Out of Limbo: An Interview With Kent Burbank

Kent Burbank (left) and his family

Marriage equality for same-sex couples has come about partly through court decisions finding against states that have passed laws or constitutional amendments defining marriage as between one man and one woman.

In Arizona, the case was Majors v. Jeanes (formerly Majors v. Horne), which included seven couples and two widowed members of couples. One of the couples in the case was Kent Burbank and Vicente Talanquer, who had adopted two sons. Since Arizona did not allow two “unrelated” individuals to adopt jointly, only one of the fathers — Vicente — had been able to legally adopt. And when the couple was legally married in Iowa, that marriage was not recognized in Arizona, meaning that Kent still could not be a legal father to his sons. Only after the decision in Majors v. Jeanes on October 17, 2014, was he finally able to adopt his sons. His family is one of the first in Arizona in which both parents in a same-sex couple were legally able to adopt their children jointly.

“Vicente became the legal father. I had to, essentially, be nothing.”

Kent Burbank, who was once on the board of directors of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona, agreed to share his experiences with the adoption process, the lawsuit, and his marriage. I was very interested in interviewing him: I am also an adoptive parent, and since I adopted as a single mom, mine was also viewed as a non-traditional adoption. As we talked, I found we had experiences in common, but that some of what we faced was quite different.

Our meeting took place at the library in downtown Tucson, on January 5, 2015.

Arizona only allowed husband and wife to adopt jointly. Is that why you got involved with the lawsuit?

Our primary purpose for joining the lawsuit, speaking just for my husband and I, was about getting the ability to have both of us recognized as legal parents. When we went through the adoption process we had to do everything that a married, heterosexual couple would have had to have done — background checks, lengthy histories on both of us, statements about why we both want to adopt — and at the very end they said, “Oh, so sorry. Arizona doesn’t allow unmarried, gay couples to adopt.”

So single people can adopt, but only married people could adopt jointly. And since you weren’t married, only one of you could adopt, despite both of you being co-parents.

It becomes kind of a flip of the coin. Vicente became the legal father. I had to, essentially, be nothing. What was so painful is, even though we went through the process as a couple, I had absolutely no rights up until we finally got the adoption redone, essentially making me an adoptive parent. You can’t imagine the amount of crap that LGBT couples and families have to navigate. Who’s on whose benefits and survivor benefits and health insurance and all sorts of things. Whether my children are going to be covered. There’s only so much you can do with other legal documents to be able to protect yourself.

In the end, if Vicente and I had gotten into a horrible falling out, which fortunately never happened, and he chose to withhold the children from me, I would have no legal standing whatsoever. Or if he had died, and his family decided that they wanted the children, I would have been a stranger to those boys, legally. There’s always been this worry in my mind with schools, with doctors, with anything, right? Because, legally, I wasn’t the parent. You can’t co-parent and then have one parent do all of the … everything that requires …

A signature.

Yeah. On international flights [to visit Vicente’s family in Mexico City], there was always this fear like, what if, on the way back, immigration doesn’t let us through and they insist on proof [of my status as parent]. What am I going to do? There’s been times where I’d travel, Vicente would stay longer and I’d come back earlier with the boys, and I thought, “I’m going to be screwed,” like I am nothing, I’m legally nothing to these kids. You know?

There were legal complications with my son’s case, so it was two-and-a-half years that he was my son before we were legal, and there is that feeling and I remember it.

It’s a weird feeling, isn’t it? Like you know you’re the parent and you’re doing all the parent things, and yet, there’s just these moments where you’re like, “Oh, crap …”

I had the ability to take him to the doctor and sign things at school and attend meetings and all that, but if somebody had questioned me along the way … Even if they had just to make a phone call to confirm it. It would have been so …

It’s very painful. That’s where the legal pieces are so important. It’s a very vulnerable spot to be in. [If] something had happened to my partner, he could put in his will that he wants me to become the parent of the kids. They’d be the [wards] of the state the moment he died.

It made it very difficult for me to understand people’s arguments against marriage equality when I saw that the only people it was seriously hurting were our kids. [The fact that only one of us could legally adopt our children] left them incredibly vulnerable and unprotected. If you have two parents, like we did, [but] one is not afforded any legal rights, it means those kids were not eligible for any of my social security benefits. If I had died, my children would not be eligible for survivor benefits. There’s all sorts of legal protections that left my kids in a much more vulnerable spot than any other child with two parents. And that’s not OK. For me, I became a little bit rabid in terms of fiercely fighting, because I felt like I was fighting for something that they deserved to have.

So where’s the adoption now, legally?

It’s legally finalized. We have birth certificates with both of our names on them for both of our children and it feels wonderful. People said, “How does it make you feel different?” I’m still the same parent doing 50 percent of the work and contributing 50 percent of the money and that hasn’t changed. What changed is this huge weight off my back, this feeling of relief, of not constantly worrying about … When I take him to the doctor’s office or when I sign them out at school or when I get on a plane, is somebody going to question [my relationship to my children].

How did it feel to be the public face of this issue, through your involvement with the lawsuit?

