Gay Families in America's Conservative Heartland
Sometimes all you have to do is look around your liberal neighborhood to realize how much progress gay dads have made. Man and child are everywhere nowadays, and they fit in like George Seurat plopped them in the grass. A good reality check reminds us that not all gay dads live in areas that are considered progressive; some reside in red states or the Bible Belt, areas that are conservative, and, when it comes to the ballot box, anti-gay.
We decided to speak with three gay dads living in “untypically gay” areas to see how these regions are treating them. Here’s what we found.
David Gasson, 48, lives in Cleveland, Tennessee, about 30 miles from Chattanooga, with his partner, Dan, 61, and their three-year-old daughter. David is white, Dan is black, and their daughter is Dan’s great-niece. She was removed from foster care as an infant and became the greatest gift David and Dan could ever receive.
“It’s the gay version of an unplanned pregnancy,” says David, who’s frank and extremely affable.
It took two and a half years for the adoption to become official, and now David says the reaction is “overall positive.”
“I expected the reaction to be way worse than it was,” he says. “It’s harder to hate us when you actually know us. Everyone’s anti-gay until they know you. They oppose marriage equality, gay people having children, but they don’t question us. They see us as a family unit.”
David isn’t a man who’s used to keeping quiet or worrying about other people’s comfort zone, and the baby was the next step in living the life he believes in.
“I’ve always been out, I’m open at work,” he says. “I would openly talk about my fiancé. The ones who didn’t like it, they had to swallow it.”
“Then the situation came up where we were getting a baby,” he continues. “They [co-workers and neighbors] were confused. ‘How can two men have a baby?’ Amazingly, they are very hard-lined Republicans and they were happy for us. Bringing in things for the baby, children’s books. The people you wouldn’t expect.”
Now that their daughter is almost 4 “everybody asks about her, how she’s doing,” says David. “We set up play dates with people, we go the park at least every other weekend. We go to the library, we rent books.”
David says his family has received rude stares on occasion, once from “a man who looked like he was going to shoot us,” when they were at Babies 'R' Us. He also says he’s received some extremely bigoted and racist comments in his Facebook mailbox —David is Jewish. He doesn’t take any of it in stride, and he doesn’t shy away from confrontation, posting about issues in comments sections of local publications.
“I’m a progressive living in a very red area,” he says. “They don’t like what I say but I’m still gonna say it.”
David, who grew up in Cleveland and returned here for work five years ago, doesn’t say that he’s changed the city’s collective ideology, but he notices the effect his family has had on his hometown.
“When I left here in the 80’s being interracial or gay was not accepted,” he says. “This little town just opened up a gay bar. In Chattanooga there are three. We have our Pride events there. Every year we get about two people with signs that say, “God Hates Fags.”
And then he adds, not surprisingly, “I take pictures of them and post them on Facebook.”
Stephen Crow, 47, lives in Ontario, Oregon, with his partner, Steve, who’s 61, in a town that has as population of about 12,000. He was married for 17 years before coming out and getting a divorce. His children, two sons, are 16 and 19.
While Stephen, a hairstylist, admits upfront that his part of the world can be ultra-conservative, he says that his good standing in the community helped his new role as gay dad immeasurably.
“If I had been a clerk at Walmart it might have gone differently,” he says, matter-of-factly.
“I would be pulling a blanket over my head to say that it went softly,” says Stephen of the transition. “Rednecks are here. Mormons are here. I think my kids took shit. My older son had about a year of resentment.”
Stephen’s wife received primary custody of the children in the divorce, and it’s a formality. “You reach a point where the kids make decisions on their own. If they want to come over here and spend the night, they don’t call.”
The only truly bad experience for the whole family involved their longtime affiliation with the local church. Stephen says that one day during mass the priest walked up to his wife and said, “If the rumors are true we need to have a conversation.” Stephen says that ended their church world.
Ultimately, in Stephen’s Oregon life, he thinks being a successful gay dad is a matter of smarts and how you present yourself.
“They didn’t care about my sex life then and they don’t care now,” he says, adding he’s never flaunted his private life in front of others. “If I put it out there, they’d run with it. But I’m a father; you have a role.”
Wayne Neil, 50, lived just outside of Tulsa, Oklahoma for the 17 years after he and his wife divorced, after he met his partner, Tom, and with the full support of his two daughters. Both women are now engaged to be married.
“With me it was fantastic,” says Wayne on coming out with kids. “We raised our kids to be accepting of everyone, be it race or sexual preference. It was really fine for them.”
Wayne told his daughters he was gay when they were about 10 and 12, and by that time his ex-wife and he and had become very close again, and he was living with his partner.
“The kids used to bring their friends to our pool,” he says, referring to his new, gay home. “We would say, ‘Their parents have to know we’re gay. We don’t want any fall back.’ We only had one friend whose mom protested.”
Something unexpected happened when Wayne moved to the Tampa, Florida, area with his partner. “The surprises were that everyone was receptive and didn’t care. I always thought Oklahoma was the Bible buckle. Not the belt; the buckle. In the circle we were with it wasn’t as conservative as I thought. My friends were people I went to high school with and as you get older you don’t care.”
“At first, in the beginning, it was a little uncomfortable,” he says on taking his children out with his male partner. “Then it seemed very normal to me because what my wife and I had wasn’t normal. It wasn’t how I felt on the inside. So when I was with a man and had my children that seemed normal to me.”
Wayne and Tom have no plans of moving from their brand-new Florida home, but he does clear up some misconceptions about Oklahoma.
“There are three, five, ten gay bars in Tulsa and nobody gets gay-bashed,” he says. “We have gang-related issues but not gay-bashing issues. I think most of the people don’t really care.”
He waits a bit, then adds, in parting, “Now that I think about it, Tulsa’s not really that bad of a place to be gay.”