Not many years ago, their family would not only have been frowned upon, it would have been illegal in most states. J.R. and Brandon Willard-Rose of Homewood are gay, married and have an adopted Black son.
Times — and the law — have changed, and society's attitudes are in the process of shifting in the direction of acceptance, but the couple have found that place still matters. In Homewood and Flossmoor, they have found the kind of acceptance that still eludes many similar families.
“To have found this place and this community, it feels so special,” J.R. added. “In all of Chicagoland, there might be a handful of communities that really are this diverse, that value the diversity of race, religion and sexual orientation. In this community those are values that we are thrilled by and welcomed. A lot of communities can learn from Homewood and Flossmoor.”
Their story might have a bit of fairytale sprinkled in. When J.R. saw Brandon, he knew it was love at first sight.
“I was speaking in Florida when I met Brandon online. I asked him to dinner. It was a magical date that went on four days,” J.R. said. “I realized that something was there.”
Growing up in Park Ridge, J.R. didn’t come out until he was 31.
“It was pretty late,” he said. “It wasn’t because I was in fear of my family. They always have been supportive. It was more so because when I first started at H-F High School, I didn’t know how that would be perceived.”
J.R. said he is currently the only out LGBTQ faculty member at Homewood-Flossmoor High School.
“We do have a large population of LGBTQ youth. I try and be there for those students. Being a theater director, we have a lot of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender students in the theater department. I wish there was more adult role models they can look at."
It will be J.R.'s 20th year at H-F this August.
For Brandon, it was more difficult to come out at the age of 21. Growing up in a small town north of Baltimore, coming out was not accepted.
“I was going to be myself,” Brandon said. “It’s been a process with my family. Like most families, it was a bit of a learning curve for a lot of them.”
Brandon and J.R. explain they have gotten so much support from the Homewood Flossmoor community.
“I love this community,” J.R. said. ”There is only one place where I would feel comfortable living and that is Homewood and Flossmoor. Being a gay couple with a Black son, we have been accepted in this community. Everywhere we go here, we are treated like local celebrities, people love us, they love Rowan and accept us for who we are. That’s the way it should be everywhere, and it’s not the case.”
Currently, Brandon, J.R. and Rowan are moving out of Homewood to a larger home in Flossmoor.
J.R. said they are on a gay dads forum on Facebook. He has read stories of blatant discrimination that other gay fathers have gone through.
“These dad’s are writing about difficult experiences they are going through in other parts of the country,” said J.R. “Brandon and I are so fortunate to live in this community.”
“It feels like we're living in Utopia here because in an aspect, things are happening in the other parts of the country of hate crimes to gay men,” Brandon added. “Black Lives Matter didn’t happen for nothing; there is a reason for it. Things like that don’t seem to happen here.”
Both Brandon and J.R. have said they have never faced discrimination in Homewood or Flossmoor.
“It’s quite the opposite,” J.R. said with a laugh. “I’m a recognizable guy because I’m a big guy and with my job at the school. Brandon and I always feel love, compassion and kindness here.”
It’s not that way in other towns the family have traveled to.
“Twenty minutes from here, you get looks,” said J.R. “Going to a farmers market in another town, the stares we got because we are a gay couple holding hands with a Black baby.”
The couple will be married four years in July. J.R. told the story of how he proposed to Brandon.
“We went on a trip to London and Iceland in October of 2016,” he said. “I proposed to Brandon under a waterfall in Iceland. I came back and told my students, I was so excited.” J.R. said.
In January of 2017, their lives changed.
“One of my students approached me after class and asked if Brandon and I want to have kids. I said yes, we want to be dads someday.” The student said that her 19-year-old friend was 12 weeks pregnant, didn’t want to get an abortion and knew she wasn’t ready to be a mother.
J.R. came home and told Brandon. They asked another gay couple what their experience was getting ready to adopt themselves through an agency.
“He told us we’re foolish if we don’t go meet her,” J.R. said. "He told us a lot of moms don’t want to select a gay family.”
When the couple met the woman, the three had an immediate rapport.
“Right after the meeting she said, 'Well I’m good, do you guys want to do this?'” J.R. said.
From then on, Brandon and J.R. were at all the doctor and ultrasound appointments. They were in delivery room along with other family members. The birth mother told them she wanted them near to provide the love and support for their new son from the start.
As soon as Rowan Willard-Rose was born, the doctor placed him with his new dads.
“It was a beautiful moment to share with our moms and our sisters. Then life got crazy real quick,” laughed J.R.
For Brandon, life moved more quickly than he expected.
“One day, I was planning a wedding, talking to my sister about colors and the schedule, all of a sudden J.R. is calling me," he said.
"He is telling me the story about this girl and her situation and I thought maybe there is something we can do for her. I hear J.R. telling me that we could take the baby. My brain didn’t register that.”
They had talked about kids down the road. At the time they had two dogs in a condo, life had to change and quickly.
“Being a dad was meant to be and it was the right time,” Brandon said.
Both men have adjusted to being dads very well, they said. Rowan is happy, well-adjusted and loves the attention of his fathers.
“He calls Brandon Daddy, and he calls me Dodger,” said J.R. “My nieces and nephews call me Uncle Jar, then Rowan began saying Daddy Jar; it became Dodger.”
“We were so lucky to have a private adoption,” J.R. said. “As long as there are parents and there is love, that is the key. Before you judge, come spend a day with us, love is love.”
Celebrating Pride month, each of the men has his point of view what it means.
“I have a different opinion on this,” Brandon said. “J.R. wishes that the Pride parade wasn’t so flashy and full of drag queens; He would like to see more families marching. I told him the idea you’re trying to say is, Pride is saying you’re just like everyone else.
"In a way, yes, but Pride is that we’re not like everyone else. We are different, we have a distinct difference, it doesn’t make us aliens. Rather than be ashamed of it because that’s what culture has made it, we’re not. To me, we know what we are and we’re proud of it.”
J.R.'s philosophy on the subject differs a little bit.
“If you go down to the Pride parade, you see flashy costumes and scantily clad people, feathers and glitter. I think for some heterosexual people, seeing that is something scary, because they don’t understand it. If that’s all they see of gay couples, that stereotype, that is not our life as a gay couple,” J.R. said.
“In recent years the Pride parade has toned down, they are walking with families. I think that in the last five years, our nation has woken up a bit. There is a greater awakening where you’re starting to see not only more gay characters on TV but wider variety of non-stereotypical of gay couples that are just like us.”
Playing at a park in Homewood recently, both J.R. and Brandon said they not only have hopes and dreams of acceptance for their son but for the country.
“My wish is that anyone who has doubts, questions or uneasy feelings about the LGBTQ community and what that means (should) look past the news or what a pastor tells them in church," J.R. said. "Go with an open mind and meet some people and see them for their humanity. People are people, we all struggle and we all have hopes and dreams.
"If we’re looking at someone and boxing them in, no matter what it is, we’re chipping away at their identity and taking away what makes a beautiful person."
Instead, he said he hopes everyone will "find the value what we see in our neighbors. I wish as a country we can all do that and begin the healing process.”