For Gay Fathers of Kids With Disabilities, Parenting Comes Before Identity

For these men, parenting will always be the focus.


Hey, Daddy! is a monthly column exploring the joys and struggles of parenting from a gay father’s perspective. Got a topic idea or question for Daddy? Send your letter along to johnculhane19104@gmail.com.

What’s it like to be a gay dad with a severely disabled child? I spoke with two fathers who have been caring for their profoundly autistic kids for many years. What came through was a portrait of men who had been compelled to find some way to make sense of their gay identities, which emerged for them later in life, within unusually complex lives. For both, being out offers a more authentic way of living; but any exploration of gayness is necessarily subordinated to the needs of their children.

Bob O’Donnell, 50, was a law student of mine over two decades ago. His life after that began on a predictable path—law firm, marriage by age 30, and children —but veered quickly and sharply off course just a few years later. He told me he’d married because he’d always wanted children, and until recently, that was the only real way to that goal. But his two children came along just at the time Bob was realizing he couldn’t continue his straight-appearing life. After a few years of living on the couch, Bob and his wife separated. Meanwhile, the older of the children, Drew, slipped into severe autism at age 3. No one saw it coming; it’s a hallmark of regressive autism that the child at first appears “normal,” or even high-functioning (as Drew was). Then, like a thunderclap, that kid is gone, replaced by a child who can’t make eye contact, whose verbal skills collapse, and who lives in a world that’s opaque to his parents.

In the beginning, Bob had resentment over the new normal: “’How is this fair?’ I asked myself.” He was forced to deal with it, though, and the challenges of raising an autistic son had the benefit of making his coming out process “nothing,” as he put it. “How could coming out be any worse than this?” he wondered. And with the guilt and tension so many of us felt during that process subordinated to the very serious, practical challenges he was facing with Drew, he was able to focus almost exclusively on the positive side of kicking open the closet door. “I thought, well, I can finally be happy.”

And on the surface, Bob’s post-hetero life looks like a typical example of a successful divorce. He and his ex-wife (and her husband) are on great terms. They have joint custody of the children. (Drew, now 18, has a sister a couple of years younger.) They’re both involved in the day-to-day challenges and joys of raising a kid with special needs. They even go on camping trips and to Disney World together.

For those reasons, Bob’s been able to carve out some time and space for himself, and he’s been in a few relationships since marriage. He’s currently been with a guy for about a year and a half, and every prospective partner knows the deal: You need to be comfortable living with an autistic kid, and with a dad who’s always going to put that kid’s needs first—forever, because Drew will never be independent. Bob’s also very careful about whom he chooses to enter into a long-term commitment with, because Drew has a harder time than other kids with loss. “I don’t want someone who just wants to play house,” he concluded.

Bob’s been fortunate in having such a good relationship with his ex-wife and her husband. Ken Wine, 52, hasn’t been so lucky. In a wide-ranging interview, he was brutally—yet often amusingly—candid about the complex challenges that have compromised his financial and emotional health over the years. Like Bob, he lost the child he knew after a promising start. Somewhere around the age of 18 months, Maddie went from being a kid who could drink from a straw to one who lost that and many other developing abilities. And the collapse was more complicated than Drew’s; she was eventually diagnosed with not only severe autism, but also cerebral palsy and developmental delays.

Ken and his wife managed to make a family with Maddie and their two other children—an older brother and a younger sister—until about the year 2000. Then, with Maddie about six years old (she’s now 23), it all fell apart. Although he’d always “wanted to be like men” he admired, he quite suddenly realized he was attracted to men. When he confessed this to his wife, misery followed. First came what he described as “a year of sadness, counseling, and screaming.” Then, soon after the couple separated, Ken sank into a deep depression, and considered suicide. He literally moved back into his parents’ basement, and needed their support to function at all. Somehow, he held onto his job with a leading insurance firm throughout, and gradually clawed his way back to the surface.

It wasn’t easy. Although he enjoyed going out to a popular Philadelphia gay bar for country dancing, he told me he mostly just watched and enjoyed the random conversation. There really wasn’t any prospect of a casual pick-up, since he had to go right back home and resume his parenting duties. That’s probably why, six years ago, he met his partner Michael on-line. Their relationship developed “virtually” for a couple of years before they even met. (They’re now engaged.) Michael moved from Kentucky to Ken’s home in a distant Philadelphia suburb in 2013. From the start, Ken was clear and unsparing in his depictions of Maddie, wanting to make sure that Michael knew what he’d be getting into if he moved in. As Ken says, Michael’s “fully engaged” in Maddie’s care.

But the challenges aren’t going away. Two years ago, Maddie turned 21 and aged out of the educational program she’d been in. Ken was eligible to take early retirement, and he did, using the buy-out to buy time to look for a new opportunity for himself and Maddie, and to be able to care for her while he looked around. So far, though, nothing has panned out. He’s working part-time in a low-skill job that requires him to rise at 4 a.m., and still hasn’t found a program that will take Maddie. So Michael and Ken split the duties, with Ken’s now-elderly parents doing what little they can to span any small gaps in time when neither is available. (Ken’s ex-wife has custody only every other weekend, so the couple doesn’t get much of a break in that way.)

Obviously, Ken’s coming-out process was much more fraught than Bob’s. But he’s enjoyed great support from his parents throughout Maddie’s life. Now he has Michael, a professional musician who’s all-in on Maddie, and eager to cement the couple’s commitment through marriage. Like Bob, Ken’s encountered little to no homophobia when he and Michael are out and about (also, sometimes, at Disney) with Maddie. Similarly, too, he told me he’d have “no patience” for any of that, and predicted he “might explode” if anyone piped up that way. Instead, what he’s gotten is the occasional you’re so amazing remark.

Toward the end of the conversation, Ken shared with me one fear: That, somehow, in some way he couldn’t predict, the fact that he was gay would somehow create problems for him in his legal rights and relationships to Maddie. Frankly, I have trouble seeing how that can happen from a strictly legal standpoint, but it’s easy to understand how the scar tissue from the coming-out process still colors Ken’s perceptions. And it would be naïve not to think that someone—say, a judge—could make life difficult for him in an area such as decision-making for Maddie.

Because both Bob and Ken came out only after becoming parents to a disabled child, their emerging gay identities made life harder. Yet both of them are navigating their turbulent streams expertly, and what came across to me—through all the talk of schedules, challenging break-ups, and complicated lives—was the joy they both experience in parenting these kids. As Bob put it, Drew “has a way of lighting the world.” So do these extraordinary fathers.