Tommy Heidenreich had given up on his dreams of becoming a father.

At one point in his thirties he had talked about having a baby with a female colleague, but the discussions fell through. And although Tommy had been in long-term same-sex relationships, the obstacles to starting a family seemed overwhelming.

"I was absolutely certain it would never happen to me," says Tommy, now 52. He didn’t know any gay couples with kids and didn’t see how it could happen.

But then he met his future husband, Mario Alaniz, and things began to change. Quickly.

Tommy was a year out of a 10-year-relationship. It was 2008, and he met Mario while both were training for the San Francisco marathon.

"He was running one direction, and I was running the other," Tommy says. The two started talking, exchanged numbers, and began dating. "I was just certain this could be my final husband. This was it."

A few weeks after they started dating, the two met Mario’s family at a birthday party. It was the first birthday party of the son of Mario’s nephew. At the time, Michael was in foster care – his father had been deported and his mother wasn’t able to take care of him.

"I immediately took a liking to this baby; he was just so cute," Tommy says now.

The first photo of Mario (left), Tommy (right) and Michael together at Michael’s first birthday party

A picture was taken of the three together. And after Mario moved in with Tommy a few months later, the Los Angeles-area couple were approved for weekly visitations. They started taking Michael in every Sunday and spending quality time together.

So when Michael became legally free for adoption, his social worker asked Tommy and Mario if they wanted to adopt him.

“We both said yes,” Tommy says now, even though they hadn’t discussed it before.” We didn't even think it was legally possible." They weren't even domestic partners at the time.

But it turned out that the obstacles were few. The couple’s background checks and clearances had been completed for visitation, so Michael was able to move in quickly, just a few months shy of his second birthday in 2009.

It was a miraculous turn of events for Tommy.

"I had always wanted to have a son my whole life,” he says now. "To me, it was the greatest thing in the whole world."

Family photo at Michael’s eighth birthday party, 2015

The two now had to figure out parenthood. Tommy leaped into the task, while Mario had already helped raised his two nieces and Michael's father.

"For him, he had gone through all the diaper changing, all the crying,” Tommy says. "It was a huge new thing for me."

And while Michael was a bit fussy at the beginning, after a couple of weeks he calmed down and seemed like the happiest boy in the whole world. With remarkable serendipity, a family had been created.

Over the next seven years, Michael grew and flourished. He’s now halfway through fourth grade and turned 9 in September.

"He's never been one to be afraid to go to school," Tommy says, "Most of the tears were shed by me."

Tommy and Mario officially tied the knot in 2013, three months after marriage equality became legal – for the second time – in California. After their church wedding, the couple invited 200 of their closest friends and family for the reception.

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Everyone can use a helping hand and supportive community. Gay dads are no different, especially given the challenges we face when creating our families.

“There's no script that any of us seem to be parenting to," says Kevin Wakelin, the founder of San Francisco's Castro Dads.

From groups that outline what to expect in the adoption, foster or surrogacy process, to social gatherings that bring LGBT families together, there are resources aplenty. The challenge is knowing about them, and about what they offer.

Here are stories from four North American cities, about four very different groups. Some are newly organized and just coming together. Others are long-established LGBT community centers. All of them have something to offer gay dads.

They're also just a starting point.

Gay dad groups (and LGBT parent groups) are located throughout the United States and Canada. We've included a partial list along with this story, and we welcome any additions. The list will be revised and updated as we receive information.

San Francisco

Wakelin's creation of Castro Dads in rooted in his own personal story.

In the spring of 2009, he says, he was “a recently single gay dad. I found myself with a 4-year-old daughter, feeling a little isolated."

He felt disconnected from straight friends and straight families. So he reached out to other gay families in the area, first through social networking. But he soon decided that a Facebook page, as useful as it might be, wasn't enough.

“Rather than just be an online group, I thought the real need was a face-to-face community, especially for children," he says.

Castro Dads founder Kevin Wakelin, his daughter Hana and his partner Steve

The group started meeting on Tuesday evenings, parents and children together.

“It was so simple and easy," Wakelin says. “The fathers got the benefit of talking to other gay men."

