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A Typical Household - With One Difference

Maureen Boyle, The Enterprise (Brockton) staff writer

December 30, 2001

HANOVER - More than seven years ago, Tom Ingle found himself in the midst of a divorce and left to raise two children alone.

But being a single father was just one of the Hanover firefighter's concerns.

As one of an estimated one to three million gay fathers in the country, Ingle worried about the effect his sexual orientation would have on his children's lives.

The worrying was unfounded, he said.

"The kids are fine. They had no problem with the gay issue," Ingle said.

He admits he is one of the lucky gay parents, remaining on good terms with his ex-wife and with his sexual orientation never arising either in divorce or custody proceedings.

"My kids haven't had any issues that I know of," Ingle said.

Other gay parents have not been so lucky.

"There is an enormous range of reaction," said Mary Bonauto, civil rights director of Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD) in Boston.

Some states deny gay parents custody of minor children, allowing sexual-orientation issues to be played out in what can be vicious and divisive custody hearings. Three states - Arizona, Florida and Utah - explicitly forbid adoptions by homosexuals.

But other states are more accepting.

Since 1993, Massachusetts has allowed same-sex couples to jointly adopt children, and the state bars sexual orientation to be an issue in custody matters, Bonauto said.

"For the most part in the state, the case law in Massachusetts has been that sexual orientation is irrelevant. It is much more of a non-issue than it is in other places," she said. "People have realized over time it is not your sexual orientation, it is the time and love and commitment to make a happy, healthy family."

While the law is on the side of gay parents, that doesn't mean there aren't worries about how others will react.

Ingle, a Hanover native and firefighter for more than 20 years, kept his sexual orientation a secret from colleagues, concerned that fellow firefighters would feel uncomfortable around him.

"I was real quiet and didn't discuss my personal life," he said. "I didn't know how they would react."

When he did tell a colleague he was gay, Ingle said he was pleasantly surprised by the response. "He said he already knew that. Everybody knew," Ingle said. "No one cared."

One reason may be that in communities large and small, more gay and lesbian couples are going public.

For example, census figures show that in Hanover, where Ingle lives, there are 25 households led by same-sex partners. In Brockton, there are 196 same-sex households, 102 in Taunton, 101 in Plymouth and seven in Avon.

For Ingle, being a single father is more of a challenge than being a single gay father.

He was left with two young children when his wife became involved with another person and moved out, leaving him to raise his son and daughter.

At the time, Ingle was not involved in any relationships with men. But now, looking back, Ingle wonders if his wife had sensed he was gay and that may have been the underlying reason for the breakup.

More than a year after his marriage broke up, Ingle became involved with his current partner, Lee Stovall, who now lives with him.

The children considered Stovall a family friend and the issue of sexual orientation wasn't initially discussed at home, he said.

As Ingle became more involved with his current partner, he said, he was worried how his children, now 10 and 13, would be treated if he became more open about the relationship.

"When I broke up with my wife, I became very quiet about my life," he recalled. "It was very noticeable... I thought I was the only gay dad in the world."

For two years after the breakup, Ingle never broached the subject with his children - even after he became involved with Stovall.

Ingle thought the children viewed Stovall as simply daddy's friend - until he got a call from his sister, who said her daughter had made inquiries about his relationship with Stovall and it was time to sit down and talk with his then 9-year-old daughter.

It was after a family camping trip with Stovall and the children had been speculating about the two men's relationship, he said.

Ingle said he approached the subject directly but carefully with his daughter, explaining how people love each other and how he felt about Stovall.

"I sat down and we talked about things. She understood. She wasn't upset by it or anything. My concern at the time was kids being hurtful to her," he said. "My concern was how the kids in school would treat her."

His son's reaction took him by surprise, though.

"I didn't think he was old enough to talk about it," Ingle recalled. "He was probably 6 or 7 at that point and he was watching Melissa Etheridge on TV. I was making supper.

"He comes into the kitchen and said, 'Did you know Melissa Etheridge is gay?' I asked him, 'Do you know what that means?' He said, 'Like you and Lee.' I almost lost my teeth.

"I still wasn't sure he really understood and asked him again what that means. 'It is when two men or two women fall in love with each other,' he said. "That was the end of the conversation. It is just part of their lives."

The Ingle-Stovall household is similar to other households with children, Ingle said.

"It is your normal, every-day house," Ingle said. "We are pretty routine. ...We share the duties. I usually do the cooking."

Stovall and Ingle shuttle the children to games, to school events, catechism classes, recitals and friends' homes. Friends visit regularly. "I'm driving them around, from here to there," Ingle said. "We are pretty routine."

Ingle's ex-inlaws and his ex-wife remain close to the children. The two men often socialize with them at the children's events.

"I do hang out with his former wife and his former in-laws," Stovall said. "We have a very good relationship. In a heterosexual environment, sometimes you don't have as good a relationship after a divorce."

Ingle and Stovall express affection at home. "We are very loving in the household, we have no embarrassment, no shame," Stovall said.

Ingle said there has been no teasing by other children and those in town have been accepting and supportive.

Part of that, he believes, is because he grew up in the community and his family has strong ties to the town.

"I have lived in Hanover my whole life, plus I'm a firefighter in town. I have been at the station now more than 20 years. People have always been very supportive," he said.

Stovall, the father of two sons, ages 20 and 23, said he understood Ingle's initial worries about the children. He also had concerns about how his children would be treated when he was raising them as a single father in upstate New York while they were younger.

"It was a big mill town where gayness was not well-received," Stovall said.

While he was openly gay at home, Stovall said his youngest son "wanted me to be like all the other parents."

His eldest son, who was active in sports, was open with his friends about his father's sexual orientation. "It wasn't a problem for him," Stovall said.

His youngest, who was very popular in school, was less comfortable at the time, he said.

However, even in a conservative community, Stovall said he had no problems with anyone - nor did his children - as a result of his homosexuality. "Any fear was unjustified. It ended up being a fine thing," he said.

Ingle said his ex-wife remains close to the children and everyone is on good terms. "It is no different if I got the kids or she got the kids. I was thrilled to death that I got them. But she is a good mother," he said.

"One person that I have known for quite a while said to me that it had to be really difficult to do, being gay and raising the kids," he said. "Yes and no. I don't feel I'm a groundbreaker. If it was 20 or 30 years ago, it may have been more difficult. Fortunately, Massachusetts is a very liberal state."

The biggest challenge isn't being gay, Ingle said. It is just raising children.

Before Stovall moved in, Ingle juggled work and the children's schedules - sometimes struggling to find baby-sitters. "Being a single parent, it is difficult. I didn't have the luxury of just picking up and doing things. If I had to go to a meeting, I had to find baby-sitters all the time," Ingle said.

However, the rewards are well worth the challenges, he said.

"The best thing is having children that you can raise and teach them that there are differences in life," Ingle said. "They know they are loved ...You are leaving a legacy. They are the best part of my life.