“When you finish your third marketing book, you need to start writing the other book.”
“What other book?”
“You know, the other book about fatherhood. You have a story that needs to be told.”
“I don’t know if I’m up for that.”
“It’ll help people.”
That’s when I became interested. My friend Gwen has been hounding, harassing, and hassling me to write a book about fatherhood and what it was like to raise my kids.
I was reluctant to say the least. There are parts of my story that are hard to believe, and parts that many may not like, to tell you the truth.
“Why would anyone care? I’m not a celebrity. I did nothing magical. I took care of two kids, that’s all.”
“That’s the point. It’ll help people.”
Maybe my friend Gwen is right.
Mine is an unconventional tale: a story of a once determined young man set to build a traditional life shaped by societal expectations. When the unrealistic demands forced my world to come crashing down, I was confronted with who I really am and what I really want out of life.
I knew I had to make a change, no matter how difficult and no matter how scrutinized. I knew that I could manage the consequences if it meant finding happiness.
Seemingly overnight, I became a single gay dad (SGD) at a time when there were no role models, no hashtags. This was the mid nineties after all, before Ellen came out, before Will met Grace, and before “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” put gay into vogue; in fact, Madonna was singing “Vogue."
I went through the entire process of coming out, staying quiet about it for fear of ruining my career, dating men for the first time (yikes!), and taking care of two kids under five years old. I was exhausted, stressed, and weighed about 155 pounds soaking wet.
But I kept my head down and I plowed ahead with my life. I got the kids ready in the morning, went to work all day, and took care of the kids at night. I did what I had to do.
Thankfully, I eventually found the love of my life and we’ve been together for over 16 years now. Through the years we faced great criticism, judgment and, yes discrimination. It’s an odd feeling to go from being completely socially acceptable one day to relentlessly judged, overnight.
The kids are young adults now, pursing their own paths, and I take great pride and joy in watching and participating in their success. They are now facing their own struggles, just like I faced mine, although at very different times and very different situations.
Which is why I realized that I should share my story, just like my friend Gwen so persistently encouraged me to do. We all should share our story, because I’ve now realized that it helps us all.
Sharing breaks down walls and opens up acceptance. Sharing brings understanding and changes perceptions. Sharing brings us all together, no matter where we come from.
So I’m sharing my story of an "Out & About Dad.” I hope it helps people face their own struggles. I hope it shows that men are great caregivers. I hope it inspires parents of all shapes, sizes, and flavors to be the best they can be, no matter their situation. (Editor's Note: Read the Gays With Kids' interview with Jim Joseph to learn even more about the back-story behind his book.)
I hope you share your story, just like I’m sharing mine.
Reprinted below is an excerpt from “Out & About Dad”:
CHAPTER 7: My First
It’s a feeling I can’t really describe.
One day you’re in the majority, an adult white male. And then the next day you’re a minority, an adult gay male and people have a problem with who you are.
It’s a feeling I can’t really describe.
I was prepared for it, feared it for months, and was ready for it when it hit me the first time. But it’s a feeling that prevents or delays many people from coming out, me included.
The problem for me was that the prejudice didn’t just start when I came out; it was there while I was married too. I guess being an active father was a bit foreign to people at the time.
Dad wasn’t supposed to be so attentive – that was mom’s job. Dads were there to videotape the fun times, not to actively organize them. Certainly not shop for them or clean up after them.
Long before I got divorced, I was having dinner at Olive Garden with the kids one night, who were making a bit of a fuss at the time…making a big mess and being kind of loud. But it was Olive Garden, “When you’re here you’re family.” I didn’t make much of it, given the surroundings.
I was doing my best to keep them in control, although admittedly it wasn’t a shining moment for Dad.
There was a table of women sitting next to us, who apparently didn’t appreciate the “show.” I don’t necessarily blame them, but hey, it’s the Olive Garden, not a five star restaurant by any means.
They appeared to be a group of moms, on what we would now call a “girls’ night out,” but I can’t be sure.
One of them said something to me that I didn’t catch (my son was making a lot of noise), so I asked her to repeat it. Big mistake.
She repeated it much more loudly, “If their mom was with you, this wouldn’t be happening. Where is the mom?”
What? “The mom?”
I decided to ignore it, because I didn’t like the implication that fathers couldn’t handle their kids. I guess she didn’t think I could hear her, so she repeated it again, and this time the kids heard her.
The kids stopped and stared at me too, probably wondering why this woman was asking about their mom.
