We are a world in desperate need of heroes. When I was a child, I looked to the skies. When I was a high schooler, I looked to comics. When I was in college, I looked to athletes. And now as a father, I look to people like Thomas and Jonathan West, every bit the heroes a world like ours needs.
At 34 and 33 years old, respectively, Thomas and Jonathan have not walked delicately through history, they have carved out their place with each step. But to get to 34 and 33, we have to turn the clock back a bit.
Jonathan was born in raised in Vermont, the youngest of four boys. Thomas is the oldest of five children, born in Florida. North and South, they grew up never expecting to find one another, nor having any clue of the life they would build together. Jon didn’t start thinking about his sexual orientation until early in college, as he had always dated girls. He identified as straight, and it wasn’t until heading into his junior year of college that he actually came out. He remembers feeling an incredible push of support from his friends, and that’s what made his coming-out a tremendous experience for him. His family was surprised initially, and needed some time to process it. Jonathan’s parents were immediately supportive, they wanted their boy to be happy and safe. Jonathan enrolled in the University of Vermont, graduating with a degree in Music Education.
Hundreds of miles away, Thomas was growing up with his family in Vero Beach, Florida. He had a great relationship with his parents who, along with the support of his friends, have supported him throughout his journey. Thomas went to Florida State University and graduated with a Bachelor’s in Political Science.
Jonathan had just graduated college, while Thomas was home in Florida, taking some time off from school in Vero Beach. Jonathan was offered a job there, and he started researching the place he would call home. They met online in September of 2005, and soon they found themselves talking on the phone every night; the connection was immediate. As soon as Jonathan moved to Florida, he and Thomas started spending time together in person. They were cut from the same cloth, with similar political interests, their personalities meshed, neither was into the partying or club scene. They were the couple who preferred to go for a quiet walk through a small town, or to hike together.
A few months later, Thomas moved in with Jonathan. When Thomas was offered a job opportunity working on a gubernatorial campaign in Tampa, they moved together. They married in 2012, married by a local gay rabbi in Vermont. After having been engaged for almost two years, they were so grateful to marry their best friend. Here’s why that time period is fascinating for any student of history.
They married in October of 2012, and they pushed it because Thomas had joined the military. The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was still intact, so even though they had married legally, the state they were residing in did not have to confer the legal rights and benefits of marriage on them, nor did the military. They faced a large challenge with Thomas’ military work; he had been stationed in California for language training, and the military was treating him as a single solider, despite their then-8-year relationship and marriage, and they weren’t going to allow him to live off-base with his husband, the way any heterosexual married couple could. On Christmas of 2012, after they’d pushed for it, the military made the decision on its own to acquiesce, and to treat Thomas and Jonathan like the married couple they were, and they were permitted to reside off-base together. Despite having a marriage certificate, Thomas was still being paid at the single rate, and so the military’s acknowledgement of their marriage was a big deal. When DOMA was overturned, Thomas and Jonathan were the first in line to get their military IDs. Trails? Blazed.
Thomas and Jonathan have been together for almost eleven years now, and even before they were married, felt an incredible amount of support from their families; no one skipped a beat. They’ve also been very clear about their interest in building a family as well.
Recalling a night in 2013, Jonathan remembers it so vividly. “We went to a friend’s wedding, and were so moved by the family atmosphere that we sat on a bench overlooking the ocean and told each other that we were going to start building our family.” When they got back to California, they investigated how to move forward with becoming parents. They researched surrogacy, which quickly priced itself out as an option (as it does for so many, this author very much included). They started looking into private adoption. They had an agency do their home study in California, and started making phone calls for recommendations of agencies to work with for adoption. In California, they worked with a facilitator, created an adoption profile, and were put into the waiting pool. Their facilitator only worked with a few families at a time, and had a very expansive network; despite the connections, they were not matched while in California.
When Thomas finished his training, he and Jonathan moved to Fort Meade in Maryland. Two months after arriving, they were matched with a birth mom. Because their facilitator wasn’t licensed to operate in Maryland, they retained a lawyer who helped to smooth edges out to make it work for them. They were matched with a birth mom in Texas, not a very LGBT-friendly adoption state, who had agreed to a name with the Dads-to-be. A month before the adoption, their lawyer e-mailed them, informing them that the adoption could not move forward because the baby was going to be born with anencephaly. They were heartbroken. But heroes don’t quit, they don’t give in, they bend but they do not break. Thomas and Jonathan took a breath, and they started again.
