“It’s kind of a funny story …”
Kenny and Greg Estle-Scarle live together in Altus, Oklahoma, where they are raising their three boys, Michael, 7; Sam, 5; and Gage, 2. Altus, with a population of 20,000, and the home of a large Air Force base, isn’t exactly what you would call rural living. But Kenny and Greg know no other gay parents in town, or even that many gay people, “which helps it seem smaller,” Kenny told me when we spoke recently by phone.
The son of Air Force parents, Kenny is originally from Altus, “at least as much as a military brat can be from anywhere,” he quipped. Greg, meanwhile, grew up mostly in Lawton, Oklahoma, a slightly larger town of over 96,000 people, situated about 45 minutes away from Altus.
Before finding out what it’s like to live as quite possibly the only gays in the village, I wanted to get some of the basics out of the way first. How did the couple meet and start their family?
“Well, it’s kind of a funny story,” Kenny laughed ominously, indicating that the answer likely wouldn’t be so basic.
Kenny and Greg met while working together at a local television station, Kenny as an anchor and reporter, and Greg in advertising. Though both felt a connection to one another, there was just one tiny problem: Kenny was already married. To a woman. With whom he had adopted two boys, Michael and Sam.
“Obviously,” Kenny said, looking back, “it wasn’t working” and he soon separated from his wife. After the separation, Kenny and Greg reconnected, first just as friends, though the relationship quickly evolved. “At the time I wasn’t thinking in that way,” Kenny said, who had never been in a relationship with a man before Greg. “I was married to my wife! I was only thinking about my spouse. It was only when I separated from my wife that Greg and I got to talking, and…”
“I seduced him,” Greg said, cutting Kenny off.
“That’s right, he seduced me,” Kenny said, laughing. “No, he was just very friendly and inviting. I don’t even remember at a certain point I felt this closeness with him, and was drawn to him. And it felt right. Amazing. I couldn’t image not having this man in my life.”
Well that’s great, but how was this process for Kenny’s children?
“[Dating a man] was new to me,” Kenny admitted. “So I was a little bit … not, eh, hesitant,” Kenny said, stopping a moment to think of the right words. “Just … careful to introduce it into Michael and Sam’s lives,” he said eventually. “We took it slow. Greg became friendly with the kids and they loved him from the start.”
How did Kenny’s ex-wife take the news?
“Well, she came to our wedding!” Kenny said. “I think she’s really okay with it. We really do have a good relationship with her.” This became all the more obvious when Kenny explained how Gage, their youngest child, entered their lives.
“It’s complicated with youngest,” Kenny said, “but not in a bad way.” He elaborated: “My ex-wife found herself pregnant a couple of years ago, so she came to us and asked if she could give [Gage] my legal last name so all the boys could share the same name. She even asked if one of us wouldn’t mind being on the birth certificate as the father. Greg in particular felt that was very special, so we have him on the certificate as the legal father. And we now share custody of all three children with her, one week on, one week off. It’s working out wonderfully.”
Small Town, Oklahoma, Bible Belt
Okay, let’s backtrack just a moment to take stock of the context in which this rather unusual family history was unfolding: Greg and Kenny are the only gay parents they know of living in a town of 20,000, which is home to an Air Force base, in a socially conservative state. Must basically be like living in New Orleans during Southern Decadence, right?
“I know, you’re thinking: small town, Oklahoma, Bible Belt,” Kenny said. “You wouldn’t really think Altus would be that welcoming. But we’ve actually had a surprisingly welcoming reception from this military community.”
Both Greg and Kenny have extensive histories with the armed forces. Kenny, the son of Air Force parents, currently works on the Altus Air Force base. Greg’s military history, however, is a bit more complicated. After graduating from college and working several years, he was inspired to join the army at 25 years old after the September 11 attacks. While deployed in Iraq, however, he was discharged under the Clinton-era "Don’t Ask Don’t Tell" policy, which banned gay men and lesbians from serving openly in the military.
“Well,” he said simply, when I inquired how it happened. “I was asked! I was a soldier, one damn good at his job, but they just saw me as a gay man. A weak, gay man,” he said, elaborating briefly on the experience.
Today, in a sign of how much has changed since the time Greg served and was discharged under DADT, both Greg and Kenny feel the presence of the base helps moderate social views in Altus. In fact, they credit the military in large part for the warm reception they’ve received as gay dads in town. “These days [military families] can have a little bit broader world view,” Kenny explained. “Most of the families who live [in Altus] are military, and they’ve had DADT repeal training."
Kenny and Greg are also very active in their town, and maintain high profile jobs, attributes the couple feels have helped their family integrate into the broader community. “I’m the chief of civic outreach for public affairs for Altus Air Force base,” Kenny explained, who has also worked as a reporter and television anchor in the area. Greg, meanwhile, works as a cohost of a local radio show on KEYB.
