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Searching for Gay Dads: Parenting in the Shadow of the Plague

Guest author  Keiko Lane, MFT,, is a psychotherapist in Berkeley, CA focusing on queer family planning with folks of all genders. She also teaches graduate and post-graduate courses on queer and multicultural psychotherapies and the psychodynamics of social justice. A poet and essayist, she writes about the intersections of LGBTQ equality, racial justice and oppression resistance. This piece first appeared last week at Karen Occamb’s buy cheap Neurontin LGBT | POV. ~ Polly

February made my head spin. It was a month of gay parents coming in to my psychotherapy office with their frustrations – and joys – their expectations of community, and their sense of isolation. It was also a month when my office was inordinately populated by gay fathers longing for community.

For me, a month of contemplating any absence of gay male community means that it has also been a month of AIDS grief.  And queer news cycles kept overlapping with the conversations in my office.

In February, a court in Germany ruled that a gay person should be able to adopt a child whom their partner had already adopted. Prior to the ruling, under German law, LGBTQ people already had the right to adopt their partner’s biological child, but not their partner’s adoptive child.

A lesbian couple in Austria who wanted to jointly raise the biological child of one of the women, won their case at the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled that Austria’s adoption laws discriminated against same-sex couples.

And in France, progress toward LGBTQ family equality was made when the lower house of parliament approved a bill that would legalize gay marriage and allow gay couples to adopt children.

Over the past year, when I’ve given presentations about queer family planning to groups of prospective parents, I’ve noticed that the demographics have begun to shift. The workshops have always attracted more women, transmen, and genderqueer folks than cisgendered queer men. But slowly and usually in couples, gay men, often in their twenties and thirties, are coming in with fantasies of fatherhood.

In my psychotherapy practice, across race, class, and HIV serostatus distinctions, the gay men who want to be dads are searching for gay men who have been parenting for a generation. They’re looking for role models who are parenting teenagers not because they have recently adopted or fostered kids who are now teens, but because they have been parenting for 12, 15, 20 years. Yes, they exist, but at gatherings for queer families it is mostly the dykes who have been parenting for years, and the gay men who have babies or are newer parents of older children.

Post Traumatic Plague Disorder

A few weeks ago I watched “How to Survive a Plague.” The film, nominated for an Oscar, documents the history of ACT UP/New York, and ACT UP’s working group TAG (Treatment Action Group). I had hesitated for months before watching the film, knowing that the images would disturb and shake me: reliving the adrenaline of demonstrations and arrests from my own years with ACT UP/Los Angeles, seeing the familiar images of wasting bodies, and feeling the overwhelming reality of dying closing in reminding me of the death of most of my ACT UP community.

Throughout the film, in between the archived interviews with TAG and ACT UP members, footage of ACT UP meetings, and the images of men dying, one man from TAG is shown celebrating a sequence of birthdays with his young daughter. As with most of the children who were young during the early ACT UP years, she was the product of a since-ended heterosexual marriage.

One of the ACT UP and TAG members featured in the film is Spencer Cox, who died in December 2012, during the promotion season for the film. In the community of AIDS activists and long-term survivors of the plague, there is much speculation about how, or more precisely, why, he died.

I didn’t know Spencer, but his profile reminds me of many of my HIV+ ACT UP friends who have survived until now: Long-time infected and dealing with the effects of more than 20 years of toxic AIDS medications. Fatigue from years of community organizing and activism. Outlived most of his community. And having lived through the worst of the plague and the years before any effective treatment, when almost everyone died and everyone expected to die, some speculate that he may have suffered from something akin to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

But when I think about the clinical criteria for PTSD, and hold that profile up to some of my friends and loved ones, I think, no, not akin to PTSD, but actually PTSD. The HIV+ men women I knew 20 years ago feared, rightly, for their lives. Among the criteria for a diagnosis of PTSD are having experienced, witnessed, or been confronted with an event or events that involve actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of oneself or others. And in reaction to that stressor, a response involving intense fear, helplessness or horror. Intrusive recollection of the event(s). And, in the diagnostic criterion category of avoidant/numbing behavior, a possible sense of foreshortened future.

Survival and Parenthood

Twenty years ago, gay men went to therapy to deal with loss: The loss of others, the loss of their own dreams, and the loss of a future. Even 15 years ago, when I was becoming a psychotherapist, those were the primary themes. Now more gay men come to see me to figure out how to become parents than to figure out how to grieve.

Parenting relies on a belief in a future. If that belief is contraindicated, or at the very least deeply challenged, by the community experience of death, dying, and fear of politically sanctioned annihilation, what does that mean for the survivors of the plague who do become parents?

Since watching “How to Survive a Plague,” I find myself thinking again about the ongoing search of young gay men for older gay dads who can mentor them. And then I think about cultural generations and realize that most of the gay men asking these questions came of adulthood after the AIDS drug cocktail and missed the era of ACT UP, of TAG, and of despair, when hospitals signified queer death and not queer birth. And now this next generation of gay men needs models. So do we all. Of a queerness not organized around death but around a broader cycle inclusive of life and death.

