As more and more gay men set out to become parents, a new book by University of Iowa Professor Ellen Lewin explores their desire to become parents, the challenges they face along the path to parenthood, and how fatherhood affects their identities as gay men.
“Gay Fatherhood,” an ethnography published by the University of Chicago Press, is the result of interviews with nearly 100 gay men who have or are trying to have children. The book chronicles the men’s lives, investigating how they cope with political attacks from the right and left, including criticism from peers in the gay community who view parenthood as a sign of conformity.
“Many people can understand lesbian’s desire to have a baby because they appreciate the idea of maternal instinct,” said Lewin, professor of anthropology and women’s studies in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “They’re much more suspicious about why gay men would want to be dads, and therefore gay men have to jump through a lot more hoops to be parents.”
Adoption through the foster system is the most affordable way for gay men to become fathers, but Lewin discovered they are typically last in line in the system, meaning they must consider whether they will accept an older child, a child with disabilities, or a child of a different race.
“Straight, middle-class married couples get first pick,” she said. “Heterosexual singles come next, and then gay people of various sorts. Some states prohibit gays from adopting, but a lot of individual social workers realize these guys can be good parents and want to get the kids into homes. There are 100,000 kids in the system, half of which are available for adoption. Most will never get adopted and will remain in the system until age 18, so there’s a sense of urgency.”
Domestic adoption through a private agency can run $20,000, and some mothers will not select gay men to raise their babies. Options for overseas adoptions, which can cost up to $40,000, are limited. Guatemala is one of the few countries with rules flexible enough to allow gay men to adopt, but one partner is invisible during the process – and the fact that the adoptive dad is gay is not advertised. Surrogacy allows a biological connection to one dad but costs upwards of $100,000.
“They have to make choices about what they want versus what they can afford,” Lewin said. “In some cases, gay couples have more financial resources because they’re men, and men make more money. But for a typical middle-class gay couple, some of these options are out of reach.”
Some dads described their urge to become parents as a natural impulse that crept up as they matured. They spoke disparagingly about stereotypical gay life, saying they wanted to do something significant in life – not just look back on fun parties and a well-decorated home.
A desire to pass on values and traditions was motivation for some of the men to become parents. Several expressed a desire to be considered a family, not just a couple.
“The definition of family in American culture is linked to having kids,” Lewin said. “When people ask whether you have a family, they don’t mean, ‘Do you have any relatives?’ or ‘Do you have a spouse or partner?’ They mean ‘Do you have children?’”
In some cases, moral or spiritual beliefs ignited a desire to have children. Men talked about how parenting inspired them to be better people, or about rescuing kids that “no one else wanted.”
One man adopted a homeless, transgender teen who was in trouble for petty theft and drugs and helped her turn her life around. Another man took in a child who was severely disabled by a stroke. The child was unable to walk, talk, make eye contact, speak or eat, and was believed to be deaf. As the dad “moved heaven and earth,” Lewin said, the child improved. He learned to walk and talk, graduated from high school, and now lives semi-independently in a group home.
“I interviewed several guys who adopted kids with disabilities or other challenges and basically gave their lives up for their child,” Lewin said. “But most weren’t out to be heroes or do something revolutionary by becoming gay fathers. Most were ordinary people who live in suburbs, go to Disney World for their vacations, and just want to have children like anyone else.”
When Lewin asked the dads about how parenthood affected their identities as gay men, responses were split. One dad felt “more gay” because he stood out from the straight parents with which he was surrounded; his partner felt “less gay” because they socialized mainly with straight parents from their kids’ school, and friendships with childless gay friends waned.
“Some dads were wistful about aspects of gay life before kids – maybe they missed going to the clubs, or the opera. But one of the findings was that once you’re a parent, you hang out with people you meet at your kid’s play group,” Lewin said. “One couple said, jokingly, ‘We aren’t really gay anymore. We pick our friends based on whose kids have the same nap time.’”
Fatherhood also had an impact on the dads’ relationships with their own families. Homophobia had driven a wedge between some men and their parents, but the grandchild provided a bond.
“I heard stories about gay men who were estranged from their families, but once they had a kid, the grandparents came over all the time,” Lewin said. “Their relatives may not have understood or supported them in the past, but having kids was something their family got and related to.”