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.
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.
“I Feel More Out Because We are so Obviously a Family”: Stepping Out and Sticking Out
Twenty-four men (including three couples) articulated that they felt much more out as gay men, as a function of becoming parents. These men observed that prior to becoming parents, they could perhaps have been “read” as two friends having dinner together, or two brothers shopping. Now, as two men having dinner with a baby or buying diapers together at the store, “it just puts it out there that yes, we are a family. . .it solidifies the fact that we are a family,” as David, a 33-year-old White father to an infant Latino boy, put it. They specifically felt more conspicuous as gay men, whereby the combined presence of a child and a male companion seemed to shine a spotlight on their sexuality – which was rendered visible and “different” against the backdrop of mainly heterosexual parent families in society in general and their communities specifically. As gender scholar Chris Brickell (2000) has argued in regards to heterosexual sexualities, “heterosexuality is naturalised and universalised such that it is invisible in public space, despite heterosexual practices in fact being dominant and omnipresent” (p. 165). By extension, homosexuality – and, in turn, homosexual-parent families – is “marked out as specific and visible” (p. 173). In that their family relationships were recognized as deviating from heteronormative family configurations (Chambers, 2000), the men were sometimes the recipients of inquisitive looks, curious stares, and, occasionally, expressions of disgust. Scott, a 47-year-old Latino physician who lived in a metropolitan area in the Northeast, remarked:
I think I've become aware that when we are out in public and we have Tara with us, we have more people who look at us, and our own paranoia.... Gerard said, “They are looking at two males with a baby.” A friend of ours, when she heard that, said “I think they keep looking at you because people always look at babies and they always look up at the adults or parents. It is not a big thing; it is just what people do. It has nothing to do with the fact that you are two men.” And like, oh, okay, that could be true. But I do think that we as two men walking down the street, we wouldn’t necessarily feel like, undercover, but I think it is a little bit more out there... like really out there, like, people notice the fact that we are a couple more and I can sense that. At least I think that.
Scott observed that although before becoming parents, he and Gerard were not necessarily trying to hide their sexual orientation (i.e., they were not “intentionally passing”; DeJordy, 2008; Goffman, 1963), parenthood had made them more recognizable and identifiable as a gay couple, eliminating the degree to which he and Gerard could blend in while walking down the street. Parenthood had reduced the degree of control they had over their own outness, such that what was once private was now rendered public (Steinbugler, 2005).
This sense of feeling exposed in a new way was highlighted by many of the men. Bill, a 38-year-old White director of programs who lived in an urban area on the West Coast, similarly observed:
Having a child is, like, there is no more closet door anywhere. Like, you can’t even appear straight in public anymore. I mean, I just feel so exposed, and I don’t mean that in a negative connotation, it’s just like, I feel extremely visible. With two guys and a baby, because people figure it out pretty quick, you know. I’m carrying the baby and Darius is pushing the stroller, and, you know, people can put two and two together.
Bill described how, at least when out with his family, he could no longer blend into the background as “probable heterosexual.” Whereas before, he was able to manage his visibility as a gay man (e.g., to choose whether to be affectionate with his partner in public spaces), he now possessed very little control over this information because his family structure by itself represented a fairly visible marker of his sexuality. Becoming a parent was experienced as exposing his sexual orientation to the world, and making it impossible to “pass.” As we saw in the prior chapter, at the same time that becoming parents may render coupled gay men as more assimilable (i.e., less gay) amongst kin and/or in private circles, it may also have the effect of making them less assimilable (i.e., more obviously gay) in public/community settings.
Indeed, many men emphasized that there was a distinct difference between how they seemed to be perceived now – and, correspondingly, how much attention they received – and how they were perceived when they were a childless couple. For example, Nathan, a 38-year-old White man employed as the assistant director of a museum in a Northeastern suburb, observed that his interactions with his partner, Ray, and his daughter, Leah, likely cued outsiders to recognize that they were, in fact, a family:
Being a gay dad forces you to come out constantly. You can walk down the street with your partner and people just think you’re friends. If you’re in a restaurant or whatever with Ray and the baby and we’re constantly passing the baby back and forth. . .you know, and we do take Leah everywhere. So if we’re constantly passing the baby back and forth, you know, we’re obviously both the father. We are constantly coming out. Like we joined a church and they said, there’s this whole membership thing where you stand in front of the church and the congregation welcomes you. So it was “Nathan and Ray and their daughter Leah!” We stood in front of the congregation and I thought “Oh my God, I’ve never felt so exposed,” you know? But you know, “Yep, I’m gay! Hello!”
In some of the cases described above, men acknowledged feeling more exposed as a function of “stepping out” as a family, but expressed a minimal level of discomfort associated with their increased visibility. Other men, though, acknowledged more overt discomfort with their new visibility. They strongly preferred to blend in, or to “pass” (Goffman, 1963), and were uncomfortable with a lot of attention, particularly attention that was, at least in their eyes, related to or directed at their sexuality. They preferred to maintain their privacy, but recognized – somewhat resentfully – that “people are going to be nosy, and we have to deal with it because within the context of society, you can’t avoid it.” For example, Vaughn, who lived in a rural area in the Northeast and whose story opened this chapter, explained what happened when he and his partner Daniel took their daughter to the mall for the first time:
We walk in... and it was like I was on stilts with spotlights on me. It was the weirdest thing. I don’t know if it was me being sensitive to it or what, but I swear everybody was just staring at me. I felt so uncomfortable. I was like, oh, this is weird. It was like I was on stage. I’m not the kind of person who stands out. At least I try not to be. To be in that position was very weird.
