Jesse Green, 41, lives with his partner of five years in a Brooklyn Heights brownstone, along with their two sons, Erez, now 6, and Lucas, 4. Green’s partner, Andy, a 50-year-old high-school guidance counselor, adopted the children through a southern agency specializing in Hispanic birth mothers. Both boys were adopted when they were just a few weeks old.
Dan Savage, 35, and his boyfriend, Terry Miller, 29, live together in a Seattle, Washington, farmhouse with their son, D.J., now 2 years old. The couple gained custody of the child through an open adoption on the day he was born. D.J.’s birth mother, Melissa, was a homeless street kid who chose Savage and his partner from a group of 80 prospective parents profiled by a Washington-based agency. She visits her son several times a year.
When they’re not changing diapers, Green and Savage are likely to be at the computer. Green, a journalist and novelist, chronicled his unexpected parenthood in The Velveteen Father, released in paperback this month. Savage writes a widely syndicated sex-advice column which appears in the Village Voice, as well as opinionated pieces on politics and pop culture for a wide range of publications. The Kid, his first-person account of his son’s adoption, also comes out in paperback this month. The two men spoke with New York’s Maer Roshan about bringing up their boys.
Maer Roshan: So how did two gay guys end up pushing around a pram?
Dan Savage: I’d been seriously thinking about having a child for years. At one point, I was talking to a lesbian couple about being a donor dad; then I met my boyfriend; then, two years later, the lesbians broke up and the donor-dad opportunity went away. So we decided, “Let’s adopt.” We’d been thinking about becoming parents for so long that we felt we were ready for it.
Jesse Green: I’d always believed that as a gay man I wouldn’t have any children, and had come to see that, in some ways, as a benefit of gayness. Then I met a man who had already adopted a child – a boy then 14 months old. Nine months later, Andy adopted another. He and I have been together five years now, and I’m a parent to these two kids in every way. But I certainly didn’t plan on all this. I went out on a date and somehow ended up changing diapers.
M.R.: Did either of you run into any problems when you tried to adopt?
D.S.: In my case, it was pretty easy because we were interested in doing an open adoption. Unlike in closed adoptions, where the birth parents never meet the adoptive parents, D.J.’s mother met with us and knew us, and wanted us to have the baby. She has ongoing contact, and she visits with the kid a few times a year.
J.G.: It will take you a long time if you want a blue-eyed white male with blond hair. Other than that, it’s not anywhere near as hard as you might think. Whether you want an open adoption or a closed one, you do need to spend some time looking in the right places. Some agencies won’t even consider gay parents, but because of the number of babies needing homes, and the number of people who want children, there’s a pretty big informal network in place right now for gay people who want to adopt. My partner, Andy, personally placed half a dozen kids himself. The agency calls him and says, “Do you know anybody? We have a kid who’s going to be ready soon, and we don’t have anyone.”
D.S.: Your chances are a lot better if you’re willing to take a baby that straight couples might not think about. We weren’t D.J.’s birth mother’s first choice. She chose us after two couples rejected her because she drank during the pregnancy. People were afraid to adopt him because they were afraid of fetal alcohol syndrome; they thought he’d be fucked up forever. But it turns out all the terror over FAS is overblown anyway. D.J. turned out perfectly okay.
J.G.: That’s interesting, because Andy’s first adoption was also sped up by the fact that the birth mother used drugs during the pregnancy, something that wasn’t known until she was about to deliver. People warned Andy of all sorts of dire outcomes, none of which have occurred.
D.S.: A lot of gay people who adopt come to the conclusion that they are worthy of adopting only kids that straight people discard. D.G. adoption, damaged goods. We decided early on that we didn’t want to do a D.G. adoption.
M.R.: Why not?
D.S.: It sounds horrible, but we didn’t want to start at a disadvantage. We didn’t want to spend those first two years with our child undoing the damage that the heterosexual parents had done.
J.G.: The fact is, you’re already at a disadvantage in society as a gay parent. Why add on yet another hurdle?
M.R.: What was the most unexpected problem you ran into as a gay parent?