It felt a little strange, to be honest with you. On one hand, I’m very out. In a past life, I was the director of Wingspan, the LGBT community center [in Tucson]. So it wasn’t that piece of it that felt strange, nor did it feel strange, necessarily, to be the face of an issue because I had to talk about a lot of issues when I was director.

The difference is when it’s your personal family. And you’re having to make decisions that affect your partner and your kids. There’s been a lot of times where in the past we’ve opted not to do certain things just out of that sense of privacy and respect for our kids, but on this we thought it was really important. For the lawsuit they were looking for some very specific types of couples and single folks based on demographics and other characteristics, and we fit one of the profiles they needed. So we decided it was worth taking that step.

Were your children part of your wedding in Iowa?

It was a very simple ceremony. We hired a minister, went to a park in Des Moines, and it was just the four of us plus my parents, my sister and her kids [and] her husband. It was about 20 minutes, and [our children] were part of the ceremony, and they were asked whether they would support us in our marriage, as part of our family. It was much more meaningful and touching than I ever thought it would be. We’d been together at that point for 18 years, almost 19 years. [We thought] the marriage was less about us and it was more for the kids all along. But I’ll be honest, exchanging vows, we were a mess, we were bawling the entire time. When something’s felt like it would never happen and then it does, it was very emotional.

We decided to do it right after the Supreme Court came down with their decision that began this process where the federal government would have to recognize the marriages. So we decided at that point, even though Arizona doesn’t recognize it, there’s a legal reason to get married. It was one week after that decision came down we got married. That’s when we figured out, “Oh, crap, we can’t get divorced.” We got married in Iowa and you could get married in Iowa, but you could only get divorced if you lived in Iowa. We figured that out two days before the marriage and said, “Oh, what the hell, we’ve been together 20 years, not quite, but …”

The marriage has subsequently been recognized [in Arizona], when the 9th Circuit [Court of Appeals] made its ruling. All marriages, right now, whether they were performed outside of Arizona or in Arizona, are recognized in the state of Arizona. LGBT people [still] live in a little bit of limbo, constantly. Even with the latest ruling, we still don’t have a crystal clear, definitive answer, right?

The Supreme Court will be deciding, won’t they? They usually follow where most of the states go with social issues …

I don’t think it’s likely, but there is a chance that they could come down and say, “No, actually, the states can do what the heck they want.” In which case, we’re going to be thrown back into legal limbo [with respect to our marriage].

And have you found support in places you wouldn’t have expected?

I’ve been very amazed with how society’s been changing and the support that comes from the wider heterosexual community. LGBT rights would not be where they are today if it were not for the fact that heterosexual people are standing up for our rights. I really think that’s what’s created this sea change, is that finally there are enough people that know gay people — if they’re their brothers or their sisters or their fathers or their kids or their friends — that they changed attitudes, and by speaking up, they’ve made a difference. And we see that in our own families. My parents, when I came out to them, 25 years ago, it was difficult and painful and not fun and they struggled. And now they love our kids, treat them just like any other of their grandkids. We couldn’t ask for anything more.

When I was at Wingspan, I never would have guessed that this soon there would have been this radical of a change [in public opinion regarding same-sex marriage]. I grew up in a time when it was very common for gay men to be equated with pedophiles. There are lots of gay men in my generation and older who shunned contact with children out of fear that we would be labeled as a pedophile. Because the connection in popular images and culture was so strong. I think there was a time where I was very concerned around that and distanced myself from kids. It was only at Wingspan where we had a youth program, and I had other friends that started looking at adopting and fostering. And I realized there’s no reason I should shut this part of my life off.

Finally, do you have any Planned Parenthood stories?

I’m at a board meeting, and my oldest son is turning 12. I was saying, I’m dreading having the conversation with him about sex and sex education. All of a sudden, all heads turn to me, dead silence, and they’re like, “You haven’t had that conversation?” I’m as progressive as you can get and as open about talking about sex. I have worked in this field for so long. But until you’re a parent, you don’t realize how awkward the conversation is. And as much as I had had lots of practice having public conversations about sexuality and sexual health, doing it in my personal life was very difficult.

Thank goodness I had those board members all looking at me in horror, because it spurred me to have this conversation. What I learned as a parent was it is much easier having that conversation pre-pubescence, or when they are at the very early stages of pubescence, because once he turned 13-and-a-half, forget it. The eye-rolling, the shutdown. You can’t talk to an adolescent as a parent very effectively about sexual health and sexual well being, because they don’t want to have those conversations with their parents. Where at 12, it was very easy. And then it was so much easier with my younger son. Were they thrilled with it? No. Was it embarrassing? No, it wasn’t at that age. But if I had waited like I had planned, until they were teenagers, it would have been a disaster.

Planned Parenthood has always been a real ally of the LGBT community. When I was at Wingspan, [Planned Parenthood of Southern Arizona President] Patti Caldwell was one of the few [leaders of] nonprofits at that point that really went out of their way to make sure that they had our back. I really appreciated that unwavering support of LGBT issues among all the board members and the organization itself. Planned Parenthood really is about helping people think through parenthood and how to do it in responsible ways. Knowing all of the different options for how you can become a parent, and how to do parenting well is a big piece of it. It absolutely is important for LGBT folks. I really have this deep appreciation and gratitude to Planned Parenthood.

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