Thursday, December 1, 2011

Little girl, big voice fights for Marriage Equality

By:Kristen J. Tsetsi, Journal Inquirer

WINDSOR - Don't let her small voice fool you. Rebecca Lazarus - or "Becca" as she likes to be called - is a fighter, and she's already had more experience with activism at age 13 than most 50-somethings managed to accrue during the Vietnam War era.

An eighth-grader at Sage Park Middle School, she was presented with an award during a Board of Education meeting last month in recognition of her community service and focus on civil rights.

In her battle for the legalization of same-sex marriage, Rebecca has been interviewed on National Public Radio, has spoken in front of several support groups, created a Connecticut chapter of COLAGE, which stands for Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere, and spoke in February at a news conference at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford.

She told reporters at the news conference that she lives with two fathers, Eric Lazarus and Jason Charette, who are in a committed relationship, but otherwise she's "like any other kid." Lazarus, 41, works in finance for an advertising company and Charette, 32, is a manager at a local business.

"The only difference between my family and yours is my parents can't get married ... even though they've been together for eight years," Rebecca said.

Her two fathers have since exchanged vows in a civil union ceremony this past June.

Co-parent adoption is key

As Rebecca sees it, what she's fighting for is not just about two people being able to use the word "marriage."Because Lazarus, who is her biological father, and Charette aren't legally married, if something were to happen to Lazarus, Rebecca could be taken away from Charette and put in foster care unless the couple has what's called a co-parent adoption in place.

A co-parent adoption guarantees that the second parent's custody rights and responsibilities will be protected if the first parent were to die or become incapacitated.

Important to Rebecca to clarify is that she is not fighting to try to change the traditional religious view of marriage but, instead, to have same-sex marriages recognized in the political and legal sector.To explain the distinction, Lazarus said that if marriage were only a religious institution, marriages between men and women performed in a secular setting, such as in a court or by a notary, wouldn't be recognized.

Rebecca said she would most like to speak with the officials of opposing organizations.

"I feel that some of these people just aren't educated in these types of families. Maybe they're getting the wrong information from the wrong people," she said.

One such organization is The Family Institute of Connecticut, whose executive director, Peter Wolfgang, said in November that, "If marriage is redefined into something it has never been, it becomes destructive to women and children, in particular."

"I have a good life," Rebecca said. "I just want peace. I know there will be fighting because there's freedom of speech, but I just want people to respect and tolerate other people even if they're different. We're all different, but we're all the same."

Lazarus echoed that sentiment. "One thing we teach our children is freedom of speech and acceptance," he said.

Since becoming such a public figure, Rebecca has been approached by private schools eager to enroll her.

"I think she's going to do great wherever she goes," Lazarus said. "We thought we'd give her the opportunity to look."

How she finds the time for such passionate advocacy is a mystery. In addition to keeping up with her COLAGE chapter, which has grown from 25 members in February to its current 40 families, Rebecca is engaged in a myriad of activities. She plays saxophone in a competition jazz band, tutors sixth-graders, and participates in peer mediation, a program in which students trained as mediators help their peers reach a solution. She'll also be a member of a teen question-and-answer panel at a True Colors, Inc. Sexual Minority Youth and Family Services conference in March. Rebecca and Lazarus describe True Colors as "an organization designed for youth who are living in foster care after being thrown out of their homes for coming out as gay, lesbian, or transgender."

Sought after advocate

Members of GLAD - Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders - contacted Rebecca in their search for outspoken youth to accompany them on a national campaign. Rebecca and her fathers have also been approached to appear on various daytime talk shows, including The Today Show.

Rebecca wasn't able to do The Today Show, but she wasn't disappointed. Not only did the spot go to a friend of hers, who is also in the COLAGE organization, but it meant she had one less thing to do.

"She does so much that it's OK when things pass up," Lazarus said.

One TV program received an immediate "no" when Rebecca discovered the producer's intent was to conduct a social experiment involving a religious, heterosexual family out camping together with a family with same-sex parents. Lazarus called the show "very Jerry Springer.

"Because Rebecca isn't in it for fame or recognition, she can afford to be choosy about the kind of publicity she receives.

In fact, Lazarus said, Rebecca doesn't seek out the publicity - it finds her. And he and Charette will ask Rebecca before new interview opportunities arise if she feels like doing another.

She always says yes.

"With her being so outspoken, it's pulled us out," Lazarus said. "It's made our life easier by being out."

"Outspoken" might be an understatement. A few years ago during Family Week, an annual event held on Cape Cod for children of same-sex, bisexual, or transgender parents, Rebecca butted heads with controversial extremist Fred Phelps. Phelps, along with fellow church members made up primarily of his own family, is widely known for picketing soldiers' funerals with signs bearing such slogans as "God hates you."

Phelps and followers arrived at Family Week and began handing out bags to children that were stuffed with pamphlets, Rebecca said.

"The pamphlets said things like, 'Your parents are going to burn in hell,'" Rebecca said.

There was a screaming match in front of a town hall, with Rebecca and a few of her friends "telling Phelps off" until his group left, Lazarus said. Rebecca was 11 or 12 at the time.

"I'm one of those people that, if you start something with me, I end it," Rebecca said.

Asked what she'll do when and if same-sex marriages are legalized, Rebecca said she plans to continue fighting to strengthen the national hate crimes bill.

As for what she plans to do for a career, Rebecca said she would like to be a journalist, a lobbyist, or a history teacher. All while continuing with her work as a human rights activist, of course.