When I came out to my mom in high school, she sat shiva for my future, barely bothering to shower or change out of her pajamas for a week. I escaped to a friend’s house and pretended his family was mine. “Are you over it?” I’d call and ask; she’d sob and I’d hang up. I’d never imagine that, 10 years later, she’d be pestering me to have kids, as if I was her straight son. “Do you think you might be ready?” she recently asked during a conversation about something completely unrelated. I groaned and changed the subject.
But of course my mother would be pestering me these days! Gay couples with kids have never been more visible on TV and in films, and one in five same-sex couples are currently raising children. Surprisingly, these families are more likely to be situated in red states than blue ones: Mississippi, for example, has the highest percentage of gay couples with kids, followed by Wyoming, Alaska and Idaho. But while a gay dad in L.A. or New York has LGBT centers and parenting groups at his disposal, fellowship and community is harder to come by in a place like Mississippi, where the country’s most comprehensive anti-LGBT law recently went into effect.
To understand what it means to be a gay dad in 2018, I logged on to the Gay Fathers Facebook group, filled with thousands of dads from across the country. I connected with a dad living in a small farming town outside Lexington, Kentucky and a couple who’d made their home in the gay surfer paradise of Ft. Lauderdale, amongst others. Some of these dads are single or divorced; others have been with their partner for a decade or more.
In the words of Law and Order, these are their stories.
What’s it like being a gay dad where you live? Are there resources specifically set aside for families like yours?
Kendal Butler, father of one son, Paris, Kentucky: There might be some resources in rural Kentucky, but I’m not aware of them. What helps us most is Instagram: I connect with people from all over the world there. We’ll sometimes talk, but we also just like looking at their photos. It makes us feel less alone — we don’t see a lot of families that look like us.
Dan Greene, single dad with two sons, Manchester, Connecticut: Here in New England, many of the [gay parenting] events are geared toward couples, not single dads. My kids are also a lot older than a lot of the other gay couples’ kids. People are like, “Oh let’s have a playdate,” but at 14 and 17, they’re not having a playdate. I don’t feel rejected, I just don’t feel included.
Chris Garcia-Halaner, father of two sons, Ft. Lauderdale: We’re really connected with the gay families in our area: there are birthday parties, trips to Disney. We also go to this Provincetown family event every year. I think it might even be more tight knit than big cities like New York, L.A. or Chicago, just based on conversations I’ve had with other gay dads.
Did you always know you wanted to be a dad?
Greene: I was a child of divorce so I saw the whole custody thing up-close. Even when I was young, I knew that I wanted to have my own kids with no one else. I didn’t want to share! If I wanted to pick up and move to Alaska, I wanted the freedom to do that. No custody, no arguing, no courts.
Garcia-Halaner: I always knew I wanted to be a dad, but here in Ft. Lauderdale, you don’t meet many gay guys interested in starting a family. I kissed a lot of frogs before I met Alex [his partner]. I’d given up.
Alex Garcia-Halaner, Chris’ partner: I went on a series of terrible dates before Chris. One of my first questions was always, “Do you want a family?” That put a nail in the coffin.
Mark Loewen, father of one daughter, Richmond, Virginia: Yeah, both [my husband and I] knew. On one of our first dates, I asked, “I know this might sound a little weird, but do you ever want to be a dad?” My husband told me he did, and then we didn’t talk about it for a long time.
How did having a kid change your relationship?
Butler: It forced my husband even further out of the closet, which turned out to be a good thing. For some reason, you can live with a guy for 17 years and nobody pays attention, but when you give the guy a kid, it puts him out there.
Loewen: The first year put a little distance between us. Everything was about the baby but I didn’t even notice it — I was just so happy to have a kid. The second year was very stressful, and a lot of stuff came up; we were arguing a lot more, and we didn’t have much time for each other. When Zoe turned two, though, she became easier. Now we travel and leave her with grandma.
What was your adoption or surrogacy process like?
Greene: The lawyer for my older son, Tyler, was very religious and anti-gay; he only wanted Tyler to be adopted into a two-parent home with a mom who didn’t work. I had to fight hard against him to win the court’s approval. The family of my youngest also was intolerant: I knew the birth mother — I actually babysat her — and her mother was against the adoption because I was gay. We had a big falling out. She wanted to be the one to adopt him, but her husband had committed a murder years before so she couldn’t. She tried to turn the social workers against me and it got very ugly.
Garcia-Halaner: In our second round of surrogacy, we got pregnant but only for a very brief time and then we lost the baby. We tried a third time but it didn’t take. By that point, we were out of viable embryos. We thought, Do we really want to go through this experience again? We went the route of private adoption and matched with a woman in Miami who went full-term but had a stillbirth. We sort of gave up after that.
Then we met this mom who was the dream birth mother you see in a Lifetime movie: A beautiful young woman who’d had a summer fling while she was on vacation and knew she couldn’t handle a child while starting college. We met her when she was already seven months pregnant, so it all happened pretty quickly.
