2.26 We Chose Each Other

This National Adoption Month, meet the Simmons-Cianciotto Family! After years in the child welfare system, twelve-year-old cancer survivor Derrik found his forever home with dads Jason and Courter. The road through foster care and cross-state adoption wasn’t easy for the family. As dad Jason says, they are a powerful example of why LGBTQ parents AND youth shouldn’t be discriminated against in the child welfare system. Through it all they found each other to form their forever family. Today, Derrik is flourishing and the Simmons-Cianciotto family is complete.

Meet Our Guests

Courter Simmons is an actor and singer, who is also known as the drag persona Cacophony Daniels. Raised in California, he’s lived in New York City since 2001. His acting credits include Jersey Boys on Broadway, off-Broadway, on National Tour, and in Las Vegas, as well as many touring and regional theatre credits nation-wide. He has sung in concerts and cabarets around the world. You may also have seen him on television on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and The Mysteries of Laura, or in the most recent film version of The Producers. Courter won a Bistro Award for his portrayal as Cacophony in his first cabaret Under The ‘C’, which he followed up with an acclaimed run of his next show Wanna Bette? at the legendary Don’t Tell Mama. Courter is a happy husband and proud father, and donates his time and talents to HIVSmart, Trinity Place Shelter, and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids.

The image of black plastic garbage bags, overstuffed with his belongings piled on the front porch of his home, is forever etched in Jason Cianciotto’s mind. After years of experiencing bullying at school, “ex-gay therapy,” and rejection from his church, Jason’s mother and stepfather kicked him out onto the streets when he was a teenager. That journey led him to dedicate his life to advocating for and healing LGBT populations and other stigmatized minorities, while ensuring the next generation is nurtured with dignity and acceptance. He is co-author, with Dr. Sean Cahill, of the book, LGBT Youth in America’s Schools, which was named a Choice Outstanding Academic Title by the Association of College and Research Libraries, included in the Rainbow List of Recommended Books for Adults by the American Library Association, and was nominated for a Stonewall Book Award. His advocacy has been featured on MSNBC, The Hallmark Channel, CBS Morning News, NBC News and in the New York Times. He is currently the Executive Director of the Tyler Clementi Foundation.

Derrik Simmons is a 7th grader who loves theatre, toys, and YouTube. His favorite TV shows are RuPaul’s Drag Race, Teen Titans Go, and The Amazing World of Gumball. He loves amusement parks and the beach, and collects LOL Surprise and Monster High.

Further Reading:

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As part of its commitment to family inclusivity, JOHNSON’S® is proud to stand by Family Equality Council’s National Adoption Month campaign in support of happy, healthy babies and all the families that love them.

Episode Transcript

Emily M: Welcome to Outspoken Voices, a podcast by and for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer parents, people with LGBTQ parents, future parents, and everyone else who is part of our family journeys. I'm your host, Emily McGranachan, and I am the Director of Family Engagement with Family Equality Council. As part of its commitment to family inclusivity. Johnson's is proud to stand by Family Equality Council's National Adoption Month campaign in support of happy, healthy babies and all the families that love them. So November is National Adoption Awareness Month. This month we are highlighting adoption stories of LGBTQ families. With me today is Jason Cianciotto, Courter Simmons and their son Derrik William Simmons. So thank you so much for being with me today.

Courter S.: My name is quarter Simmons and I'm an actor who lives in Nyc with my husband Jason and my son Derrik.

Derrik W S.: I'm Derrick and my middle name is William and my last name is Simmons and I don't really have a job. I just go to school.

Jason C.: This is Jason Cianciotto. I am a husband and a new father. I'm so grateful that Family Equality Council has given us an opportunity to be a part of highlighting the joys of forming a family through adoption.

Emily M: Fabulous. Jason and Courter. Would you start and introduce us to who is in your family and how was your family formed?

Courter S.: Our family is three people. Myself and my husband and our son and our two cats. Jason and I met in 2003 and we got married in 2006, although it wasn't legal then. We got married in Canada first and then got married again in the United States when it became legal. So we're married all over the place. And we began our family a little later and we met Derrik last year in 2017.

Derrik W S.: Yeah. You found my picture on the adoption website in May. And you came to see me in July on 26th, which was four days after my birthday.

Courter S.: And Derrik's adoption went through officially in May of this year. So now he is a permanent member of our family.

Derrik W S.: Yeah. And they gave me a special necklace on my adoption day that I always wear forever and never take it off. I even sleep with it.

Emily M: That's beautiful. Maybe each of you can answer this. What is one of your favorite things to do as a family?

Derrik W S.: We like to snuggle on the couch and watch TV, like our favorite shows American Ninja Warrior and Ru Paul's Drag Race.

Jason C.: We love to see Broadway shows.

