It is a weekday afternoon like most others for David Strah, a stay-at-home dad in Chelsea. Shortly before 3 p.m., he strolls the five blocks from his apartment to the City & Country School on West 13th Street to pick up his two children, Zev, 5, and Summer, 2. He lingers at the cubbies to chat with the teachers and some of the mothers while their children tear around them. Zev has a cardboard sword he made in class that he waves ferociously at anyone in his path. Finally, Strah and a couple of the moms agree that it is nice enough outside to take a detour to the Bleecker Street playground before everyone goes home.
The place is heaving. Children are screaming from the jungle gym and swinging like superheroes from the monkey bars while their parents sit nursing cappuccinos on the wooden benches and grumbling about their schools’ fund-raising drives. Strah spots a friend, Amy Zimmerman, and walks over to remark on how brave she is to wear her new Marc Jacobs tweed coat to the playground. He also wants her advice—his hairdresser has recommended he dye his eyebrows darker to bring out the blue of his eyes. What does she think?
There is another, more implicit reason for Strah to seek her out. They are both gay parents. She has three children. Jerry and Ella are here, careering around the playground, while the youngest, 3-month-old Ruby, is back at home with Amy’s partner, Tanya. Twenty minutes later, another gay friend arrives with her two preschoolers, who make a beeline for the sandbox. There’s a brief debate on whether they should attempt an early supper together, but Strah has promised to visit yet another friend, a single gay man who has just become the father of twins, thanks to a surrogate mother. Later that evening, he’s planning to drive Zev and Summer, with his partner and their other daddy, Barry Miguel, to the family beach house in East Hampton for the weekend.
The Bleecker Street playground, in the middle of the West Village, may not be representative of all city playgrounds, but it is arguably the epicenter of a seismic change in gay New York, as a growing number of same-sex couples have been plunging into parenthood. Typically, the men are either adopting or hiring surrogate mothers, the women buying donor sperm and being inseminated or adopting. While politicians and talk-show hosts debate the legitimacy of same-sex marriage, a significant number of gay couples are short-circuiting the discussion by starting families. “People are just doing it,” says Strah, 36. “It’s a revolution. It’s the next step that everyone is talking about.”
And those who are doing it point out that raising children together is a bigger commitment, given the divorce rate, than matrimony. “We did not want to wait for gay marriage to happen,” says Amy Zimmerman.
Yes, even twenty years ago, you could find gay parents who, one way or another, had acquired children, but they were the brave few, fighting an uphill battle against skeptical adoption agencies, disapproving teachers, and heterosexual parents who weren’t sure they wanted their offspring having sleepovers with friends whose two daddies would put the kids to bed. Now the mainstreaming of gay life has made adopting simpler, less controversial, and the number of people doing it has reached critical mass. “This issue has reached its tipping point,” suggests Scott Goldsmith, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. “Children are a far more visible part of gay culture.”
Inevitably, all these families with two moms or two dads are having a dramatic effect on gay expectations—and gay and lesbian identity. When younger gays begin to consider possible future relationships, they must judge potential partners in a different light—are they parent-worthy and do they have the same feelings about progeny? For older gays, especially those in established relationships, the question of children has arisen suddenly. Across town, gays are debating the pros and cons of becoming, of all things, breeders.
“When I was 24, what your life looked like it could become, for an upper-middle-class white gay guy with cultural aspirations, was a lot of clubbing, a lot of dating, and a lot of fucking and a lot more fucking,” observes the writer Daniel Mendelsohn. “We had some vague idea that if you got lucky, you might find someone to settle with far on the horizon.
“Now people in their twenties are looking at a cultural smorgasbord that includes not only Sunday nights dancing till six in the morning and taking ecstasy but also a time when you might get married and have children. And that is not all that different from the paradigm that all my straight peers were dealing with—that at some time they would settle.”
Ten years ago, Mendelsohn agreed to be part-time father to the children a (straight) female friend was eager to have. Today, they have two kids together, 8 and 4 years old, and Mendelsohn—whose memoir, The Elusive Embrace, reflects on gay-fatherhood—leaves Manhattan every week to spend time with them in New Jersey.