people sometimes have a hard time understanding. They say, 'Well, if you look like a woman and act like a woman, then why don't you like men?'"
Not only have many LGBT people avoided the outrageous antics seen sometimes in gay pride parades, they have also moved away from the kind of anger that followed the Stonewall riots.
"I think the gay movement has come as far as it has," said McMillin, "because we've gone away from anger and let people get to know us. We're your neighbors. We're your teachers. We're your ministers. You get to know us, and you find out that we are going through life just like you are."
That kind of transformation is even happening in small Midwest towns like Coal City. "I'm from a small town," she said, "and I fled because of who I am. Now there are all kinds of gay and lesbian couples living in that town and raising children, and they're accepted."
All four women agree that much progress has been made regarding gay rights, but for the LGBT community in Illinois, the upcoming vote in Springfield on the bill to legalize same-sex marriage is extremely important.
"Marriage equality under the law," said Gage, "would make a huge difference."
Passage of the bill would give gays and lesbians the same rights as heterosexuals in everything from taxes to visitation rights when a partner is in the hospital.
Seventeen years ago, Leah Fowler felt like she had to get used to "being different." These days she talks about being free to be authentic. "How I present myself in the pulpit," she said, "should be authentic to how I live my life," she said, "and so I feel like I'm in a good place."
Gage puts it this way: "I think we're just like everybody else. We're two-parent families, juggling jobs and child care, figuring out how to make a good life for our kids, and wanting to be where we're affirmed and valued."
This article has been updated to correct that Gage married McMillin in Evanston in 2008 and Fowler married Gajilan in New Jersey in 2007.