Friday, May 9, 2014

Graduation at Idyllwild Arts Academy
Michael with his daughter Katherine

Nearly twenty years ago, I took my baby for a walk, pushing her stroller, breezily sauntering up and down the streets of our Los Feliz neighborhood, one of Los Angeles’ enclaves applauded for its progressiveness and hip pedigree. But to suggest that we turned heads —a white, forty-plus year old man and a six-month old African-American baby—is not hyperbolic. 

One woman simply had to stop and ask me, “Are you the nanny?”

There were several assumptions inherent in her insensitive query: daddies (without a mom in attendance) didn’t steer strollers, single men (especially those who appeared unaffectedly gay) didn’t have children and what’s a white dude doin’ with a black baby, anyway?

“I’m her father,” I said, employing restraint. She looked absolutely befuddled, as if she had just encountered two aliens.

As the single, gay dad of a black little girl, alien is how I often felt. Even in liberated Southern California, mommy and daddy gender identities were fairly inflexible at the end of the Twentieth Century. So were the vicissitudes of families whose skin color didn’t match. I felt like an intruder at Mommy and Me; I was often the only male in a group of female parents who thought I should be at work; asking for ethnically specific hair products for my little girl resulted in profound looks of consternation.

I was once the lone male in a room full of moms at a meeting about various school challenges that had to be met on a daily basis. “It’s the moms who pick up our kids. We’re the ones who have to keep them safe on the parking lot,” one of the females said, intimating the collective female gender. Not only was she suggesting that it was the moms who did the daily afternoon chauffeuring of their children; they were also the protectors.

“Uh,” I said, waving my hand, a tad histrionically. “Do you see me sitting here?” There was uproarious laughter, the laughter that emanates from a gay man’s brittle delivery. I was being heard for a quick second, but not necessarily being taken seriously.

I was taken seriously when fundraising drives came around (flagrantly so when decorating was involved) but I was inevitably the only man in the midst of a gaggle of over-achieving mommies.

Before adopting Katherine, I had soldiered through several trial runs as a foster parent (one four-month stint with two brothers, three and six years old), and decided that —in spite of the laundry list of things that didn’t appear to be in my favor—I had to become a full-time father. Being gay wasn’t even at the top of my (supposed) flaws: I was HIV-positive (this was before protease inhibitors), I was old (in my forties), most of my income came from being a solo performer (you can stop laughing), I was single, and I grew up in a family setting that would give Tennessee Williams pause.

I had to be a father.

I’d lived through the AIDS deaths of dozens of my male comrades including one man I’d loved more deeply than any of the others. It was his death in 1992 that forced me to admit the one desire that I’d determinedly buried for more than a decade.

I had to be a father.

While most of my gay male buddies said I was “crazy” or “selfish,” not one female friend or associate ever discouraged me. When I told people that my entire body ached with longing when I saw a dad with his kid(s), most gay men thought I was being theatrical; most women (no matter their sexual proclivities) shook their head “yes” in acknowledgement. This “biological urge” phenomenon I experienced is almost exclusively attributed to women and has been determined to be psychological rather than innate or instinctual. No matter, it consumed me.

Even though Katherine’s mother abandoned her at the hospital and no blood relative initially came to the rescue, the process to adopt my daughter was a daily nightmare for nearly three years, coinciding with the most joyous days of my life as I balanced becoming a father with the relentless threat of losing my little girl.

Why? The grandmother of one of Katherine’s half-brothers had decided to wage a battle as soon as the courts began moving our case from foster care to adoption. Spouting vehement suppositions, she questioned why a single, white man would want to adopt a black baby.

If her team could verify a birth father, she could stall the process further so several possibilities were suggested—ranging form a wealthy lawyer to a dude in prison. At the final court appearance, the judge laughed out loud when the family desperately tried to conjure the identity of yet another potential birth father.

It was decided by the Los Angeles Superior Court, shortly before my child’s third birthday, that I was her sole and legal parent.

The good news was that her health, after a tumultuous entry into the world—no prenatal care, born two months premature, weighing less than three pounds, addicted to crack—was virtually indefectible. And with the advent of “miracle” drugs for HIV, so was mine.

Our family history continued to reveal itself even though the vagaries of being a single male parent could be disconcerting.

“Where’s mommy?” insensitive strangers at the grocery store would ask. “Who does her hair?” was a popular question, especially asked by black women we’d never previously met. Often after establishing the irrefutable fact that I was her father, someone would invariably ask, “Who picks out her clothes?” (Trust me, honey, no one trumps a gay man in choosing toddler apparel.)

I was mommy, too, encompassing all that implies, primarily the emotional and physical attentiveness that femaleness seemed to suggest far more than maleness—even though parental roles were decidedly evolving.

In the fifties, fathers changed tires, not diapers. My dad never kissed me, never held me when I was sad, never spoke to me about things that were considered intimate.

Did the shift begin with feminism? When moms decided to join the work force and pursue a career outside of the home, were daddies compelled to put on their mommy hat and share parental responsibilities? Or, in spite of skewed media depictions, did the feminist movement, in reality, create more Supermoms than Mr. Mom’s?

According to the 2000 Census, there was a considerable increase in the number of single-parent families headed by fathers during the 1990s, escalating by more than 60 percent, to 2.2 million. While many of those dads are likely gay, most are likely not, and the statistics aren’t including gay men who are partnered. Those facts confirm that a considerable part of America’s population in 2014 includes men who are raising children.

As someone living this double life of mom/dad full time, my perception is that the mommyizing of dads has become even more prevalent in the Twenty-First Century. In my neighborhood, there are now men (of indeterminate sexual persuasion) pushing baby strollers than there are women. They are demonstratively affectionate, expressing love with intuitive gentleness.

I sometimes wonder if the gay male baby boom (lesbians were way ahead of this curve) has anything to do with our straight brothers feeling more comfortable playing in both gender pools? With the blurring of sexual identity—for example, British diver Tom Daley who “fancies girls” while he’s in a relationship with a man—are men simply more at ease with expressing their female side, whether on the playground or in the bedroom? Just as straight men have copied gay male fashion—plaid shirts and cowboy boots in the Seventies, bald heads and muscles in the present—perhaps we have also inspired, as single dads and dads in partnerships (legal or not), an invitation to embrace a more connected, less rigid, fatherly stance?

Our friends on the right have politicized this softer version of maleness as part of the “feminization of America.” Their targets include homosexuals as well as millions upon millions of men who rebuke hypermasculinity in favor of something more completely human. Many of these “feminized” men are stay-at-home-dads who have switched gender stereotypes as the world turns. These guys take their kids to yoga classes, not shooting ranges. To insist that the feminization of men is unnatural is to imply being female is somehow less than. Only macho men need apply to the party of male white dominance.

Our indestructible father-daughter bond is characterized by deep understanding, mutual respect and inordinate amounts of fun. We've had the HIV talk, the period talk, the condom talk, the death talk—amidst laughter and tears.

We’ve traveled all over the world. In Madrid, while I was directing a play, she was in dire need of pads one morning. I’ll never forget my urgent trip to the Pharmacia. Unable to speak Spanish, I was forced, ala Lucy, to pantomime the meaning of “sanitary napkin.”

I recently spoke to my now nineteen-year old daughter, who is attending Bournemouth Arts College in England, on my cell phone while a friend hovered in close proximity. “My God,” he said, when the call ended. “You go from being mom to dad and back again with such agility.”

These dual roles have defined me—more than performer, writer, lover, friend. Sure, I’m admittedly a drama queen, but my life depended on being a mom/dad.