Derrik W S.: And we like to go to amusement parks a lot. We went to Six Flags for my twelfth birthday, which was last month.

Emily M: That's awesome. I love to do all of those things too. Derrik, you mentioned the exact date that you met the people who would become your dads. So you have some big dates then that really matter to you. Do you remember what meeting them was like?

Derrik W S.: Well, I first met them and I was kinda shy and Jason asked me, would you like a hug? I'm like, sure. And so I hug him and we got to know each other. And so now I ended up here with them and when I first came home and I sat on the couch and I said, I'm home, I'm finally home!

Jason C.: And that's a great example of just how incredibly big Derrik's heart is. It's one of the things that I feel so inspired by, because amidst all that he's been through - four years in the foster system, he's a brain cancer survivor - amidst all of that he never lost, what I hope is clear to everybody listening, his giant heart and his joy and his love for theater and music and dance. And the pride he has about who he is, that's a pretty amazing thing.

Emily M: Absolutely. So Jason and Courter, was there a process that led you to decide to be a parent? What was that journey like for you?

Jason C.: I remember vividly the first conversation we had. Courter was away in a show and we were having a conversation and I was in a playground. I was standing on top of some giant ladybug playground equipment in the summer talking with him. And I knew that he was the one. I was also kind of afraid of it because I had just gotten out of a seven year relationship and I hadn't thought that I wanted to fall in love and find someone I wanted to spend the rest of my life with so quickly. So we were having conversations about what are the things that we want to achieve in life. And I shared things like that I wanted - to eventually become the executive director of the LGBT community center that helped me come out when I was a teenager - and he shared that he wanted to be on Broadway and be in a national tour. I also shared that I wanted to be a father someday. I remember we said, well, these are all amazing things we want to accomplish. Let's focus on those things first. And then after we've accomplished them, we can move forward with becoming parents. And in 2012 we reached the point where we achieved all of those things and that's when we began what became a long process of trying to figure out how we wanted to become parents. And what was even more challenging, at least for me, was wrestling with the self-doubt that I carried with me so that I could feel ready to be a father.

Courter S.: It took longer for me to get to a place of wanting to be a dad because like Jason talked about, we both had career goals and especially when you're an actor, an actor's life is unstable at best. So it took me a while to get to a point where I was ready to take on the responsibility of being a dad. But once I did, once I got to that point, then it was about Jason and I making our lives ready for all the things that the system requires of foster-to-adoptive parents. Having the right kind of home and documentation of our jobs, our finances and the trainings and background checks and all those kinds of things. So that was a whole other set of things that we needed to do.

Emily M: Did you always know that you wanted to be engage with the foster care system or did you think about other paths to parenthood?

Jason C.: Yeah, that's a great question because there was a pretty long process we went through. I initially felt a strong drive to have a child through surrogacy. I have a fabulously queer family. All three of my father's children are LGBT - I'm gay, my brother is gay and I also have a transgender brother. Amidst all of that, I had this thought in my mind, that now seems so ridiculous, that somehow I was responsible for carrying forward the family name. And I wasn't sure that my brothers were going to ever have children and if none of us have children then the Cianciotto family line essentially comes to an end. You know, looking back on that, it's just funny to think about the pressure that we put on ourselves and the misconceptions we have about all the various ways to become a parent. I'm so grateful that we chose the fostering route. At first we looked into surrogacy, but it was so expensive and there were only two states in the country where both parents can be on the birth certificate. And we looked into direct adoption, which was really expensive. We looked into international adoption and just found that there were very few countries who would allow same sex couples to adopt and then it was also very cost prohibitive.

Courter S.: The other thing too is that as an adoptive parent, you're doing something for a kid who really needs a home. My mom is adopted as an infant. It was always something that was kind of in the back of my mind that there are children all over the world, especially all over our country, who need homes. I think I've heard a figure of 140,000 kids in the foster system in the United States right now. Hearing the figures like that and realizing that there are all these kids out there who need homes kind of makes you think, well, Gosh, why spend a fortune trying to make a biological child or in going to the extreme of flying all over the world to make that happen, when there are children here who need homes, especially some older children and children like Derrik who have medical issues. So it kind of occurred to us that the best use of our family was to help a child who really needed us.

Derrik W S.: It's a funny story how they adopted me. It all started when they saw my profile picture and that's when it said I wanted a straight couple. So when my dads called my adoption worker saying we'd like to adopt this boy, the worker said sorry, but he wants a straight couple. They were very sad and they felt like giving up on having a kid. One day my adoption worker comes over and visits and I'm like, because of the stuff I like to do, it might be hard to find straight couples. So I think I might want a gay couple. So my adoption worker calls my dad and says, you're in luck because he wants a couple like you two. They were all happy and then that's where it turns into this.

