Carry it lightly: The inherited masculinities of a gay father and his son

I came out to my mother in my parents’ kitchen. It was the week before Christmas, seventeen years ago. I lived in a share house in the same suburb—the increasingly gentrified Richmond—so I visited a few times a week, to have a meal or say hi as I passed through.

I wasn’t planning on coming out to her. Eventually, yes. Not that afternoon. I’d had a series of intensely platonic relationships with females and Mum asked, in a roundabout way, why I hadn’t dated them. She stood in front of the open fridge when she asked—I can’t remember if she was looking at me, or for the mayonnaise. And I thought, she’s giving me an in here. She knows.

So I got all weepy and said I was “trying guys for a while”. As coming-out statements go, it wasn’t strong, but it got me over the line.

She said she hadn’t known, but she’d wondered, wondered. So we had a cry together, and I got so overwrought that the backs of my knees sweated through the unforgivable three-quarter pants I was wearing. Mum took me to the bathroom, plugged in the hair drier and dried them. Then I saw a movie with friends, because that afternoon I was just passing through.

Among the weeping and affirmations and hugs and the panicked question of whether I was “being careful”, she said this: “What I’m most sad about is that you’ll never have a family.”

And yet, when I speak to my mum about that afternoon, she thinks I said those words. Memory is what we need it to be.

The next day, my dad phoned after Mum had told him my news. I was less worried about Dad’s reaction than Mum’s—I knew they’d both be fine once they’d had time to digest it, but Mum did the emotional heavy lifting in our family. As a trained psychotherapist, she was better at it than the rest of us. It did mean, however, that terrain was navigated more deeply.

Dad said everything a newly minted gay man would hope his father would say, but I knew that wasn’t the end of it. There would be further words in the months to come. He also said I needed to mow their lawn.

I had never, not once, been asked to do this. Growing up, I was an inside kid. I read, a lot. Collected comics. A self-contained unit, I’d entertain myself for hours. Maybe Dad hadn’t wanted to bother me. God knows I showed no interest in gardening.

When I was in high school, Mum hated ironing, so that’s how I’d earn pocket money—iron Dad’s work shirts. I got the vibe he thought my guy-trying declaration was partly because I hadn’t done enough hard labour.

Back then, as now, Richmond was full of pubs and bars. As the home of the MCG—Melbourne’s sporting Mecca—that was its obligation. I wasn’t much interested in sport, bewildered and intimidated by the fervour that football and cricket swirled up each weekend—but I loved beer, so I was happy there.

One of my two older sisters also lived in Richmond, and I met her at a pub halfway between our houses. After the pub closed, we stepped out onto a street that was quiet and dark. When she looked for a cab, I rolled my eyes—we were only ten minutes from her place.

“It’s not the distance,” she said. “I don’t feel safe walking at night. Walk with me?”

I’m tall, lightly built, with no experience in the role of protector. For her, my being male was enough. There’s power in that—unasked for, but granted regardless.

I walked her home—of course I did—feeling like a fraud. If anything happened, what could I do to save her? The closest I’d come to being in a fight was when I was a weedy teenager. It was a decidedly one-sided affair; I was lifted up by my throat by a guy who was older, bigger and wanted to impress his mates.

Being a gay man has taught me what it is to be other. That aside, I’m a privileged guy. I’m white. Able-bodied. Healthy. Employed. I live in a first-world country. I have a loving partner. A support network of friends and family. I’m male.

My gayness has been my only real experience outside this citadel of privilege. I’ve had insults hurled at me by peers and strangers. I’ve felt unsafe showing affection to partners in public. I’ve learnt to avoid risky situations. This is second nature for me, for many gay people. It’s how we live. How we love.

Even if we’re lucky enough to have avoided physical homophobia, we hear firsthand experiences from traumatised friends and reports in the media. That night, my sister surprised me with her chaperone request, but maybe I understood her better than I realised—we’re safe partly because people choose to leave us be.

And the possibility that they don’t choose this, well, sometimes that tastes like fear. Mostly though, it’s an awareness that the society we live in has systems and structures in place that favour those who are already at the top. If you’re different, chances are you’ll pay for it. But unlike a woman, or a person with a visible disability, or a person of colour, I can keep this otherness to myself. It’s not authentic, but sometimes it is easier.

Five months ago, I caught a cab from my home in Melbourne’s north to a business breakfast on the other side of the city.

The taxi driver, a Turkish man in his sixties, asked whether this pre-7am trip was an early start.

“Not these days,” I said. “I have a three-month-old son at home, so I’m not sleeping much.”

He laughed the gentle laugh of someone who remembers, and asked if it was my first child. I told him yes.

“How’s your wife?” he asked.

At that moment, we were on an entrance ramp to the freeway, speeding up to 100km. I wondered how he’d respond to my next sentence—if he’d pull over and kick me out—before deciding I’d be doing this a lot, so I may as well get used to it.

Coming out isn’t like ripping off a Band-Aid. It’s something you do again and again.

“I’m not married,” I held up my ring-less left hand. “My partner, Jules, is a man. We had a surrogate in Canada who carried our child for us.”

Our son—Alex—was four seconds old when I first held him.

It was 9:45pm on a Wednesday, and I was lying beside Shannon, our surrogate, who’d reached the end of a mammoth fourteen-hour labour. Jules was at the business end of the bed—he’d seen the moment of Alex’s arrival and was getting ready to cut the umbilical cord.

