TOP - Dad Life

Two Real-Life Superheroes: Frankie and Kelly

Academic duties aside, the college years are not necessarily a time of great responsibility. Between spring breaks and frat parties, they're basically adolescence with a beer budget. But when Frankie Presslaff was still an undergraduate, he found himself undertaking the greatest responsibility of all, fatherhood, under the most intimidating of circumstances: He wanted to adopt, and rescue, young brothers being raised in a deplorable drug den. And he fought tooth and nail against skeptical, discriminatory state agencies to do it.

Many years and eight adopted children later, it's clear as can be that being a caretaker is in Frankie's DNA. And he and his husband have since built a family founded on the principle that compassion is a human responsibility.

That's a lesson he learned from his own parents.

Frankie as a camp counselor in Ohio in 1988

“My mom had a giant heart," says Frankie. “There was always food on the table for anyone who needed it. My family was always taking care of the underdog." Sometimes literally: Frankie grew up on a farm on the fringes of Bloomington, Indiana, a progressive bubble in the midst of Hoosier country. He spent his childhood helping to raise animals, from the countless stray dogs his mother welcomed to their home, to the horses, pigs and other livestock he tended and introduced to other neighborhood kids through a 4H-style “mini camp." This being the '70s, a “hippie commune" eventually sprung up down the street from the farm, says Frankie, and his mother even became “Mama Earth" to the flower children, inviting them in for a bite or warm shower.

“It was a very colorful life," laughs Frankie. Being liberal outliers in the more conservative Midwest also had its perks when he came out as gay. His New York native mother was high school classmates with Harvey Milk and remembered him fondly; on her deathbed in 2008, with the movie “Milk" in theaters, she pulled money from her purse and demanded her son get himself to the nearest cinema. “He made a big impact on her," says Frankie. “Toward the end she spent a lot of time talking about it."

Kelly, 1993

But in college, Frankie got a front row seat to see the flip side of his charmed, open-minded early years. While volunteering at a homeless shelter in 1989, he found himself growing attached to a trio of grade school-aged brothers — hardly moppets, but rather a ragtag crew of ill-behaved kids that seemed “straight out of 'The Jungle Book,'" chuckles Frankie. When they disappeared from the shelter with their dysfunctional, drug-addicted mother, Frankie managed to track them down “living in a crack house." “I asked their mother, 'What can I do to help?'" he recalls. “She said, 'Take my kids.'"

And so he did, in rotations to start. Barely in his twenties, Frankie began stealing away the boys, one at a time, to buy them haircuts and clean clothes. They'd stay at the house he shared with college roommates, and accompany him to class like little brothers being babysat. When one of the boys needed skin grafts for burns he got playing with gasoline while his mom was passed out cold, Frankie was the one who brought him back and forth to doctor's appointments. By the time he rescued one of the boys, covered “knee to chin" in bruises, from the mother's latest cockroach-infested tenement, Frankie knew he needed to find a way to make their relationship permanent.

“I buckled them in my car, called my mother and said, 'I don't know what to do, but I'm basically kidnapping these kids,'" says Frankie. His mother, always the caretaker, offered a simple instruction.

“Bring them here."

Dylan and Devin, New York, 1989

So he did, where the family lawyer was already waiting in the middle of the night. While the eldest boy would eventually go live with a responsible uncle, Frankie was prepared to hatch a plan to formally adopt the younger two boys, Devin and Dylan who were 7 and 4 at the time. It was a daunting idea for a single college-aged guy to entertain, but Frankie couldn't imagine sending the boys to live with someone else when they had finally forged a bond with a reliable caretaker in him. Still, it quickly became clear his benevolence would be met with resistance. As he began to meet with reps from state agencies, he noticed a critical tone being levied in his direction. The subtext was “Why does a young guy want these kids?" says Frankie. “They basically started accusing me of being a pedophile." They even criticized Frankie's suggestion that he would raise them Jewish and “deny them their Christian upbringing," scoffs Frankie. (As if keeping kids in a crack den was fine Christian childrearing.)

A team of psychiatrists descended to speak to the Devin and Dylan, and Frankie and his mother were subpoenaed to answer questions that felt accusatory and invasive, about everything from sleeping arrangements and bath time to Frankie's sexual proclivities. “There was nothing substantiating that the kids were in danger," says Frankie. “I think they just assumed I was gay and made judgments from that. Meanwhile at this point I had dropped out of school and spent thousands of dollars to take care of these kids. It was probably the most stressful time of my life. I never slept." He was terrified not just by the implications of misconduct being made, but by the prospect that the young brothers would be forever separated if he lost his bid to adopt.

Frankie holding 2-month-old Gaby with Bailey at his feet and Kelly on the right, December 2003

After a long, protracted battle, Frankie was able to get the witch hunt called off, the kids placed in his custody — and some generous financial aid from the state to help care for them.

He was officially a dad — after a long, painful labor. “There was one moment during that whole awful process I'll never forget," says Frankie. “I walked in to the house and saw the kids' stuff scattered everywhere. It like every molecule around me froze: like an out-of-body experience. I knew that was the feeling of love a parent has at the birth of their child, that feeling of overwhelming responsibility that everything in your life is about caring for your children."