Gregory, a 40-year-old White graduate student living in a Northeastern suburb with his partner Brian and his son Aiden, was similarly uncomfortable with the increased attention that he perceived as a gay-parent family. However, he had resolved to be “honest” and to deal with people directly, even if he felt uncomfortable:
That’s been interesting. Not that that ever has been an issue for Brian; it’s probably been a bit more of an issue for me. Brian tends not to worry what people think and I still have that part of me that’s there. I’m better than I was but I still have that stereotype – that whole Catholic upbringing and worried about what people think. I probably notice glances more than Brian does. . . . But you really do have to be much more honest with people. This happened before we even got him, when we were looking at daycares. Even when I called people to say, “I have a partner. I don’t have a wife. I want to make sure that’s not going to be an issue and please be comfortable to say that it is so that we aren’t wasting each other’s time.” That was a real leap for me, but it was really necessary. I did not want to have to deal with that in a school setting, at all.
As Gregory observed, such up-front pronouncements of his family structure, although somewhat uncomfortable, felt necessary. These announcements represented an effective, if scary, means of “weeding out” unsupportive individuals and institutions, and were indirectly aimed at reducing or circumventing heterosexism and homophobia.
Living in gay-friendly and progressive areas of the country did not necessarily negate the experience of feeling more out. In a few cases, the men noted that they were surrounded by lots of gay couples and gay parent-families, but nevertheless felt that their sexuality was rendered more visible – and vulnerable to commentary – upon becoming a parent. Stan, a 32-year-old White college professor who lived in a city on the West Coast, explained:
We live and work in extremely queer-friendly environments and [city] is really queer-friendly. So I would say it’s really been mostly a non-issue. This thing that is still kind of hitting me every day a little bit differently, is that any time we go anywhere as a family, we are a walking political statement. We’re not just a family, we’re that family on display everywhere we go all the time. So that sometimes gets a little exhausting. When it’s Thursday afternoon after work and what I really want to do is just go, you know, get a beer and pizza, I don’t really want to be a political statement but I wind up being that everywhere I go. People will come up and say, “Oh, you guys are so cute” or whatever.
For men who lived in more progressive areas, the increased attention that they received because of their family status was described as largely positive – if sometimes intrusive. As Stan alluded to, those men in gay-friendly, progressive communities were often regarded as part of the new gay parenthood “movement” and were therefore treated as political “symbols” even when men did not regard themselves as such.
A few men observed that their feelings of enhanced outness were not only due to their greater visibility as a family unit, but also to the fact that it was “impossible to talk about being a parent without talking about my partner, and therefore outing myself as gay.” Specifically, five men explicitly noted that describing their child and/or their parental status to colleagues, acquaintances, and strangers was “virtually impossible” without referencing their male partners, and, in turn, revealing their sexuality. For example, 32-year-old Trey, a White dermatologist living in a Southern city, observed, “I was pretty out in the sense that that I wasn’t hiding anything before. And so certainly it becomes – you know, I talk about Daria and then I talk about Rufus and so it does sort of force the issue [out].” For some men, then, their parental status resulted in shifts in how they represented their families, which had the effect of revealing something “personal” about their lives – that is, their sexual orientation – which was previously less visible.
The fact that the men’s sexuality was more visible and therefore more the focus of incidental conversations and encounters is somewhat ironic, given that a number of men whom I interviewed spontaneously highlighted how their sexuality seemed less important now that they were a parent. Thus, at the same moment, it seemed, that they began to feel less defined by their sexual orientation (i.e., more “mainstream”), their sexual orientation was rendered more visible, thereby differentiating them from the mainstream (Lewin & Leap, 2009). As Jake, a 32-year-old White graduate student who lived in a West Coast suburb, mused:
We don’t think of ourselves as really gay; first we’re parents. For example, if we’re out pushing the stroller and, you know, without thinking, there’s some kind of display of affection, someone is going to say, “Oh my gosh, look at them.” A thought that would come to my mind would be, “Oh please, come on.” It’s really not important. I don’t know; it’s hard to explain, but being a parent comes first, you know?
“I Feel More Out in Certain Contexts”: Outness as Context-Dependent
Some of the men described above noted that they felt especially out in certain contexts. In other words, while they felt more “out” in most aspects of their lives, their sexuality was made especially salient in certain settings. Six men observed that becoming a parent had outed them at work. They had maintained a relatively “low profile” with respect to their sexuality prior to becoming a parent, but, upon announcing their adoption intentions or the fact that they had adopted, they felt as though their homosexuality was made “much more visible.” In this way, these men had shifted from being implicitly out (i.e., not avoiding the truth about their sexual orientation, but not explicitly referring to themselves as gay men or lesbians) to being explicitly out at work (Griffin, 1991). Finn, a 44-year-old White hospital administrator living in a metropolitan area in the South, revealed:
Even at work, I did not come out at work until we started trying to adopt. I’m sure everyone knew, but no one had ever asked in all the years that I’ve been there and then I had to come out and say “Yes, I’ve been with this guy for now, at that time, about 10 years.” And you know, all the sudden now – I’m talking about everybody at work, I’m talking about all the nurses and some of the people in administration and I mean just, everywhere I go – I do feel like, “Oh my God, I’m the poster child of adoption at this hospital now!” And I have gotten some people who have like, not smiled or not like, asked anything because it’s not cool with them so, you know, but I can’t help it, you know how gossip is and the grapevine that goes around. . . . And I do feel like, “Oh my gosh, my entire life now is just right out there, I am out and about!”
