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

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.”

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