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Other People’s Children

An entirely new generation was added to my family tree a few days ago. This has sparked both emotions and thought about where a gay man fits into family and community, especially now, after decades of social change.

Let me first say that I am unusually lucky, in that I come from a large, loud, and pretty creative biological unit—a clan, really, in the Old World sense: sometimes seething with disagreement and high drama, but always fiercely loyal. Yet, balancing that, we also have an ethic right out of the American frontier: practical, problem-solving, open to the new and different. We marry diversely, but with a penchant for those from minimal or broken families—who seem to enjoy being swept into the crazy dynamic.

I know this is not the norm today.

So a new generation is a big deal, even for those of us who might be considered a genetic dead end. I have never felt any “biological imperative,” any need to see my face or other traits imprinted on a younger, smaller version. Is that a gay thing? Who knows? But in this case, it’s personal: the father of the newborn was once—thirty-some years ago—a charge of mine, whose diapers I changed, whose colicky self I walked for hours until he slept, with his fist so tight around my moustache I couldn’t put him down.

You see, I really love kids. Not so much when they’re rodenty little blobs. (“Your grandmother couldn’t have looked like that.”)  But once the eyes begin to track, and  when they begin to make tracks on their own feet, I’m just smitten by the magic of new potential unfolding. I want to show them every color of the rainbow, every note ever sounded, every word ever written. And to make new ones up. I want them to see that anything is possible.

Hell, I want to be Auntie Mame.

Parents teach the practical; that’s their job. The better ones also encourage.  It’s up to the rest of us to open the field of vision and imagination ever wider, ever better. And who better to do that than gay uncles?

Sometimes I cringe when people tell me, “You would have been such a great dad.” I know it’s meant as compliment, and I suppose I could have been, but I would have had to make different choices in my life. And I regret none of those.

In my interviews with gay men over 50, I met several who did take the road of fatherhood. (My Boomer generation may have been the first with a real choice: the vast majority of gay men in my parents’ generation married and had children out of sheer social pressure.) Two interviews, with gay men my own age, rang distinctly personal bells.

One admitted “making a big mistake” by marrying at 19, and having a child right away. The marriage never made it past the delivery room—but the divorce was amicable, and custody was shared. He speaks happily now of his adult son and new role as grandfather.

The other told me about adopting, in the 1980s, three boys out of the foster-care system. (They had planned to stop at two, but couldn’t bear to separate one troubled boy from his even more troubled brother.) Challenging enough, but a few years later his partner died of AIDS, leaving a single, working dad of three. The kids, he says, gave him the motivation to keep going.

I might have seen either road. Struggling with my sexuality, I nearly married my high school sweetheart, and she was eager to “have my children,” even if I didn’t feel like we were ready. (How do straight boys deal with this?) Later, in my 30s, my partner and I seriously discussed adoption. The laws were beginning to loosen up, but placement was tougher. Gay men had the easiest chance of adopting the children no one else wanted: older, mixed-race, troubled. Since our relationship was mixed-race (and perhaps more troubled than we might admit), we thought we could do it. (My partner, an only child, was more certain than I.) But the AIDS epidemic intensified, setting new priorities. The relationship collapsed in stress and grief a few years later.

Fatherhood was not to be my path. And that’s just fine. I’m content to mentor the young people who come to me; to sit kids and find twists on familiar games; to chat with adolescents while I chauffeur or help them with chores. I let kids set the agenda, since I believe they know what they need.

I’m the guy who will stop in a crowded store or street for a sobbing child, obviously lost. I can’t stand children in fear. I’ll reassure, and sometimes hold her hand, wondering how soon I should go to the authorities. Always, quickly, a harried parent arrives with that look of relief and rage, to whisk the child back. Occasionally I get a thank-you. Sometimes I get a nasty scowl.

I understand what’s going on, because this is a pain I have carried within me much of my adult life. There is an old, and very cruel, connection made in our society between gay men and child molesters. It doesn’t matter that studies have repeatedly shown that pederasts (to use the quaint term) are 95-98% heterosexual men. It doesn’t even seem to matter that I know I have no attraction to children: I still find myself cautious that my actions—friendliness, willing to spend time—are not misperceived. And when I catch myself doing that, it hurts.

For those unfamiliar, this is an example of “internalized homophobia:” some hateful lie you’ve heard so often—in the media, in the street, even unspoken—that you begin to believe it. And hate yourself for it, even when you know it isn’t true. This is an example of what gay kids struggle with as they acknowledge their identities.

You only know you’re beginning to heal when you have the wit to call after the scowler, “It’s OK. I’m not heterosexual.”

Gay men need to do their own internal work, but society can help. There’s even an incentive built in. For more than half a century, the trend for American families has been toward smaller, nuclear, suburban and transient, with less and less contact with extended family or stable bonds with the immediate community.  Now, we understand that some people prefer conformity and lack of imagination, but for those who don’t—that is, for those who think their child might get more out of life with creativity, adaptability and a bit of fun—reach out to your gay uncles. You might need to fly them in for a weekend or so, but open up to the possibilities.

For those not lucky enough to have a gay uncle: you might consider adoption.

We’re out there for anyone who appreciates us. And, honey, it isn’t just about etiquette or color coordination or even looking fabulous any more. It’s about taking on life with love, difference and integrity.

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