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Growing up, I always wanted to be a dad, but when I accepted my homosexuality, I also accepted a falsehood that I could never be a father as an openly gay man. “I’ll never have what they have,” I remember telling my parents in regards to my straight older brothers. Now, almost two decades later, I’m married to my husband of 16 years, and we’re in the thick of it, raising 3 young children together, including twin boy toddlers. And yet, my journey to self-discovery continues. In fact, fatherhood has taught me more about being a gay man than I ever anticipated. So without further adieu, here are 7 lessons I’ve learned as a gay dad:
When I became a parent, one of the first lessons I was reminded of was gratitude. Immense gratitude for the countless queer people who came before me to fight for equality and acceptance and gratitude towards the doctors and women who helped my husband and me become dads.
If it weren’t for these brave trailblazers, my life today would look very different. Each and every day (especially on the tough days), I think about how fortunate I am to be raising kids as a gay man. I think back to the Stonewall riots, the day that SCOTUS overturned DOMA, and all of the progress that has been made so far. I’m also reminded that we still have a long way to go in the fight for equal rights. Focusing on what I’m grateful for, helps keep fatherhood in perspective as a gay man.
Since I grew up in the Deep South, I never experienced the benefits of having a queer community of friends and chosen-family to support you and cheer you on. As a parent, however, building a strong sense of community has been a top priority for my husband and me. After all, my children are getting to the age where they are starting to realize that our family doesn’t look like most families.
Fortunately, we’ve had a chance to join a community of gay dads where we live. Each summer we go on a camping trip with 50+ families, we march in the Pride festival, we attend each other’s birthday parties, host play dates, and more.
Having a sense of community is beneficial for both parents and kids. As parents, it’s amazing to be able to share our journies to parenthood and our experiences as gay dads. But for our children, it’s even more special. With a strong community, our kids are able to see other families like ours and feel more accepted.
It’s no secret that LGBTQ+ people are an increased risk for mental health problems. According to a study on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health conducted by The Trevor Project in 2020, “40% of LGBTQ respondents seriously considered attempting suicide in the past twelve months, with more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth having seriously considered suicide” (Trevor Project, 2020).
We can presume that most of this suicidal ideation is a direct result of trauma from coming out and continuing to live authentic lives. This trauma continues well into adulthood, and mental health problems can impact our parenting.
As a parent myself, I’ve been obsessed with improving my own mental health to be a better, more patient father and model healthier coping skills and behaviors for my children. Whether it’s mindfulness exercises (gratitude journals are great for this), hopping on my Peloton to take a cycling class, focusing on healthy eating, or other self-care activities, I’m always looking for ways to heal my inner child and be a better dad. It’s especially important for LGTBQ parents to break generational cycles of trauma we’ve inherited from our parents to be more emotionally present for our children. Seeking therapy or considering more self-care activities are great ways to improve mental health.
As a Registered Nurse and a Wellness Coach, I teach day-in and day-out about the importance of eating right and exercising, but I’m embarrassed to say that I had never really practiced what I preached until I became a dad.
Although I always knew that I needed to improve my habits, I struggled with the motivation to make long-term habit changes. I also just didn’t know where to start. When my twins were born, I started to think about the examples I was setting with my diet and sedentary lifestyle, and how I could do better.
I read a lot about the science behind habit formation explained in Tiny Habits and Atomic Habits and implemented them into my daily practice. I’ve learned that starting small is the best way to create lasting effects. I had a long-term goal of daily exercise. So I set a Tiny Habit of first committing to 10 minutes a day even if it was just push ups or a simple walk around the block. It had to be something that was doable with minimal time and minimal barriers. Over time, I’ve stacked new habits on top of this and expanded my daily exercise goal to 45 minutes total.
With nutrition, start small: focus on finding healthier breakfast options, and then once you’ve established good patterns around breakfast, move on to snack time or lunch. Exercise not only allows us to keep up with our kids, but it will contribute to a longer, healthier lifestyle.
While it’s true that no one ever stops coming out, I’ve learned that as a parent, you end up coming out to strangers on a much more regular basis. You also aren’t given the “luxury” of evading the question with a neutral term like spouse.
More times than I can remember, I’ve been out with my kids only to get asked, “Where’s mom?” Or perhaps it’s at the doctor’s office, when I’m getting my kids checked in, and the receptionist inquires about “mom’s” updated contact information. Or maybe it’s at the hospital where my kids were born, and the nurse is giving discharge instructions on how to breastfeed. Or it’s a school function and one of the other parents doesn’t realize that we are a two-dad family. And on and on. Having a mother and a father is always the assumption, and I’ve learned that I will truly never be done coming out to others, especially as a dad in a two-dad household.
As a parent, it’s more important than ever to be proud of who you are. I know a parent who is closeted at work, but he participates in our local gay dads group frequently with his kids. A large group photo was shared publicly, and he immediately requested the photo be taken down, citing privacy concerns. It made me wonder what kind of message he was sending his kids and made me think about my own internalized homophobia and how there is continual progress I need to make. When we’re proud of who we are, our kids can grow up in a world sharing that same pride.
Since heteronormativity is the default and expectation for parents, I’ve learned that being visible is an important lesson for gay fathers and queer parents. It’s almost an expectation that when my husband and I go somewhere as a family we’ll get looks and stares. Although most responses are pretty positive (surprised is the most common response), there is the occasional disgusted face. I remind myself that we are helping normalize the idea of what family means and hopefully paving the way for future generations as well. Visibility matters.