Last year, Susan Tow found herself testifying before the Alaska State Legislature, via the telephone. The Senate State Affairs Committee was considering SB73, a bill that sought to exempt widows and widowers of fallen combat veterans from property taxes on a municipal level. She appealed to the state Senate — and committee chair, Sen. Fred Dyson — to include same-sex couples in the legislation, who were excluded in the bill’s language. The testimony (click here to watch the full video) was equal parts moving and chilling.
I served 22 years of honorable service in the United States Air Force. 12 of those years were served while stationed here in Alaska. During those 12 years, I deployed to support ongoing contingencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. My last deployment… lasted 12 months. Seven months out of that year, I traveled extensively throughout Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and [the United Arab Emirates]. Most of these travels were on Black Hawk helicopters or via ground support.
I’ve been shot at and I’ve pulled my weapon in self defense. I was always armed and my weapon was always locked and loaded. I’ve carried wounded soldiers, marines, and airmen from the heliport pad in Balad — into the ER for emergency treatment. I have spent nights in bunkers in Kabul and Kandahar praying that the incoming bullets and missiles did not hit their intended target. I stood on many patriot details as our fallen brothers and sisters were loaded for their final transport back to their families. Through all of this, my thoughts were always with my family. My wife and our two young sons. If I were to die, what would become of them?
Senate Bill 73 is set to honor Alaska’s fallen warriors and support widows and widowers of service members that are killed while on active duty. This must include our gay and lesbian military families.
Dyson thanked her for her testimony, adding “We’re proud to have you among us.”
When State Senator Hollis French moved such an amendment, Dyson was absent for the vote. His colleagues voted it down, 7-12, with Republican Senators Click Bishop, John Coghill, Mike Dunleavy, Anna Fairclough, Cathy Giessel, Charlie Huggins, Pete Kelly, Kevin Meyer, Peter Micciche, Bert Stedman, Gary Stevens, and Democratic Senator Donny Olson voting against it. The bill later passed the legislature and was signed into law by Governor Sean Parnell.
“We actually met having coffee,” Susan told me. Susan, her wife Chris, and sons Lakota and Dylan, were gracious enough to invite me into their home in Anchorage earlier this month. The family’s collection of shoes lined the floor when I stepped in. The distant sound of family pets in other rooms complimented a cozy living room adorned with photos of their two boys.
“I came from Maryland,” Chris responded. “So, we were in Frederick, Maryland. That’s where Fort Detrick was, which was where she was working at the time. We were both at the Starbucks there, and we just started talking.”
Talking turned to emails. Emails turned to phone calls. They fell in love. Isn’t coffee grand?
Susan introduced Chris to the boys. She was an instant hit. “We went out to your aunt’s farm and shot the marker guns,” Susan said, smiling at her wife (who glowed in response). “And the kids fell in love with her, because how cool? She’s going to let me shoot paint balls all over the farm. It just grew from there.”
The couple celebrated their first commitment ceremony in 2008. Shortly after, Susan deployed. She’d be gone for a year, between 2008-2009 – long before the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, a discriminatory policy that barred gay and lesbian citizens from serving.
“For so many years, in the military, I literally had to keep my mouth shut,” Susan told me. “I had to listen about gay jokes. And I had to listen to, just, the demeaning, horrible things that were being said.”
As an airman, she was told to be on the look out for homosexuals. Later, as a senior NCO, she was trained to identify and report them. “That was very hard for me, to sit there and listen to them tell me how I’m supposed to watch out for myself.”
While away, Chris was in charge of taking care of the kids. Given the ongoing discriminatory policies, it was done in complete and laboring secrecy.
“She was the aunt,” Lakota said.
“It was difficult for everybody,” Susan responded. “Because here I am gone. And as parents, you teach your children ‘don’t lie, it’s not right.’ But then you’d say, ‘But don’t tell anybody who we live with. Don’t tell anybody that Chris and I share a bedroom.'”
For Chris, single-parenting while Susan served was tricky.
Partly because, well, parenting is tricky. “The only time we had trouble was when I’d have to, like, find a jock strap or something like that,” Chris said, laughing. “But we got it. Lakota helped me and we went to the store and we got it and it worked.”
There were unconventional, avoidable challenges too, though. She wasn’t recognized as a parent in the eyes of the law. Routine chores like picking them up from school when sick or getting on base came with added challenges that opposite-sex couples never face. Chris recalled one time where she wasn’t even allowed to pick up sports equipment, because she had no legal claim to who she was: Mom.
Compounding that were the gender norms some still assign to parenting; the mythical emphasis put on the mother-father family unit – a notion both Lakota and Dylan dismiss as absurd.
This past May, Alaska Family Action president Jim Minnery hosted a town hall, entitled “Loving Your Gay Neighbor.” Chris and Dylan were in attendance, and Dylan took the opportunity to ask the panel what they thought was missing from his childhood. The response, from Peter Hubbard (a pastor, author, and advocate of conversion therapy), was: “A father.”
“I mean, personally, I believe I haven’t missed anything in my life,” Dylan told me with no hint of uncertainty. “I’ve been raised right. I’ve done everything, I’ve done sports, I’ve done all that stuff — everything I can and everything I’ve wanted to.”
Dylan said that Chris taught him about all sorts of “manly” stuff. Tools, shooting, and the like. He never felt the absence of a father figure. He has two moms who love each other – and he and his brother – more than the world. We should all be so lucky. Mainly, he’d just like to be allowed to live a normal life without people trying to concoct new ways to deem it somehow not normal.
Both Lakota and Dylan were quick to defend their moms and their upbringing. As Chris and Susan walked, hand in hand, behind the Identity, Inc. banner in this year’s PrideFest march for equality, Dylan and Lakota (and Lakota’s girlfriend, Erica) stood smiling alongside them. Dylan carried a sign that read: “I don’t care who gets married as long as they’re good to their dog.”
Words to live and love by.
When Identity, Inc. executive director Drew Phoenix contacted Chris and Susan about a possible lawsuit aimed at striking down Alaska’s ban on same-sex marriage, both jumped at the opportunity. Dylan came home while they were still on the phone discussing the case.
“I was like, cool. Let’s do it,” he said.
“Anything to support change,” Lakota added.
Susan said that there was still a lot of scarring in Alaska surrounding issues of equality, especially in Anchorage, where nondiscrimination efforts have failed twice since 2009 – once by a mayoral veto (Anchorage Ordinance 64) and once by ballot initiative (2012’s Prop 5).
“After Prop 5, it was like I didn’t want to walk outside,” she explained. “I didn’t know how my neighbors voted.”
But the family has enjoyed support from friends and family after signing onto the Hamby suit.. Especially from younger folks, like Dylan and Lakota’s friends. While Susan was serving, both were very selective of which friends they told. “There were some friends that I told. Close friends. Some of them knew, they just didn’t say anything,” Lakota said. “Now I tell people and they’re like ‘cool.’”