For the many gay dads who began their journeys into parenthood “the old-fashioned way,” the road to acceptance — by their exes, their children, even themselves — can be bumpy. On the 26th anniversary of National Coming Out Day we bring you three fathers whose stories reinforce the idea that while neither breakups nor parenting are easy, few things worth doing are.
Learning to let the phone ring on Sunday nights was something of a watershed moment for Mark, who at the time was navigating the tempest-tossed waters of a contentious divorce.
“We had irreconcilable differences,” says Mark Sprout, now 50, reflecting on a union 23 years in the rearview, though there wasn’t a single incident that set it off.
In hindsight, the IT professional — with a burgeoning career in life coaching — reckons the reason they couldn’t get along was rooted in the fact that he is gay. “Maybe deep inside of me I knew,” he says, “and that’s why we were in marriage counseling every year, always arguing.”
Mark notes that throughout his life, there were signs. He misread them.
“I got married because I was supposed to,” he says. “That’s just what we did.”
What they also did was have four children. At the time of the split, they were little: 5, 4, 3 and 6 months. Mark began to explore gay life relatively quickly thereafter, but it was a couple of years before his ex-wife, who by then had remarried, found out.
“I was experiencing my first long-term relationship,” he explains. After visiting for the weekend, the kids went home and told mom he and his friend had been lying on the floor together, watching TV.
She called and asked him point blank, “Are you gay?” He said yes.
Problems ensued. His children’s mother, who had become a practicing Mormon when she remarried, began to tell them that being gay was wrong.
At that point, Mark notes, the natural counselor inside him took over. “I had to develop a lot of patience, knowing the kids would come through it as long as I was consistent and loving.”
It’s a point that Evan, 43, would likely agree with. Seven years ago he told his wife of 13 years that he was gay. Despite his unhappiness in that relationship, coming out wasn’t an instant fairy tale, a divorce not that simple.
They had three children — an 11-year-old daughter and twin boys, then 9 — and he adored them. So when he left his home that very night at his distraught wife’s request, it was not an easy decision.
“Where was I going to tell them I went? Why did I leave without saying goodbye? What would they be thinking?” he wondered.
He spoke with his children by phone the next day and told a white lie; he was gone for work and would be back soon. He told his wife he wanted to come home, to tell their children the truth.
“I didn’t want them to think that they were in any way the reason why I left or that they were to blame for the breakup.”
He remembers it like it was yesterday — sitting in his home office, kids on the couch, he in a chair. “I told them how much I loved them and how important they were. I told them that I was gay and that mom and I were going to be separating. We were all crying. I just wanted them to understand that I was going to be just as much a part of their lives as I had been four days earlier.”
The months ahead were challenging, he says. But his constant presence in their lives helped them realize he was telling the truth. The marriage was ending. There would be drama and difficulty. But Daddy wasn’t going anywhere.
The YOLO (you only live once) concept, trite as it seems in a tweetable acronym, is real. More so, some might opine, for men who have already spent years living lives they weren’t meant for. Jon, 54, says that idea goes double for kids; parents should be hyperaware.
“These kids have only one go at being children,” he says. He speaks with the warm, even demeanor of a pastor, which in fact he is. “It will be over in a snap …. Kids in these situations deserve better than [parent-to-parent] negativity. Despite who or what their parents are, children have such a powerful need to love and be loved by their parents. To undermine that is obscene.”
Jon had single fatherhood thrust upon him following a breakup that began with his wife’s severe postpartum depression.
“She addressed that by running off and colliding with another man who was also going through a depression. They were like magnets being drawn to each other.”
Interestingly, his sexuality wasn’t a factor. Both he and his wife — who married young — had confessed attraction to and feelings for members of both genders, “but I think the suddenness of our separation triggered a post-traumatic stress disorder-like situation when I later tried to date women …. Fortunately, with my unusual wiring, I had the option of a whole new dimension in being attracted to men.”
Not that it happened for quite some time. He was fending for himself with a son and a daughter, both very small at the time.
He chuckles softly, “I would say in the first six years of single parenting, there was no social life to be had. I was just exhausted. Being gay was a nonissue.”
That changed as the children grew. “Fifteen or 20 years ago, it was a different scene — especially in the church. I felt as though I had to be a ‘super dad’ to maintain custody of the kids, and because of my work and that culture, I couldn’t fully be myself.”
His kids, however, have more or less known all along.
“My daughter is especially intuitive,” he notes, recalling an evening he was saying goodbye to Roger, his then long-distance significant other. “And at one point she told me, ‘I knew who you were talking to, because you laugh differently when you’re on the phone with him.’”
There was a brief time, in fact, when she was jealous of the special new relationship in his life. Jon says it’s the parents’ duty to ensure that their children feel loved above all.
“‘No one will replace the kind of love I have for you and your brother,’ I told her. ‘Roger is the most important adult relationship in my life, but you’re my children and nothing is more powerful than that.’”
Evan’s road was fraught with a bit more contentiousness. Losing control over his life, he says, put his ex in a bit of a tailspin. “She wasn’t very nice to me; she would yell at me in front of the kids using inappropriate language. It was bad.”
He went to counseling for about a year after the breakup and found it very helpful.
Jon, for whom single parenting was an isolating experience at times, says it’s important not to go through it all alone. And Mark, now a grandfather, whose burgeoning Outward Truth practice specializes in helping gay men who have children from a heterosexual relationship live an authentic life, would likely nod to that nugget of wisdom, along with the principle of waiting.
“Early on, when I dropped the kids off at their mom’s on Sunday nights, she’d inevitably call me two hours later.” It was never to say thanks.
“I learned to just let it ring. There’s no reason to get so worked up, angry or afraid in the immediate.” With a 180-degree strategy on the idea of not writing a letter while angry, Mark would call back Monday evening.
“By then, everything was just fine.”
Some of the best advice Jon got during the toughest part of his transition was about his own behavior. “Try to do today what will make you proud of yourself 10 years from now,” he says, noting that could mean the courage to speak out or the restraint you practice.
It’s also of merit, he points out, to remember that while this new life, this genuine you, is important, it’s a parent’s job to be a parent first.
“In the early days following a separation, children are going through a trauma. In their picture of life, the way their family is supposed to be has been shattered.” They will look for reasons why it happened.
“If there’s something that has a label — ‘your dad is gay’ — all the anger can seem focused on that when it’s really about the brokenness that they’ve experienced.” And believe it or not, there is a positive spin to be found.
“I would want you, as my child, to be genuinely and authentically who you are,” Jon says, modeling a tack a dad might take. “And the best way for me to see that happen for you is to model that myself. And while I can’t expect you to fully understand that right now, I hope one day you will.”
Evan, whose kids (now 18 and 16) met then-beau Darrell back in 2008, will be standing by their sides at the end of the month — along with a host of family and friends — as the pair say their wedding vows on the beach.
He feels very lucky to have “wonderful kids, a loving family and the most amazing husband-to-be.” He advises men taking their first wobbly steps on the road he’s walked the past seven years to persevere.
“It may seem like things are a mess, but be confident that you’re doing the right thing and that you deserve happiness. Stay strong — and be an amazing dad."