It was the baby photo seen round the world.
On June 27, dads BJ Barone and Frank Nelson welcomed their baby son Milo into the world. It was a magical moment they shared with an intimate few in a Kingston, Ontario hospital room: with surrogate mom Kathy, of course, with caregivers, and with birth photographer Lindsay Foster.
But it was a few days later, when Foster received permission from the dads to upload some of the photos to her Facebook account, when the real sharing began. Foster's post spread like wildfire across the social media website: nearly 10K shares of her original update alone, plus countless reposts branching off from that. It was picked up by web behemoth BuzzFeed, which offered the headline “These Photos of Two Dads Meeting Their New Baby Will Make You Cry Happy Tears." (About 1.9 million views so far.) Twitter was flooded with the images of Frank and BJ, their faces overcome with emotion as they embraced each other and Milo. Local news stations came calling to interview the dads. Their story had gone viral, giving millions of viewers a glimpse of raw, honest emotion that is not often show by mass media: two dads in love, and in love with their son.
Many millions, it seems, wanted to share in the joy of that moment. Which was, in a way, revolutionary.
“It's incredible that just sharing who we are as a family has resonated with so many people," says BJ. It's not lost on the couple that Milo's birth – and the resultant social media splash – coincided with World Pride 2014 in Toronto, where they both work as teachers. Pride's theme, poignantly enough, was “Rise Up": a call for LGBT visibility.
“That it coincided with World Pride is a special factor," says BJ. “We're standing up for ourselves and saying, 'This is normal.'" He recalls a special note that he and Frank shared with viewers on Foster's Facebook: “This picture represents everything Pride is about. Love has no colour nor gender nor sexual preference. Love is unconditional."
And they've certainly been feeling the love from strangers in cyber-space who have taken it upon themselves to comment on the photos or reach out directly. For the most part, the response has been hugely positive, says the couple – especially from younger generations, where same-sex headed families are increasingly seen as simply part of the cultural fabric. “I've received private messages from some of my students, and those have been the most special to me," says Frank. It is heartening, he says, to feel that tides of love and acceptance have turned so dramatically. “It makes me so hopeful that one day our son and others his age will look at this photo and wonder what all the hoopla was."
“I got one message from this guy in the States, saying, 'I'm a redneck opposed to same-sex marriage, but this really opened and changed my heart.' That one made me cry," adds BJ.
It's not only strangers who have reached out with more open arms. The photos have also opened doors to dialogue with some members of BJ's family in Italy, with whom his sexuality has been an issue. (Oh yeah, their story made the Italian newspapers too.) “My Italian family comes from a small town, and I've received messages from them before that what I do is wrong, that I should be ashamed of myself. Asking me how I could do this to my parents. But I just got a message from my cousin the other day; he wrote saying, 'Congratulations, the baby's beautiful. Hopefully you can come together to Italy.'"
“Sometimes people are just afraid of the unknown. They're afraid of how people will react," continues BJ. “Having this opportunity has allowed my family to see that we're in stable relationship and receiving love and support from around the world. It's opened their eyes: if so many strangers can accept this, why wouldn't they?"
The couple admits that there has been some backlash. There are still the few who choose to leave hurtful and ignorant comments on even the most joy-filled photos. But those have been in the minority, they say, and much of the negative reaction has focused on a specific element: that the dads are shirtless in the photos. “When the midwife told us we were going to be shirtless, I was like, 'What?'" laughs Frank. They were encouraged to doff their shirts to establish skin-to-skin contact with Milo; many baby experts recommend it to release oxytocin, often referred to as the “attachment chemical." Of course, if a mother had brought the child to her breast, it's hard to imagine there would be much outcry. That so many were fixated on the shirtless element shows that there's a long way to go to educating people about the experiences of dads, gay and straight, in the delivery room. “Once you explain it," says Frank, “it seems completely natural."
And now the dads are adjusting to the other natural new aspects of life: from feeding times to sleeping schedules. The media hubbub will soon die down, though they're considering starting a baby blog to update Milo's new worldwide fans. And maybe one day, they'll grow their family again; they have embryos frozen for five more years, and haven't ruled out returning to the delivery room.
But right now they're enjoying the bliss of life with baby. One they didn't always know they would have.
“When I came out to my dad, he said what upset him the most was that I would never get to enjoy being a father," recalls Frank. “Now, my parents have been so touched seeing the journey that we went through to get here."
“I knew I was gay ever since I was a little kid, and I never thought I would find love, be married, or have kids. I thought I'd be alone or unhappy for the rest of my life," remembers BJ. His voice breaks. “And now here I am. I have Frank. I'm a father."
And the whole world is watching, loving them, hitting the share button.