D.S.: The hardest thing turns out to be getting on airplanes. We’re constantly being stopped. We were trying to get boarding passes to get on a flight when the baby was just like three months old, and the woman behind the counter was like, “Whose baby is this?” She picked up the phone to call the police because she thought we were kidnapping him.
Now we carry the birth certificate and the adoption decree in the car, because we have to whip it out constantly. When you get on an airplane, everybody addresses the child. They say, “Who are these boys taking care of you? Are you going to see Mommy? Where’s Mommy?” We usually answer the question truthfully. “Mommy’s in New Orleans, living on the streets, begging for change. That’s what Mommy does and likes to do.” She’s a gutter punk by choice. But all this questioning becomes very tiring. You’re constantly being dragged out of the closet.
J.G.: It’s the most constant outing imaginable, because everyone demands to know your family story. And the truth is, I understand the curiosity. But it is tiring. I don’t have the problem in airports, because the kids have Andy’s last name. But a lot of people do ask Erez where his mother is. Recently it was reported to me that when people ask him “Where is your mommy?” he says, “She’s dead.” Which isn’t true, as far as we know. But it may be his truth right now. It’s not as if he doesn’t know the real story. Since he was born, he was told how he came to be with Andy and me. There have been different phases when he’s asked, “Where’s Mommy?” or “Is that my Mommy?” and we tell him the story again, and he’ll transform it into something else. Now it’s transformed into “She’s dead.” But he doesn’t seem to have any longing for a mother, any more than he does for a sister he never knew.
That’s probably, in part, because of where we live, in Brooklyn, in a community where there is no norm left. Every day, Erez and Lucas see kids who have single moms, two moms, have interracial or blended families – every possible kind of mix.
D.S.: Even so, people express an awful lot of misplaced concern on behalf of our son. They are inordinately concerned that D.J. is going to look around and say, “Why isn’t my family like every other family?” The reality is, very few families in my neighborhood live up to the mythical standard.
M.R.: I guess the concern is that kids are cruel and it’s so hard to grow up anyway, that to afflict a child with this additional burden is unkind.
J.G.: There will always be something your kids will find lacking in you as a parent. If it weren’t being gay, it would be that we look funny, or that one of us writes for a living, or that we’re too Jewish or not Jewish enough. You just try to give them the strength to withstand their own rebellions. When it’s time for our kids to be angry at us . . .
D.S.: They’ll find something.
M.R.: Do you think that moment is inevitable?
D.S.: I expect there’s going to be a sociosexual dynamic when he is in high school when people will say horrible things to him about why two gay men would want to adopt a boy. We intend to work very hard to make sure that’s not an issue.
But even though I make my living writing about sex, it’s important to me that my son grows up in as much denial about his parents’ sexuality as I grew up about my parents’ sexuality.
J.G.: Do you try to hide the fact that you’re lovers?
D.S.: Laughs No, we’re not going to try to fool him into believing we’re just roommates with a king-size bed. But we try to create this zone of comfort for him.
J.G.: It’s a question of context. There are things you do as adults only among adults. Kids don’t have to be made aware of everything at once.
M.R.: Do either of you worry that your children will reject you when they’re older?
J.G.: I think there will come a time when they will be looking for something, as every kid does, to rebel against. This would be as handy as anything else. And while I am hopeful that my children will grow up to be broad-minded, tolerant men, I know that it is very possible that I am lavishing attention and love and money on people who are probably going to be nasty to me for a few years.
D.S.: It’s the obvious thing to latch on to. You worry about your boys’ growing up to become the boys who tortured you when you were a kid.
M.R.: Do you ever feel that your kids lose out on anything by not having a female figure in the house?
D.S.: In my case, D.J. is constantly around my mother and Terry’s mother – they’re engaged in this relay race – so it’s not like he’s lacking females in our house. There are lots of women in his life. People assume that two gay men raising a baby are raising it in a bathhouse somewhere, or on an RSVP cruise, in some all-male environment. And you know, the truth is, he’s going to have female teachers. He has a female pediatrician. He has an aunt. He has two grandmas. He has so many women in his life that he’s not going to want for them. But he’s lucky that he has two parents, you know?
