In the popular imagination—one reflected in shows like Modern Family and The New Normal—gay dads are white, coupled, and urban-dwelling. They drive Priuses and argue about which kind of organic baby food to buy at Whole Foods. They’re such perfectionist parents that they grow to hate each other. Essentially, they’re just like their straight, upper-middle-class counterparts.
Sociology departments have also played a role in perpetuating this monolithic image of gay parenthood. “For a long time, our research was driven by demand from the courts to know, ‘Are children harmed by gay parents?’ ” Megan Carroll, a doctoral student in sociology at USC, told me. “In study after study, we analyzed gay families that very closely resembled the heterosexual ideal in order to prove those theories wrong, but what we’re realizing now is that we haven’t explored the diversity within gay family life.”
That diversity may come as a surprise to casual observers of the same-sex marriage debate. You might not know it from pop culture, but statistically, same-sex couples with kids are more likely to live in red states than in blue ones, more likely to be brown or black than white, and more likely to have kids from heterosexual partnerships than from surrogacy or adoption. “Our discourse,” Carroll explained, “isn’t in line with our demographics.”
To better understand why this might be the case, Carroll attended gay parenting groups in three states—Texas, California, and Utah—and talked to 56 gay dads, focusing on those who were single, from diverse ethnic backgrounds, or had children from heterosexual relationships. In California, she spent three years regularly attending a prominent group for gay dads.
(Fortuitously, the group had been looking for an intern and Carroll fit the bill.) In a recent paper, Carroll writes about how these men feel cast aside from the larger queer dad community.
In other words, there’s still a social hierarchy in the gay fatherhood world, with coupled white parents at the top. Unsurprisingly, these men also tend to have lots of disposable income. (Surrogacy can cost upward of $75,000, though Carroll says it was uncouth to discuss these costs explicitly in the group.)
“Even adoption is stratified,” Carroll said. Potential adoptees, she noted, “must prove they have the physical space and income to provide a stable home.”
While the myth of gay affluence has been proven to be just that—at least until the picture was recently complicated by an apparent “gay earnings bump”—economic stratification within the gay community hasn’t been as widely discussed. Part of this has to do with politics: In the fight for marriage equality, the gay community concerned itself with “selling sameness,” Suzanna Walters wrote in her landmark book, All the Rage: The Story of Gay Visibility in America. “The representations of lesbian and gay parents by the ‘enlightened’ media evinces a form of homophobia that is at once less dramatic and more insidious, focusing as it does on acceptance of gay parents as heterosexual clones,” she writes. Gay parents who didn’t fit a certain mold were sidelined to present a comforting image to straight society.
Marginalized queer dads have to contend with their own unique challenges, including prejudice from other gay dads, lack of resources, and cultural invisibility. Single dads, for example, often encounter heterosexist assumptions in public (like the dreaded “Is it Mom’s day off?”), forcing them to come out to strangers again and again. Gay dads of color, meanwhile, report feeling caught between their sexual and ethnic identities.
Divorced gay dads, thought to comprise a majority of gay households, aren’t embraced with open arms at gay parent groups. “There’s a perception that they’re relics of a bygone era,” Carroll said. “Like, ‘Oh, this is how we used to form families, but aren’t we so lucky now?’ ”
Gay fathers with children from previous heterosexual relationships may feel socially ostracized from the broader queer dad community. “Gay men think I’m an anomaly,” said Chet Errett Atkins, a nurse and regional marketing director in Fort Worth, Texas. “I can’t relate to gays who are dads through surrogacy,” he added, “because neither of my children were planned nor thought out. There just isn’t a lot of commonality.”
Scott Morrison, an account manager living in Oklahoma City, said that he’s often asked ignorant questions by gays and straights alike. “Straight people always ask, ‘Are you sure you’re gay? I bet you could change back! I mean, you used to be straight, right?’ Gay people, on the other hand, tell me they could never be with a guy who has children,” he told me.
In Utah, Carroll attended a group for divorced dads who’d recently left the Mormon church. Meetings were held in a public building so that group members could easily make an excuse if they ran into someone they knew. Instead of trading advice on surrogacy and adoptions, the fathers tried to support each other through messy divorces and conflicts between their religious and sexual identities. Some had dealt with depression or attempted suicide.
“Gay father groups tend to be very happy places where you could bring your children, and were all about building and celebrating families,” said Carroll. “This functioned much more as a support group.”
Carroll also found that gay parents of color were underrepresented in meetings. “These dads talked about feeling isolated or dismissed,” she said. “There were no rituals, community, or organization to help their children connect to their race as well as their fathers’ sexuality.”
Those with intersectional identities often struggled the most. William, a Latino single father in California, told Carroll that being part of a gay parenting group was painful. “I feel like … they all have a home. They all are living the American Dream while I’m living in a room and I’m in debt and I feel like I’ll never get out. I feel like I’m stuck within the ghetto.”
Social dynamics can also isolate single gay fathers, who are sometimes seen as interlopers in gay fathering communities. Christopher Harris, a pediatrician at Cedars Sinai, says that he often received a cold shoulder from the coupled parents at the storied Pop Luck Club in Los Angeles, which is known for hosting an annual Father’s Day brunch at the Abbey. “Sometimes I was treated as if I was there to steal a husband!” he said.
Of course, running an inclusive gay fatherhood community is no easy feat—it requires not only significant outreach but also an awareness of the breadth of experiences its members bring to the table. But first, gay men have to recognize that no route to parenthood is more valid than another one.
In Texas, Carroll said, a gay parenting group advertised that they welcomed dads from all backgrounds, “but when you showed up in person, the community was very insular towards adoption and surrogacy dads.”
“Segregation of gay fathers by pathway to parenthood is not an accident,” Carroll added. “It’s very much rooted in these networks fostered within the gay parenting community.” If we’re not creating resources specifically for gay fathers from different backgrounds, she said, “It’s very unlikely they’re going to benefit from the resources already in place.”
Excluding certain types of dads from gay parenting groups isn’t just cruel—it’s regressive. It points to a compulsion within gay communities to present a more palatable image to straight society. Given how many queer dads are of color, single, or divorced, it’s also demographically a clueless approach. In the rush to present gay families as “just like straights,” we’ve overlooked broad swaths who don’t fit a cookie-cutter ideal. There’s nothing liberating about that.