The members of the Jeff Lutes-Gary Stein family come from totally different walks of life but what brings this unlikely group together is the strong love that bonds them. “We just tell people we have a very traditional ‘Gay-Deaf- Jewish-Catholic-Baptist-Chinese-Hispanic Family,’” Lutes jokes. “All joking aside, our diversity has taught us to cherish differences and to see those variances as sources of joy and pride, not deficits. Families come in all different shapes and sizes and love outlives misunderstanding, prejudice, and bigotry.”
Silence met my ears when I walked into the couple’s home in Circle C Ranch, but entire conversations were going on around me. Stein and the couple’s two sons, 16-year-old Niko and 10-year-old Trei, are deaf, while Lutes and their daughter, 9-year-old Jolé, are hearing- abled. The primary language in their home is American Sign Language, and I’m the only one in the group who doesn’t know how to sign.
In the living room, Trei, Jolé, and their cousin are watching SpongeBob SquarePants. The otherwise boisterous TV cartoon character is muted but comes alive through the plain text captions running across the screen. Like any typical teenager, Niko is watching funny videos on his laptop.
It’s the start of the weekend, and it’s the first time in a long while the family isn’t rushing to an athletic practice or event. Last week was a different story. There were practices and meets for the array of sports the Lutes-Stein kids play: basketball, softball, track, soccer, swimming, volleyball, gymnastics and football via their school’s teams and through athletic youth programs like i9 sports and West Austin Youth Association. And you bet Lutes and Stein are in the stands cheering them on.
“I like sliding,” Jolé exclaimed about softball. “She loves playing in the dirt,” Stein added.
But their favorite moments as a family are when they can snuggle up next to each other and watch a movie together. Jolé and Trei agreed that their family, especially their dads, is silly and fun. Niko added that his dads are supportive and if an issue arises, they talk about it.
Trei proudly showed off family photos from a past Thanksgiving when his uncles and cousins attended. “I love my family,” he said.
Three years after they first met, Lutes and Stein agreed that it was the right time to start their family. In early 2000, they attended a workshop on international adoption with an agency that was working exclusively with China. “For us, there are a lot of kids in the world who need parents, and we just didn’t feel the need to have a child who is ours biologically,” Lutes explained. “We also felt like we had the ability to adopt a deaf child, something some families could not do.”
Lutes and Stein hurdled through the red tape of paperwork and home studies. Finally, on Christmas Eve 2000, they adopted then-4-year- old Niko in Nanjing, China.
“And now we have a teenager who thinks he’s 25,” Stein joked. “Teenagers want freedom, and I have big fears.”
Three years later, Lutes and Stein wanted to expand their family. At the time, China restricted single fathers from adopting so they had to take a different route. A friend suggested that they become foster parents. The couple was hesitant at first about the process and had concerns about being accepted at the agency. They were reassured by an administrator and soon began the process of being foster parents with the intent to adopt.
For three years, Lutes and Stein were foster parents to three other children in addition to their adopted children, Trei and Jolé. While Stein said he enjoyed being a full-time foster dad, Lutes said it was a challenge. “I got too attached and it was too painful to see the kids go,” he said. They fostered Trei for a year and Jolé for a year and a half before adopting them both in early 2008. Lutes and Stein added that it’s not just one conversation they have with the kids about their adoptions, but an ongoing one.
Austin boasts a vibrant deaf community, with an estimated population of 60,000, the largest in the state, living in Travis County. Stacy Landry, program manager for Travis County Services for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, says Austin is the only city in the state with a government agency serving the community. The large community is mostly due to the Texas School for the Deaf (TSD), a learning facility established in Austin in 1856 for deaf students up to the age of 22. Niko and Trei attend TSD for half the day and the other half at their regular public school. Stein has been an educator at TSD for 15 years.
“It’s like you live in a very small town where everyone knows everyone and you cannot keep a secret,” Stein said. “That’s what the deaf community is like. It’s quite cohesive, consolidated, and, honestly, I’m so thankful that I’m deaf.”