J.G.: Like you, we have a lot of women in our lives. But we’re still an all-male family, and for the kids, there remains a bit of mystery about females. One day my son, Erez, walked into the bedroom of a friend who was staying with us as she was taking her shirt off – he wasn’t supposed to go in, but he did – and he saw her breasts, and he said, “Oh, I know what those big floppy things are; those are your eggs!” And she later told us that maybe we should get a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves to help him out laughs. And indeed, the next day I was drawing cows and udders and women’s breasts.
D.S.: Parenting is about being competent and responsible. It’s not about gender, necessarily. Every day, Terry and I walk into D.J.’s room just after he wakes up, and he jumps up and down; he’s very happy to see us. I really don’t think he’s thinking, “It’s too bad there isn’t a vagina here, too.” You know what I mean?
M.R.: Some scientific studies suggest that women are more naturally inclined to be nurturers than men are.
D.S.: Yes. But when you’re talking about 3 billion people, there are going to be exceptions – hundreds of millions of exceptions. Frankly, I don’t think a couple of hyper-masculine, buzz-cutted Chelsea gym boys should adopt. But I don’t think they want to adopt. And unlike, say, straight people who shouldn’t be parents, gay people who shouldn’t be parents are unlikely to become parents by accident. You can’t get drunk one night and adopt.
J.G.: I question the science you mentioned. In any case, there’s a tendency to measure gay families against a fantasy template of non-gay families. Once, when I was doing a radio show, a guy called up and said, “You know, I despise gay parenting. A child needs love and nurturing, and how the hell is he going to get that with two men?”
D.S.: Now, think about what that implies, the idea that men are somehow incapable of love and nurturing.
M.R.: What kind of reception do you get at PTA meetings?
D.S.: My son is only 2, so no PTA meetings yet. But we’ve been well received at pediatricians’ offices and fast-food outlets. The only places we sometimes feel uncomfortable, frankly, is on the gay strip in the city where we live.
M.R.: Has being a gay parent alienated you from the gay community?
D.S.: I find that most gay people, like most straight people, are idiots, and I find idiots pretty alienating. Gay ghettos are a nice place to spend your twenties, but who can live there forever? Ultimately, there’s no such thing as “gay community.” There are your friends, and your family, and that’s your community. My community has always been mixed, gay and straight.
J.G.: I agree with that. It’s true that we have felt a bit like pariahs in some gay settings. Not just because of the obvious, absurd attacks we get on political grounds – that we are betraying gayness by collaborating with some sort of heterosexual Vichy – but subtler things, too. Some gay men seem to feel we are passing an unfavorable judgment on their childlessness just because we do have children. When Erez was a baby, we took him to a fund-raiser in the Hamptons, and many men turned away from us. A baby disrupts a room’s sexual energy – just ask its parents. And I think, for some older men, a baby may be a painful symbol of what they gave up.
On the other hand, straight people have been more accepting than we expected. Erez used to go – and Lucas still goes – to a preschool run by Lubavitchers in our neighborhood. Initially, I had grave doubts about allowing this: I was afraid there would be more Menachem Schneerson than Barney. But we’ve been repeatedly surprised by the reaction to us. They’ve been warm and open and blissfully unconcerned.
Even so, as good a job as you do, the outside world has a way of impinging on you. Early in the morning is the best time of day with our kids, when we’re all in bed together and cuddling; it’s just wonderful and emotionally satisfying. But some mornings, in the middle of all this happiness, I have this self-conscious awareness, like there’s a camera in the room. I think, “God, we are Jesse Helms’s worst nightmare. Here are two men …”
D.S.: … in bed.
J.G.: In bed, either naked or mostly naked, and two boys wearing very little, crawling all over . . .
D.S.: I feel that, too. Those moments where you think, “If this scene was observed, what would people make of it?”
M.R.: How does it make you feel?
