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Father’s Day is an Extra Special Day for Gay Dads

Scott A. Giordano, Bay Windows staff

For some, a day of joy; for others, a reminder of battles with ex-wives

Father’s Day is one of the most traditional of American holidays. But when this Father’s Day is celebrated on June 20, a growing number of those reflecting on the day will be from non-traditional families with gay fathers. And in some cases, these fathers will not be able to share the day with their children because they have been stripped of custody and visitation rights.

Some of these gay dads have children through heterosexual marriages, while others have chosen to adopt their children. Some are out to their children, while many others are not. Some are raising their children, while others are barred from having any contact with their children, and others face that possibility as they raise their children with little legal protections. While their stories and backgrounds may differ, most all of them share similar concerns and face similar challenges unknown to most heterosexual fathers.

Tony Nenopoulos is one of those gay dads who has two biological children born to his ex-wife while the couple was still married. Although his 12-year-old son and nine-year-old daughter live with their biological mother, Nenopoulos is fortunate to have a good relationship with his ex-wife and a continued relationship with his children. He is out to both his ex-wife and his son, but he will not come out to his daughter until she is older. He remembers the evening last fall when he came out to his son, then 11 years old, after the two had finished watching the gay-themed movie "In and Out" at his apartment.

"We need to talk about something," Nenopoulos said to his son, before going on to say, "I’m gay." The conversation that followed was a difficult one for both parties, in which the son questioned his dad about his relationships with other men, while fighting back tears.

"[My son] said he was really, really mad and that he wouldn’t tell any of his friends and said ‘I want to have a mom and a dad; I don’t want to have a dad and another dad,’" recalls Nenopoulos. The son then called his mother to the apartment, where the three engaged in a lengthy and emotionally tense conversation.

"My ex-wife got up from where she was sitting and she said, ‘You are not the first kid whose parents are still divorced, and you are not the first kid whose dad is gay.’ ... She has been very supportive and we get along very well," Nenopoulos said.

Although his son left with his mother that evening, Nenopoulos said his relationship with his son has grown healthier in the year that followed, allowing the two to talk more honestly about almost anything. And Nenopoulos believes he has set a positive example to his son by revealing his sexual orientation and showing him what it means to be true to oneself.

For Don Picard and Robert DeBenedictis of Somerville, this Father’s Day will be the first one they will share with their near six-months-old daughter, Carmen DeBenedictis, whom they adopted in January of this year. They have made it a point to be politically active and raise people’s consciousness about gay families in the state Legislature and amongst the larger public by marching with their daughter in last week’s gay pride parade and by speaking to legislators, with their daughter by their side, against a pending bill that would prohibit the state from recognizing same-sex marriages. It is because their daughter is so young that they feel safe to do so.

"From our point of view, we don’t want to let fear control our actions. For us, being out there for the public is our way to speak out and not let fear control us. If Carmen was older and there was an immediate chance she might experience harassment in a schoolyard, things would be different. But right now, that is not an issue for us," Picard said. "The reason we are so involved and out there is because when legislators talk about introducing legislation like HB 472 (the anti-gay marriage measure,) that ends up undermining gay families. We need to let them see that we have families too, and that this type of legislation will hurt our families and hurt our children."

A 29-year-old gay father named John, who asked that his last name not be printed, is still in the process of completing a domestic adoption of a girl who is six-weeks old and who has been living with he and his partner of 10 years since her birth. John said having a child is a natural extension of his committed relationship.

"We’ve long considered ourselves to be a family, and part of being a strong and loving family is to grow your family at the appropriate time. We spoke about having a child at the right time, and we saw this as the natural outgrowth of our commitment to each other," he said.

There is no way of knowing how many gay fathers there actually are, but a1992 Voter News Service (VNS) Exit Poll found that 23 percent of gay men have children under 18 living at home; and a 1993 report in the Yankelovickh Monitor found that 27 percent of gay men are parents, with 15 percent of gay men having children under 18 who live at home. Gay Fathers of Greater Boston, a 17-year-old group that has been led* by Nenopoulos for the last three years, now has about 110 active members.