Speaker 4: When Derrik was sharing that story, he said something like we felt like giving up. Actually, it was really quite the opposite. When we met Derrik online on the heart gallery, I remember I sent a text to Courter and said, I think this may be our son. And we also knew from the information, including his profile, that he loved Monster High dolls. It was communicated in a really interesting but clear way that he may grow up to be LGBT or that he may experience discrimination because of the things that he likes to do, which unfortunately society considers gender atypical. So when we were initially told no, that Derrik wanted a different sex couple to adopt him, we actually didn't give up. At least twice a week for two weeks, I checked back in with our adoption case worker and said, are you sure you know, has anybody asked him, can we at least try to talk with him on the phone and let him see that we'd be a great home for him. And we're so grateful that his case worker went to visit Derrik and just asked him. And what she told us was that he said that he actually prefer to be a with a two dad home because he thought that a mom and a dad would not allow him to play with his dolls.

Courter S.: We came to know that a lot of things about the system because there are so many hands and so many people trying to make sure that these kids are getting what they need and they're okay. Lots of times there are things in a child's file, things like that they said, oh, he only wants to be with a straight couple. There are lots of times where those things are miscommunicated or have evolved over time. The kids are constantly growing and changing and there are things about them that change and are different than what is written in their file. So for any prospective parents out there who might be listening, it's important that to you follow up and really talk to the kid before you just look at their file or see what's listed there.

Derrik W S.: People should let the child choose the parents, not the parents choose the child. And I would choose you.

Courter S.: Thank you sweetheart. Well, I think we all chose each other, right?

Emily M: So for Jason and Courter, how did you decide which agency to be working with? Did you feel welcomed and treated equally as someone who was openly LGBTQ throughout the process?

Courter S.: Because we live in New York City, the agency that we chose to work with was kind of dictated to us by the city. The New York City Department of Children's Services contracts out to each locality and because we live in Queens, we were assigned to one to get our foster license and things like that. Once we had that, we could continue working with them or we could do what Jason and I ultimately did, which was strike out on our own and look for kids who were looking for homes. And so we talk about a website that we saw Derrik on, it was on a website called the Heart Gallery. This is a strange way of putting it, but it's like Tinder, when you're looking for a kids up for adoption, there are profiles and videos and pictures and things like that.

Speaker 2: The way Jason tells it, he started looking through states and then we found Derrik in Colorado at letter C. And we were in. But then you asked if we ever felt discriminated against or anything like that. We never felt that way when working with the people that we worked with in Colorado and New York. We were very lucky to have had a good experience. Everyone on Derrik's team was aware of the fact that he might turn out some day to be LGBTQ. So they were very open to us becoming a part of Derrik's life because they thought we had a special, unique perspective to offer him, especially because Derek loves theater and maybe wants to be a performer or a director someday.

Derrik W S.: Movie director, Father!

Courter S.: There you go. So they thought because I'm a performer, that would be a really good fit for Derrik. Also because Jason has a background in activism and Derrik is outspoken about who he is and the things that he wants in his life. They thought that would be a really good fit for him too. They were all on board from the very beginning, even from a pretty conservative place like Colorado Springs, Colorado. They all realized that this was the best fit for Derrik. So it was never about our sexuality. It was about what was right for him, which we really appreciate.

Jason C.: But now we're watching in horror at what's happening in states across the country where laws are being passed that would allow foster and adoption agencies who receive public funding to discriminate against a wide variety of people, including those who are LGBTQ. In New York state and New York City there are nonprofit organizations that primarily provide this service to perspective parents and kids. The organization that we originally worked with has its roots in being a Catholic social welfare organization, but they are absolutely forbidden from discriminating based on sexual orientation or gender identity. I can't imagine what it would have felt like to have found Derrik and not to have been able to become his dads because we weren't able to be approved by an organization that discriminates against us. And even more so, what happens to kids, including kids like Derrik. I think I read on the Family Equality Council website that upwards of 12 percent of children waiting to be adopted, identify as LGBT. That is so disproportionately large compared to the five to seven percent that they represent in the general population. What is going to happen to these kids? Becoming a parent has really refocused my desires and activism to advocate for these kids and to protect them because the scales were lifted from our eyes when we met Derrik and we realized that this whole world exists where these kids, who deserve love and a family...excuse me, it's emotional for me.

Derrik W S.: It's okay. Daddy, I love you.

Jason C.: I love you too buddy. How is it that we exist in a world where 140,000 kids don't have a family?

Emily M: You really said it so well when saying that you were identified as being almost a uniquely qualified or certainly bringing something really special to a parenting role, for Derrik. It is really upsetting to see those license to discriminate bills that are allowing agencies to not do what is in the best interest of the child, but rather by their own sort of moral litmus test. It's something that certainly Family Equality Council is really committed to fighting back state to state.

