What It's Like to Be Gay Dads

Men share their experiences stepping “out” as parents and families in their communities in a new book, called Gay Dads, from author Abbie E. Goldberg.

BY Abbie E. Goldberg

September 04 2012 6:00 AM ET

Thirty-eight-year-old Daniel and 39-year-old Vaughn, both White, were living in a rural area in the Northeast when they adopted Miri, an African American baby girl, via private domestic adoption. Out in public, both men noted that they felt somewhat more “out” as parents, in that Miri’s presence served to clearly identify them as a family – and, in turn, to bring attention to Daniel and Vaughn’s status as a couple. They were both pushing her stroller, feeding her bottles, and wiping her nose, and this made it obvious that they were both her parents, and, by extension, that they were a couple. Vaughn, who described himself as “liking [his] privacy,” struggled with this new visibility more so than Daniel, who viewed himself as the more “flamboyant” one. They both agreed that the fact that Miri was racially dissimilar from them also served to draw attention to the adoptive nature of their family. Vaughn described his particular concern about how African American adults might react to the fact that two White men had adopted an African American girl: “I’m a little bit more concerned about that than I am about anybody else’s reaction.” Importantly, though, Vaughn had not actually encountered any negative reactions from African American individuals at the time of the post-placement interview.

Both men described their immediate community as very liberal and progressive, but also as “very White” and lacking in racial diversity. They sometimes encountered racial stereotypes and generalizations that they typically viewed as reflecting the speakers’ ignorance, rather than evidence of hostility. As Daniel mused, soon after adopting Miri, “One of our friends here, she keeps on mentioning, ‘Black kids this, and Black kids that, and Black kids this,’ and my mother does the same thing.” Both men struggled with such generalized statements, but at the same time minimized them, noting that “most people are not really directly confrontational.”

Both Daniel and Vaughn further noted that although they had not encountered negative remarks about their being gay parents or about the biracial nature of their family, they believed that such experiences would be more likely to occur in the future, as their daughter grew older, and also when they traveled outside of their immediate community. Vaughn explained:

We’re more or less staying in [state] until everything’s finalized because everybody’s told us, have the paperwork with you no matter where you go. You know, because two men driving around with an African American baby just doesn’t seem right, you know, to most people. It’s not saying that anybody’s going to pull you over purposefully, but if something happens, and somebody pulls you over, then. . .well, you go through that whole thing.   

As Daniel and Vaughn’s story illustrates, gay male couples may encounter increased visibility as they interact with their communities as parents. Although they were previously able to pass as good friends, roommates, or brothers, the presence of a child now rendered men’s relationship status more visible, a reality to which the men responded in different ways. Some of the men balked at the loss of their privacy, whereas others used their heightened visibility as an opportunity to educate others. Men who adopted racially dissimilar children were further “outed” not just as gay parents, but as gay adoptive parents. This chapter explores the men’s experiences of visibility and invisibility as they step out as partnered parents for the first time.

 

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When partnered gay men become parents, they may encounter shifts in how they are perceived by their communities. Specifically, a gay couple pushing a stroller may be perceived differently from a gay couple walking down the street alone. They may be more readily recognized as a family and their sexuality may seem to be more on “display” than before, when they could possibly be mistaken as buddies and therefore garner little attention from outsiders. Simply put, some gay men may experience a heightened visibility upon becoming parents, in that the presence of a male partner and a child renders their homosexuality visible, and their families deviate in multiple ways from the idealized notion of the standard nuclear family (e.g., as a function of their homosexuality, their adoptive status, and, in some cases, the multiracial nature of their families; Ryan & Berkowitz, 2009). Importantly, however, the degree to which men feel more visible may be shaped by their social context (Brickell, 2000; Steinbugler, 2005). For example, men living in urban, progressive communities may perceive less of a change in their communities’ reaction to them than men living in rural, conservative areas, in that they may be one of many gay-parent headed families in their communities, and may therefore feel no less out than before. Men’s feelings of visibility may also be shaped by other factors, such as how out they were in their communities pre-parenthood.

Alternatively, some gay men may in fact feel that parenthood makes their sexuality less visible, and may therefore feel less out as gay men. They may feel – particularly when out with their child alone, without their partner – that man plus baby automatically marks them as “probable heterosexual.” Gay men may experience a confusing shift in the way that they are “read” by their communities, whereby they are suddenly seen as more heterosexual than before. Being misread as heterosexual may be experienced and responded to in a variety of ways. The literature on sexual minorities and “passing,” for example, suggests that some gay men and women experience minimal discomfort associated with unintentional passing. Some individuals may actually appreciate the opportunity to pass as heterosexual, which enables them to avoid intrusions on their privacy (Anderson & Holliday, 2004; DeJordy, 2004; Fuller, Chang, & Rubin, 2009). Other sexual minorities, however, feel that passing as heterosexual violates their sense of personal integrity and may seek to correct presumptions of heterosexuality (Anderson & Holliday, 2004; DeJordy, 2008; Fuller et al., 2009). Such corrections function to disrupt others’ heteronormative assumptions, and to complicate – and perhaps even expand – dominant notions of family and sexuality (Oswald et al., 2009).

The gay men in this study often reflected upon their public identities as gay fathers – and, specifically, the degree to which they felt more or less out as gay parents – as well as their affective and behavioral reactions to perceived shifts in their public identities. 

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