Someone You Should Know

Someone You Should Know: Larry Nicholas and Tom Underhill

Two-dad familyLarry Nicholas (left) and Tom Underhill (right), who have been together for 15 years, live on Seattle’s Capitol Hill with their children, Max and Orly. In 2007, together with two friends, they founded Feather Boa Fathers, a social and emotional support group for gay dads and their families. The group offers the families opportunities to connect with each other through outings, activities and dads-only social events. Find Feather Boa Fathers on Facebook.

Tell us about how you met?

Larry: Tom and I met on Pride weekend in 1998. He was wearing Birkenstocks, normally a “no-no” for me. I was able to keep my focus on his beautiful eyes and just made a point not to look down. Things ultimately worked out well.

Tom: Larry’s friend tried to pick me up. He invited me along with his friends back to his place for drinks. While there, Larry and I couldn’t stop talking to each other. We’ve been together ever since.

Were you always sure you wanted children?

Tom: I’ve always wanted children of my own. When I finally came out to myself during my college years, I felt a relief that I was being true to myself, but at the same time I mourned that I wouldn’t be able to have kids of my own. At that time it just didn’t seem like a possibility. When surrogacy became a reality for us, it really was a dream come true.

Larry: We knew that we both wanted children since our second date. We went to a Los Lobos concert on the pier and had the discussion then. We needed to do some things before we were ready to take on the journey to parenthood, but we knew we were in it from the beginning.

As gay parents, what kinds of issues do you face?

Tom: For us, everything is deliberate. Being gay dads means there’s an opportunity or demand almost every day to have to come out to somebody. It gets a little tiring. Almost every time I’m out with the kids, there’s someone who asks where’s their mommy. I have to do a little split-second calculation: Is this is a safe space to declare that my children have two dads, or do I just let it go?  

As I was buying flowers for Mother’s Day for my mother, the shop owner asked if it was for my wife or my mother. I had to pause, and even though I felt it was a safe place, I let it go and said it was for my mother. If I weren’t in hurry, I would have added that my partner and I celebrate Father’s Day together.

Larry: As parents in a same-sex relationship, we have to face the same issues as other parents. We are a family. We are parents of a 6-year-old girl and a 3-year-old boy, and not only do we have to get ourselves dressed each morning, get ready for work and out the door, but we have to be fun, entertaining, and make sure these other two little people are dressed, groomed and ready to go. Much like many of our mom friends, we’ve also felt the pressure to be perfect parents as well. Being dads, gratefully, we gave up that idea a while ago.

What advice can you give to parents of children who are gay?

Tom: I wish that all parents would be supportive of their children, for who they are, not who they want them to be. So many parents have such strong expectations and demands of their children. They want their children to fulfill their own dreams. I wish all parents would let go of those egos and nurture their children, so that they can grow and develop their own dreams and identities.

I have to remind myself to heed my own advice.

Do I wish deep down that my son were somewhat like me; sensitive, artistic and curious about nature and science? Sure! Is that what my son is turning out to be? Not quite — he’s developing a strong interest and aptitude towards sports. Sports horrified me as a kid (still does a little). It’s not my thing, but I am going to support him in his interests with every fiber of my being.

What is your vision for Feather Boa Fathers?

Larry: We have been working to create a community of gay dads and their families, a place where kids can see other families who look like theirs. We also envisioned a group of gay dads that could embrace being gay and having a family.

Do you have challenges that are different from hetero parents?

Larry: We do indeed. There is a community of moms at the schools, the preschools, that many times we are excluded from, whether we are stay-at-homes or not. Gay dads have to work extra hard to break in to build community. It could be just a part of the “Seattle Ice” thing as well, but at times it can be difficult and isolating being the only gay dad in a school, community or group.

Our daughter was in preschool, and one of the other kids said, “You don’t have a mommy.” There was a quick response from her mom, who quickly reminded her daughter that that wasn’t a very nice thing to say and how horrible our daughter would feel as a result of her statement. Gratefully, our daughter was on her toes and let both the child and the mother know that it was just a silly thing to say because “of course I have a mommy, how else would I be here? We all have mommies.”

Everyone is always concerned about how to talk to kids about same-sex families. Other parents repeatedly ask me, what should they say to their kids? The question in itself is offensive. How would a parent explain to their child about a classmate whose parents are divorced? About a playmate who lives with their grandparents? I’m never quite sure if this other parent is reaching out to me to help them move beyond their own homophobia or if they genuinely have no idea how to talk to their children. We are no different, other than we don’t fit the dominant paradigm and that makes people uncomfortable.

