Comedian Alec Mapa and his filmmaker husband, Jamie Hebert, expected to keep traveling even after starting a family. Among the pages and pages of questions during the screening process for foster parenting, they indicated they wanted a boy age 3 to 5. "I never wanted a baby. I wanted someone independent," Hebert says. "We travel so much, our lives are so mobile, so I wanted someone who could just grab on and go."
"We hit the ground running with Zion," Mapa remembers. "He went all over the world before he was even adopted." The couple will regale you, as proud fathers do, with stories about their son's wit. Like the time Mapa lectured Zion, now 7, at a Whole Foods and heard back, "And the Oscar goes to..." Or after moving too slowly, Hebert gets "And now...I'm 70."
The latest incarnation of Mapa's stand-up act, Baby Daddy, is devoted to his life as father. Zion can't possibly be separated from his parents' careers. Hebert just finished work on Family Restaurant, a short film in which Zion lends voice to one of the characters. But their lives are changing -- starting with all the traveling.
"What we learned was he actually can't, even though he was 5," Hebert says. "It was like, Oh, wait, we were living in the fast lane."
"We became parents instantly," Mapa says, "so we didn't know that kids have meltdowns, we didn't know that they can't stay up all night." Mapa is maybe only half serious. You can never be sure. The real challenge, they discovered, is that foster children are sensitive to change, which often meant danger ahead.
When Zion first arrived, Mapa says, he and the couple instantly became a family unit, but when the doorbell rang the boy would hide under the bed. Zion claimed not to like people, even if he hadn't met them. The dads spent a lot of time assuring their son he's part of "a forever family." Now they prep him weeks ahead of a trip by talking about the itinerary.
But what happened during one of those early jaunts has stuck with them. And it's a reminder that society isn't 100% prepared for gay dads to create "the new normal."
The busy new family was returning from a trip to Mexico when a customs officer delivered a reality check. "He was really brusque -- he said, 'You know we don't recognize this federally, it's the United States,'" Mapa remembers of being told his California marriage wouldn't be recognized, not that day. "He was being really shitty about it, and then he looked down and he saw Zion." Their son was only 5 and still couldn't see beyond the countertop. "And he goes, 'Who's that? Is that your son?' Yes. 'You adopted him?' Yes. And then all of a sudden he became so embarrassed that he had been rude to his fathers in front of this little boy. Then he was backtracking and he was like, 'It's not me, it's the federal government, I just have to follow the rules.'"
"It's little things like that," Hebert adds, "that demean our relationship."
There have always been gay dads, but maybe not quite like this. As states drop legal barriers, more LGBT people are trying the foster-adopt route. Meanwhile, the Pew Research Center found that from 2007 to 2011, there was a big swing in the proportion of people who view gay parents as bad for society -- 50% dwindled to 35%. Still, a study by Binghamton University researchers published in March found that gay parents are judged more harshly when in public than their straight counterparts.
"Of course," is Hebert's reaction to the study, "because it's a new frontier. It's something they don't see all the time, so if there's a couple examples of it they are going to judge those more."
"Meanwhile there are like a billion examples of bad heterosexual parenting," Mapa interjects, once again only half-kidding. "That science has actually been proven. That great 'social experiment' has had countless failures."
Traveling away from their home in Los Angeles has surprised Mapa in good ways too. For his new reality TV show on AMC, Showville, Mapa swoops into eight small U.S. towns, even in "the well-armed, Jesus-filled center of America," and holds auditions for a talent show. Mapa's job is to mentor the four finalists who compete for a chance to win $10,000.
In Oklahoma a man auditioned while wearing a giant-size black cowboy hat. He had a hard-to-describe quality that made Mapa think of Fred Phelps. The man sang a ditty about the Rapture.
"Everything in me is like, Oh, great, I'm going to die of a hate crime here," Mapa says. Then the producers announced the cowboy as a finalist. "The first thing he does is he runs up onstage and he hugs me, like a big bear hug, lifts me up off the floor," Mapa remembers. "And I'm like, Uh, OK, who is the judgmental bigoted person here?"
They learned about each other's lives and became friends. Mapa is helping people's dreams come true in small ways, but all of it means his own dream is realized. Like a lot of gay men, he once gave up the idea of having it all -- the big career, a husband, and a house with their son. Hebert's parents had a hard time with his coming-out because they imagined their son living life alone, like some of the gay men of their time. Now Zion can spend a weekend with his grandparents in their California dairy town while his dads have time alone together.
Zion's dream is coming true as well. He skateboards and hangs from a tire swing his papas hung from a tree in the backyard. "He's changed so much since he's come to live here," Mapa says. "Now he's like the mayor of Circusville. All of our friends are drag queens and burlesque performers, and that's his tribe. I mean, it looks like the opening scene of Auntie Mame around here at dinnertime. And those are all his aunts and uncles."
Catch Mapa on Showville, which debuts on AMC on Thursday at 9 p.m. / 8 p.m. central.