"There are men I have met in my group who have been stripped custody of their children and not seen their children simply because they are gay. I know one father who has not seen his children in almost three years," Nenopoulos said, while adding that most of the people who attend the group are gay fathers who come from heterosexual marriages — many of which are just coming to term with their own sexual orientations.

Challenges they face

Despite their differences, all the gay fathers who spoke with Bay Windows share a similar concern: that their children may be harassed simply because they have gay parents. They also face the challenge of how to teach their children to respond to such harassment.

"I have talked to [my son] generally about kids harassing him, for any reason. They teach you in schools to walk away from the situation and that is how you diffuse it. I tell him that if that doesn’t work, you deal with the bully by being in-your-face," Nenopoulos said.

"I imagine [our daughter] will be harassed, and I’m sure that will happen more than once because [gay families are] still a relatively new experience in our society," Picard said. "She will experience homophobic remarks about her family’s situation not just from her peers but also from adults. But she will learn, as many kids in non-traditional families learn, that not all people are respectful of diversity. And she should feel sorry for that person who needs to attack another person’s family."

In addition to the usual challenges of parenthood, gay fathers have to choose whether — and when — to come out to their children. Many fathers never end up doing so; some do so indirectly when their children are being raised in a same-sex household; some children may find out by accident; others — like Nenopoulos — choose to come out to their children when they are old enough to understand and to talk about it.

In his instance, Nenopoulos was married for 15 years before he came out. He chose to come out to his son before he reached puberty and was faced with other social pressures.

"I am very different than some other guys; my story is different than other gay dads’ stories in that I had been in a gay relationship prior to getting married and my wife knew that when I met her through work. From her point of view, she knew I had a five-year relationship with a woman and a two-year relationship with a man," he said. "My state of mind in my 20s was not where it is today; I wasn’t comfortable being gay. ... I was ashamed and I was embarrassed."

Nenopoulos said his decision to come out has proven to be a critical part of his relationship with his son, by lifting a huge weight off his shoulders and opening the lines of communication. Although he admits his coming out initially created stress in the relationship, it eventually led to a more honest and healthier relationship with his son.

John said he and his partner have no plans to address their sexual orientations with their child because they don’t think it will be necessary.

"In terms of the actual time [we will discuss our sexual orientations,] we don’t see that as an important issue, relative to our child. There are fare more critical issues, and we think that is a relatively minor issue," he said.

Picard and DeBenedictis also don’t expect to have a specific conversation with their daughter about their sexual orientations.

"I don’t think I will ever have to come out to my daughter, because she will always understand who her parents are and the fact that we love each other. I think we will deal with sexuality questions, in general, along the way as they come up," Picard said.

The gay fathers also face decisions as to whether they should be out to their neighbors and their children’s teachers. Most don’t feel the need to do so, unless their children are being harassed in school because of their fathers’ sexual orientations and that issue should need to be addressed with the teachers.

Picard said his neighbors have been very supportive of his family, and they are eager to watch his daughter grow up.

"Our immediate neighbors came to our wedding, and others on the street are thrilled they have a baby in the neighborhood and can’t wait to watch her grow and see her running around the yard," he said, adding the importance of coming out to legislators.

"We are working so hard and being visible because we want our daughter to grow up in a world that is different from the one we grew up in. Being out and visible is one way we are trying to do something for our daughter," he said. "I don’t think she needs to hear homophobic remarks from elected officials in our state. That, to me, is unconscionable and appalling."

John offered advice to other gay men who are thinking about becoming fathers. "You need to plan carefully, be patient and think about how you will nurture a child to grow up with a warm heart," he said.

Picard suggests that gay men who plan to adopt should be honest about their sexual orientations throughout the adoption process, in order to prevent possible future difficulties.

"I spoke to a social worker who came out to visit us. She encouraged us to do everything open and honest up front, so the birth family who chooses the adoption family knows you are gay and it won’t be an issue later. So we liked that idea because it means that if our child ever wants to have contact with her biological parents, we don’t have to worry about her doing so," Picard said.

In addition to the regular attacks from the religious Right who believe that children should not be raised in gay families, many gay dads are surprised they have to defend their decisions to some within the gay community who believe the whole concepts of marriage and parenthood should not apply to gay people