One night 20 years ago, an ACT UP friend asked me if I wanted to have children. I told him I hadn’t given it much thought. “Well, you have time,” he told me, taking a deep drink from the wine glass we were sharing. “And you?” I asked him, taking the glass and spinning its stem in my hands. He was HIV+. (This was a few years before the promise of protease inhibitors, before the cocktail.) In those days, everyone died. One of our friends had died two days earlier. I sipped the wine, then looked at him. He hadn’t answered me. “I know, I know,” I said, “but, still, did you ever want them?” He took the glass back and finished our wine. “I don’t get to want them. I’m not allowed to. We don’t get to dream it.”

Leland’s Rainbow Flag

There have always been a few gay men who dreamt it. Leland Traiman is one of those men who defied cultural norms and expectations. He is a gay nurse practitioner and father whose professional life as a queer reproductive rights activist and the founder and owner of Rainbow Flag Health Services has revolved around advocating for the rights of queer folks to create the families that we dream of.

Leland’s crowning act was authoring California Assembly Bill 2356, or “Leland’s Law,” which expands the definition of a “sexually intimate partner” to include people who have been inseminating at home to try to conceive a child. The bill allows health care practitioners to perform IUI (intrauterine insemination) and IVF (in vitro fertilization) with women and lesbians and their known donors (often gay men), instead of limiting those services to heterosexual partners.

The bill is a brilliant work-around of the FDA’s ongoing attempts to ban gay men from becoming biological parents. (Maddeningly enough, and adding to my spinning head, in February there was an article (about a new program for heterosexual HIV+ men who want to become biological fathers “the old-fashioned way.” But the program specifies that the man be one-half of a committed heterosexual couple.

Leland retired in 2013. With the closing of Rainbow Flag Heath Services we have lost the only sperm bank in the U.S. that not only welcomed but also actively recruited gay men as sperm donors.

Blood and Kinship

Michael Kearns and daughter, 1995. Credit: Karen Ocamb.

Michael Kearns and daughter, 1995. Credit: Karen Ocamb.

I don’t want to ignore or add to the invisibility of the gay men and HIV+ gay men who have been parenting for years. Michael Kearns, in his memoir The Truth is Bad Enough, wrote stunningly and movingly about his relationship to both is own mortality and his daughter who is now a young adult. But still, I want more role models for my clients. And most of the gay men I do know who have been parenting for years have grieved the absence of a critical mass of their cultural peers at play dates and back-to-school nights.

And then I remember: It isn’t just that they’re not parents. They’re not here. I’m haunted by a line W. Wayne Karr wrote for an essay in Infected Faggot Perspectives, the ‘zine he co-founded with Cory Roberts Auli: “It isn’t just that we are not what we were, rather it is that we are not.”

Wayne had a biohazard tattoo on his arm, always visible to doctors and phlebotomists during the constant blood tests to monitor his climbing viral load, his falling T-cells, and the levels of toxic AIDS medication in his system. I sat with Wayne numerous times, watching phlebotomists  – though they were wearing the ubiquitous latex gloves of universal precautions – squirm when Wayne pulled up his sleeves.

In February, Chinese artist and human rights activist Ai WeiWei partnered with Elton John in an AIDS education campaign for Elton John’s AIDS foundation. The campaign shows images of people pricking their finger to draw a drop of blood, and the words “Love Is In My Blood.” Earlier in 2013, Elton John and his husband David Furnish became fathers again, announcing the birth of their second son by a surrogate in California.

We queers have always made it up as we go along, creating our families, inventing the kinship structures that have sustained us instead of, or along side, our families of origin.

I don’t want to imply that there haven’t been any gay men parenting through and in spite of the plague. I’ve known them. But as a movement, we’re missing a generation. When I look around gatherings of queer parents and prospective parents and scan the room for generational signifiers, I see the absence of a generation of men, and I see the generation that has come after, longing for them.

I am not advocating a turn toward a queer nuclear family as an antidote to queer loss. I am, perhaps, asking how we can turn the lessons and the familial commitment we learned in ACT UP, in the middle of a plague when we became one another’s kin, toward sustaining one another as queer parenting becomes a larger chapter in the story of queer kinship networks.

Later that same night 20 years ago, after the end of the wine and the conversation about wanting children, that ACT UP friend and I had sex, a rare cross-gendered night for both of us, finding brief comfort with each other after a long week of visiting too many ACT UP warriors in hospice, and planning too many funerals.

He died a few years later, right before the protease inhibitors began to change the life expectancy of the HIV+ men who had access to medication.

Sometimes at night, when I can’t sleep, I do the math. If we had conceived a child, our child would be older now than I was that night.

And my friend, had he survived the plague, would have made an awesome father.


[Photo credit, top: Act Up/Occupy, from The Eyes of New York’s Flickr stream.]

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  1. Beautiful and sad, but hopeful too.

    We feel very blessed indeed to have two gay godfathers (we call them the “faery godfathers”) for our children who are of the plague generation and magically survived.

    We have others too–an extra uncle-by-choice who just turned fifty and a pair of grandfathers (via an earlier heterosexual relationship) living in our condo complex who are retired.

    They are there, but they are far, far too few.

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