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

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).

Tags: Youth