08/31/2011 07:38 am ET | Updated Oct 31, 2011

Do Ask, I'll Tell: Gay Parents And Back To School Time

The Hello Kitty backpack is ready, as are the Justin Bieber notebook and the shiny purple pencil box freshly larded with Ticonderoga #2s. All that's left now is to pack the first lunch and saddle up for the first day of school drop-off, knowing that our simple presence will provide an education of its own. As the only two-dad family in an elementary school with almost 500 kids, we become the default face of same-sex parenting for some of the children and their caregivers. And that's OK -- when we filled out paperwork to adopt six years ago, we literally signed up for this.

Last year, soon after Kindergarten started, my husband and I eagerly attended Parent Night together. Anyone at this event had no trouble figuring out the relationship between the dude in the leather jacket and the guy in the foofy scarf. But once the semester was well underway, it was rare for anyone to see both dads at once. My husband did all the drop-offs and most pick-ups, while I was the one volunteering in the classroom and organizing after school play dates for my daughter. Some of her classmates' parents only ever saw her with him, while others only saw her with me. Not surprisingly, both of us dads got asked about our wives and we both cheerfully referenced our husbands in reply. That linguistic substitution was usually all it took for our fellow Kindergarten parents to adopt our language.

Occasionally, this prompted an outpouring of curiosity. When one mom commented that she hadn't seen me on the playground the day before, I said that my husband usually did pick-up. As if primed, she pounced on the distinction. "How did you get to be the wife?" I gently explained that I wasn't a wife. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.) In a state with same-sex marriage, that's not just a matter of semantics but of legal fact: Two men are two husbands.

She knit her brow. "So who does the wifely duties?" As I knew she was originally from a country with a very conservative culture, I didn't snort at her use of the word "wifely" or ask if that meant having a martini waiting for my husband at the end of the work day. I just laid it out: In our house, we divide chores up by who hates which task least. I hate housecleaning less than laundry, so I do the sweeping and picking up, while he sorts endless darks from lights. This answer seemed not only sufficient, but pleasing. She sighed, "It must be nice to choose like that!"

I wasn't offended by this conversation, nor was I truly surprised. This wasn't the first time I've heard these queries and it won't be the last. Even some of our most liberal friends tend to treat me and my husband as Encyclopedia Homosexualis from time to time, turning to us to explain what X or Y is like for gay people. We can't answer for all other gays and lesbians, of course, but we can tell about our personal experiences in this society. Indeed, I think we have an obligation to do so, for if we don't tell the truth about our lives, the stuff made up by politicians and preachers may be allowed to define us instead.

If the other families in our school constantly see two involved dads and one happy girl, that will be more persuasive than any information or opinion that the media can supply. It's better, still, if they get to see us down in the trenches, wrestling with meltdowns and misbehavior they find familiar. These moments of pure recognition -- parenting is parenting is parenting -- speak volumes about all that connects us.

Such visibility matters as kids head back to school in these politically charged times. In recent months, Tennessee has inched closer to approving a "Don't Say Gay" policy designed to keep teachers mum about our lives, while California has headed the opposite way, deciding it wants to require LGBT history in classrooms. Both policies try to legislate what children should or shouldn't learn, but let's face it: No matter what kids read on the page, the real world is always going to provide the most thorough education. And in the real world, families like mine exist.

So as our daughter chooses her first day outfit, and dreams of showing off her new lunch box, we're preparing, too. School hasn't even started, but we're already ready for the pop-quizzes to come.