In Finn’s case, announcing his intention to adopt had prompted him to come out explicitly to his colleagues – a decision that he likely made in part to avoid any uncomfortable inquiries or presumptions that might follow. This ultimately rendered him more vulnerable, in that some of his colleagues appeared to not be “cool” with the idea of a gay man adopting. Indeed, although there are many potential psychological benefits of being out (e.g., enhanced integrity and well-being; closer interpersonal relationships), there are also various costs (e.g., the potential of rejection and judgment), which the men became exposed to when they outed themselves (Fuller et al., 2009; Herek, 1996; Mallon, 2004; Oswald et al., 2009).
In three cases, it was a baby shower that outed men at work. As a party intended to celebrate these men’s transition to parenthood, it also outed them to their colleagues. Because baby showers are implicitly tied to and representative of both heterosexuality and reproduction, these men – and the individuals who were organizing their baby showers – struggled to determine how exactly to acknowledge men’s homosexuality and adoptive status without making it a “big deal.” As Trey, the 32-year-old White dermatologist, recalled:
It’s interesting. At work they had a big baby shower for me, and there were definitely people at work – because it went out to everyone – that didn’t know that I was gay. It wasn’t a problem that I was, but sort of a little coming-out party in that sense, because I know there was a big discussion with the women who organized it trying to figure out how to balance this. Because she wanted the focus to be on the baby shower and not “The Trey is Coming Out Party.”
Three men noted that they felt more out at church, specifically. Thirty-eight-year-old Trevor, a White technical support technician living in an urban area on the West Coast, observed:
When we go to church, everybody now knows that Richard and I are a couple and a family. . . . When Sharlene was baptized, every member of the church was there, which is 250 to 300 people. And every single person came out to shake our hand or congratulate us. So it wasn’t just feeling more out but feeling more like we are accepted as a couple.
For Trevor, becoming a parent actually seemed to invite greater acceptance by his congregation. Ironically, then, his becoming a parent as a gay man was not seemingly viewed as transgressive, but as assimilationist, something that in fact made him (and his family) more accessible and congenial to his fellow congregants.
On the other hand, Elliott, a 40-year-old White executive director living in an urban area on the East Coast, expressed some discomfort with his and his partner Nolan’s increased visibility at the church they attended, and felt uneasy that his fellow (straight) congregants might think that he was trying to make a “statement” with his new family. He observed:
At the church we go to, there’s no other gay people, so now we’re standing around, me and Nolan with Sam, and so obviously we’re the gay couple with the kid and I don’t feel like anyone is looking at us in a disapproving way, but I just don’t like my business being that vulnerable, you know, just being that sort of like, open and obvious. And I don’t want people to think that I’m trying to make a statement or do anything like that.”
Far from seeking to resist or challenge heteronormativity, Elliott wished to blend in, and to avoid making waves in his community. In fact, he was uncomfortable with the notion that other people might see him as “trying to make a statement” – i.e., as being one of those gay men. He preferred instead to be what communications scholar Jay Clarkson (2008) has referred to as “quietly gay.” That is, Elliott did not believe in “shov[ing] [his] sexual orientation in people’s faces” and wished to be seen as “one of those ‘normal’ men living normal lives” (p. 373).
In addition, four men noted that they felt more out in the “straight world” – that is, in contexts that were dominated by heterosexual couples with children. These men observed feeling more out at soccer games, music classes, community centers, and day care, contexts in which they were one of the few, if not sole, gay-parent families. It was in these contexts that men felt that their family status and therefore their sexual orientation were the most “on display.” Lars, a 36-year-old White man who lived in a suburb in the South, mused, “There have been a few more opportunities [to come out], you know, like at the soccer games. . . . The first time, when he went to his first soccer game, and I was talking to a woman there named Melissa, and Joshua comes over and Melissa’s asking him, ‘Oh, who’s your kid?’ And he’s like, ‘It’s the same one. It’s Evan,’ and she’s like, ‘Oh. I get it.’”
Finally, seven men, including two couples, emphasized that their perceived visibility – and, in turn, the level and type of attention that they received – was geographically dependent, such that they felt more out in certain geographic areas than others. Their impressions are consistent with research indicating that both visibility and community acceptance of lesbians and gay men vary as a function of geographic location and context (e.g., the Northeast versus the South; urban areas versus rural and suburban areas; Fried, 2008; Fuller et al., 2009; Steinbugler, 2005). As one man noted, “It all depends on where you are.”
