What it's like to parent as a gay man in Detroit
How 'the village' helps two fathers navigate their daughters in a sometimes hostile world
Perhaps it takes a special level of bold humility, or humble boldness, for a person to raise a child in Detroit today. On the one hand, parents are called to guide a vulnerable child against all odds into a life of love and hope. How bold! On the other hand, much of a child’s experiences fall outside of the power and control of a parent. We can be made humble quickly. Yet somehow, parents all over Detroit do this impossibly bold and humble task every day, keeping kids happy, safe and loved when odds are often against them.
I have only been a parent for about four years, all of it as a foster or adoptive parent in Detroit. Compared to many of my elders, I am still a newbie with a lot to learn, and with that I cannot disagree. The joys and difficulties of parenting as a gay man in Detroit continue to surprise me each day as we form an interracial family in what can be a complicated context of extremes.
My partner and I entered the system as foster parents in the fall of 2013. As an openly gay, interracial couple, we knew that we did not fit the typical picture of foster parents. Neither of us felt the need to have a child biologically connected to us, but felt a draw to raise children. Not having tens of thousands of dollars for private adoption, we worked with a foster agency to find children who would likely be up for adoption. That is not an easy task. The system is complicated and while our agency, a very good one and was working to create family for us, their primary goal is to place children in homes, many times under dramatic conditions where decisions for placement must be made quickly. We had four placements in our home that did not stay. We had them for a few weeks to a few days, before other arrangements were made for the children to be reunited with their birth families.
Of course we celebrate that those children were reunited with their birth families, but we knew there were many that never would be and we wanted to be a safe and loving place for them. When would it happen?! If a person is not prepared for children to enter and then exit the home, it can be a heartbreaking process, even when we know the exit is for the best. It took time, but two girls, five years apart, were placed with us in an “open adoption,” meaning we would be in contact with extended family members to help the girls stay connected to their siblings.
While both my partner and I had many years of adult life as Detroit residents, parenting gives us a new perspective on the place one lives. As gay men we were already moving with some vulnerability in our lives. Now we live with our vulnerability and that of two children.
Overall, Detroit has been good to us. Official agencies and city offices have a policy and culture of non-discrimination. We have been welcomed in places like the clerk’s office and the court system as we filed paperwork necessary to make our family legal and official. We have an affordable home in East English Village, our children go to a good public school in the city and we have a church that is supportive not only of us but of our children. A network of friends and family have made sure that we have the support we need (“the village”, as we like to call them).
Detroit is a place where we are able to not only pay for services like childcare and hair care, but where bartering and relationships help get some of these things done that would otherwise be much more expensive in other contexts. Detroiters, we have found, have a culture of care and love for children, even if the larger context can be hostile to them. We have a long list of adults we trust who are able to take the children for a couple hours or longer when we need the support as working parents.
As gay men we were already moving with some vulnerability in our lives. Now we live with our vulnerability and that of two children.
Of course that does not mean it has been easy. Some agencies do not work with members of the LGBT community as foster parents. Our foster and adoption agency was very good to us, but did not always understand some of the vulnerabilities the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities face. Once we dropped off two of our foster children at the time for a birth family visit at the agency, and it turned out that twenty family members were there waiting to see the children, some angry that the children were in the foster system at all. As gay people, we all of a sudden were “outed” as a family, not knowing if being gay would be an added outrage to this family going through turmoil. In that case our sexual orientation turned out not to be an issue for this family, but agencies need to know that each time we are introduced to a new family or part of the system we brace for any possible reaction. We do not know who our allies might be.
My partner and I are also well-known wherever we go with our children. School, church events, at the playground, the grocery store, we are very visible. Other children ask our children about our relationship to them all the time. “Is that your other dad? How do you have two dads? Why is one of your dads white?” Sometimes, especially to our youngest, it is fun to be the center of attention, and be what they perceive as special and different. At other times, the children are clearly over it and simply do not need to explain their family situation to one more peer. Such circumstances have helped us help our children articulate family relationships and self-identity. It is not easy, but may be a helpful tool for the rest of their lives.
We do have negative reactions from time to time: parents who give us the side-eye at school events, or those who are offended or confused about us being church people, actual Christians and gay. (As a side note, many in the LGBT are not always comfortable with our Christianity, due to an earned reputation of discrimination and hatred by a large part of the church.) Sometimes it amazes me the number of people who believe the ugly stereotype that same-sex loving people are pedophiles and abusers of children, and that affects how they view us as parents. I have never been a parent anywhere else but Detroit, and I do not know how to compare that part of my experience to anywhere else.
The rest of our experiences are, well, regular Detroit parenting issues. Where will we send our children to school? If they are academically or developmentally behind, how will we find the resources to get them caught up? Our house was inexpensive compared to the suburbs, but we drive across the city every day to get them to a good school and what we pay for auto and home insurance is criminal. In addition, will the school that is good this year be just as good next? How do we decide when it is time to move schools? City services are much better than they used to be, but the girls’ favorite parks are in the suburbs and the most local recreation center is miles away. Do we let them play outside unsupervised?
Nevertheless, we are Detroiters. We value our life here, and it is a good place to raise children. It takes more energy, but I love the values my children are learning. They are learning how to speak with and understand a variety of people. They are learning how to love their black selves and not deny who they are. They are learning how to speak about themselves, their families, and how to articulate diversity that most of their peers outside of Detroit have not yet learned how to do except in a white-dominated culture. They are learning to stand with the outsider, whoever that may be in a particular situation. They are learning about justice, what it means for them and for people around them.
They are part of the Detroit love, the wrap of protection and strength that can also be difficult, heartbreaking and dramatic. Yet I know that years from now, my children, wherever they end up, will be tooled to be strong people, contributing to whatever community in which they live. As a parent, it is my hope for them, that they will be both bold and humble, pushing against the powers of the world that oppress, yet remember that ultimately who they are made to be is already good. Detroit helped do that.