The group went from a handful of people to a dozen. Eventually it took over the entire restaurant.

The assembled dads could talk to one another about how families came together. And the kids, who ranged from infants to young teens, benefited too. After dinner, the kids would go outside to play while dads would took turns looking after them.

“My daughter could see other kids with families that looked just like theirs," Wakelin says. “She recognized families with structures the same as ours."

Wakelin says the group was especially meaningful for those with toddlers and young children. “That's when parents need the most communication," he says. “There's a lot of camaraderie between the dads."

And as the group blossomed, so did friendships between the members. The online group had transformed into an offline one.

Even today, there is a note of wonder in Wakelin's voice when he talks about one Castro Dads' high points. The group held a summer barbecue at San Francisco's Crissy Field, a renovated airfield that now serves as a park. It overlooks San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. There were clowns, face-painting, and pets.

“We had something like 300 people at this amazing event," Wakelin says. Newspapers covered the event, showing publicly how many gay fathers there were in the area.

In recent years, Wakelin has spent less time on the group as his daughter has grown older. She's now 11 years old and has her own friends and groups in school.

The group “seems to be the melting pot for a certain age range," he says.

Other dads now organize Castro Dads' monthly activities. Some 20 to 30 members show up for the dinners these days. “It's passing the baton," Wakelin says. “I'll drop in and say hi."

But he retains his friendships with other dads he met while founding the group. The need for community remains, after all.

“There's a sense that we're all the same," he says. “You're trying to figure it out."

Castro Dads San Francisco

New York

Sometimes, though, gay dads need help on just becoming dads in the first place.

Jeff Levin is the family services program coordinator for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in New York City. He puts together the presentations featured in the Center's various groups.

“We offer a variety of family support groups," he says, which are open to all in the LGBT community.

The first one is called “On the Road to Parenthood" and is meant for those at the very beginning of their journey to become dads (or moms). All are welcome, and the group offers support, the benefit of staff knowledge and connections to useful community organizations.

There are basic decisions to be made, Levin says.

“Do I want to adopt, or do I want a biological connection?" he says. There may be issues about telling family and friends that one wants to start a family. “It can be a really big announcement to some people."

In essence, he says, it boils down to: “Have I thought this through?"

Once parents-to-be (or “intended parents," as Levin calls them) decide to move forward, the center offers four different classes. One focuses on alternative insemination and is mostly for women, one talks about surrogacy and is mainly for men. The other two deal with private adoption and foster-to-adoption.

All groups are free and meet once a month. Participants can attend as long as they want. Each one of the classes cover all aspects of that family building method: financial, time needed and so on.

The Center isn't exclusively focused on the pre-birth experience, though. Levin says they offer two regular programs for current LGBT families.

One of them is an LGBT parents advisory group. “It offers insights into many of questions and issues that parents today have," he says, such as safe schools. An upcoming meeting will feature an attorney who will talk about life-planning documents.

The other is a monthly family playdate. Held on a Saturday, the regular kid-focused event offers snacks, art projects and music. And just like the Castro Dads, parents have the opportunity to meet and compare notes.

“That really provides a way for community families to connect with each other," Levin says.

The Center has also been preparing for a mammoth event on May 9: its third annual LGBT Family Building Expo. It's a full day of workshops, panel discussions and education. Admission is free.

More than twenty organizations will exhibit at the expo. Professionals, Center staff and fellow LGBT families will be on hand.

Chicago

Moving from the East Coast to the Midwest, a group in Chicago is just finding its feet.

Jim Doelling has helped found Gay Fathers of Greater Chicago. It's actually his second go-round with a gay dads group.

“I relocated from Boston last year and had been part of the Gay Fathers of Greater Boston group for seven-plus years," Doelling says in an email. “They were instrumental in my coming out and my successful journey thus far."

After he moved to Chicago and met some fellow gay dads, they decided in November to start up a Chicago group. They met for the first time in January, and the group is already growing.

“Our meeting in January had six attendees, and February there were 15," he says. The group hopes to keep building, too.

Echoing the words of Castro Dads' Wakelin, Doelling says he's been surprised by how similar the journeys of gay fathers are.