These men often contrasted their experiences in gay-friendly cities with their experiences in the less gay-friendly suburbs; or, they highlighted how their perceived outness varied as a function of whether they were at home (e.g., in more progressive areas) versus traveling (e.g., to the “Deep South” to visit relatives). For example, James, a 41-year-old White man who lived in San Francisco, observed, “When I’m walking around with her or with Brett, we’re not terribly unique. In the suburbs, where my sister lives, yeah, we are unique!” Likewise, Luis, a 45-year-old Latino man who lived on the outskirts of a major Northeastern city, observed that “when we go shopping to Babies ’R Us or something like that, we definitely get the most attention, no doubt about it. . . . We can definitely see the curiosity on people’s faces. And, you know, it’s very geographically dependent. I mean if we’re in the city, we’re a dime a dozen. But out here in our neighborhood (laughs), you know, we’re clearly the zebra among the horses." Likewise, Kevin, 40, who lived in a Midwestern city, noted that how people responded to him and his family – and, in turn, how out he felt – varied as a function of geography:
There is a difference when we’re out in public, when we were out in California north of San Francisco compared to here. When we were out [in California], people were more likely to approach us and say “Congratulations, that’s wonderful, that’s great for you guys,” basically treating us as a couple. Whereas here, I think people are more stand-offish and trying to figure out the situation. And people are friendly, but they don’t really say much or ask much. It is not assumed that we are a couple and they are a little bit more standoffish. I feel like people are trying to sort of figure out what the story is.
Notably, in the latter two cases, men felt more out in the places where they lived. It was only when they traveled outside of their communities that they felt like they were “a dime a dozen” and as though people treated them “as a couple.” These experiences highlighted for them how their “queerness” – at least as it was perceived by others – was contextually dependent.
People Assume Parenthood = Heterosexuality... and So We Feel Less Out
In contrast to the above group of men, 28 men (including four couples) noted that they actually felt less out, and more likely to be mistaken as heterosexual, now that they were parents – in certain contexts, that is. These men articulated that when they were out with their children, without their partners; or, they were out with their children, as well as their partners and a female friend or sister, they encountered presumptions of heterosexuality. In this way, gay men were “miscategorized” (Fuller et al., 2009) and unintentionally “passed” as heterosexuals, given the presence of “markers” that seemed to indicate their membership in that group (Goffman, 1963).
It is notable that of the 28 men who described feeling less out, almost three-quarters were the primary caretakers of their children (i.e., they were staying at home part-time or full-time) and spent a fair amount of time interacting with the world with their child, but without their partners. Instances of presumed heterosexuality were particularly salient to them, as they tended to occur fairly often. For example, when asked if he felt more out, David, a 33-year-old White man living in a metropolitan area on the West Coast, who was staying at home with his son full-time, responded, “No, the funny thing is, it is the opposite. People will just start talking to me about my wife. It is weird; it’s like [having a child with you] makes people assume that you are heterosexual.” Patrick, a 41-year-old White man who resided in a Midwestern suburb, provided this example:
Well, I was at a store yesterday with Arianna, and they had this little tiny silk Japanese dress with a collar and I thought, “Oh she will look great in it.” I wasn’t sure about the size and I kind of laid it up on her in the stroller to check the size and the guy said, “You know, I can hold that for you if you want to have the wife check it out.” And, you know (sigh), I told Carter, you can’t be an activist every day. You have to pick your battles and at 4:30 in the afternoon after spending all day with the kid out running around, that was the last thing that I wanted to do, was have a sit down with this guy – “Listen idiot. . .you know. There is no wife in the picture and why are you assuming there is?” I just let it go.
The salesman’s offhanded comment (“I can hold that for you if you want to have the wife check it out”) revealed a set of heteronormative assumptions (e.g., Patrick was presumed to have a wife, and his wife was assumed to hold primary decision-making power where clothing selections were concerned). Although Patrick was annoyed with the salesman’s assumption of heterosexuality, his sense of “you can’t be an activist every day” overrode his need to correct the salesman. This sentiment – that is, having insufficient energy or desire to correct presumptions of heterosexuality, which were viewed as relatively harmless – was voiced by many of these men. An additional reason for not speaking up was reluctance to embarrass the speaker: some men expressed that they simply did not want to “make a big deal out of it, so [they] just didn’t bother to correct them.” Thus, these men implicitly rejected the notion that it was their responsibility, on a daily basis, to challenge heteronormativity.
In several cases, the men suggested that they possessed other potential “markers” of heterosexuality (e.g., wedding rings), which, when coupled with the presence of a child, might cue others to presume that they were heterosexually married. As Henry, a 45-year-old biracial man who resided on the outskirts of a major Northeastern city with his partner Luis , and who was staying at home with his daughter Madison part-time, reflected:
We live in what I would consider, you know, a middle-class, working-class neighborhood, and people will say to me things like, you know, if you’re having your coffee and you’re wearing a baseball hat and sitting in the park, they’re thinking right away. . . . they say, “Oh, you’re giving the little lady a break,” or you know, they just say these things. . .Yeah, people just like right away will say “Who does she look like, does she look like your wife?” You know, I wear a wedding ring, so, you know, there are all those kind of assumptions and stuff.
Similar to Patrick’s narrative, Henry’s story illustrates how assumptions of heterosexuality were often intertwined with sexism, such that men were presumed not only to be heterosexually married, but to be “giving the little lady a break.” In this way, they were cast as secondary caregivers automatically, seemingly solely on the basis of their gender (Mallon, 2004). The frequency with which men fielded inquiries about their supposed female partners also speaks to societal presumptions about the primacy of the mother-child relationship. Strangers frequently noticed, and noted, the absence of a woman in a way that they may not have if they had been presented with a woman and child. Also notable is Henry’s description of a baseball cap as a potential signifier of heterosexuality. He observed, at least implicitly, that gender presentation also functions to determine who will “pass” as heterosexual, such that, for example, men who dress in conventionally masculine clothing are more likely to pass as straight (Fuller et al., 2009).
