For most people, the word “activism” conjures images of people marching in the streets, picketing, holding signs, and shouting demands. But when you’re a gay father, activism sometimes takes the form of buying ice cream for your child, shopping for groceries, or boarding an airplane.
Since 2010, I have conducted research with gay fathers in California, Texas, and Utah. In a paper recently published in the Journal of Family Issues, I report study findings that demonstrate how gay fathers whose families don’t include mothers are frequently subjected to comments about their gender, questions about their families, or assumptions that their children have mothers.
While these interactions were often frustrating for gay fathers, they also became moments of “incidental activism,” or subtle opportunities for social change.
Families led by two married, biological, heterosexual parents are now a minority of all U.S. households, yet cultural ideas about what constitutes a family have failed to keep pace with demographics. I observed how incidental activism allowed gay fathers to assert their presence and remind strangers that families exist in many different forms.
While out in public with their children, fathers — whatever their sexual orientation — attract attention. Gender norms dictate that women are the primary caregivers of children, so men with kids — without women present — often elicit reactions from strangers.
Coupled gay fathers told me that when they are together with children, their sexuality becomes much more exposed. Strangers who see two adult men with children usually recognize them as a gay family without them needing to disclose their sexuality.
Gay fathers alone with their children more often received unsolicited parenting advice or comments that assumed their children had mothers. Many gay fathers reported that they had been asked if it was “Mom’s day off” when they were alone with their children. Xavier, an adoptive father in California, described his experience this way:
“You’re at the mall and some ladies are walking by and they say, 'Oh, Mom’s day off?' And the answer is, 'Yes, every day is Mom’s day off.' And they don’t get it … [From their point of view] what’s obviously missing is the mother, and she must be getting a pedicure.”
These experiences highlight the power that internalized messages about gender and family have over our interactions. Confronted with a man and a child, strangers not only assume that the child has a mom, but that the mother is the primary parent, generously given her solitary “day off.”
Rather than trying to blend in and reduce their visibility, I observed gay fathers embracing their interactions as educational opportunities that could benefit their families.
Gay fathers spoke openly about how their everyday lives could have an impact on casual observers who might have biases against gay families. In our interview, Robert explained how he can change others’ minds while out in public with his child:
“What they see is, 'They’re just treating their child the way I would. They’re buying ice cream for their daughter.' They see how normal it is. I think that’s what the pioneering aspect is without opening your mouth. People get to observe. They watch you without you even knowing that they’re watching you. And they’re making assessments.”
Empirical evidence supports the idea that intergroup contact reduces prejudice, and gay fathers spoke passionately about their ability to make an impact on strangers by living their lives and performing ordinary parenting duties.
Even single fathers, who were rarely identified as gay in public spaces, vied for similar forms of recognition. Simon (a California father via adoption) talked about wanting to wear a rainbow pin in public, adding, “I’m a little bit annoyed that I don’t have a partner, so it’s not like blatantly obvious that I’m gay and this is the deal.”
While changing minds was seen as a benefit to their interactions, gay fathers framed the positive impact on their own children as the highest priority motivating their public visibility. Michael (a California father via surrogacy) elaborated in our interview about why being out became increasingly important after the birth of his daughter:
"We would not go anywhere and pretend that we have a different relationship. We cannot live like that. Once we decided — when we had a child — that every closet door is off. Every curtain is lifted. We have to be authentic. Because otherwise she’s going to grow up around lies, and that will make her feel less than anyone else."
When asked if they considered themselves activists, gay fathers hesitated. They tended to associate activism with deliberate, confrontational action aimed at broad institutional change. Yet they recognized that their everyday interactions had a positive social and political impact. As Kyle, an adoptive father in California, explained, “I don’t consider myself any more activist than anyone else who’s just living their life. … But in this country, to be a gay family, you’re automatically an activist.”
Gay fathers’ embrace of public visibility amounts to what I call “incidental activism” — referring both to the incidental situations in which it appears, and to the secondary, incidental nature of its political consequences.
Incidental activism allowed gay fathers to remain polite and present themselves as respectable families, yet simultaneously protect their children from the idea that there might be something wrong with not having a mother. It’s a form of emotion work that heterosexual parents rarely need to perform.
The primary concern for gay fathers was the message communicated to their children through their interactions, and how those messages might affect the security and self-esteem of their kids. Still, gay fathers celebrated the secondary political consequences of their interactions and expressed confidence over the cumulative effects on public opinion.
Incidental activism teaches us that there are many ways to make a political impact. Gay fathers can build resilience for their children and influence strangers’ opinions through simple everyday actions. “Incidental activism” may also be a useful way to describe other groups who vocally but nonconfrontationally assert their presence in micro-level interactions.
Transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals who reject the notion of “passing,” for example, may be seen as disrupting the gender binary through incidental activism. It would be especially interesting to explore how incidental activism in other family contexts, including parents of color, parents of children with disabilities, or religious minority parents — to name a few — challenge social forces that marginalize their children using subtle, nonconfrontational methods of resistance. It’s very likely this response is not limited to gay fathers.
MEGAN CARROLL is a researcher at the University of Southern California Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.