There's fear, loneliness, acceptance of self and by others, difficulty navigating family holidays, according to Doelling. He's also found that realizing there are others and being part of a group has created a terrific support network and enhanced his feelings of acceptance and self-esteem.

Doelling is the 48-year-old father of three children in their 20s. He has a partner of four years and says he's arrived at a great place.

“I am happier with myself now than any other time in my life," he says. “I am proud of who I am and finally do not feel that my sexuality defines me. I hope that the group we are building is as helpful to many others and the word gets out."

Gay Fathers of Greater Chicago meets the second Monday of each month, and Doelling suggests that if attendance continues to increase they may add a meeting.

Gay Fathers of Greater Chicago

Toronto

Northeast of Chicago, in Toronto, Canada, Rachel Epstein works as coordinator of the LGBTQ Parenting Network at the Sherbourne Health Centre.

“We're a whole bunch of different things," she says of the network.

It offers support and services for parents-to-be, along with advocacy on behalf of gay parents. It also provides training for organizations that who want to make their services more welcoming to LGBT parents.

They also run courses for those thinking of becoming parents: Daddies & Papas 2B, Dykes Planning Tykes and Queer & Trans Family Planning (more on that last option in just a bit). The courses all run for 12 weeks and are held a couple of times a year. Dykes Planning Tykes is also offered as an intensive weekend course.

The goal, Epstein says, is to “build community around becoming parents."

The network partners with the 519 Church Street Community Centre in Toronto, too. “They do a bunch of drop-ins for queer parents," Epstein says. The centre offers its own diverse menu of programming aimed at LGBT residents.

Overall, she says, there has been a change in how the community views parenting.

“More people take it for granted now that being a parent or having kids is something they can do," Epstein says. “It's not if but when."

Across the spectrum, she says, it has become easier for both men and women to become parents. “It wasn't that long ago that fertility clinics were denying access," she says. Not to mention the fact that “adoption systems have opened up."

And the network stands ready to talk the potential parents about their options.

Transformation

As gay families of all sorts become more visible, they're also becoming more inclusive. That only makes sense, given the increasing acceptance of both marriage equality and gay and lesbian people in society.

Epstein, from the Toronto LGBTQ Parenting Network, highlighted the increasing role of queer- and transgender-identified people in discussions of family.

“The composition of our community is changing," she says, and binary gender categories “are not so helpful for their own identity."

That's one of the reasons why the network offers the third course mentioned earlier, Queer & Trans Family Planning. “There's been a little more demand for the queer and trans parenting," Epstein said.

But the trans community faces many obstacles and misunderstandings. While the landscape for gay men and lesbian women has been transformed, she says, “Trans people are fighting just to keep their children."

They're in the position of gay and lesbian people in the 1970s through the early '90s. Overall, she says, the network is doing “lots of work around trans parenting."

But those aren't the only changes that need to happen. Let's circle back to Jeff Levin of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in New York City. He highlighted the need for safe and supportive schools for the children in LGBT families.

“What are schools doing to educate youth on the diversity of communities?" he asks. “I think this is a huge thing."

For that matter, he says, “What about LGBT youth? What's keeping them safe? Is the public school system in the city doing enough to give them the backing they need to live free from fear and full of the confidence to be themselves?"

Celebration

This journey started with a simple statement. We can all use a helping hand and a supportive community.

The groups here can help gay dads and gay dads-to-be in different way. Some are mainly social groups, while others are more educational in nature. There are dozens if not hundreds of other groups, too, spanning the same distance.

More and more gay men are starting families, and they are searching for the connections offered by these groups. As Levin says, “The numbers keep going up and up."

But if there isn't a group for you here, if you can't find a place for you and your family, don't despair. Instead, follow the examples of Wakelin and Doelling. Start a group of your own.

* * *

Groups for gay fathers

This is only a partial list of some of the resources available across North America. If your group isn't included, or if the information included here isn't correct or complete, please email Gays With Kids' executive assistant Rosalind Lonsdale. Your information will be included in updated versions of the list.

A comprehensive list of resources for LGBT families can be found here: gayparentmag.com/support-groups. It also served as reference for several of these listings.

United States

Gay Fathers of Greater Boston

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