Connecting Rainbow Families
Rainbow Families Executive Director Darren Vance
By Gary Hurtubise
It was late 2017, and Darren Vance – husband and father – had just won a new lease on life with a much-needed organ transplant. He knew this second chance was an opportunity to give something back. And so, today, he directs Rainbow Families, an organization focused on supporting families – new and old – within the LGBTQ community.
Darren was born in mid-Michigan, moving to Southern California at a young age. His mother was a church organist and choir director, and worked in banking. His father was a public school band director. They divorced when he was quite young. “With a few subsequent re-marriages, I have more of a banyan tree than a family tree.
Darren knew he was gay from very early on. “I didn’t know what those feelings meant, of course; however, I absolutely recall having crushes on boys my age. And I knew I had to hide those feelings.”
What followed for Darren was years of living a double life: keeping his parents and employers unaware of his sexual orientation until fully coming out in his mid-20’s, at the height of the AIDS crisis. “There was a huge amount of shame and fear then; it was a frightening yet powerful time to be a young gay person,” Darren recalls. It was particularly challenging to come out to his mother, but joining the Gay Men’s Chorus of LA helped. Both being musicians, it gave them common ground. Plus, his mom “…got to know a hundred fabulous gay men, all making phenomenal music!”
Darren’s husband, John Paul, was born on the windward side of O’ahu, Hawai’i. His father worked for Hawaiian Electric, and his mother was – and still is – a homemaker, caring for grand- and great-grand kids to this very day. He has three older sisters, two of which still live with their families in the family home.
For John, coming out was a multi-step process, including a move across the Pacific Ocean. “Hawai’i is a very small community,” he explains. “It’s a beautiful place which provided an idyllic childhood in so many ways. However, as I began to understand my sexuality, I knew I couldn’t come out there.”
Some of John’s friends encouraged him to move to Seattle, where he could get to know himself better, away from the protective watch of o’hana (‘family’). “It was a magical, frightening, special time in my young adulthood and I’m forever grateful for that move.” While there, John sent his family a fax (no texting in those days!), letting them know he was gay. They were all completely fine with it.
He decided shortly thereafter to move to Los Angeles, without knowing a soul. “Thank goodness I did,” John declares, “because that’s where I had a chance meeting one night with a man who would become my husband and best friend.”
Darren and John like to joke that they first met at a church social. In fact, the ‘social’ was outside a Hollywood bar called Cuffs, early one January morning in 1997. Six months later, the couple had bought a house together. “We were practically inseparable from that first night,” Darren explains. “We just knew.”
The couple made the move to the DC area in 2000, living there for 10 years before gay marriage finally came to the district. “We felt married all along; however, I did pop the question one evening at LaTomate restaurant in Washington,” Darren retells. John and Darren were one of the first couples to legally marry in DC, in March of 2010. The following year, they travelled to Hawai’i, where they had a wonderful large ceremony with their son standing with them.
“Incidentally, one key to our marriage? We both feel we married up.”
Having children came up really early in the two men’s relationship. Darren explains: “The very night we met, John proclaimed: ‘you should know, I want children’. Out of character for me,” Darren continues, “I didn’t go running in the other direction.”
Building their family didn’t come with a road map, however. There were challenges and disappointments along the way. The couple had not one, but two women offer to have a child for them – both being unable to follow through for medical reasons. Later, the two men went through the process of adopting from Vietnam. While waiting and preparing to be matched with an international child, the program closed. “We were desolate. John re-painted our beautiful nursery dark brown and turned it into an office.”
Not long after, however, the couple’s adoption agency told them of an opportunity to adopt from Guatemala, and they jumped at the chance. “We knew somehow this was the path meant for us.” In early 2006, after a lengthy process and wait, their gorgeous, happy, and healthy baby came home to them.
Xander, their son grew up with no issues having two dads. In elementary school, he fielded a few ‘what-do-you-mean-you-have-TWO-dads?’ questions, but always seemed unfazed and matter-of-fact in his response: ‘deal with it’.
A couple of years ago, Xander approached his dads to tell them that he, too, was gay. “Interestingly, he didn’t tell us immediately – he waited until it was right for him,” Darren retells. “Just having gay parents doesn’t necessarily mean everything changes in the coming out process.” Witnessing his sense of self, his awareness as a gay person, and his lack of shame was quite a powerful experience for John and Darren, not least of all because it was so different from their own coming-out experiences.
It is clear how proud the couple are of their son. “Being parents to this wonderful boy has been the most gratifying thing in both our lives. Without question.”
Growing up as an LGBTQ-family, Darren doesn’t recall much in the way of discrimination, attributing it partly to changing times, but also to their outward attitude. “With most every neighborhood we’ve moved to, tons of homemade cookies at holiday time built bridges, and eased some of the most ardent of raised eyebrows.”
Regrettably, one staggering element of discrimination that Darren and John did face came from within their very own community, early in their relationship. “I was involved in the LGBT community during the AIDS crisis, volunteerism, and singing in the Gay Men’s Chorus of LA. I was invited to dinner one night by a few (former) friends; it turned out to be an intervention.” The nature of the intervention? Darren was accused of having lost his gayness. “John and I had a Volvo. We were planning a family. Gay men are the shamans of creativity and spirituality, I was told, and people like John and I were destroying that.”
Today, the family lives in Charles County, Maryland, about 25 miles outside of Washington DC, close to his brother, and his mother, who relocated to the East coast from California.
John has worked for the Federal Government for nearly 25 years, most recently in the Federal Courts. Darren’s early careers were all focused around the travel industry, working for numerous agencies, tour companies, and transportation management companies. “I was travel manager at DreamWorks studios in the late 90’s, and managed travel programs for other production studios and celebrities.”
A few years ago, John and Darren came across Rainbow Families – a non-profit organization that supports and connects LGBTQ parents and prospective parents – and decided to become members. “We live in an outlying community with few families like ours. Joining was a great way to connect with other LGBTQ families, and especially to have our son see other families like his.”
Around the same time, Darren was planning his retirement from the travel industry, and was toying with the idea of transitioning to non-profit management. The catalysts for the move came together in early 2018. He says, “Perhaps it was the political climate of the day, perhaps it was having a career where I hadn’t made a societal impact… or perhaps it was a life-changing event…”
As mentioned earlier, Darren received a kidney and pancreas transplant in December of 2017 because he was suffering from diabetes-related kidney failure. “It effectively cured my diabetes, and I was given a new life.” Granted this second chance, Darren couldn’t help but question the direction his life had taken so far: “Where is the purpose? What example am I setting for my family?”
The opportunity to become executive director of Rainbow Families materialized shortly thereafter, and Darren leapt at it.
As executive director, Darren is keen to reach out to even more LGBTQ families, by expanding the programs that Rainbow Families offers. “We will start a college scholarship program, and a youth group for our members’ LGBTQ kids.” The organization also puts on an annual ‘Family Conference’, the largest LGBTQ-headed family gathering in the DC region.
When asked his own opinion on the current political climate, Darren is quick to respond. “We came so far with marriage equality. What a milestone. It was as significant for us as Stonewall, and later the #MeToo and #BLM movements.”
Darren is not so sure about what will happen next, however. “We are in new territory. Every day it seems we’re presented with a barrage of craziness: tweets, fear-mongering, divisiveness…” While buoyed by the results of this past November’s midterms, Darren feels that a strong sense of purpose and engagement is critical for 2020. “If we aren’t responding as though the rights of our families hang in the balance, we could indeed be in serious trouble for generations to come. We cannot afford that.”
Learn more about their annual Family Conference and all other programs/events by visiting the Rainbow Families web site.