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Same-sex couples finding a home in Delaware

REHOBOTH BEACH, Del. — In some Lewes and Rehoboth Beach neighborhoods, same-sex couples like Keith and John Riley-Spillane make up nearly one out of every 10 households.

And, like the Riley-Spillanes, many of those couples are raising children, according to figures being released today by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The Riley-Spillanes — they combined their names several years ago — adopted two children in 2006 and are caring for two others in the state’s foster-care system. They and other couples say they feel accepted and welcomed in the area.

“Rehoboth is a place where you can raise children as a same-sex couple and nobody bats an eye,” Keith Riley-Spillane said. “Life has been good to us here.”

The Riley-Spillanes are among couples planning civil unions once they become legal next year under a new state law.

The 2010 census found 3,352 same-sex couples living together, up 80 percent from 1,868 in 2000. Almost a third of them lived in the Lewes and Rehoboth Beach area last year.

Still, same-sex couples make up just 1 percent of the state’s 342,297 households. Unmarried male-female couples make up about 6 percent of the households, while married couples, single people, roommates and others make up the remaining 93 percent.

Among Delaware households, the data show there were 1,827 lesbian households, an increase of 106 percent, from 889, since 2000. There were 1,525 gay households, up 56 percent, from 979, since 2000.

Growing acceptance of same-sex couples allows more people to answer that census question honestly, rather than hiding behind the term “roommates,” said Steve Elkins, executive director of CAMP Rehoboth, a nonprofit gay and lesbian community group.

“I’ve seen such a generational change,” said Elkins, 60, who has been with his partner for 33 years. “These younger people, it’s like, ‘What’s the big deal?'”

Carol Wzorek, 66, said she has seen tremendous changes in the public’s acceptance of homosexual couples in her lifetime. In 1987, she applied for top-secret security clearance to work at the U.S. State Department and endured more scrutiny than her straight colleagues, she said.

“Back then, people were still treating us as if we had some kind of mental illness or equating my life with people who had some kind of drug addiction,” Wzorek said. “The changes have been most dramatic over the past 10 or 15 years.”

Wzorek and her partner, 65-year-old Carlyle Gill, have been together since 1995 and live in Lewes.

“There are so many of us that it’s very hospitable,” Wzorek said. “We know very few same-sex couples here who aren’t out.”

Almost a quarter of lesbian households and 14 percent of gay households are raising children, compared to about 38 percent of married couples and 36 percent of unmarried couples.

The Riley-Spillanes — Keith, 53, and John, 50 — have been together for 29 years and own a Wings To Go franchise in Rehoboth Beach. John Riley-Spillane is also an occupational therapist.

Their children are biological siblings 11-year-old Asia, who has emotional issues, and 9-year-old Frank, who has a form of autism.

“Children need a loving home, regardless of the composition of the parents,” Keith Riley-Spillane said.

The family came to Wilmington last month to see Gov. Jack Markell sign the civil-union bill into law. But the experience raised a big question for their son, Frank.

“My son was devastated to find out we weren’t married,” Riley-Spillane said. “We tried to explain to them that Daddy and I were married in our hearts, as we’ve always been.

“Now that my son finally understands that, he’s all excited about having a wedding,” he said.

Eve Davis, of Wilmington, said most people support her version of family. Her former female partner, Ingrid Neumann, underwent in-vitro fertilization and gave birth to triplet boys, whom Davis adopted. Now Davis and her current partner, Toni Essner, help raise the boys, now 11.

“They’re three boys with three moms,” Davis said. “I see a lot of acceptance. If you don’t accept me and my family, you’re not included in my life.”

John Roman, 63, and Bill McGee, 74, have been together for 35 years. They live in Lewes, where they are semi-retired and run a store, Circa Home, that sells decorative accessories and antiques.

Roman said he and McGee experienced only two episodes of discrimination in Bethany, where they had a vacation home before moving to Lewes in 2002. Once, a few people in a pickup truck followed them while shouting obscenities at them. Another time, a pair of teenagers on the beach called them names while their parents said nothing.

Roman attributed the slurs to “an unenlightened populace who doesn’t know how the world is changing.”

Andrea Monetti, of Lewes, said she’s the target of hurtful comments sometimes, but it doesn’t get to her anymore.

“You always get people who aren’t going to agree with our lifestyle,” Monetti said. “But then again, I don’t agree with them hating people.”

Monetti, 65, and her partner, Karen Petermann, 52, have been together 24 years and are planning a trip to Disney World in December for their 25th anniversary. Much has changed for the better, she said.

“Years ago, if you were gay, you hid it because you thought it was wrong,” Monetti said. “But you come out to your friends and family, and it’s fine, and you wonder, ‘What the heck was I worried about?’

“Once you accept yourself and who you are and don’t care what other people think,” she said, “you live a wonderful life.”