A few months back, I was at an awards dinner honoring Lee Daniels, the creative mind behind Empire (and a gay dad). Two of his stars, Jussie Smollett and Taraji P. Henson, presented the honor and gushed about Daniels’ influence on their lives. But Smollett, who had recently come out, was the most poignant. “I now know what it means to have an amazing, gay father,” he said, citing the director as his role model. "He's made me more of a truthful man.”
As gay men raising children, the majority of us have found our father figures where we can. The people who teach us how to be good, caring people so we can teach our own children. I of course give credit to my own dad, who passed away in 2000, but there is something singular about being a gay man. Some of us need an Obi-Wan to help us through.
My late friend Barton Lidice Benes used to joke that he put me through finishing school. I was 21 when we met, new to New York and completely overwhelmed by meeting so many people like me. He was 54, the same age as my dad when he passed. Barton was a successful artist who’d lived a magical life. He was out cruising the night of Stonewall, but didn’t join the riot because he was too busy hooking up. He was introduced to Nancy “Just say no” Reagan at a party, coke still on his nostrils from the line he’d just done with her gay friend in the bathroom. And he’d met just about everyone a hayseed like me could think of.
Most of all, he was kind and good, and modeled the type of man I wanted to be. He taught me to go after what I want, and yes, he was surprised that what I wanted most of all was a family. His generation, ravaged by societal hate and AIDS, just didn’t see that as a possibility. This man, who’d done every wild thing imaginable, thought I was crazy.
It is a little crazy. It’s crazy to think that here we are, dads. After so many of us grew up not sure we would even get to adulthood, let alone find love or create a family. How many of us had a model for what was possible? We had to forge our own paths to parenthood and keep going no matter how insane the wish seemed.
Even when I had my first son in 2011, Barton still didn’t believe it was really happening. “He’s really gone cuckoo with this baby thing,” he told a mutual friend. And then he met and held my Keith. “This is like taking a Valium,” he said, gazing into Keith’s eyes. And then, “Can I be your Grandpa?”
He already was, of course.
They shared a special bond, but by the time Keith was born, Barton was already ill, swollen from medicine and in his last year of life after fighting lung disease for many years. We brought Keith to the hospital on Christmas Day 2011 to visit Grandpa. The following May, when Barton knew his time was up, he told me his one regret: “I wanted to see Keith grow up. I wanted to see what he was gonna do.” After all, he was finished raising me.