Derrik W S.: You want to know something cool? In the adoption website, after a kid finds a family, there's a part of the website called 'found a family' and shows all these pictures of kids who found a family. And I'm in the found the family part of the website.

Emily M: You've gone to Pride this year as a family. Have you gone to other LGBTQ community spaces or LGBTQ family spaces?

Derrik W S.: There's Drag-Con!

Emily M: Awesome. So why is going to a community space like Pride or Drag-Con important to you as a family?

Derrik W S.: There other people that are just like us! At Pride I met a little girl named Simmi and she has two moms. Her family is the complete opposite of us. Now we hang out a lot.

Courter S.: There was a great moment at Pride this year where Derrik was wearing a fabulous outfit that he had put together himself with a rainbow tutu and a t-shirt with rainbows on it that said 'love unites'. He looked up at us and he said, this is a wonderful place where I can just be myself. And that's exactly right. It's really great to have spaces and events where a kid who is in an LGBTQ family can just be himself and feel loved.

Derrik W S.: I am also gay.

Courter S.: Oh, okay. You want to talk about that? Great. There you go.

Derrik W S.: I really don't have a problem with it, but sometimes kids come up to me and are bullying me at school and are like, oh, your crap. You don't belong in this world. But I have every right to exist. And I say, if you have a problem with me, go talk to my parents.

Courter S.: That's right. Absolutely. But back to your question, it's really great to have safe spaces where we can go as a family and not feel 'other' but feel like a part of a group.

Jason C.: What Derrik just shared, his experience going to school versus what it's like to be in that safe space... It's important for people, especially those who are in our allies to understand that yes, we live in a world where at least for now, we have same-sex marriages nationwide and yes, we live in a country where Courter and I didn't have to worry about being discriminated against in the foster adoption system in New York. But that doesn't necessarily mean that we don't have work to do. We have to focus on our kids. We have to find a way to capture the attention of people in the LGBTQ community who may not want to become parents, which is fine, and have them understand that we need to focus our resources on protecting our kids. We pave the way for a kid Derrik's age and even younger to begin to understand who they are and to declare that proudly. And that means that we are responsible for making sure that they are protected.

Emily M: Derek, is there anything that you wish other people knew or understood about foster care and adoption?

Derrik W S.: Well, lots of things. Like sometimes it can take a very long time! Yeah, lots of kids out there just don't understand. Some are in foster care and don't understand, some aren't and don't understand. And it's kind of hard for some kids out there sometimes. I explained to kids at school and they get confused. I'm like, okay, I'm going to explain the whole thing over again. They're like, oh, I see. I was like, finally!

Emily M: One last question - how can other folks be better friends or allies or advocates for youth and parents throughout the adoption process? There certainly was a lot of change that was happening in all of your lives and things were changing quickly sometimes and then very slowly other times.

Courter S.: We are really, really lucky that we had some fabulously supportive friends and family. Our family was on board from the very beginning and they were very understanding of all the ups and downs. Um, we had some wonderful friends who live in Colorado who helped us with a place to stay when we were stuck there due to the judicial issues and things like that. So shout out to the family because they were wonderful for us. Also our parents jumped in when we needed. My mom stepped in when we needed extra care. What a lot of people don't understand is that everyone who comes in contact with a kid who's in the foster system has to be background checked and cleared. And so what I would say is be open to going through that process for your friends or relatives who are going through the adoption process because you know, if you ever want to babysit or help out in that way, you'll need to have a background check done and all that kind of stuff. It seems a little intrusive to go through a whole background check and fingerprint done just so you can watch a kid for a couple of hours. But it's really helpful to the parents when they have a group of people they can rely on for a last minute babysitting or ride to school.

Jason C.: And I think that what we're talking about is really wrapped up in what it means to have a family of choice. I think people can recognize that even though we live in a country that seems to have a very narrow definition of what family means, particularly for LGBTQ people who, like myself, had to face family rejection or homelessness because of who we are. For so long we had to redefine what it means to be a family, who our family is. Even though I knew and understood that, I saw it in a completely new and different way through Derrik's eyes because Derrik has had to form so much of his family as a family of choice and the way that he has embraced it and formed relationships with our family, our parents, our siblings and also the love and joy that he has brought to aunties and uncles. I think that if everybody could come to understand that family and love and protection is something that they can create for themselves. It's not something they have to fit into a mold that someone else makes for them. Then they would come to see and understand the joy and love that can bring. And at a time when we seem to be facing so many threats from having a bully at the highest level of our government, that we can create the world where we are safe and treat each other with kindness by coming to understand what it means to love and protect each other as a family of choice.

Emily M: Thank you. And Derrik, do you have any other final advice for other folks and how they can be good friends for someone who is going through the adoption process?

Derrik W S.: Well, try to support them and if any problems happen with the families who are trying to adopt, and try to help that family and get through the adoption process.

Courter S.: Good advice, buddy.