Henry’s anecdote also indicates how presumptions of heterosexuality were frequently accompanied by assumptions about biological parenthood, thereby not only erasing men’s sexuality but also their adoptive family status. Questions such as “Who does she look like, does she look like your wife?” reveal the power of biologism underlying ideas about family structure and relatedness (Crabb & Augoustinos, 2008; Hargreaves, 2006; Modell & Dambacher, 1997). For example, Jason, a 37-year-old White man who lived in a West Coast suburb and who was staying at home with his daughter part-time, described how “when I take her out. . . . we’ll get a lot of people coming up and saying, ‘Oh a baby, how cute’ and then of course, naturally assuming that you know, she has a mommy and a daddy. So I’ve had those conversations and I’ve had a number of people say ‘Oh she looks just like you!’”
In most cases, men were only mildly irritated that they were presumed to be heterosexual. In two cases, however, men were “disturbed” by the fact that they were mistaken as heterosexual. They felt that their sexuality was made suddenly invisible by their parental status. In their eyes, parenthood seemed to prompt an automatic assumption of heterosexuality as well as a presumption that they were “mainstream” – an identity that they rejected vehemently. Such instances reveal the dominance of societal stereotypes of “family” as heterosexual and biologically related (Naples, 2004; Stacey, 1997), discourses which men recognized and resisted. Rufus, a 37-year-old White man who resided in an urban area in the South and who was staying home with his daughter part-time, experienced such assumptions as unnerving, even upsetting:
For me, there have been times when Trey was gone and I’ve had Daria. And actually, what’s interesting about that, what I don’t like, is that I suddenly look like a straight dad, which isn’t what I want to look like. Like suddenly I’ll be places where I see some gay people and I’ll think “they don’t think I’m gay.” And it’s not like, you know, it doesn’t really matter but there’s something really fun about when Trey and I are both together with the baby and so we’re sort of both – we’re both parents and we’re still gay. And when I walk around as a single person, especially because she’s White and she has blue eyes right now and has kind of blond peach fuzz. . . . there’s just a sense of, “Oh yeah, she must be my natural born child,” or “Oh, she looks just like you”. . . . So I feel like, I guess I blend in when I’m by myself and Trey’s been gone for a while, so I’ve been doing a lot of things by myself. . . . like with [Gay] Pride. We were going to go alone because he was away. . . . And I remember thinking “Oh, I don’t want to be at the parade and have people think “Oh, that’s so nice, a straight dad brought his daughter!” and I was like “I’m going to find my Pride flag in the basement somewhere and wrap it around her”. . .and I do think about ways I can still make sure that I sort of identify as gay with her because I really end up looking like this straight White guy when I’m alone sometimes.
For Rufus, being mistaken as heterosexual was experienced as unsettling in that he did not feel “recognized” by his own people. His concern about being misjudged as heterosexual by other gay people at a gay pride event was so great that he revealed his intention to wrap his daughter in a rainbow flag, so as to identify himself as “one of the tribe.” In this way, he aimed to resist heteronormativity by clearly identifying himself as a gay parent. For Rufus, both his sexual orientation and parental status were viewed as important aspects of his identity, which he therefore sought to communicate to the outside world, particularly other gay people and gay parents.
People Assume Parenthood=Heterosexuality... and So We Are Constantly Coming Out
Of note is that 12 of these 28 men (including two couples) observed that, in that they were routinely being misread as heterosexual, they felt compelled to correct this misappraisal. They emphasized that they were actually coming out much more frequently than in the past. These men noted that passersby would often inquire about the whereabouts of their wives, which prompted them, in many situations, to come out. They did this because they were uncomfortable with the idea of “misrepresentation,” feeling that it “doesn’t do us justice, so to speak.” By making “declarative statements” about their sexuality and family structure, they outed themselves and, in doing so, relieved the discomfort associated with not being honest about who they were (Fuller et al., 2009; Herek, 1996). For example, 32-year-old Jake, who lived in a West Coast suburb and who was staying home with his daughter part-time, described how “people embarrass themselves by saying something like, ‘How’s the mom doing?’ ‘Oh well, she has two dads!’ ‘Oh, ooh, okay. . .well that’s a nice stroller!’ (laughs) The response is just – they’re so taken off guard.” Likewise, Carl, a 41-year-old White fundraising director who lived in suburban California, exclaimed:
Even just in the hospital, I’d ask people, “Can you press ‘4’ please?”And they’d go “Oh, that’s the delivery room, congratulations, how is your wife doing?”And I would say “My partner and I, we’re adopting, she’s not my wife.” Even at the first doctor’s appointments, they ask, “Is your wife attending?” And you just have to decide in a split second, am I going to say something? Or just say “No,” and not make an issue out of it? But we’re both training ourselves well, I think, to just say “Nope! My partner will be there.” And so far, every single person has been like “Oh, great! Well, we will see you then.” It’s not an issue at all.