What do you want your kid to take from being raised by two gay dads?
Butler: Our kids’ mother told us, “I was afraid he’d never have a dad and now he has two.” That stuck with me. There are days I think I’m doing things wrong. I wonder, Would she do things differently? But then I remember that she’s happy knowing he’s with us. Adoption is a wonderful and heartbreaking thing because it’s usually precipitated by something tragic but I think he’s better off with two loving, stable parents by his side.
Loewen: I hope she doesn’t have these rigid concepts of how boys and girls are meant to behave. She loves to play fight with boys and then sit and color with her girl friends. I hope she’s approaching these social relationships from a more fluid point of view.
Has your family experienced any prejudice?
Garcia-Halaner: If you go 30 or 40 minutes north of Ft. Lauderdale, you’re in redneck country. Alex’s family lives in Tampa so we have to drive through that area. When you’re at a restaurant, you feel on-guard, and I’m always checking to see if anybody is overtly staring at us. We’ve had only a handful of incidents, nothing drastic. Sometimes people in their 70s stare at us. I tend to stare them down. Only on one occasion has anybody continued to give us dirty looks. Now that we have Xander and Max, though, we don’t get the stares because I think people perceive us as two men with two kids giving their wives a night off.
Loewen: Sometimes people don’t notice or understand what’s in front of them. One time, at a beer festival, someone pointed to our kid and asked, “How did you make this happen?” I responded, “Oh, she’s adopted.” Again, she asked, “No but how did you make this happen? How did your wife just let you go to a beer festival — whose child is this?” I had to explain, “No, this is our child.”
Greene: About eight or nine years ago, I went to go get passports for my kids. Now usually, if you’re a parent, your spouse has to sign off on the paperwork or come with you, and so, the postman gave me a hard time. He was like, “Of course they have a mother, where is she? I’m not giving you a passport until I see their mother.” He was afraid that I was trying to take the kids out of the country against their mother’s will. We literally had a shouting match in the post office.
Butler: The most common subtle prejudice I’ve encountered is just this feeling that moms are a little bit more important. I feel like that hasn’t gone away. I did a two-week paternity leave, which was nice, but it should’ve been longer. I didn’t push. I’d advise couples going through the process to state ahead of time to their employer what they’re planning to do, take as much time as they need and don’t apologize because you’re a gay dad. You’re just as important as a mom.
Is it hard to travel in the U.S., given that laws regarding adoption and guardianship vary state-by-state?
Alex Garcia-Halaner: We’re hyper-vigilant when we travel. We take all our documentation: Our marriage certificate, our surrogacy papers, birth certificates, adoption papers. We’ve even changed our names so we always have the same last names. Despite all of this, we’re still asked if we’re brothers, and airport security frequently separates us.
How has being a parent affected the way you view your own masculinity?
Loewen: As a kid, I was a girly boy. I had Barbie dolls that I hid in the closet. I was happy we had a girl because I thought, Oh, I can do that. My husband felt the opposite way; he never hung out with women, and all his friends were gay men. In some way, it’s cool because you get to play with dolls now and it’s fine. You get to make up for some of the experiences you never had.
Alex Garcia-Halaner: I had the prejudice that butch is good and femme is bad. I’m now a lot more comfortable with being feminine. It’s become less of an issue to me.
Butler: There was about a week where he called me “mom.” I called my sister and said, “I don’t know how I feel about this,” but she explained that it was just because I was doing everything for him. Other than that, it hasn’t been a problem. So far, no one has fallen into a mother or father role.
Do you think being a gay dad is getting any easier in the U.S.?
Garcia-Halaner: When the 2016 campaign rolled around, we still hadn’t finalized our adoption, and we had a lot of political friends who warned us to finish because they thought this would be a trigger issue. When [Trump] was elected, I kept telling Alex, “We have to move.” I’ve softened somewhat in the hopes of the November election, but if things continue, I worry about everything that’s been built for our families over the past decade. We haven’t felt anything yet, but that doesn’t mean it’s not brewing.
Loewen: Fewer people are ruling out [being a gay dad]. It’s more of an option than it’s ever been. Because gay parents are more visible, other people are realizing this is something they can do, too. Also, I’m always happy for the gay guys who say, “I don’t have a kid and I don’t want one.” They shouldn’t have the pressure!
How has becoming a dad affected the way you view yourself as a gay man?
Butler: As a gay kid growing up in small-town Tennessee and as a college student in Alabama, I armored myself, especially when I was in situations where I might hear something. I tried hard to stay under the radar and not out myself. It was scary sometimes. But you can’t do anything more visible than starting a family. You open yourself up for ridicule. Hopefully we’ve opened some people’s minds. Then again, it’s less threatening when it’s two guys in flannel driving a truck who just happen to have a carseat in the back.