William Carter's family doesn't fit the mold forged by early sitcoms or Dick-and-Jane storybooks, but the single gay man and his three adopted sons were honored recently as the National Adoption Center's Family of the Year.
Not an earth-shattering event, by itself, yet it epitomized a steady, profound change in Americans' concept of family -- a development that some find heartening and others horrifying, but in any event seems to be quickening.
The traditional archetype of a mother, father and children still holds sway across much of America, though it now accounts for less than 25 percent of the nation's households. Many politicians, preachers and conservative activists envision that archetype when they speak in defense of "family values."
Yet ruling by ruling, vote by vote, in courtrooms and boardrooms and town halls nationwide, the makers of day-to-day policies are extending greater legal recognition and support to other forms of family -- same-sex couples, unmarried heterosexual couples, single parents.
"Our families are becoming much more commonplace," said Aimee Gelnaw, who has raised two children with her lesbian partner and heads the Family Pride Coalition, a Washington-based advocacy group.
"Most people know someone who's lesbian or gay, in their communities, through their kids' schools," she said. "It's through those interactions that people come to understand we all want the same things -- to create safe, loving environments for our kids."
Debate over the American family is not new, but it has taken on extra intensity this summer as the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that homosexual sex could not be outlawed and Canada moved to recognize same-sex marriages. Foes of same-sex marriage in the United States have been alarmed by the events.
"Marriage at all times and in all civilizations has always meant the union of a man and a woman in a permanent relationship," said Rev. Gerald Kieschnick, president of the 2.6-million member Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. "To mess around with it is to threaten the very center of society -- the family as it has been historically and universally understood."
The federal government and 37 states have adopted Defense of Marriage Acts in recent years, defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Yet the statutes, and a Bush administration initiative to promote marriage, have not slowed the growing acceptance and recognition of other types of families and relationships:
--Scores of cities, counties and corporations have adopted domestic-partner policies extending rights and benefits to same-sex couples and in some cases to unmarried heterosexual couples. The California Senate is now considering a sweeping bill, approved by the state Assembly, that would grant same-sex partners most of the same spousal rights and responsibilities as married couples.
--The New Mexico Supreme Court ruled in June that people in long-term relationships, married or not, can sue over loss of companionship when their loved one is injured. Lawyers say the ruling sets the groundwork for same-sex couples to file such claims.
--The supreme courts of Massachusetts and New Jersey are considering lawsuits filed by same-sex couples demanding the right to marry. The number of newspapers publishing announcements of same-sex unions has climbed past 200, more than triple the figure in 2001.
--Civil rights lawyers are pressing a federal lawsuit against a Florida law that prohibits adoptions by gays, the only one of its kind in the country. The Indiana Court of Appeals recently ruled that a woman could adopt her lesbian partner's three children, rejecting a lower court ruling that the women could not both adopt because they aren't married.
A generation ago, adoptions by single people were rare. Now, about one-third of all adoptions in the United States are by single parents, mostly women but also a growing number of men like Carter.
A property manager at a Philadelphia apartment complex, Carter has adopted three boys within the past three years, ages 10, 11 and 16.
"I always wanted to be a father," Carter said. "It's the best thing that's ever happened to me. ... I would do anything for my boys."
He said he has received steady support from relatives, his employer and adoption agency staff.
"They didn't push me under the rug, they didn't talk down to me," he said. "The only advice they gave was that I shouldn't be looking for a perfect child, because there isn't one."
Gloria Hochman of the National Adoption Center said adoption agencies are gradually overcoming their hesitancies about single men because of the track record established by divorced fathers who, in growing numbers, are gaining custody of their children.
"When we opened our doors 30 years ago, it never occurred to me that we'd be giving our Family of the Year award to a single man," Hochman said. "We didn't think they'd be interested."
In South Orange, N.J., Fran Lipinski said she and her partner of 22 years, Melissa Hall, have been heartened by the community acceptance of their family, which since 1998 has included a daughter, Catherine, adopted from China.
When the two women were granted joint custody of Catherine, "it was a very upbeat ceremony," Lipinski recalled. "The judge came down off the bench to give us hugs and the kid a lollipop."
Lipinski said the Family Pride Coalition sponsored a workshop for local school employees, and close to 100 teachers showed up for advice on how to make nontraditional families feel included in school activities.
To Jordan Lorence, a lawyer from Scottsdale, Ariz., such attitudes in public schools amount to indoctrination; he and his wife have decided to home school their six children.
"It's like a monastery in the Dark Ages that kept the biblical texts while everyone else was illiterate and falling apart," Lorence said. "The public schools are advocating a secularist, radical individualism, and we don't want our kids growing up with that."
Lorence is an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund, which describes itself as a Christian legal organization seeking to defend religious freedom and traditional family values. Lorence is a critic of no-fault divorce, has waged legal fights against domestic-partner benefits and wrote a brief supporting the Texas sodomy law that was quashed by the Supreme Court.
"What we're going to have is sexual anarchy -- all sorts of weird arrangements that are unimaginable, plural marriages, people coming together and breaking up quite easily with children being the victims of all this," he said.
Unmarried cohabitation is precisely the institution that Dorian Solot would like to defend. She and her partner of nine years, Marshall Miller, run the Boston-based Alternatives to Marriage Project and have written a guidebook for unwed couples, "Unmarried to Each Other."
"People are far more comfortable with alternative families than they used to be," Solot said.
"On the other hand, the government is pouring money into promoting marriage," she added. "Politicians are afraid to say anything construed as anti-family. ... They're worried they'll risk their careers if they talk about single parents or gay parents or unmarried couples."
With only a handful of exceptions, most of the changes in policy toward nontraditional families have occurred piecemeal -- at the local or corporate level -- not through federal or state legislation.
"It's an ineffective way to effect change in family policies," said Barbara Risman, a sociology professor at North Carolina State University and co-chair of the Council on Contemporary Families.
"Judges have no recourse but to make law on a case-by-case basis," she said. "It puts people at risk; families and couples can't protect themselves and their children in advance."
She said organizations that embrace the diversity of family forms need to work hard to be viewed as pro-family, not anti-family.
"The 'family values' groups -- they only value a certain kind of family," Risman said. "Every kind of family has its challenges, and some families' challenges have to do with not being taken seriously as a family. They have to fight for legitimacy."