The four of us were with Shannon’s sister and many more medical staff than I’d anticipated, in a hospital room in Stratford, a mid-sized town ninety minutes’ drive from Toronto.

Alex didn’t make much noise. On television, the cry of a newborn is a wail, and everyone responds with a relieved smile.

In that softly lit birthing suite, Jules and I waited for the cry to come.

Alex, eyes closed, turned towards the light, his mouth open as he took his first breaths. I looked to our obstetrician and asked if Alex’s gentle mewl was … enough. He nodded, so I returned my attention to this long-fought-for baby.

I was topless, in too-large hospital scrubs, my skin against that of my naked, vernix-covered son. Beneath his waxy-white coating, his skin was flushed dark pink, like we’d caught him doing something wrong.

We were Stratford Hospital’s first international surrogacy birth to a gay couple. Down the hall, only three rooms away, a Mennonite woman had also given birth that night. When I say Mennonite, think Amish, complete with horse and cart.

The elasticity of the hospital staff was remarkable.

Our journey to that night in Canada took five years. In that time, doors closed on us in India, Thailand and Mexico—a succession of legislative changes that meant we, as gay foreigners, could no longer access previously available pathways to fatherhood.

In Canada, altruistic surrogacy is legal in three provinces. Surrogates aren’t paid, though they’re able to claim back pregnancy-related expenses, including loss of income.

Shannon has two kids of her own, and had wanted to be a surrogate for a long time. Years ago, her older cousin had trouble falling pregnant, and she came to understand what a gift it would be to help someone have a baby.

We met through a surrogacy agency, spoke over the phone, and spent two weeks getting to know each other before deciding to proceed. A decade of dating smashed into a fortnight.

It was a battle to become a father—so unlike the experience of most of my straight male friends. As no one in our circle had gone down the surrogacy path, Jules and I sought out gay couples who had. Strangers who invited us into their homes so we could speak with them, learn from them, hold their children and see that it was possible to be gay dads—provided we picked ourselves up whenever we were knocked down. Which is exactly what we did.

Being a parent feels like we’ve crashed a wedding. Sure, we’re enjoying ourselves, behaving, but we’re not actually meant to be there. I keep expecting a tap on a shoulder from a member of the Committee for the Status Quo, to be told we have to leave.

Speeding along the freeway to that business breakfast, I wasn’t kicked out of the cab. Instead, after covering how Jules and I came to be dads, the taxi driver and I spoke about the relationship he had with his son. A son who lived in the UAE and was a commercial pilot.

After he dropped me off, my driver headed to Tullamarine Airport. His son was flying in for the day. They were having lunch.

Imagine that. Having lunch with your adult son. One day, that would be me.

I think about the impact one man can have on another. I think about violence, kindness and everything in between. I think about fathers, how they imprint masculinity onto their sons, their daughters. Lay the foundation for what their children will accept and aspire to.

This is my responsibility as a father: to pass on a definition of masculinity. The best I can manage.

What masculinity imprint will Alex receive from two dads?

When your partner’s the same gender as you, one thing you’re gifted is a blank slate. Cleaning the gutters, ironing, taking the car for a service, buying sheets—it’s all up for grabs. And that’s what Alex sees.

He sees two men who do everything, who swap roles depending on time, mood, day of the week. Two men who feed him, change him, play with him, coax him towards sleep. Two men who cook, unstack the dishwasher, mow the lawn. He sees only one man vacuum (me) and one man clean the bathroom (Jules)—because we all have chores that drive us to despair. He’s too young to remember, but he’s absorbing it.

Later, when he’s older, he’ll have two men who will listen to him when he talks about his day, his dreams, his fears. Two men who will parent him when he needs structure, and who will let him roam when he needs to find his own answers. Two men who will lie awake in bed when he’s older and out with friends, two men listening for that key in the front door, when we’ll know we’ve muddled through another day of keeping our kid alive.

In our relationship, we don’t have the option of delegating the emotional heavy lifting to one person, one gender. For that, I am grateful.

Now when I’m out at night, if there’s a single woman out walking, I think of my sister. Then I cross to the opposite side of the street, and walk ahead of the woman, so I’m in her line of sight but out of range.

This is one thing I’ll teach Alex, one of many things. How he must be aware of the power he has been gifted simply because he is male. And how the best way to hold it is to carry it lightly.

Header image by Nathan Dumlao

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6 Comments

  • Heather

    March 23, 2018

    Beautiful Jim! Brought me to tears! You’re an incredible father already!!!

    Reply
  • Dee

    March 23, 2018

    Not only touching, tender, emotional, but educational and thought provoking ! Assuming Alex is a pseudonym.

    Send more of your articles! Like your style!
    Our love to you three, Dee

    Reply
  • Kathy

    March 23, 2018

    Fabulous article Jim! Beautifully written and insightful. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

    Reply
  • Els

    March 24, 2018

    Wonderfull written with a lot of love.

    Reply
  • Venita

    March 28, 2018

    Thanks for such a beautiful reflection, Jim. Hope you’re all well and happy. It’s such a challenging time for anyone. x

    Reply
  • Sandra

    April 4, 2018

    Loved to read that article and am so proud of you!

    Reply

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