Carl described a scenario where he was mistaken for being a heterosexual father. In contrast to some of the other men in the study, Carl was uncomfortable allowing others to maintain the assumption that he was heterosexual, as such an assumption erased not only his sexual orientation but also his partner’s very existence. Thus, he responded to such mistaken presumptions of heterosexuality by outing himself, because the psychological costs of denying who he was seemed to outweigh any perceived benefits of passing (Fuller et al., 2009). It is interesting that he described a uniformly positive response to his coming out. The fact that he had met a consistently positive reaction to his disclosures likely reinforced his commitment and willingness to engage in discursive acts of resistance to heteronormativity. In other words, his social context can be viewed as facilitating his efforts to challenge heteronormativity. As a resident of suburban California, his disclosures were likely viewed as understandable efforts to communicate basic facts about his family structure, as opposed to being seen as unnecessarily or purposefully “shocking.”
In several cases, the men were explicit that they were insistent upon coming out not just for their own sake but for their child’s sake as well. They were practicing for the future, when their child would be old enough to pick up on these conversations – and would likely wonder why they were allowing a stranger to maintain an incorrect assumption regarding their family. For example, 39-year-old Cooper, a multiracial physician assistant living in a metropolitan area on the West Coast, mused:
[Before we became parents], a lot of times people wouldn’t know we are gay. Some couples, it is a little bit more obvious but when we go traveling together, unless we say something, people will often think we are a couple of good friends. It doesn’t come out in the forefront. But with the baby, oh man, it is sort of out there. The first question out of most peoples’ mouths when there is two guys traveling with a baby is, “Oh, where’s mommy?” Questions come up immediately about home or family and stuff like that. So we try to be really straightforward about it too. I think that one thing we have decided is that we don’t want Benny to grow up thinking it is taboo to talk about it. If he grows up thinking we are ashamed of it or trying to hide it, it is going to affect him in some pretty bad ways. If he grows up thinking that being gay is a bad thing or something, that we have to hide or something, that you are not supposed to talk about it, I think that would come out in some really weird ways. So I definitely feel [more out], and that hasn’t always been comfortable for me either.
Although Cooper acknowledged a commitment to be “straightforward” about his familial and relational status, for his child’s sake, he noted that this had not always been comfortable for him. In this way, he suggests that he felt compelled to move beyond his personal preference for privacy to consider the implications of remaining silent for his son. Not wishing for his son to grow up believing that his family was shameful, he adapted a stance of openness. Cooper’s strategic, reflexive approach to openness, whereby he prioritized the need to model openness and pride over his personal desire for privacy, illustrates how gay men may push back against heteronormativity even when personally fearful of negative repercussions. This example is consistent with prior research on lesbian mothers, who often describe purposeful efforts to model openness and pride in their interactions with outsiders (Bennett, 2003; Gartrell et al., 2000). Lesbian mothers who strive to come out purposefully in public interactions do so in an effort to resist, and hopefully counteract, the shame and homophobia that their children may eventually confront (Goldberg, 2010; Mezey, 2008).
No Change in Outness
Finally, 18 men, including five couples, noted that parenthood had had little impact on how out they felt. These men asserted that they had always been very out and thus felt no more out now that they were parents. They emphasized that they were “as out as can be” such that “neighbors, people at work, everybody” knew that they were gay, and therefore felt that they “couldn’t get any more out!” once they became parents. Most of these men lived in very gay-friendly areas (e.g., San Francisco), which had facilitated their ease in being out (Steinbugler, 2005). They emphasized that their outness had not changed upon becoming parents, given the generally tolerant and supportive climate of their immediate communities. As Brett, a 42-year-old White man in San Francisco, stated, “I don’t really know that we have [felt more out], because we were pretty out before. I mean, living where we live, it’s so enlightened in that respect, that it’s just not a big deal.”
Likewise, Allan, a 36-year-old White man, reflected that he had not felt more out “because in the Bay Area, it’s like, gay families are a dime a dozen.” These men did not feel that they “stuck out” any more now than they did when they were just a couple, by virtue of the fact that they lived in areas heavily concentrated by same-sex couples and lesbian/gay parent families, which had in turn facilitated their outness prior to becoming parents – an outness that remained unchanged. Where they lived, gay parenthood was constructed as (relatively) normal, and their own families “blended in” more so than in geographic contexts that lacked an organized or sizable gay parent community. In turn, these men were less likely to feel as though they had to explain or defend their family; their families were, in many cases, already recognized and to some degree accepted as “real” families.
A few of these men, though, lived in areas with few same-sex couples or parents. Yet becoming a parent had not changed their sense of outness or visibility, in that “everyone knew that we were gay before.” Prior to becoming parenthood, they had not made any effort to hide their relationship, and were “well known around town” for being one of the few gay couples in the area. In contrast to the men described above, who reported being very out in gay-friendly communities with a large number of same-sex couples and parents, these men were very out in communities characterized by few, if any, other same-sex couples and parents. Daniel, who lived in the rural Northeast and whose story opened this chapter, asserted, “I’ve always been out (laughs). And it’s not so much in a flamboyant way, but even when I lived in Florida, I have always been just me. I don’t hide myself.” Joshua, a 40-year-old White man who lived in a Southern suburb, attested:
I’ve been out. It’s not been—if someone doesn’t know I’m gay it’s because they’re really stupid or blind (laughs). I mean, at work it’s like, if you haven’t figured it out, it’s because you’ve not been paying any attention. But that’s their own problem. If they’ve not been paying attention, it’s nothing on my end (laughs). Where we go, the restaurants around here – a lot of the cooks know us. We’re obviously a couple wherever we go.