D.S.: It’s the same feeling you get when you’re a gay man in a locker room with a bunch of straight guys who know you’re gay. Suddenly you feel like you have to avert your eyes, like you did in high school, for fear of being discovered, even though you’ve done nothing wrong. Gay men are so afraid of these bullshit stereotypes about child molesting that they go the other way; they’re afraid of even the most innocent contact with children.
J.G.: My response is to be more steadfast in not acting on that impulse.
D.S.: It’s essential to fight this feeling that forbids you from being intimate with your children, because your child will suffer if you aren’t. I was talking to a straight friend, a dad, about this, and he said, “You fall in love with your child, you kiss their toes, their thighs, and there’s almost nothing about your child that you don’t as a parent put in your mouth.” It is a physical kind of love. There’s a kind of romance between a new child and a parent that creates the kind of bond that would make you jump in traffic for your kid. And it would be so awful to let ignorant stereotypes prevent you from falling in love with your kid.
M.R.: Was there ever a moment where you thought about adopting a girl to prevent this?
J.G.: I don’t know if it would prevent it. I think men – and especially gay men – are seen as sexually suspect no matter whom they’re parenting.
D.S.: It wasn’t up to us whether we had a boy or a girl.
M.R.: How do you and your boyfriend divide up the child-raising duties?
D.S.: When we adopted the baby, Terry stopped working. He stays home and takes care of the baby. Terry has sort of become the mom, and he does the laundry and he washes the bottles, and I make the money and I come home, and I give the baby the bath, and sometimes I leave before the baby is awake and I come home after the baby is asleep. It’s Ozzie and Harriet, really. It’s hard to talk about it without it sounding just corny and thoughtless. It sort of shook out this way. It’s not that I can’t do laundry. It’s just that I don’t have to.
J.G.: Since we can’t divide the chores according to traditional established gender roles, we get to divide them according to ability and taste. It’s not as even as in your situation, which falls to some degree into traditional categories. Andy cooks, I clean, we both sing, and we both roughhouse. But it’s funny how that awful question, “Well, who’s the girl?” has become “Who’s the mom?”
M.R.: Do you find yourself competing for your child’s affection?
D.S.: Well, we joke about it. It exists, and it’s real, and we frost it with irony to make it not so damaging for either of us. But we jokingly compete. And there are times when the baby just wants to be with me and times when the baby just wants to be with Terry, and at those times we look at each other and go, “Ha-ha, the baby likes me better!”
M.R.: Would you rather your sons grew up to be straight or gay?
D.S.: My feeling is that D.J.’s already a straight boy, because he loves little girls. I also loved little girls when I was a boy, but I wanted to play with their dolls. He wants to kiss them. I never wanted to do that. And he smashes shit. I mean, my mother says that when I was a little boy I never smashed anything. But he belches, he farts, he throws up – he’s so fucking straight!
J.G.: Doesn’t it bring into question the whole idea of how gayness is constructed? I mean, your evidence that your kid is probably straight is based on the kinds of prejudices we railed against as gay kids. Like liking girls or smashing things. Does that really suggest they’re more likely to be heterosexual? It’s true that as our boys have grown up, they’ve developed certain familiar boyish behaviors that are just like the ones that used to intimidate me as a child.
D.S.: You don’t want to discourage him from being the boy you were afraid of when you were a boy.
J.G.: Exactly. But on the other hand, we are compelled by our own experience to find more meaningful ways to define what “good boys” should be. You know, Andy and I both feel that the likelihood of our boys being gay is the same as it would be for anyone else’s boys: 4 percent? Ten percent? Not very much. But we’ve been trying to do everything we can do to make them gayer. We play musicals, and every night I sing them to sleep with a medley from The King and I laughs. So we were kind of delighted when Erez, our older boy, told us that he wanted to go to ballet class. He was very interested in ballet, and he had seen Lourdes Lopez on Sesame Street. So we thought, “Great!” Because, all kidding aside, and assuming they will be straight boys, we hope in some way that they will be a different kind of straight boy than the kind that I grew up terrified of. Maybe they’ll be very sensitive. They’ll certainly know that men cook and do all the housework – to the extent that anyone does. If they do end up straight, they’ll be a real catch.