Two dads and a child: Couple hope to prove they are a family
Same-sex marriage • The Utahns are two of six plaintiffs challenging the state to accept their union.
Published: June 14, 2014 04:25PM
Updated: June 13, 2014 10:39PM
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Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune Five year old Jesse Milner-Barraza is carried by one of his his Dads - Tony Milner - after Jesse came home from school, Friday, June 13, 2014.

Ask Tony Milner about the moment he became a dad.

He won’t be able to pick just one.

Maybe it was the day his son, still in the womb, was given a name. Maybe it was the minute he cut the umbilical cord or learned to fasten an oversized diaper around a newborn.

Maybe it was during the long stretch of sleepless nights spent standing, pacing, holding his son, giving him food and comfort, warding off the nightmares.

“You try to think of yourself as an individual,” said Milner, 35. “But once you’re a dad, you realize: I only really have one job, and that’s to be a father and focus on Jesse.”

It’s what a father does.

But in the eyes of the state of Utah, Milner is no father.

Milner and his husband, Matthew Barraza, are two of six plaintiffs challenging Utah to recognize their same-sex marriage and imbue their union with the rights and benefits afforded to their opposite-sex counterparts.

Last month, U.S. Judge Dale A. Kimball ordered the state to do just that, but Utah has appealed the ruling to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, which put all movement toward spousal benefits on hold.

Now, Milner and Barraza — like more than 1,000 married same-sex couples in the state — are waiting for answers, hoping that judges will affirm what they already know: that they are a family.

Barraza legally adopted Jesse after he was born in 2009. But Milner remains a legal stranger to the boy he’s nurtured since birth.

As Father’s Day looms, the men will celebrate in the face of fear and unanswered questions.

“There is always that ‘what if?’ You never know what’s going to happen. That’s one of the reasons marriage exists: so that children can be safe and taken care of,” said Barraza, 39. “We just hope that soon, we can have the same protections for Jesse as other families do.”

Family oriented • Milner grew up in West Jordan; Barraza in Ogden.

As children, both boys were quiet, thoughtful, bookish. They loved spending time with their parents and siblings. They grew up in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Coming out as gay and leaving the church later in life didn’t change some of the fundamental aspects of their upbringing: They both longed for a family of their own.

They both wanted to be a father.

“It’s what drew me to him,” Milner said of their first meeting, more than 11 years ago. “I consider ourselves very fortunate that we’ve found each other.”

In 2008, a family friend learned she was pregnant and decided to put the baby up for adoption.

She approached the couple and asked them: Were they ready to be dads?

The men turned their in-home office into a nursery. They attended every ultrasound and prepared for the baby’s arrival.

But if there’s anything the two have learned about parenting it is to expect the unexpected. Jesse was born a month early.

As the couple celebrated their son’s arrival in the delivery room, Barraza said, they realized they were woefully unprepared.

Family members scrambled to buy them diapers and onesies. They stocked up on formula and baby wipes.

“Looking back on pictures of that first day in the hospital, we’re just wide-eyed, looking like, ‘Oh goodness, what have we gotten ourselves into?’ ” Milner said. “Having a baby, it’s this entirely new language that you have to learn: putting on a diaper, getting his little arms into the sleeves of the onesie. But once you learn it, once you become a dad, you’re a part of this big club of parents. Jesse gave me that. Jesse made me a dad. What an amazing gift.”

Tying the knot • Jesse was still a toddler when his dads got married for the first time.

In 2010, Barraza and Milner stood in line outside the Marriage Bureau in Washington, D.C., after the district legalized gay unions.

On the plane home, Milner said, the couple’s elation slowly waned.

They had a marriage license. They had solemnized their union. But in Utah, where voter-approved Amendment 3 banned all recognition of same-sex marriages, it wouldn’t matter.

When U.S. District Judge Robert J. Shelby overturned Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage on Dec. 20, 2013, in a historic ruling that shocked the nation, the thought of gay marriage being made legal in Utah was the last thing on either of the men’s mind.

Milner was at work. Barraza was trying to finish his Christmas shopping. Jesse was at day care.

“Once we saw the news, we burned rubber to the County Building,” Milner said. “Part of the reason was we knew once we were legally married in Utah, we could apply for a co-parent adoption. We said, ‘Let’s just do this, let’s just go.’ Matt didn’t even ask me if I wanted to marry him.”

They were among the first in line at the Salt Lake County Clerk’s Office. They beat the rush, the media and most of the officiants, who showed up to perform on-site marriages throughout the night.

They called their pastor at the United Church of Christ and quickly arranged an evening ceremony.

In front of a small collection of friends and relatives, the men lit candles symbolizing their individual selves.

A third flame represented their union, the one life they would build together. When the time came to light that candle, they held their son and set the wick afire — as a family.

Two dads • Milner is “daddy.” Barraza is “papa.” To Jesse, it’s that simple.

He isn’t old enough to understand the legal battle in which his family is embroiled.

But he knows he has two dads, and that not everyone does.

Jesse’s room is filled with pictures of his family. Photos of his fathers, his cousins, his grandparents, his birth parents, his biological siblings.

In school, when Jesse’s class was tasked with drawing pictures of their dads for Father’s Day, Jesse got to draw two.

“There are kids in Jesse’s class whose parents are divorced and so they live with one mom or one dad, some of them live with their grandmas, and we have friends who have two moms, so, we try to teach him that families come in all shapes and sizes,” Barraza said. “To Jesse, there’s no real difference.”

Milner and Barraza said they hope that someday, the state will see things that way, too.

mlang@sltrib.com

Twitter: @Marissa_Jae

The status of Utah’s same-sex marriage cases

Evans v. Utah • The lawsuit challenging the state to recognize the more than 1,000 same-sex marriages solemnized in the 17 days when such marriages were legal has been appealed by the state to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals after Judge Dale A. Kimball ordered Utah to honor gay and lesbian unions. The federal appeals court is weighing whether or not to impose a stay that would halt all movement toward granting the couples benefits until it can rule on the merits of the case.

Kitchen v. Herbert • The landmark lawsuit that toppled Utah’s voter-approved ban on same-sex marriages has been appealed to, and argued before, the 10th Circuit Court of appeals. A ruling is expected any day. It is likely continue on to the U.S. Supreme Court regardless of whether the court rules in favor of Utah, affirming a state’s rights to define marriage as it wishes, or the plaintiffs, backing the ruling of U.S. District Judge Robert J. Shelby.

Same-sex adoptions • After several state court judges granted adoptions to legally wed same-sex couples, the state has asked the Utah Supreme Court to determine whether the adoptions — and, by extension, the marriages — are legal and allowable under state law.