I stared her straight in the eyes. I leaned over so that the kids couldn’t hear and loudly whispered, “She’s dead.” I said it just to shut her up and to embarrass all of them.
They didn’t say another word the rest of the night.
It was my first confrontation with prejudice, but certainly not the last.
It wasn’t easy being a dad. It’s not easy for anyone actively involved in their children’s lives. I’d be at school events or other activities with the kids, and I mostly stood by myself. I kept to myself most of time. Not just because I was gay but also because I was often the only father there. The mothers were in their cliques and I was alone.
Women weren’t exactly on my side because they didn’t have husbands like me. Husbands weren’t at all on my side because they couldn’t relate to me and they probably didn’t like the message I was sending to their wives.
People didn’t know where to place me, and I was a threat to their norms in many cases. Even when they didn’t know that I was gay.
There were no role models in pop culture, I can tell you that. I felt like a first.
Advertisers just loved to portray men as bumbly-fumbly fools when it came to cooking, cleaning, or taking care of the kids. Brands loved to honor the mom as the ultimate caregiver, leaving the dad in the living room, sitting in his favorite chair, reading the paper and watching television.
I was personally involved in making a lot of this advertising, so I knew firsthand. And there were very few active fathers depicted in entertainment; Kramer vs. Kramer was as much an anomaly as I was.
I can remember many photo shoots where we had to show the man with a wedding ring on his finger. Here I was a single gay father...yes, I felt the prejudice. Yet in a disturbing way, I was professionally contributing to it. But I couldn’t stop it or say a word.
School and friends were one thing, but I also worried about losing clients. I anticipated that they’d be prejudiced against me once they heard I was gay. I was worried that their perceptions of me would flip on a dime once they found out about me.
Remember, this was the Ellen era. Advertisers were dropping her show left and right, including my biggest clients. It’s hard to imagine now, but I remember it like it was yesterday. I remember the feeling of prejudice in the air whenever it came up at work.
I had been in many a conference room where there was gay bashing, with the “basher” not knowing who was sitting in the room.
As an agency person and “vendor” at the time, I sat there quietly because I was afraid to defend anything or anyone. I’m a bit embarrassed about that now.
I remember a guy I wanted to hire once who almost got blocked by senior management because he “seemed gay.” So naturally I believed the same prejudice would be thrown on me too, once they found out that I was gay.
Oh, those poor kids.
Years later, an old colleague asked me to help with an LGBT task force at Johnson & Johnson, to which I gladly agreed. Times eventually started to change, and I was happy to see the progress and to be a part of it.
This was after I developed the very first print ad for Tylenol targeting gay men in 2003. It was a first for the brand, but Tylenol was also the first over-the counter (OTC) healthcare product to show its “pride.” It was a first for me too.
I was so honored to have ownership of it. The ad, timed for Gay Pride Weekend in New York City, got a lot of press at the time, where I was described as not only the creator but as “openly gay.”
“Openly gay”…definitely a first. Sounds so dated now.
With that Tylenol ad, I was out publicly for all my clients to know. It’s just not easy coming out. It’s still not easy. I still meet people who are fearful of coming out. I had to accept whatever would come with that “openly gay” label, despite the “don’t ask, don’t tell” environment we were living in. I know now, especially living in New York City, that this all seems so stupid and irrelevant. At the time, it was quite real, I’m sad to say.
There were a few folks where I did find solace: the very rare but amazing stay-at-home dad.
There were only a few back then, compared to now when it is much more common to see dad at home with their kids while mom is out working. At the time some of the dads still worked, but they held more flexible jobs so that they could take care of the kids. Others were full time homemakers in the traditional sense of the word, except that they were men.
I easily bonded with these guys, and they didn’t seem to care that I was gay, if they even knew. They embraced me because I was a full time dad too, even took me out for coffee to chat a few times.
They’d help me pick up the kids when schedules were tough, and I did the same for them. It was nice. While they never said it out loud these few guys respected me as a father, gay or not.
These stay-at-home dads “got” me, and I got them. We were all definitively in the minority, so I think we connected around it.
Active fatherhood is much more common now, if not the norm.
In my time, there just weren’t many fathers like me active in their kids’ school, and there were no “out” gay people like me at all. If they were around, they were invisible. I was alone.
If I had been a single mom, the scenario would have been quite different.
Women’s support networks were quite extensive and quite frankly they flaunted it.
#SGD? No such luck.
It really didn’t matter in the end, though…I got through it. I just looked for support in other places…
…to be continued…
P.S. #SGD stands for Single Gay Dad, hashtag and all.