Interestingly, four men who did not feel any more out now than they did before did not attribute this lack of change to already having been very out. They stated that they simply did not give much thought to their sexual orientation, and paid little attention to how outsiders were responding to them. They claimed that they had encountered few situations or people that had prompted them to “come out.” Shane, a 32-year-old White man living in a metropolitan area of the South, mused, “I don’t personally think about it, honestly. I never did anyways. I never thought about – I mean, obviously we’re a gay couple, but, I don’t know, I’ve always tried to live my life where it’s like that’s just, secondary to everything.” Shane therefore denied that his sexual orientation had been made more salient or visible as a function of becoming a parent.
Added Visibility, Increased Outness
Eleven men (including three couples) emphasized their perception that their families were made more visible by the multiracial nature of their families. Notably, seven of these men had adopted African American children; in two cases, the adopted child was Latino/a, and in two cases, the adopted child was multiracial. The multiracial nature of their families, these men said, sometimes led people to “do a double take” and occasionally to make statements or ask questions that in some cases revealed racial stereotypes. For example, two men observed that, because their child had noticeably darker skin than they did, they were frequently asked whether they had adopted internationally. Darker skin was equated with international adoption (Richardson & Goldberg, 2010). As Jake, who had adopted a multiracial daughter, described, “Everybody has actually looked at her and said, ‘Oh, what country did you adopt from?’ thinking we did an international adoption. . .and the irony of that is that everyone thinks she’s Asian because of her features and she’s not Asian at all.”
Another stereotype that their child’s race seemed to elicit in others was the presumption that because “dark” children are stereotypically poor, from questionable backgrounds, and “unwanted,” they were therefore “lucky” to have been adopted by two White men into a middle-class lifestyle (Dorow, 2006; Harrigan, 2009). Two men described encountering this type of assumption. Rett, a 35-year-old White man who had adopted an African American boy with his partner Barry in an urban area in the Midwest, explained what he described as outsiders’ “racist assumption” that a White middle-class upbringing was inevitably better than whatever upbringing their son’s birthparents could have offered him:
People love his hair, it’s a big full head of hair. And, there’s this feeling of, it’s great that you guys are doing this. It’s almost an implication of, because you’ll be able to give him such a better life. And I know that, like, if you just look objectively at the circumstances in his case, you know, homeless, mentally ill mother versus a stable middle-class upbringing – like, just on that, on the face of it, yeah you’re right. We’re going to be able to give him a stable foundation and life. But there is something that’s definitely lost in that. And I get the sense that a lot of times the way White people react, is there’s this ongoing racist assumption of how much better the upbringing will be by two White people.
The men also encountered inquiries about their children’s hair and skin that were racial in nature. For example, three men – all with African American children – described encounters where a stranger asked them questions about their child’s hair or skin. Barry, Rett’s partner, noted that “folks will ask about African American hair. . . . so we explain that, you know, we won’t wash his hair every day, or we need to oil his skin, those kinds of questions.”
Interestingly, nine men (including two couples) explicitly noted that their visibility as a multiracial, adoptive family made them more aware of and sensitive to potential criticism from their child’s racial group. These men were aware of the debates surrounding transracial adoption, which often center upon the question of whether White parents are capable of providing the kind of racial socialization experiences that children of color need to develop a healthy racial identity (Quiroz, 2008). In turn, these men were aware that some racial minorities, particularly African Americans, might be resistant to transracial adoption, and might be resentful towards them specifically for adopting a member of their racial group. For example, 34-year-old Robbie, a White man who had adopted a biracial (African American and White) child, observed that “living in [city], it’s sometimes more difficult to have an African American child because of the huge population here in [city], and you get the reverse pressure, where it’s frowned upon more from people that we know and are friends with in the African American community than it is in the White community.”
Six of these nine men described encounters in which they perceived disapproval, avoidance, or resentment from members of their child’s racial group. As 40-year-old Theo, a White man who had adopted an African American girl with his African American partner in a West Coast suburb, stated, “Every once in awhile I sense, from Black people, disapproval. Like, when it will be me and Emma alone.” Similarly, 35-year-old Rett described a situation where
Barry and I were with Christopher in a store, and there was a Black woman who asked if she could look at the baby and so we clipped up the little hood on the car seat and there was Christopher. There was kind of an awkward silence. The initial thing would be to say, ‘Oh what a cute baby.’” But she was really, I think, taken aback at first.
Notably, Rett went on to carefully consider the broader racial dynamics at play and how these influenced this singular woman’s reaction to him and his son:
It’s just this very micro situation. But I recognize that in those random encounters there also is this sort of broader impact, the dynamics that are at play and the racial dynamic in particular. . . . So when I see an African American woman react negatively, it sort of reminds me of the fact that, yeah, you’re a White man and you’re raising a Black child in a White supremacist culture, and it brings to mind the kind of political ramifications of just a very personal choice.