A neighbor, now Executive Director of the LGBT Community Center in Baltimore, encouraged them to consider foster care. Thomas and Jonathan hadn’t put much thought into foster care, because of the high reunification rate with birth parents, and didn’t know if they’d have the strength to say goodbye to a child they had raised. As any great team does, they discussed their options, and went to a meeting, where they met a little boy named Noah. Noah had been with his foster Mom for 15 months, and his Mom said he was going to stay with her. Now in Baltimore, you can be certified as a foster-adoptive parent, meaning you are able to be certified for both. With 2,500-3,000 kids in foster care in Baltimore, and with the desire to become parents burning brightly in their hearts, Thomas and Jonathan decided to say “yes” to their next foster placement match.
In August of 2015, their phone rang. Anna (not her real name*) was four days old and had been taken into custody by the State. Our boys said yes to their girl, and she was at their house in an hour. They kept their vacation plans in Rehoboth shortly afterwards, and they met a 70-year old couple who were fascinated with Anna. On vacation, every dream they’d dreamed was realized when they heard someone say, “There’s Anna’s Dads”. Trail? Blazed.
Baltimore has a program called “While You Wait”, and it’s for families who are looking to adopt; the intent is that the program would present stories of children in foster care, seeking a forever home, and interested families who attended could potentially get a meeting to see if it was a good match. Thomas and Jonathan were hoping for an infant, and were told that it could take years. Five weeks after Anna (not her real name*) came home to them, at 10:00 on a Friday night with Jonathan zonked out on the couch, their phone rang again. It was the Deputy Director of Social Services for the City of Baltimore. She called because they were on a list of families interested in children who were available for adoption. Jon was immediately awake. And as hard work does, theirs paid off.
Charlotte had just been born. They packed up Anna and bolted out the door to a Catholic hospital that had never been in this scenario with two Dads. Charlotte was 4 hours old when they got there, Jon called his Mom and told her what was happening immediately; his parents feared it was news about Anna being reunified, but almost fell over when they told her the good news. Tom’s parents (Nana and Pops) were over the moon to learn with more certainty, that they were grandparents. And just like that, a family’s life changed twofold.
Thomas and Jonathan are so grateful for the ways in which their lives have changed, and recognize their responsibility to continue the work for others. They have an incredible resource in the American Military Partner Association (AMPA), that fights for families like theirs, Thomas and Jonathan were supported by AMPA in their struggle to achieve benefits under DOMA, they were even invited to bring their daughters to the White House last Christmas. Getting Charlotte on their military benefits was still a challenge, as there’s a separate set of rules to determine benefit eligibility, and there are still those in the chain of command who challenge those new rules, and challenge families like Thomas and Jonathan’s. Every superhero needs a good villain though, right?
On Saturday, June 11, Thomas and Jonathan, and Charlotte and Anna, took their radio flyer wagon to the streets of Washington, D.C. for Pride. As they marched, unprepared for what would transpire overnight in Orlando, the smiles and joy their girls brought to so many faces was immeasurable. The next morning, after hearing of the tragedy, they packed up their family and headed to Pennsylvania Avenue for Pridefest in Washington, D.C. They refused to be invisible. They refused to be afraid. They committed, as we all must, to love. To be visible. To be seen. To be.
They are every bit the men fighting the good fight, two tiny girls right behind them, pushing them forward, upward, beyond. They are North and South, black and white, boys and girls, banded together to continue to shine their light on all of us in our darkest of days and nights. And this author thinks that leadership like that is needed now more than ever, two Dads at a time. Because these days, heroes rarely wear capes, or drive amazing vehicles.
Sometimes it’s just an Army shirt, a pair of jeans, and a little red wagon. That’s what my heroes look like now.
* Because Anna’s adoption hadn’t been finalized at the time of this article, the dads weren’t using her real name and could not show photos of her.