Does Being Gay Really Influence Parenting?

A child and father celebrate the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic decision on same-sex marriage during a rally outside the Stonewall Inn in New York on June 26, 2015.

Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

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.

I need to get meta for a minute.

One persistent line of comments I receive in response to each month’s column under the Hey, Daddy! banner goes something like this: “What’s so gay about that?” Readers sometimes ask what about a particular subject I’m discussing is unique to my experience as a gay dad—as opposed to just any dad from central casting.

Sometimes, the comment reflects a failure to engage the column—particularly last month, when some questioned whether gay parents of disabled kids faced issues any different from the challenges faced by their straight counterparts. But the column had gone into harrowing detail about how one father had been sent into a tailspin when he came out while dealing with an autistic child. That guy’s gay identity was obviously essential to understanding how he’s interpreting and dealing with the complex challenges facing his daughter.

Other times, though, the “not so gay” comments are more understandable—as in the column where I talked about our family’s difficult decision to let go of our wonderful but too-aggressive dog. Surely other families have gone through similarly agonizing experiences, and much of what I was describing would have read the same no matter the sexual orientation—or race, or religion—of the parents.

But like everyone else, my life and experiences are shaped and informed by the several, and overlapping, identities that define me in some aggregative way. Being gay, and being a dad, are two of the most prominent of those identities, but there are of course many others—well-off white guy, law teacher and scholar, writer, swimming enthusiast. In different situations and in different ways, some of these assume importance while others recede. And this can happen during a single conversation.

Consider this example, from just a few days ago. After the painful separation from our previous dog, we’d decided to jump right back in and rescue another pooch. I was giving our new puppy some exercise at the dog park, when, as sometimes happens, I got into a conversation with someone who had a kid about the same age as my twin daughters. Since we were talking about our kids, the subject of our spouses (and by extension, my Gay Dad–ness) had not come up. This turned out to be important.

We discovered that my kids, who attend a Philadelphia public school, swim for an age group team that trains at the private school her daughter attends. So the conversation turned, as it sometimes tediously does, to a discussion of the pluses and minuses of each school. (I think I’m going to start carrying around a bullet-pointed list that I can just hand over to anyone who wants to get into this numbing exchange.) She said she’d almost pulled her daughter out of the private school at the start of the year, in part because the curriculum wasn’t sufficiently rigorous.

Then she spat out this gem: The school is pretty good unless you are just a “normal” family. (She did, almost as an afterthought, throw some air quotes around the word “normal.”) “I mean, if you are a minority, have two dads or are part of the LGBTQ community, or whatever … then the school is great. But if you are just a regular family trying to get your kids to realize their full potential, it’s not so good.”

Note the barely veiled implication that the “non-normal” kids should be happy they get to attend such a warm and fuzzy place; that should be enough for them—and it seems, for their lesser potential). But for her kid, it was akin to a crime they weren’t reading any Shakespeare, or doing math at a higher level than the school was offering.

Let’s face it: It’s very unlikely she would have said anything so casually condescending had she known that she was actually speaking to one of a two-dad family. It’s amazing to me that even today in a somewhat progressive place like Philly, almost everyone assumes I’m straight when they learn I’m a dad. (Often there’s a sincere apology when I calmly correct any statement that begins “So you and your wife … ”) My identity as a gay dad is important, in large part, precisely because it’s still seen as a deviation from the default.

The fact that I’m even describing this exchange underscores that I think it was disturbing. Is my response or reaction determined by my sexual orientation? Not entirely, no. But it seems undeniable that a gay parent would be likelier to see in this exchange a casual, clueless insult that a straight person might not perceive. (As evidence, consider the very person who’d made the statement: She’s a college professor whom one might expect could choose her words and meanings carefully.) It also seems likely that a “normal” dad, by her implied definition, might let the matter slide, even if he did see the problem.

So even the most predictable, often downright banal, discussion between two parents contains within it an assumption of straight identity—one that can only be countered with an express statement or action to the contrary. That’s where the gay comes in, even when it might seem that invoking it is a pose or a displaced grievance.

Of course, not every conversation calls for correction. But the gay part of my identity is always there, always informing my actions and perspective—even if, in the moment, it recedes to the point where I don’t see it myself. My kids’ own identities—whatever complex and potentially wonderful components they might house—will take something from their two gay dads. I can’t say what that something will look like without being reductive and speculative at the same time. But the gay is always there, and will always inform this column.

You might be wondering here how the story above ends? Perhaps you’re expecting a response varying from something ranging from a confrontation (say, a movie-style slap or a Julia Sugarbaker–channeling stream of withering correctives) to a more civilized, book club–inspired discussion of the deeper issues. But I did neither of these things.

Instead, I’m describing the experience here. One of my intersecting identities, after all, is “writer.” I’m much more at home in this milieu than in an adult version of a playground fight. No gay dad should let such a moment pass. In fact, no one should—whatever their nominal slate of identities. But maybe a response continues to be more of an imperative, even in 2017, for gay parents. My sexual identity and my dad-ness continue to intersect in ways that matter—and sitting outside a still-dominant definition of a “normal” parent is a useful perch to occupy.