[image-1]Santiago (wearing red in the photo at left) was 12 when her mother informed her that she and her father were getting a divorce because she was a lesbian. They had been married for the entirety of Santiago's life and had five children. "The hardest part was dealing with other people's reactions to it," Santiago recalls. "But my mom did not change to me. Because of my mother's lifestyle, I experienced family love times ten. I was constantly surrounded by people who loved genuinely, openly and without reservations, and that is what truly makes a family."
Santiago reflects proudly on her upbringing, conventional or not, and has drawn upon it in her own role as a mother. "I was raised to be smart, strong, loving and to embrace life and all of the possibilities in it. I was raised in the most positive atmosphere one could grow up in."
She never hesitates to acknowledge the 17-year marriage between her mother and her partner, who currently reside in New York. "I tell everyone about the two of them because I'm proud to be part of that union. I can't fathom my mother being anyone other than who she is, period."
Her children share a similar bond with their grandmother. "I sometimes tell my kids that if I can be half the mom that my mom is, I've done a great thing. [My daughters] love, cherish and most importantly respect their grandmother. They sometimes say that 'Grandma's way cooler than Mom,'" Santiago said with a laugh. "I think they're right."
[image-2]Tampa native Monica Hoffa, 25, comes from a similar background. Like Hoffa herself, her mother is a lesbian (mother and daughter are pictured the snapshot, right). "Having a gay mother when it wasn't considered 'cool' was a struggle for her, not for me," Hoffa says. "People thought that being gay in the '80s was perverse and that you were plagued ... I have a lot of respect for her, [having] put up with all that she did just to keep me."
As she grew older, her mother's acceptance of who she was "really opened [her] eyes," she says. "Always having lesbians and gay men in your home really broadens your horizons. She and I would watch 'lesbian movies' to help me understand her a little better or even relate to her. But actually what it did was make me realize I'm more like my mother than I had thought."
For many, coming out can be a difficult time. The challenge to convention can bring families together or tear them apart, but not in Hoffa's case. "It was normal to be around lesbian couples, and when I wasn't interested in men, it seemed normal to me." But despite genetic theories of homosexuality, it doesn't necessarily follow that she's a lesbian because her mother is. After all, most kids tend to rebel from their parents.
"I tried dating guys," Hoffa laments. "It's not like I didn't give it a chance, but it's not for me. It didn't make me happy or make it easier on myself, just on everyone else. I need to do what makes me happy."
Peter Amatuzzo of St. Pete, 39, agrees. As a member of the Tampa Bay Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, he serves proudly as "Guard Ian Angel" in the non-profit, LGBT community education and awareness-based charitable organization "dedicated to the promotion of joy and expiration of stigmatic guilt" (and, it must be added, to really fabulous nun outfits).
Serving beside him as president of the Tampa Bay Order and Mother Superior is Scott Ryan, also known as Sister Muffy, who reflects on the familial bonds that he and his "nuns" share. "We are there for each other. It might be as simple [as a] phone call or e-mail when someone needs it. ... It's knowing that we are in it together, no matter what it is." (Peter and Scott are front and center in the photo above, Peter with the pink purse and Scott in the vest and whiteface.)
"[A family member] is someone who you would do anything to protect from harm," Amatuzzo continued. He says he's "blessed with two families" because of an adoption and a reunion with his birth mother at age 30, and through his experiences with the Sisterhood.
"This gathering of friends has become my family. The Sisters have given me the chance to serve [and to] make a difference, and it is such a rewarding, uplifting experience," Amatuzzo says, reflecting on the group's charitable activities, which range from fundraising for The Francis House to The American Cancer Society.
"We should be saying that love is love and that is what matters the most. It's how we raise our kids in society as a whole," Amatuzzo says. "Everyone should be proud of who and what they are."
[image-4]New Port Richey nurse and CLGBT contributor Adrien Julious married her wife Chenyl Hinds on the fifth anniversary of calling each other "girlfriend." It was a small wedding ("just us and family," Julious recalls) and took place in Connecticut. They aren't married here, but Julious reflects proudly that the wedding was for the two of them, and something they had to do.
Their son Darian, 7, was the ring-bearer. "[Chenyl and] I spent a lot of time being young and in love," Julious recalls. She tried dating a man, became pregnant, and was encouraged to keep her child by her now-wife. "She said, 'Let's do it. Let's have the baby,' and here we are. I'm like a soccer mom without the soccer. He plays baseball and football and also karate year-round. Red belt!" (Photo, left: Darian with his two moms, Chenyl, top, and Adrien.)
Julious says that there have been challenges legally. "We worry about [Chenyl's] right to make decisions for him in school, or [with] doctor's appointments, but we've had it pretty easy. His school is well aware and very accepting of us, [along with] his coaches ... doctors [and] dentists."
Their family life is a close one, and their nights usually consist of watching their son practice his sports, watching a movie together or Chenyl, a cook at Applebee's, making dinner for the family. "She cooks the best food," young Darian says, to which Chenyl promptly replies, "Thank you, son."
"[We] decided to have a kid together because we wanted to, not because we had to," Julious said. "I think we're pretty typical except for the fact that most of my straight friends [with children] don't eat together, which is important in our home ... Family is what you make it."
Maybe you can choose your family. The days of mother/father/child as the only definition of family are behind us. We don't marry at 14. Some of us don't marry at all. Some of us have children, some of us don't. Some of us bear no genetic relation other than sexual preference. But we do love. We do honor. We do protect.
And we do take pride in those we call family. Tampa Bay residents are proving it.