Palo Alto family's experience depicted in children's book on gay marriage
by Aaron Kinney
San Jose Mercury News
When "Yes on 8" signs began popping up on lawns in their Palo Alto neighborhood in 2008, Kathy and Lee Merkle-Raymond found themselves on the front line of the battle over gay marriage in California.
The same-sex couple, who were campaigning against Proposition 8, had to explain to their two young daughters why some of their friends' parents didn't want them to be allowed to marry. Then, with their daughters' encouragement, the couple decided to tie the knot before the ban on same-sex marriage took effect.
Their story is now the basis for Operation Marriage, a new children's book that could make its way into classrooms and school libraries now that California passed a law ensuring that children learn about the contributions of gays and lesbians. Author Cynthia Chin-Lee debuted the book Wednesday at Kepler's Books in Menlo Park before an audience of local families, educators and faith leaders.
Chin-Lee, a publications manager for Oracle, has written several well-received children's books exploring cultural diversity in her spare time. With Operation Marriage, she has taken on the subject of gay rights, mixing in broader themes of tolerance and bullying.
"I see this not only as a gay marriage issue, but opening the conversation of how all families are different," Chin-Lee said Tuesday.
Operation Marriage tells the story of a brother and sister who are disparaged at school by a boy who insists their moms aren't really married. After their parents console them, trying to explain the difference between a commitment ceremony and a traditional marriage, the siblings scheme to persuade their mothers to get legally married.
The schoolyard confrontation is a product of Chin-Lee's imagination, though it's rooted in her own experience. She was bullied due to her ethnicity while growing up in Washington, D.C. Children of same-sex parents also are targets for bullies, who are ever on the lookout for children who are different. "One thing I feel passionate about is that kids should be able to grow up without being bullied for any reason," Chin-Lee said.
Ayden Casey-Demirtjis, 7, has been teased for having two mothers. The Mountain View third-grader, who attended Wednesday's reading with mother Shannon, said that some kids have asked whether his father is dead. "I don't even really have a dad," he'll reply. "Nobody's dead."
The owners of Reach and Teach, the San Mateo-based publisher of Operation Marriage, anticipates that a new state law written by state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, could help them get the book into school libraries and lesson plans. The Fair, Accurate, Inclusive and Respectful Education Act, which Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law in July, adds lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people to a list of underrepresented cultural and ethnic groups that need to be represented in school curriculums.
Reach and Teach is putting together an outline suggesting how the book could be taught. The publisher is also working with Our Family Coalition, a Bay Area LGBT group that holds regular forums on elementary education, including how to make curriculums more inclusive. A previous Reach and Teach book, "Sometimes the Spoon Runs Away with Another Spoon," has earned a recommendation from an arm of the American Library Association that focuses on gay literature.
Craig Wiesner, co-owner of Reach and Teach, said having same-sex parents can create dilemmas for children right from the start of their education. He noted that a common task for children of kindergarten age is drawing a family portrait.
"For 2 million kids across the United States, that picture is going to include two parents of the same gender," Wiesner said.
Reach and Teach, along with Chin-Lee and illustrator Lea Lyon, aims to give schools materials to help children explore, and even celebrate, the differences between them.
The real-life story of the Merkle-Raymonds and the Proposition 8 campaign wound up with a happy end, although same-sex marriage is against the law in California. The Merkle-Raymonds reconciled with a family that had backed the gay marriage ban, and daughters Alex, 14, and Nikki, 11, came through the experience with their youthful optimism intact.
"I think the kids understand that there's an issue of justice and equity that in their lifetimes will change," Kathy Merkle-Raymond said. The girls' perspective is, "Our friends are going to marry whoever they want to marry, and no one's going to care."
Contact Aaron Kinney at 650-348-4357.