by Mary Bulkot
From single-parent homes to households where grandparents are raising grandchildren to families in which heterosexual or homosexual couples live together without being married, family is no longer limited to a mother, father and children. And while some perceive the changing landscape as the disintegration of the American family, others see it as an opportunity to expand a definition that was too limiting.
Lisa and Mary Beth Alibrandi are a lot like any other married couple. Lisa moved into Mary Beth's home in 1991, helping her raise four daughters from a previous marriage. They are now in their late 20s and early 30s and have children of their own. The Alibrandis tied the knot Aug. 10, 2002, their 20th anniversary as a couple, in a ceremony performed in their backyard by Unitarian-Universalist minister and friend Jack Wilkinson.
In March, they thought about upgrading Mary Beth's status at the Skaneateles Community Center to family status so Lisa could join as well. Having always considered and referred to themselves as a family, they didn't think twice.
They didn't anticipate the call they got several days after applying for family membership saying the town board would have to decide if they met the criteria to be a family.
The town board met to discuss the issue in April at a special meeting attended by the Alibrandis and the community center's board. On May 6, the board decided that gay and lesbian couples weren't eligible for family memberships because they didn't fit the definition of "family" that had been drawn up by the town's lawyer, which specifically called for a state-recognized marriage.
The Alibrandis' marriage, since it wasn't recognized under New York state law, was disregarded.
At that meeting, Supervisor Paul Pavlus said he believed that when the community center was started, the term 'family' was intended to refer to a man, woman, and child, said Lisa, recounting the meeting.
"I said I thought that was the original intention, too, but expanding the definition for the good of the family won't rain down fire on us," she said.
Dozens of letters, e-mails and phone calls came in support of expanding the definition of family and decrying the board's decision poured in to the Alibrandis, as well as the Skaneateles Chamber of Commerce and the merchants association.
The community's response compelled the board to revisit its decision at a meeting June 1. The board replaced its family membership at the Skaneateles Community Center with a "household membership" that accommodates gay, lesbian and other non-traditional families.
The Alibrandis are happy that the new terms of membership are more expansive, but disappointed that it still stopped short of recognizing them, or similar "non-traditional" couples, as family. Pavlus' continued insistence that the board's original definition of family was not discriminatory and "the disparaging remarks made about our family at the meetings still hurts," said Lisa. "But I'll get over it and many families will benefit."
Although the Alibrandis are one of the few couples they know in the community who are openly "out," they spend most of their free time at home, entertaining family, friends or just hanging out with each other - and their two dogs - on their 3 1/2 acres of rural paradise overlooking Skaneateles Lake.
Both of them have ultra-demanding jobs - Mary Beth is a registered nurse with the American Red Cross and Lisa is a musician and substitute teacher at Skaneateles High School.
Paradise also demands a lot of upkeep, especially, at this time of year, when mowing becomes a priority. And paradise has its chinks. The Alibrandis are at an age where, with their children grown, their attention has shifted to their widowed parents.
It's a transition that many other families - both traditional and untraditional - can connect with.
The community reaction to their case surprised the Alibrandis. "It started out as a simple request that we thought no one would think twice about, but became so much more," said Mary Beth.
The number of letters, emails and phone calls surprised Mary Beth, who considered Skaneateles to be conservative. The town, especially where it borders Cayuga County, is a mixture of prominent farmers, working class, and the wealthy - groups that are not usually identified as liberal.
Lisa said she learned a lesson: "Even if you're Republican or Conservative, you don't give in to intolerance."
Lisa and Mary Beth have not decided yet whether they will join the community center under the category of household. Although they have kept the signs reading "Love is all it takes to make a family" that they brought with them to the town meetings, they remain uncertain how to proceed with their new found status as poster children.
"We haven't had a chance to sit down and talk about how we feel and how we want to proceed," explained Mary Beth.
Strangers approach them at the post office or at the grocery store, eager to talk about the issue and offer support. "
I could hardly get out of the P & C the other day," Lisa said, laughing. "People for a variety of reasons took it very personally."