As any single parent knows, that foremost commitment to children can make dating quite a drag. However, through a personal ad, Frankie met Kelly, a strapping college boy from one of freewheeling Bloomington's more conservative suburbs. “We just clicked," recalls Kelly, who is the calm, measured and laconic yin to Frankie's high-energy, spontaneous and loquacious yang. When they met, Kelly was even younger than Frankie: just 21 years old. Yet their chemistry was so immediate, the then-university student says he didn't flinch at walking into a relationship with a young father.

Devin holding 2-year-old Tanner, 2003

“I didn't find out until a few dates in," says Kelly. “But I honestly didn't care. I understood, especially at the beginning, that the kids were his first responsibility and I was second." After a few months of dating, as they were preparing to move in, the kids learned the nature of the relationship and “reacted really well" to the introduction of their new co-parent, says Kelly.

They also had to go through the process of outing Kelly within his family — which, aided by an impromptu mom-to-mom talk from Frankie's progressive mother, wasn't terribly painful. In fact, Kelly's dad, a successful Indiana builder, even surprised them with a house based on plans they drew up thinking they were helping him plan a model home.

A model home is exactly what Frankie and Kelly wound up providing to a growing family. Where Frankie once fought against the odds to become a father, he and Kelly soon found themselves the successful darlings of the local system. The county kept coming their way with adoption opportunities for kids who came from abusive, neglectful or otherwise far less fortunate homes. And with Devin and Dylan now old enough to head out on their own, the couple found themselves debating between becoming early empty nesters and bringing some new blood into their brood. “It had become so quiet around the house," says Kelly.

All the kids with Frankie's mom in the middle, 2007

The couple agreed to adopt nine-year old Nathan (now 23) who came from a background of neglect. After Nathan came Bailey who was four at the time(now 17). Soon officials came calling again: Would they take three more kids, who needed to be removed from a foster home? They agreed, and Travis, Alicia the lone daughter and Tanner who were 6, 18 months and three months (now 19, 15 and 13, respectively) joined the mix. When Bailey's bio-mom gave birth to Gabriel, now 12, they took him in too at two days old. In rapid succession and within just one year, their home exploded from an empty nest into a very, very full house.

It was not easy, of course, but in most ways, says Kelly, growing the family fast was actually easier than if they had adopted every few years, and had to constantly deal with readjusting dynamics among the preexisting kids. “It was stressful, but at the same time there was so much going on that you didn't even have time to think about it," says Kelly. “And though they're all different ages, because they came to us around the same time they really all grew up together."

2013: Collecting their marriage license. From left to right: Kelly, Travis, Tanner, Gaby, Devin, Alicia, Bailey and Frankie

At this point, though, the couple had reached their limit. They were approached to adopt three more children, all of whom were born with fetal alcohol syndrome. It was impossible to imagine offering that much attention while caring for the existing kids, says Kelly.

“Frankie always told me, 'Never say never,'" chuckles Kelly. “At that point, I said, 'I'm saying never.'"

There's something to be said for quitting while you're ahead. Today Frankie, a life coach,(health/wellness and LGBT support are just a couple of his specialties) and Kelly, an administrator at a local university, have a life full of love, laughter, supportive families and a strong social circle in their community. Life is a constant exercise in “organized chaos," laughs Frankie, but they've managed to make their crew into the kind of loving forever-family Frankie always dreamed he'd build when he was just a nice Jewish gay boy growing up on a Midwestern farm.

Kelly (left) and Frankie's wedding ceremony, November 4, 2013

They've made it work by balancing each other's strengths. Frankie is the soft nurturer, Kelly the rules enforcer; Kelly keeps the trains running on time, and Frankie reminds everyone to relax and enjoy the ride. It's a dynamic that works splendidly, and keeps their own relationship running well even amid all the stress of parenting a small army. “The key is to make plenty of alone time," says Kelly, when asked the secret to keeping their relationship strong. “You have to carve out time for yourself."

“And, if I'm being honest, have plenty of sex," he advises with a laugh.

Kelly and Frankie

Now the twosome is able to see their family grow even further. Devin and his wife recently had a baby daughter, making Frankie and Kelly young granddads. And it only underscored that certain caretaking instincts are as sharply honed as ever.

“I knew when I saw my granddaughter for the first time, I was going to be in love," says Frankie. “But I didn't know when I get in the car to drive back, I would feel like I was abandoning another child!" He laughs.

Old habits die hard — and sometimes, if you're lucky, not at all.






Alicia with (Frankie and Kelly's granddaughter) Maya



Show Comments ()
TOP - Dad Life

Famous Gay Dads and Their Kids!

From Neil Patrick Harris to Ryan Murphy, more famous gay men are having kids.

As more celebrities and public figures come out, and more gay men decide to start a family, we can expect celebrity gay dads to become more common.

