As a young California teenager, Scott Dukes knew his purpose in life. “I always knew I'd be a dad, I've always wanted to be a dad, I've always loved kids." Little did Scott know the twists, turns, and life's extraordinary ups and downs that lay waiting for him.
Born in Santa Clara and growing up in the Bay Area, Scott didn't realize he was gay for quite some time. When he transferred to Hawaii to continue the pursuit of a career in secondary education, he started to realize that he might not fit into the typical mold of a straight man. In 1997, when marriage equality was but a speck on a distant horizon, he came out for the first time, and then told his family in January of 1998, the promise of a new year emboldening the conversation.
And so life continued, happily, until January of 2012, when a string of health problems appeared on the radar. Scott was concerned, feeling constant fatigue. After several appointments with doctors, the diagnosis came back.
Scott was HIV positive.
For Scott, in those moments after the diagnosis, reality seemed to stop. He was in disbelief, terrified. Family and friends who had wanted to keep abreast of his wellbeing prior to his diagnosis Scott kept in the dark; he wanted to insulate himself at all costs, and the judgment of friends and family would have crippled him. Subsequently, Scott has been selective about disclosing his status to friends and family. The story you are reading in this moment is, for many in Scott's life, the first time they'll learn of his HIV status. But in those moments, his only option was silence.
After taking some time to evaluate his situation, Scott returned to his life with a new purpose: to become the father he was meant to be.
With the full support of his friends and family, Scott embarked upon a frenzied journey of researching his options, from sperm washing to adoption to surrogacy. As with so many parents, Scott's choices were informed by cost. With existing relationships in the foster program, Scott decided that he should pursue foster care as a viable option to fatherhood.
Because of his friendship with a gentleman named Manny, who worked for the foster agency, Scott felt comfortable working through Sierra Forever Families. Scott's close friend Heather sealed the deal for him when she said simply, “Every day you spend thinking about whether or not to be a dad is another day your child sits there waiting for you."
Through these connections, Scott became licensed for adoption and foster care. In meetings with social workers, Scott would sort through binders and binders of available children; the agency expressed frustration that he couldn't choose a specific child.
And that's when he was asked a question that would change his life forever.
“If you came home from work, and your son said he wanted to go to the mall wearing high heels, what would you say?"
Scott paused to consider his answer. The answer he'd give now would be “Well sure, but you're not gonna complain about how much your feet hurt when we get home." But instead, he responded appropriately nonetheless, assuaging the agency's concerns about placement of a young boy into his care. He told the agency that he would be completely open to allowing a child to express him or herself in whatever way was most comfortable for the child. That's when Scott found out that this wasn't a hypothetical placement. This was a real life question, with a possible placement attached.
At that time in his region in California, Scott became the only gay single dad to have a child placed in his care, and only the third in California history. Scott agreed to the placement on 12/12/12.
Scott reflects on that day, “12/12/12 was a day when crazy people thought the world was going to end. And for me it did. The life of Scott who came before? It ended on that day, the day I became a dad."
Scott's child, born a boy, moved in on Christmas Eve. The child was the greatest gift Scott said he's ever received. Scott's child was fine to be called by his male name at first, but there appeared to be a fluidity between genders. Scott remembers the moment that changed.
“I saw a notebook with the name 'Erica' on it, and thought to myself, 'Boy, this school is cheap, to give you a used notebook,' until I asked my child about it."
“That's me, Dad. I'm Erica."
Scott supported his child's transition fully. When the adoption was finalized in April 2014, Scott's child took the name Erica, and it was official; father and daughter inseparably unified, a family born.
Erica does want to complete gender reassignment surgery, but Scott understands his role as a father. “I've got to pump the brakes a bit and make sure she's got all the information necessary. Erica appreciates and values truth, honesty, and candor. She's on hormone therapy now, and when she's able to make the decision for herself on having her surgery, I'll support her 150,000 percent."
Remembering and living all too vividly a world of stigma and rejection, Scott is surprised and overwhelmed by the level of support his daughter receives at school, where being transgender isn't seen as anything out of the ordinary. Kids think Erica is cool, and can't fathom an identity other than Erica's true self, that of a girl making her way through the world. Scott hopes that Erica's story will continue to inspire the acceptance and welcoming of transgender boys and girls everywhere.
Scott wants people to know, “I'm the guy next door. My life was completely uprooted and flipped around and it could happen to anyone at anytime, in one way or another, so it's important to do the things on your bucket list before you can't do them. It's important to keep your finger on the pulse of why you're here, and what you want to do before you leave this world. Our family believes in respect, and we believe in each other's dreams, whether you want to be an astronaut or a doctor, we'll be here for you when you fail and when you succeed. Sometimes you have to start at square one to move forward."
But in the same way that Erica is being supported in her growth, her journey through life, by her dad, so too is Scott growing and evolving, spurred on by his daughter. Erica is helping Scott's family realize that Scott is a good father, and can shoulder not just the responsibilities in his own life, but can successfully navigate the world of fatherhood, one day at a time. And while he'd love to expand their family again, Erica is happy not sharing her dad with anyone else for the time being.
And so it's through their family relationship – father and daughter – that not just a child but also a man are made better, more whole, through their union. In talking with Scott about his family, I was left speechless when I heard something that Scott tells Erica about his role as a dad. Not only is it an inspirational line for a father to say to his child, it's also the ultimate reflection of the ways in which fatherhood helps us all realize our own potential, to be our best selves, growing through giving.
“I want to help you become the person you are supposed to be."
I couldn't say it better myself, Scott
Adoption finalization at the Sacramento County Court in April 2014; Erica and Scott are surrounded by Erica's “posse," her incredibly dedicated group of adoption and foster care workers: Adele of Destination Family (DF) ; Sherrie, a Sacramento County CASA worker; Sara of DF; Erica and her dad Scott; Manny of DF; Bonnie of DF; Garrett of Sierra Forever Family; and Sandy of DF.
Cover photo credit (Erica and Scott on the beach): Rebecca Walker