In three of these nine cases, however, men noted that while they had anticipated a negative response from members of their child’s racial group, they had not yet experienced it. For example, 38-year-old Nick, a White man partnered with an African American man who had adopted an African American boy, noted that “one of the things that we’d heard about or talked to people about is sometimes reactions from other African Americans seem more negative. They would prefer to see one of their own being raised by one of their own. [But] I have yet to experience anything like that.” Likewise, in regards to how African American people had responded to him, his partner, and his African American daughter, Vaughn, who was White, observed:
Funny enough, oddly enough, I’m a little bit more concerned about that than I am about anybody else’s reaction. And the few [African Americans] that we’ve seen here are pretty open and tolerant and accommodating, but I’ll be anxious to see what happens the first time we go down to [nearby city] or something, or someplace like that, and encounter different kinds of people and see what kind of vibe I get from them. . . . But I will definitely, I’m sensitive, so I will pick up a vibe from them. I’ll get a sense of where they’re at just by how they interact with us.
Finally, three men noted that they felt more visible not only as adoptive families, but also as gay men, insomuch as their multiracial, adoptive status often cued people to consider their sexual orientation. Somewhat ironically, the fact that they deviated in multiple ways from stereotypical representations of family served to cue outsiders that they were in fact a family – and signaled details about both men’s route to parenthood and also their sexuality. For example, 36-year-old Thomas, a White man residing in Southern suburb, observed that his daughter’s race had served as an additional cue to his sexual orientation:
I mean we were pretty out before; we’ve never hid it anywhere. But we live in a small town, a small country town. We live in the suburbs and so when we go to a restaurant or a café, before it could have been just two buddies having dinner with a little bit of a question. But now it is, “Well I believe they are a gay couple because they actually also have a Black baby.”
Thus, men who adopted children whose race was distinctly different than their own were
ironically both more immediately recognized as gay (i.e., as “outside” of the heteronormative nuclear ideal) and also as fathers and partners (i.e., they and their partners and their children were more readily recognized as a family).
Little Added Visibility
Some men, however, described little added visibility as a function of their transracial adoptive status. Eight men (including two couples) attributed this to the fact that their child was biracial and/or “light-skinned,” allowing them to “pass” as biogenetically related. In other words, they observed that their child’s light skin often led people to assume that they were biologically related to one of their parents, deflecting inquiries about their race or adoptive status. As Henry, who was biracial (Latino and White), reflected, “They say she looks like me. She’s very fair and I’m fair and Luis is more Latin-looking, so they think she looks like me.”
In several cases, men expressed a sense of relief that their child “blended in” relatively easily, in that they did not feel as visible or scrutinized when out in public whereas they might have been if they had an “obviously Black child.” For example, Paul, a 40-year-old White man who had adopted a biracial male infant with his partner Miles, who was also White, stated, “She looks totally White and so yeah, when she was born we weren’t sure what she was going to look like, you know? But so yeah, does that help? Yes it does, because that was a concern of ours.” As sociologists Maura Ryan and Dana Berkowitz (2009) have noted, racial similarity between parents and children may help gay-parent families to “blend in with other dominant families, releasing them slightly from the effects of heterosexual domination” (p. 165). In this way, gay men who adopt racially similar children arguably have the privilege of conforming, at least ostensibly, with the requirement that a “real” or “normal” family be physically similar. Although actually adoptive, these family members’ racial similarity may lead them to be “read” as biogenetically related – the requirement underlying the norm of physical similarity.
A few men noted that, in that they were not readily recognizable as a multiracial family, they were assumed to be biogenetically related to their child and possibly heterosexual, a set of assumptions which left them at a loss regarding whether, when, and how to out themselves. Likewise, 37-year-old Carter, a White man residing in a Midwestern suburb, revealed:
She looks very Caucasian. I was truly not expecting that. I think Patrick and I would have done well either way. I think it’s going to be interesting with her looking so Caucasian, looking so White, I think we are going to get a lot of people assuming that one of us is the biological father. . . . I want to know what people [in this situation] say. What do they do? I don’t feel I need to out myself to total strangers every time I say something and to explain this whole situation you pretty much have to do that.
Carter asserted that while he did not feel the need to “out [him]self to total strangers,” he recognized that in order to explain “this whole situation” (i.e., his child’s adoptive status), he “pretty much [has] to do that.” Thus, Carter saw no way of explaining that his child was adopted without giving the full story, which involved disclosing that he and his partner were a gay couple.
Seven men (including two couples) similarly noted that the fact that their child was the same race as one of the partners, which led people to assume that their child was biogenetically related to that parent. This in turn precluded inquiries regarding their child’s adoptive status, and also led to assumptions about heterosexuality. Nick, the 38-year-old White man who had adopted an African American child with his partner Todd, who was also African American, stated:
Todd has gotten a lot from his coworkers and some of other folks that he knows, “Wow, he even kind of looks like you.” So there’s some resemblance between them that I think helps bridge that, the issue of the dramatic difference. . . . I think there are some similarities, and so because then, when Todd and I are there together, people will automatically pick up on the similarities and say “Oh, okay.” They make this natural assumption of, oh, they do resemble each other, so Todd must be his bio father.
Similarly, 36-year-old Dashaun, who had adopted an African American child with his partner Theo, who was White, shared, “I do get that she literally looks like me. People say, ‘She looks just like you. That is your daughter.’ And I say, ‘Yeah.’” In turn, Dashaun acknowledged that when he, Theo, and their daughter Emma were out in public, people tended to presume that he was Emma’s biological father, whereas Theo was “probably just a friend.”