Keep reading... Show less

Rob Chasteen-Scheer overcame years of abuse and homelessness to become a father to four at-risk children. He is the founder of “Comfort Cases," a non-profit organization that provides backpacks with essentials to tens of thousands of foster kids. This past year, he has received much-deserved recognition for the charity's invaluable work: In March, Rob was honored at the Family Equality Council Impact Awards in Los Angeles, California. In August, he and Comfort Cases were featured in People; a few days ago, Rob was a guest on NBC's “Today." This article represents the first time Rob is sharing his own personal story in such a public way.

Keep reading... Show less

Five years ago, when Robert Shutts (see photo above, top right) arrived at the Ohio home where his sister and her kids were staying, he entered the room to find chaos. His sister was intoxicated and incoherent, her three toddlers unattended.

Keep reading... Show less
Change the World

Study Finds Two-Thirds of Gay Dads Experienced Stigma in Last Year

The study also found that over half of gay dads have avoided certain social situations in the last year for fear of experiencing stigma.

According to new research by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the vast majority of gay men and their children experience some form of stigma. The findings are based on a survey of 732 gay father across 47 states in the United States.

More gay men are becoming fathers each year, and have more options for doing so than ever before: including adoption, foster care, and surrogacy. However as the study's authors write: "Despite legal, medical, and social advances, gay fathers and their children continue to experience stigma and avoid situations because of fear of stigma. Increasing evidence reveals that stigma is associated with reduced well-being of children and adults, including psychiatric symptoms and suicidality"

Almost two-thirds of respondents, or 63.5%, reported experiencing stigma based on being a gay father within the last year. Over half, or 51.2%, said they have avoided situations for fear of stigma, in the past year. Importantly, the study found that fathers living in states with more legal protections for LGBTQ people and families experienced fewer barriers and stigma. Most experiences of stigma (almost 35%) occurred, unsurprisingly, in a religious environment. But another quarter of gay dads said they experienced stigma from a wide variety of other sources, including: family members, neighbors, waiters, service providers, and salespeople

Surprisingly (or perhaps not?) another source of stigma cited by the study originates from other gay men. "Gay men report suspicion and criticism for their decision to be parents from gay friends who have not chosen parenthood." The study also says gay dads often feel "isolation in their parental role."

The study concludes, "Despite growing acceptance of parenting by same-gender adults, barriers and stigma persist. States' legal and social protections for lesbian and gay individuals and families appear to be effective in reducing experiences of stigma for gay fathers."

Read the whole study here.

Gay Dad Photo Essays

5 Pics of Ricky Martin In Newborn Baby Bliss

He may be a superstar most of the year, but with a new baby girl at home, Ricky Martin is just a regular ol' dad deep in the throes of newborn baby bliss.

On January 1st, 2019 superstar Ricky Martin and his husband Jwan Yosef shared a post via Instagram announcing that they'd welcomed a baby girl named Lucia into their family.

Keep reading... Show less
Gay Dad Life

Gay Dads Featured on Cover of Parents Magazine for First Time

Fitness guru Shaun T. and his husband Scott Blokker are the first gay dads to be featured on the cover of Parents Magazine

I literally never thought I'd see the day. Literally.

Gay fathers on the cover of Parents Magazine! Gay fathers being celebrated in a "main stream" publication about being parents. Gay fathers!

I don't want to get overly dramatic here, but this is a milestone. A massive cultural milestone.

Sure, gay dads have come a long way in being accepted in our popular culture, but to my eye we've never been on the cover of a big popular parenting magazine celebrating our parenting skills. As if we are the norm.

We are now - thanks to Parents Magazine.

This is a particular milestone for me because I have a bit of a history with the magazine and with parenting publications in general. My first job out of grad school was in brand marketing at Johnson's Baby Products where I did indeed run advertising in this particular magazine. Back then though we only featured married, straight couples. There were no other kinds of parents to feature back in the day! And if I'm to be really honest, they were generally white, married, straight couples.

I distinctly remember one photo shoot where I forgot to put a wedding ring on the "husband's" finger and we had to reshoot it. No photoshop back then!

Now admittedly this was before I was a dad and before I was out, but as the years went by and I embraced my own journey as a gay dad, there were no role models or pop culture markers to say that I (and other gay dads) were accepted. There were no Andy Cohens publicly making baby announcements. We were alone on our parenting.

It was hard. There was a constant barrage of straight parenting norms that constantly reminded us that we were different.
Not any more! Being a gay dad, or any dad, is now simply being a parent. A good parent. A loving parent. And we have Parents Magazine to thank for the reminder and endorsement, with hopefully more to come.

And I can't help but think, and actually know, that this kind of normalization will inspire the next generation of gay dads who will simply accept, without hesitation, that fatherhood as a gay man is a real, accepted, and normal option.



Broadway Husbands Talk Eggs, Embryos and Exciting News

The husbands explain what is considered a good egg retrieval.

In their previous video, Broadway Husbands Bret Shuford and Stephen Hanna shared that they found their egg donor. In this video, the dads-to-be discuss their embryo creation process. And - spoiler alert - there are now frozen Hanna-Shuford embryos, and the husbands are ready for their next step: finding a gestational carrier.

Keep reading... Show less

Fatherhood, the gay way

Get the latest from Gays With Kids delivered to your inbox!


Follow Gays With Kids

Powered by RebelMouse