Days after Gabriel Blau’s son Elijah was born, he and his husband were greeted by a female neighbor in the elevator of their New York City apartment building. “Your baby is so sweet,” the woman said, dotingly. “Do you know how to feed him?” Sure it was insulting, Blau tells me, but mostly, it was ridiculous.
Jackson, also a gay father, had a similar encounter aboard a cross-country flight when his baby began to cry. The flight attendant walked right passed two other wailing infants seated with their mothers and asked Jackson and his husband if they’d like her to hold their son. “It was the weirdest thing,” he recalls. “I think she felt, Mother holding crying baby: She’ll be fine. Another mother holding crying baby: She’ll be fine. Me holding crying baby: Needs help immediately.”
When the daughter of Curtis, yet another gay dad, began to cry in a grocery store, she was physically removed from his arms by a group of concerned mothers who explained, matter-of-factly, “She needs this.” Baffled, Curtis asserted himself. “Excuse me,” he politely explained. “That’s my daughter.”
Earlier this year, we learned about some of the challenges facing gay dads today, which include struggling with homophobic grandparents, being involuntarily thrust from the closet and attempting to raise children in the rural South despite a lack of specific resources for gay fathers. But recently published research from Megan Carroll, a graduate student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Southern California, identifies an additional hurdle gay dads are forced to contend with on a day-to-day basis: “incidental activism.” That is, the responsibility of seizing upon teachable moments and educating ignorant passers-by on the realities of a modern American family.
As Carroll explains, “family normativity” is the set of ideas we carry around as a society about what a normal family looks like. Presently that image remains two married, heterosexual, biological parents, despite such families having decreased significantly over the last 50 years, from 73 percent in 1960 to 46 percent in 2013. Cultural ideas about what a family looks like, however, haven’t kept up pace. “Normativity is a question of power,” Carroll tells me. “So even though the traditional family type is shrinking, it’s still considered an ideal.”
We’ve been reluctant to frame gay fathers as agents of social change, she notes, because as a society we don’t typically associate parents with activism. Rather, when we think of activists, we imagine someone demonstrating in the streets with clenched fists, aggressively pushing for social change, which is contradictory to our imagination of gay parents, whom we think of as benefiting from family change, but not necessarily fighting to attain it.
Carroll interviewed 41 gay fathers in Texas and California between 2010 and 2015, nearly all of whom hesitated when she asked if they considered themselves to be “activists,” a term that they, too, associated with aggression and “in-your-face” behavior. Neither notion pertained to them; they were just trying to be good dads.
And yet, gay fathers feel they must embrace teachable moments when they arise. Two men with a child are extremely visible, Carroll notes. Incidental activism then is about embracing that visibility, which means proudly projecting their sexuality and demonstrating good parenting—and doing both in a way that’s protective of their children. Case in point: Blau, the elevator dad mentioned above and chair of Equality New York, New York State’s LGBTQ advocacy organization, says educating people one-by-one isn’t a responsibility he necessarily wants, but he does so for the sake of his son—and especially when people assume it’s okay to ask him and his husband about Elijah’s mother.
“They’ll say, ‘How did you get your son?’ I hate that language, so I’ll turn around and ask them about their children, like, ‘Are you both biologically related to your children? They’re often insulted, which is kind of the point.” He insists it’s not about being combative, though, but rather an opportunity to educate and advocate. “People usually realize immediately the invasiveness of their question,” he says, before adding, “For me it’s become a job. When you’re a gay dad, you’re not just fighting for your family; you’re fighting to reshape what ‘family’ means.”
“We always look for teachable moments,” agrees David Schneiderman, a gay father of two teen girls in L.A., “especially when we’re on planes flying across country and people aren’t used to seeing two dads with a kid.” Granted, he tells me, the education can go both ways: “Bra and tampon shopping for teenagers was a whole new frontier for us—we had virtually no experience with grown women!“
Overall, gay fatherhood in 2018 requires enduring a carousel of microaggressions, some of which begin on day one. Blau’s husband, for example, is listed as Elijah’s “mother” on the birth certificate. It’s disrespectful, he says, to require a legal parent to fill out a form that doesn’t reflect his role in the family. “I realize government moves slowly,” he concedes. “But official government forms should be first and foremost about serving people. It’s incumbent upon our society—our government agencies, our healthcare system, our schools—to make every effort to ensure that families as they exist are accurately accounted for in all of these interactions.”
Many of Carroll’s participants took it upon themselves to ensure their children didn’t feel excluded by a sluggish bureaucracy struggling to keep up. Some coined a term for this new form of advocacy—gay dad education—which demands a uniquely non-confrontational approach. As one dad laid out in his family’s ground rules: “Don’t stick out, don’t make a big deal about being gay, but be involved in our daughter’s school and make sure we’re visible.” Other dads mentioned how important it was for them to proactively prepare their child’s teacher to prevent possible awkward and distressing situations, like Mother’s Day.
“Mother’s Day is a manufactured Hallmark holiday during which we assume all kids have a mother,” Carroll says, “and an example of an institutionalized micro-aggression that causes anxiety for gay fathers because they don’t want their children to feel like there’s something implicitly wrong with not having a mom.”
Schneiderman agrees that Mother’s Day is a particularly sensitive time for gay dads. “Invariably the girls would be asked to create a special frame for their mother, and we’d proactively speak to the school about doing something special with our girls so that they could make a gift for a close female family friend or one of their’ grandmothers.”
Some instances of unsolicited advice verge on sexism. Like Seattle gay dad Eric Williams’ encounter with his daughter in a fabric store, when another female shopper began “educating” him on using the correct needles. Another time, in the same fabric store, while demonstrating a sewing machine to his daughter, the sales rep began arguing with him about proper terminology. “I curtly told her that I was explaining to my daughter how my machine at home worked, thank you very much,” he says.
Above all, the most common microaggression Carroll’s subjects and the dads I spoke with mentioned was being asked by strangers if today was “mom’s day off,” a phrase built on a perfect storm of incorrect assumptions: That the child has a mother; that the mother is the primary parent; and that she’s at home resting because it was her earned day off. Williams recalls being asked about “Mommy’s day off” while wheeling his daughter in a stroller at the park, to which he’d politely correct, “No mommy… just two daddies.”
Carroll explains many dads consider the “mom’s day off” line to be directly threatening to their children because it’s yet another reminder of the expectation that they have a mother. “The idea that I’m on ‘babysitting duty’” is so annoying,” Blau says, “and speaks to a larger challenge we have in our culture about what we assume to be the role of men in raising children.”
What makes the “mom’s day off” assumption particularly insulting for Blau is the fact that LGBTQ families have worked so hard to have families in the first place. “We’re perhaps the most engaged demographic group in terms of supporting family structures in America and fighting for the institutions, systems and communities that support them,” he says. “So when you’re a father in one of these families, it’s impossible not to be an advocate.”