What It's Like to Be Gay Dads
BY Abbie E. Goldberg
September 04 2012 7:00 AM ET
In becoming parents, gay men expose themselves to considerable scrutiny. As the men in this study quickly learned, the presence of a child invited outsiders to make certain assumptions about their family structure. In some cases, the men described feeling more out as parents, such that, as one man said, “there is no more closet door anywhere.” These men felt that their interactions as a family (e.g., both men feeding their child at a restaurant) cued people to recognize, and make conclusions about, their family and relational status. Thus, the men’s sexuality was on display in a new way, such that they no longer possessed the ability to manage their own outness. Other men, though, asserted that they felt less out now that they were parents, in that the presence of a child seemed to invite presumptions of heterosexuality. The men were particularly likely to describe this as their experience if they were the primary caregivers of their children, such that they were frequently out alone with their child. Thus, situational context – as well as the presence of other “markers” of heterosexuality such as wedding rings, or a very masculine gender presentation – may have led outsiders to presume that they were heterosexual. Many of the men described feeling as though their adoptive status was also rendered invisible in public, insomuch as assumptions of heterosexuality and reproduction are deeply intertwined (Ryan & Berkowitz, 2009). Strangers often commented on physical resemblances between the men and their children (or asked whether their children looked like their wives), revealing assumptions about the men’s sexuality and (biological) route to parenthood. Finally, some of the men claimed that they did not feel more or less out, which they attributed to the fact that they had already been “very out” in their communities.
The experiences of men who had adopted transracially highlight how race and racial similarity also play into men’s experiences of (in)visibility in their communities. Men who had adopted children who were visibly racially different from them found that the multiracial nature of their families was often noted and commented upon, in some cases leading strangers to draw an associated range of conclusions about men’s sexuality and route to parenthood. These men were subjected to “doubly visibility,” in that neither their sexuality nor their adoptive status was a private matter, but was rendered visible for the world to see and comment upon. These men, whose families deviated from the heteronormative nuclear family model in multiple ways, were charged with the task of learning to navigate and respond to strangers’ inquiries and comments regarding their child’s origins and adoptive status. Men who adopted children who were light-skinned or the same race as one of the partners faced a different set of challenges. These men observed that the adoptive status of their families, and/or one man’s relationship to his child, were often rendered invisible, putting the impetus on men to correct strangers’ mistaken (heteronormative) assumptions about their family status.
These findings point to the complex set of ideologies that dictate strangers’ reactions to gay men as they “step out” as parents and families. They reveal the power of biologism and heteronormativity, as well as the influence of geographic, situational, and relational context, in shaping assumptions about families. In turn, gay fathers are in the unique and often challenging position of having to decide how to navigate public reactions to and questions about their family structure. Do they correct presumptions of heterosexuality and biological relatedness, thereby contesting heteronormativity? Or, do they refrain from educating outsiders in the service of protecting the privacy and even safety of their families? As one man pointed out, gay fathers are “walking political statements,” even if they don’t want to be. They are charged with the task of responding to various responses to, questions about, and attacks upon their families on a daily basis, even if they would prefer to be left alone.
These findings also point to the ways in which gay adoptive parents’ increasing visibility in society has the potential to further push and expand definitions and ideas about family. The fact that they are parenting with another man, are not biologically related to their children, and are often racially dissimilar from their children – and sometimes their partners – all represent deviations from the heterosexual nuclear family ideal. To the extent that they are recognized for what they are – that is, two men parenting a child – their presence in the world has the capacity to transform what people see as “family.” As Jana Wolff (2008), a writer and a heterosexual adoptive mother, observes:
Look-alike families are assumed to belong together, but families like ours – who don't match – are seen as curious groupings of individuals. A White woman holding the hand of a little Black boy prompts guessing: His social worker? His baby-sitter? His Black father's White girlfriend? His mother? (No, couldn't be that.)
As adoptive families, gay-parent families, and other types of “curious groupings of individuals” become increasingly common and also increasingly vocal about their presence and experiences, societal views about what constitutes a family can and will begin to change. In turn, greater recognition and acceptance by societal institutions (such as schools, religious organizations, and the medical community) will improve the conditions of individuals living in these “diverse families.”
Excerpted from the book, Gay Dads: Transitions to Adoptive Fatherhood, published by NYU Press.