Tom: For us, everything is deliberate. Being gay dads means there’s an opportunity or demand almost every day to have to come out to somebody. It gets a little tiring. Almost every time I’m out with the kids, there’s someone who asks where’s their mommy. I have to do a little split-second calculation: Is this is a safe space to declare that my children have two dads, or do I just let it go?  

When we travel, we have to travel with all of our photo ID’s and passports, because air travel with children raises suspicion when two men are traveling with them.

How did your parents learn that you are gay?

Larry: I was living in Los Angeles working for an entertainment PR/marketing firm. A gay travel magazine asked if I would model for them. Little did I know that my first modeling gig would be for the cover of a national gay travel magazine. When my parents came to LA to visit, I proudly showed my major accomplishment. My father hit the roof.

I called my brother, who was living in Seattle at the time, and asked him what I should do. He was out to my parents for a number of years at this point. It was pretty clear that it was time to let my parents know who I was. The next morning, I told my father I was gay. His response was simple, clear and concise: “I love you.” When I think back on it, I feel a deep sense of gratitude, appreciation and love. Both my brother and I are pretty fortunate.

How have Orly and Max changed your lives?

Tom: People always ask me, “Is having kids nothing like you imagined?” I grew up as the oldest of three boys, with bottles and poopy diapers and rambunctious youngsters. Having kids of our own is pretty much exactly what I imagined, only better. There are trials, and we’re always exhausted, but there are those special little moments every day that make it all worth it.

There is nothing like it when Max quietly slips into bed first thing in the morning to cuddle with us, when Orly and I are drawing or making a craft together and her face lights up with magical delight. I love catching a glimpse of my two kids playing together and Orly is teaching Max a new game or Max is consoling Orly when she cries.

My greatest joy is watching each of them develop into their own person. I love watching their interests and abilities form and bloom. I love to see the compassion and tolerance that comes so naturally to both of them; each of them is exposed to so much diversity. To them, family is made up of all combinations of gender, race and class. It is all normal to them.

Our family’s social circles are diverse, and so is our environment. We live in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, which is probably one of the most diverse in Seattle. I love that they have that foundation. I love the daily adventures we have together. Taking them to Cal Anderson Park to play in the playground can be an adventure. Walking down Broadway, my daughter starts a conversation with the transgender lady selling Real Change newspapers. Then we run into a friend of hers from kindergarten whose mother is a devout Muslim wearing a hijab. Then we get to the park where a gay and lesbian group is practicing their flag throwing routine for the Pride parade.

I love that this is absolutely normal for our kids — that they are exposed to so many different lifestyles, that they ask such challenging questions, that they naturally have so much empathy for so many.

Larry: Seriously? How have they not changed our lives? Tom and I jokingly refer to them as our roommates sometimes — you know, the ones that don’t clean up after themselves.

The greatest joy is the adventure of it all. We love taking in all that they are, learning and teaching at the same time. Both of them are spectacular individuals with their own interests and challenges. I think that Tom and I are doing the best that we can. We’re far from perfect parents, which is a relief in and of itself. We work hard to integrate compassion and gratitude in our daily lives, not only to model for our children but for ourselves. We work on our relationship and we work to connect, connect, connect.

How has the changing marital laws impacted your life and your community?

Larry: We were covered. We hired a lawyer years ago, and we had all the paperwork to make sure that each of us was taken care of if anything happened to the other. Once we had children we updated everything so that our children were taken care of as well. I worked hard to raise money for equal rights here in Washington State. We were so excited when same-sex marriage became legal. I am grateful that in our community, the younger men and women embarking on a relationship will have the sense of security and recognition that we all deserve. We were also excited for it to be off the front page of the newspaper. It is ridiculous that we are still fighting this fight in 2013.

Tom: The changes in Washington State’s laws and other states are a moral and spiritual boost for us, but honestly, there is no real impact to our lives. The real changes have to happen at the federal level. Right now, because of DOMA [the Defense of Marriage Act], my partner and I cannot file our income tax jointly. But because of IRS 555 and the fact that we are in a community property state that recognizes same-sex domestic partnerships and now real marriage, we have to do a bizarre double filing: We each have to file a separate tax return, but we have to report each other’s income on the two forms. If either of us were to die, the survivor would not be able to receive any Social Security benefits (fortunately, our children can receive our benefits).

I happen to work for a great company (Microsoft) that gives full medical and dental benefits to same-sex partners. Because of federal law, I have to pay the taxes on those benefits while married couples do not. So the changes in marital laws in this state and others are a wonderful and important step toward federal recognition of same-sex marriage.

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