In the 1970s and ‘80s, when marriage equality looked to be an impossible pursuit, lifelong same-sex partners facing the financial and emotional insecurities of old age didn’t have the time to wait around for marriage equality. Instead, some changed the legal status of their union to father and son or mother and daughter. Adoption gave them next-of-kin rights vis-à-vis their estates and taxes, as well as hospital visitation and other legal rights not otherwise available to gay couples at the time.
In a way, commitments like these trumped even the presumed longevity of marriage because the bond between parent and child in America is legally irrevocable: The law cements them as parent and child for life. And that became a problem for some couples. When Obergefell v. Hodges legalized same-sex marriage throughout the U.S. in 2015, gay couples who had adopted each other suddenly faced a new hurdle: Getting married would violate state incest laws. They needed to have the adoption annulled — no small task — in order to get what they always wanted in the first place — to be married.
Such was the plight of the two Pennsylvania couples below.
Bill Novak adopted Norman MacArthur in 2000, after they had spent more than three decades as partners. They married in 2015, once a judge in Bucks County had vacated their adoption.
Bill: In 1997, adoption-as-legality was all the talk in some gay circles. It was very popular since it was the only method for couples to use that would give legal underpinning to gay relationships.
Norm: But it was more than just a fad for us — we’d been together for more than 30 years.
Bill: We met in June 1963 at the wedding of a friend of mine’s sister in New Jersey. One of the bridesmaid’s dates had stood her up, so she asked if I would accompany her to the wedding.
Norm: Our relationship deepened, and six years later, we purchased a brownstone in the up-and-coming neighborhood of Park Slope in Brooklyn for the princely sum of $26,000.
Bill: We spent 28 wonderful, happy years in Brooklyn.
Norm: We registered as domestic partners in 1994.
Bill: Three years later, we retired to Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
Norm: Of course, we knew that Pennsylvania didn’t recognize gay marriage, or domestic partnerships. But the selection of places to retire that recognized gay marriage was very limited; Pennsylvania was near family and friends, so we were happy to call it home. Still, we heard stories from other folks about difficulties in stressful times — for example, when a gay partner would be cut out of visitation rights or inheritances. It was widely reported in the press, too.
Bill: Basically, if one of us were to be hospitalized, we legally would be considered strangers.
Norm: We talked to friends and family and decided to move forward with the adoption option. It was the closest thing we could find since there was no other piece of paper available to give us the rights of a married couple. And at the time, we were told that “hell would freeze over” before Pennsylvania approved same-sex marriage. The adoption process itself took about three to four months and was handled smoothly. When it was completed in January of 2000, we sent copies of the adoption decree to our attorney, our accountant, our doctor and our local hospital.
Bill: The timing couldn’t have been better, because when Norm had heart surgery in 2002, a large sign on the door to the Cardiac-Intensive Care Unit announced that visits were restricted to “immediate family only.”
Norm: But since we were legally father and son, Bill was permitted to see me. The staff at Doylestown Hospital was enormously gracious.
Bill: When hell did freeze over and gay marriage was legalized in Pennsylvania in 2014, Norm called the lawyer who’d handled our adoption years ago and said we wanted to get married. She said the adoption was permanent, and there was no way to undo it.
Norm: I happened to mention the difficulties we were having to another lawyer I was speaking with about land preservation. He said, “Norman, we’ve got to do something about this.” He started investigating and heard that some judges in Bucks County were already talking about cases like this, assuming they would come before them. So he filed a petition to vacate the adoption.
Bill: A court date was scheduled for 10 a.m. on May 14, 2015.
Norm: The entire thing took 25 minutes. Our lawyer argued that the only reason we adopted years ago was because it was the best we could do at the time, since we couldn’t get married. After he finished, the judge issued his decree. He said, “The times have changed and the laws must change with them,” and vacated the adoption.
Bill: The courtroom burst into applause! And we burst into tears. We had 30 friends in the courtroom who all got up and cheered.
Norm: It was electric. Something very important had happened.
Bill: We immediately went across the street to get our marriage license.
Norm: In Pennsylvania, though, you have to wait three days between when you get the license and when you can get married.
