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 7:00 AM ET

“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?

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