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Published October 11, 2011, 07:58 PM

West Fargo Lesbian Couple Navigates Life's Daily Challenges as Parents

WEST FARGO - On this particular day – an unseasonably sunny and warm autumn afternoon – the small family huddles around the kitchen table, decorating sugar cookies shaped like pumpkins, witches and ghosts.

By: Najla Amundson, Forum Communications

WEST FARGO - On this particular day – an unseasonably sunny and warm autumn afternoon – the small family huddles around the kitchen table, decorating sugar cookies shaped like pumpkins, witches and ghosts.

All the accoutrements necessary for Martha Stewart-worthy cookies are in place, including orange, white and green glossy icings and bone-shaped white sprinkles that fill four test tubes in a charming stand.

Meanwhile, three large pumpkins are in the bullpen waiting to be carved.

The scene could be of any family enjoying some traditional pre-Halloween fun. But this isn’t your ordinary family.

Rhea Goss, Barb Thielbar and their son, Matt (whose name has been changed for this story at the request of his parents) are uniquely different.

Goss and Thielbar are domestic partners. Together, along with Goss’ 13-year-old son from a previous marriage, they have been a family for eight years.

“It’s like having a mom and dad. It’s normal. There’s nothing different. It’s just … (he pauses) family,” Matt says.

The majority of North Dakota voters don’t see things that way.

In 2004, state voters approved a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. The U.S. Census Bureau recently released statistics showing North Dakota as having the fewest number of same-sex partners, at just over 600, or 2 percent of the population.

The low-visibility of same-sex couples, combined with state laws and social stigmas of same-sex couples, creates challenges for the family.

Goss and Thielbar cautiously navigate their life through complex and overlapping emotional, social and legal issues. What they want is for others to respect them as people, as parents and as a family unit.

“We share a lot of common themes with other families, and we want the same things for our children. Our primary goal is to be a family,” Goss said.

Protecting their family

Goss is from Indiana, and Thielbar grew up in Fargo-Moorhead. The couple met at work while both were living in Fargo. At the time, Goss was separated from her husband and caring for her young son.

Both women say they had never identified themselves as lesbian before meeting each other.

Soon after, though, the family moved to Bloomington, Ind., a city near Goss’ family and where same-sex couples are more visible. But news that Thielbar’s mother was having health issues brought the couple back to the area.

Since then, Goss has worked at U.S. Bank in the fraud and disputes management department as a case processor. Thielbar has been a truck loader for UPS the past seven years. They feel fortunate that UPS offers full health benefits for the family. In the Corporate Equality Index 2010, UPS and U.S. Bank rank at the top as gay-friendly corporations.

At this point, Goss’ biggest concern is for Matt. She’s concerned about how others treat him, and in particular what would happen to him should something happen to her.

North Dakota statutes would require Goss and Thielbar to be evaluated by a licensed adoption agency if Thielbar wished to adopt Matt, according to Fargo family attorney Michael L. Gjesdahl.

“Our statutes exempt certain people from this expensive requirement. Presumably, when a biological parent vouches for their married (heterosexual) partner, that’s good enough, and we don’t need to investigate them,” Gjesdahl said.

As much as Goss and Thielbar try to protect Matt from intolerance, things happen. A particularly frightening incident happened last year to the family when a car full of men shouting derogatory language pulled up beside them. Thielbar called the police and then her brothers. Matt was too scared to go home.

“’Cause I thought they might follow us home, follow us here,” Matt said.

“Barb just reassured him and said that we weren’t going to go home until we knew for sure that nobody was behind us and that we would take a different way home. And we’ll do everything we can to protect him,” Goss said.

Dr. Diana Breshears, with the department of communications studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, studies lesbian-parented families. She says everyone relies on communication to shape his or her family and relational identities. Lesbian-parented families depend on communication even more than heterosexual families, especially in populations with little diversity, and oftentimes need to have conversations with their children heterosexual parents do not.

“We must keep in mind that while heterosexual-parented families are validated by society’s definition of a ‘normal’ family, lesbian-parented families often do not fit into that narrative of what a family should look like,” Breshears said.

So Goss and Thielbar choose to be cautious about drawing attention to themselves.

“Sure, Barb and I could just hug, kiss or do whatever in public and say to heck with what people think. But I believe the response that we are trying to create is a positive perception of us as a couple, as a family, because we don’t have society validating our relationships,” Goss explains. “We want nothing more than for others to see that we are ‘normal,’ too.”

Support network

There are other considerations Goss and Thielbar must account for that heterosexual families don’t need to think about. The low percentage of same-sex couples in our area means fewer resources to find businesses and service-providers that are gay-friendly, such as doctors.

“It’s not that you are looking for gay doctors or straight doctors, but you are looking for somebody who is going to be culturally sensitive. When you do go into certain medical facilities, you want to know that you are not being discriminated (against) and that the health care you get is not going to be changed because of that,” Goss said.

Before moving to Fargo almost three years ago from Bloomington, Ind., Goss and Thielbar did their own investigation for gay-friendly and culturally sensitive area school districts by emailing local administrators.

“We wanted to see which one would be more accepting toward our family,” Goss said. “The West Fargo School District is the one that emailed us back and said, ‘We are very diverse.’ ”

Goss said her family has been pleased with their choice. The examples the family shared are just a few of many they face daily.

However, Goss and Thielbar believe they have created a stable environment for Matt, due in large part to their strong support system. Their extended families are supportive, and Goss and Thielbar are especially thankful for their church community at First Congregational in Moorhead.

“We’ve been going there for a year now, and they are an open and confirming church, and it’s just wonderful. We’ve never been so accepted anywhere,” Thielbar said.

Goss and Thielbar are adamant about letting Matt decide if and when he chooses to tell others he has two moms. They trust his instincts.

Matt says he just takes time to get to know other kids. If he meets someone who treats other people badly, he said he knows it wouldn’t be someone he would befriend.

“I don’t know. Most of the time I talk to my friends, and they get used to me, and since I’m not bad at all, they know it’s OK that I have two moms,” Matt said.

And when he does tell his friends he has two moms?

“They say, ‘That’s cool!’ ” he said.

Najla Amundson is a contributing writer to SheSays. She lives in Fargo with her husband and four boys.