Bill: After 52 years together, it was already the world’s longest engagement. What was another three days?
Norm: So we’re not celebrating Father’s Day this year — we’re celebrating our one-year anniversary!
Bill: And so grateful for that fact. Those poor guys in Pittsburgh, Nino and Drew, got an unsympathetic judge and have had to prolong their suffering.
Nino Esposito, a retired teacher, adopted Roland “Drew” Bosee, a former freelance writer, in 2012, after more than 40 years living together as a couple. Unlike Bill and Norm, though, they have been unable to vacate the adoption, due to an uncooperative judge in Allegheny County. As such, they will spend yet another Father’s Day as father and son, at least in the eyes of the law.
Drew: When we walked into the hearing about annulling our adoption, we knew exactly what the judge was going to do. His general demeanor and attitude was very negative and not pleasant at all. He’s a Democrat, but also Irish-Catholic. We think that had a lot do with it.
Nino: I think he was just homophobic.
Drew: Plus, he gave ridiculous reasons for his decision — he said we were trying to get tax advantages.
Nino: He’s not wrong. Isn’t that a factor in any marriage? You don’t ask a heterosexual couple, “Why are you getting married?” You say, “It’s great that you’re getting married!” But with a gay couple, they want to look for ulterior motives.
Drew: We were first introduced on Easter Sunday in 1970. We were 23 and 33 respectively. 1970 was a year of many decisions for me. Before coming to Pittsburgh I was actually planning on becoming a veterinarian — I had been accepted at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. To the bewilderment of my parents, I declined acceptance to Penn, packed up my 1967 Mustang and moved to Pittsburgh!
Nino: Some friends were having a cookout and Drewy came to that.
Drew: We, however, didn’t get a chance to speak at the cookout.
Nino: But we met again a few months later.
Drew: On Friday the 13th.
Nino: At an after-hours gay social club in Pittsburgh called the Transportation Club.
Drew: I walked in, Nino gave me his barstool, and the rest was history. I moved in with him and his parents into their home, a Victorian-esque house dating back to the 1890s. I think Nino’s parents sort of took pity on me. Don’t forget, this was more than 45 years ago — the “gay agenda” wasn’t on the minds of many people, especially those of Nino’s parents’ generation, especially those born in the “Old Country.”
Nino: Generally speaking, we’ve always been quiet about our relationship. We were never officially out to family or even friends.
Drew: Nino’s parents most certainly just saw us as “good friends.” Even though I had appeared on the scene rather suddenly (especially from Nino’s parents’ point of view), they accepted me unconditionally. From today’s perspective this may seem strange, but it was as uncomplicated as that.
Nino: Everyone had to know the situation, but they were totally accepting. With maybe one exception, it was simply never discussed.
Drew: Even after the adoption, which occurred after both sets of parents had passed away, I still did not discuss it with my sister and her family.
Nino: Our lives didn’t revolve around our “gayness.” We don’t have very many gay friends. Most of our friends were straight people that I knew through school. I was a high school special education teacher.
Drew: We opted for adoption in 2012. We were talking to a lawyer concerning our wills and mentioned that we had considered it before — he was happy to help.
Nino: At that point only 10 states had marriage equality laws. It just wasn’t as obvious as some people seem to think it was. Adoption really felt like our only option to be connected in the eyes of the law. Needless to say, it was a big surprise when marriage equality came to Pennsylvania a couple of years later, especially because we had a Republican governor. We didn’t rush to annul the adoption because we didn’t really know what was going to happen. In fact, we didn’t begin the annulment process until March of last year, which is when we went before O’Toole, the Irish-Catholic judge. Our appeal of his decision was heard by three judges in Superior Court in late April. From what we could gather, everything looked positive in our favor.
Drew: We were led to believe it would take about a month to get a decision, and we’re past a month and haven’t heard anything yet. So I guess we’ll be celebrating Father’s Day again this year — though we prefer to celebrate anniversaries.
Nino: We really don’t anticipate that things are going to feel that much different once we’re married. After all, with 45-plus years of being a couple, being officially married will just be a further affirmation of a relationship that’s been there from day one!
C. Brian Smith is a writer in Los Angeles.