Both Kenny and Greg spoke of moments where they’ve been surprised to see how open some of the people have been in their town. By way of example, Greg told a story of when he first went in for an interview at his current job:
“At one point during the interview [my boss] said, ‘Oh, you’re married; does your wife work on the base?’ I said, 'No, but my husband does.' She just had this look on her face; I was sure she wasn’t going to hire me. But the next day she hired me. Come to find out she has a grandson that’s a gay as well, and I remind her of him. And now, she loves Kenny and she loves our boys.”
Similarly, at the start of their son Michael’s first-grade year, Kenny and Greg went to speak to his teacher, who was new at the school. “I just didn’t know what to expect,” Kenny said. “I know a lot of people in town, but she was new, and from a different community.” After explaining that Michael came from a family with two dads, “there was definitely a beat,” Kenny said, which made him nervous. “But then she said, ‘I’m glad you shared that with me. You’ll have no problems with me, I’m supportive of any family raising their children as best they can.’”
“They may not be used to having a gay person around,” Greg said, summarizing their general experience being openly gay dads in Altus, “but I think people actually enjoy it.”
Greg and Kenny with their three sons
Make it Normal
Greg (left, in photo above) and Kenny are quick to stress the warm reception they’ve received in Altus, but it’s also clear they’ve worked hard at ingratiating themselves within their community. After I spoke with the couple for some time, it seemed their main strategy for doing so could be summed up in a motto: "Just make it normal."
“We don’t act like our family is different from anyone else’s,” Greg said. “So nobody else really does either. I have photos up at work just like any other family. We’re both in the public eye so much. When we go to events, we go together, as a family, and we never have any issues.”
“We set the tone,” Kenny agreed. “We try to make it seem like people shouldn’t look at gay couples and think they’re any different from an opposite sex couple. So we’re very active on social media. We post photos and everything that helps normalize the idea of our relationship. If you don’t want it to be a big deal, don’t make it a big deal!”
“Make it normal,” Greg agreed.
But how does this strategy work with the kids? As the only children of gay parents in town that they’re aware of, do the children ever have a hard time feeling “normal”?
“I don’t think the kids feel different,” Kenny said. “But sometimes it's pointed out to them at school. One boy in particular that went to school with Michael would tell him that Greg and I weren’t a real couple, and that Greg wasn’t really his father.”
“I feel like we do have some people that aren’t super comfortable with us and that gets translated through their kids,” Greg offered, after reflecting on this incident. “But mostly we just tell our kids to overlook it and just act like it’s not that big a deal.” And as a result, “[the kids] have never come to us and expressed any uncomfortable feelings about it.”
But Greg and Kenny are a bit more fearful for when their children are older. Partly as a result, they have plans to move to a larger community before their boys enter junior high school. “While the kids are younger,” Kenny said, “it’s a little less threatening.”
“But realistically, this is a small town,” Greg said, finishing Kenny’s thought. “We haven’t had any prejudice to our face, or even behind our backs that we know of. But we can’t guarantee that won’t happen. Teenagers are mean. I was teased when I was a kid for being gay and different. I don’t want them to go through the same thing. Though the truth is, no matter where we go, there’s always that possibility. But I’d rather our kids be around other children that understand.”
And that likely means a move to a larger city.
“I don’t feel like we’re lacking in any kind of community of parents,” Kenny said, further elaborating. "We have play dates with kids, we have friends. We are giving our kids everything they need, and we’re getting everything we need as parents. I guess it’s more of just a personal preference, it would be nice to have some gay families around.”
Living the Gay American Dream
Still, despite the challenges associated with living in a small town like Altus, Kenny and Greg have many more positive things to say about their community than they see challenges.
“We’re living the gay American dream!” Kenny said. “We’re in a small town with a picket fence. We go to town potlucks. We get to raise our kids in this really nice environment. And it’s really uplifting to know that it can happen right here, in Altus, Oklahoma.”
True enough. But if the couple was thinking of leaving themselves within the next few years, I was curious: would they recommend their town to another gay couple with kids?
There was silence on the other end of the phone for a moment as they thought my question through. “Well, I want to say, 'yes,'” Greg said eventually, “so that you’ll write that in your story and gay people will move here and we’ll have more of a community. But honestly, I’d say, 'Run!' Small towns kind of suck sometimes. We have a Walmart. That’s it! But if you’re okay with that, of course, Altus is a great community. It’s just a great place to live and raise kids.”
“I think our community is great,” Kenny said. “It’s growing, we have a lot of new businesses coming in, a lot happening. But I would be realistic and let a gay couple thinking of moving here know that this is still a very religious community and there are a lot of biases. But minds are becoming more malleable. The bottom line is: Altus, Oklahoma, is a place where gay couples can have a happy successful home.”