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

“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.

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