For many a gay man, coming out complicates the relationship with his parents. It can cause a few strains or complete breaks. What Zach Schellhase was surprised by, though, was how that relationship changed again when he and his husband, Trey, decided to start a family.
“It was a 180," Zach says today. “My son completely changed how my parents see my husband."
Zach, 30, had a conservative, religious upbringing in Pennsylvania, and church is still central to his life and his family's life. But it did mean that coming out stressed his relationship with his parents. Daily phone calls with his mom became weekly, he says. And Trey wasn't mentioned.
“Being gay was like – 'Oh my gosh,'" his mother, Chris Schellhase, says.
“Their generation did not have a great view" of being gay, Zach says. “For every parent, the real fear is that, 'My child is going to have this strange life.'"
But once things changed, they changed in a big way.
Zach's parents even decided to move to be closer to the now 3-year-old grandchild, Noah, and his new sister, 3-month-old Naomi. They had lived in South Carolina and moved to Georgia, where Zach and family live in a town outside Atlanta.
With his husband's parents in the area as well, Zach says, the family struggles are now more about scheduling weekend family visits than gay marriage or equal rights.
Zach says he sometimes asks Trey, “Did we have these kids for us or our parents?"
It's hard to imagine this question being asked 10 or 20 years ago. But as same-sex marriage rights have spread across the United States and world, more and more couples are not only having children, but they're also incorporating these children into their broader family networks. It's unexplored territory, and many gay dads – just like Zach – are finding their parents an unexpected source of support and advice.
The Therapist's Perspective
Tara Lombardo, an associate director and staff therapist at IHI Therapy Center in Manhattan, ran a program for several years that counseled LGBT families-to-be. The center was a pioneer in treating gay and lesbian patients.
She says that changes like the one Zach talks about are more common than not, at least in the families she's talked to.
“Having children is something obviously our parents can relate to," Tara says. “They have something to contribute."
“Children are quite universal and can be a really positive force" in repairing relationships and forging new ones, she says.
What's more, she says, the process of creating a family with LGBT parents can be helpful in and of itself. The gay dads (or lesbian moms – Tara worked with both) have to be vulnerable with their parents in ways they haven't been since coming out.
They sometimes have to borrow money from their families because of the costs of adoption or surrogacy. They sometimes have to have deep conversations with their parents about how and why they're starting families.
“It's a time when we have to reassert that we are LGBT and we have to do different things to create a family," Tara says.
The grandparents-to-be “aren't aware of all the steps we have to take."
All in the Family
Coby Archa, 42, and his family live in Tyler, Texas. He's appeared on several TV shows, including Survivor Palau. He adopted his children, Janu and Tyler, as a single parent, before meeting his partner two years ago.
Coby, his partner and their kids all live together. But another member of the family lives there too. Coby's mother.
“My mom has and always will be a huge part of my children's life," he says. “We have chosen to all live together. Two dads, two kids, a dog, a cat, and a grandma! I am lucky enough that this was an option for us."
Coby is also glad to have some feminine perspective.
“I know some gay men disagree that kids need a mom, but I think my mom bringing that strong female presence into our home is a huge benefit in my kids' life," he says. "She brings stability being a stay-at-home grandma that is priceless to my children's self esteem."
Not everyone enjoys unqualified support, of course.
John Warner, 38, and his husband, Matt, are raising John's two biological sons. While their relationship has seamlessly integrated parenthood – it's “been far easier than I would have imagined," John says – not everyone has welcomed their family.
“I have no relationship currently with my parents," John says. “I discovered along the way that my family structure was built upon walls, blind loyalty and secrets. My coming out blew my family up, and my parents have given up a relationship with me and our kids because they believe I have disrespected them."
Tara, the therapist, said such broken relationships were difficult to hear about. They're “another kind of rejection," she said.
But that's not to say John and Matt, who live in Berkley, Mich., are without support. John's extended family, as well as Matt's family, have reached out to them.
“I think meeting someone a little older with a career and kids has made it easier for his family to embrace us all," John says. “I am very grateful for all of them and only wish we could see them all more often. I'm adapting to his mom being my mom and his family being our family."
John has also found a perhaps unexpected source of family support: his ex-wife.
“I wanted to have kids that had the opportunity to be liberated, be themselves and be assets to the world," he says. “Their mom and I have always worked together to achieve that and I believe we have."
The two have joint custody and “are best of friends now," John says.
A Grandparent Speaks
Chris Schellhase, Zach's mother, is a cheerful, straightforward woman. She had just spent several days helping take care of her son's ailing children when she talked about her journey as a grandparent and mother.
She was worried, she says, when she heard that Zach and Trey wanted to adopt. Not because they were a same-sex couple, necessarily, but because they were attending school. She didn't know how they would handle being parents along with their everyday responsibilities.
“Are you sure?" she remembers asking. “Are you really sure? I know I couldn't have done it."
But the couple moved ahead with the adoption process, finding a supportive birth mother (who already knew Zach). Chris was with her son in the hospital when Noah arrived, some three years ago.
“Zach and I are very much alike, and we've always been close," Chris says. Being there for him during the adoption process made the relationship stronger; it intensified it.
And she's been impressed watching her grandson grow and mature. She says both Zach and Trey have been instrumental in raising a terrific little boy.
“Noah has fantastic manners," she says. “He will sit and talk to you like he's 16 years old."
Despite coming from a religious background, and despite struggling sometimes to understand her son's sexual orientation, Chris says she's learned a lot over the past few years. She hasn't just grown closer to her son, but she's learned about being a grandparent, too.
Noah has “just brought a whole new perspective," she says. “I wouldn't have expected it to be this much fun."
For decades, there was one popular narrative about gay male life. It went something like this: Gay child is raised in the country, gay teen moves to the big city, gay adult finds an optional partner and community, and gay elder fades into the sunset.
There was no mention of the gay child's parents unless they rejected him, and there was certainly no expectation that the gay adult would ever start a family.
Within the past decade, that narrative has been joined by other stories. Some gay men have forged new experiences. They have started families of their own, and they have maintained or repaired their relationships with their parents. The importance of that change, in terms of showing the possibilities of gay life, shouldn't be underestimated.
“The visibility component is huge," says Tara, the therapist.
And grandparents, with their extended networks of friends and family, can only add to that visibility.
+ Photo (at top) credit : Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0), Reading Time with Uncle Bob, Donnie Ray Jones