When Stein started teaching at TSD, he taught preschoolers, but now he teaches recent high school grads, ages 18–22, in a transitional program in which they learn such life skills as how to fill out a job application, manage a monthly budget, utilize the city bus, post office, courthouse, and police station and even how to shop. “It’s quite fun, and I enjoy seeing the students grow into a more responsible individuals and preparing themselves for the world of life,” he said.
Stein has equal access to communication at TSD, which wasn’t always the case growing up in Woodbridge, Connecticut. Although Stein’s entire family is deaf, he attended a hearing public school. He was thankful to have some teachers who could sign, but communicating with his peers was a challenge.
He remembers being at a football game with a group of friends and couldn’t read their lips fast enough. He would ask for someone to repeat what they said and his friends would just shrug him off and say it wasn’t important. It was incredibly frustrating for Stein. “At school, I always felt oppressed as far as a social environment,” he said.
Lutes, a licensed professional counselor, runs his own private practice, which gives him the flexibility to prioritize his family’s needs. He works with individual clients, but his passion is helping couples, straight or LGBT. He enjoys reading the latest research and putting it into practice through seminars and workshops.
“I think one of the wonderful by-products of being a therapist who has conversations with so many different kinds of clients is that, although it’s our job to help them, the truth is, we’re enriched by their experience as well,” he said.
Lutes has held several other positions, including that of clinical director at Waterloo Counseling Center in the late ‘90s and more recently as the executive director of Soulforce, an organization devoted to changing anti-homosexual campaigns in religion.
IN TUNE WITH ONE ANOTHER
In 1990, Lutes met a man and fell in love. Six years into their relationship, he died of HIV/AIDS, just months before effective medications were available that could have saved his life. Lutes said it was a very traumatic period in his life. For months all he did was go to work and exercise.
A year after Lutes’ partner died, he decided it was time to put himself back into the social scene. His friends recommended that he learn how to two-step at the now defunct gay western bar, Rainbow Cattle Company. One night in late 1997, he noticed Stein dancing with a group of friends. He was fascinated and confused by the handsome man who wore two hearing aids and yet had great dance moves. Lutes later realized that Stein could feel the rhythm from the bass blaring from the speakers and bouncing off the dance floor. The two made eye contact but didn’t say a word to each other. At the end of the night, Stein handed Lutes a card with only the words, “You are very handsome.” By the time Lutes looked up from reading the card, Stein had departed with friends.
A couple of weeks later they encountered each other again at RCC. They finally conversed, with Stein doing most of the work by lipreading. In his past experience, some hearing men would quickly lose interest in him because they thought communication would be a problem.
“He was testing me when he gave me that card,” Lutes said. “Gary was trying to find out whether I would be scared away as well, or whether I would be interested in him. I was crazy enough to be interested in him.”
Soon after, the two went on their first date and hit it off. Lutes quickly enrolled in sign language classes at the Austin Sign Language School and immersed himself in the deaf community.
It was tough for Stein and Lutes to participate in each other’s world, especially when socializing with friends. For Stein it was difficult to lip-read when he was with a group of hearing friends and remain in the loop of a conversation. Lutes was trying to learn a new language and the little nuances of the deaf community. “We would be at a party with a bunch of deaf folks and you can hear a pin drop because no one is using their voice,” he said. “That at first was really different to me, so there were a lot of things that I had to learn and get used to.”
But it was even harder for Lutes to deeply commit his love for Stein. The first few months of their relationship, Lutes was still mourning his previous partner’s death. Stein said he knew Lutes was the one for him from the get-go. Lutes told Stein he hoped he was patient enough because he needed some time before he moved on.
“After six months, I woke up one day and realized I had more or less let go and was done with the major portion of my grieving and was ready to attach to Gary in the way he deserved,” Lutes said.
Fast forward 15 years, and Lutes and Stein couldn’t be happier with their family. Even though these five aren’t from the same blood, their love for each other abounds.
Lutes believes that when you’re confident and not ashamed of your family, then people will have to deal with it, even if they don’t accept them. “When we present as a family, we present as a family,” he said. “We don’t go into it sheepishly. This is us. Take it or leave it.”