A Gay Dad Wonders How to Respond to Nosy Questions About His Son
My husband and I became foster dads to our son when he was 4 months old and adopted him when he was 2 years old. He will soon be 10. As an adoptive parent, it strikes me as odd that complete strangers will ask, "Where is your son from?" We’ve been asked if he knows his birth parents, whether he has any siblings, how he feels about having two fathers, and whether it's difficult for a biracial child to have two Caucasian fathers. I am proud of being an adoptive parent and love my son more than words can ever express. I often tell our story to friends and even business associates, because I feel that being parents is the most amazing gift that my partner and I ever received. But to people we hardly know or don’t know? I’d prefer to say, “It’s none of your business,” but I’ll bet there’s a better way? – Name Withheld, MA
Indeed, I can imagine all kinds of snarky retorts you could make to intrusive questions about your family, starting with the one posted in response to your question on my Facebook page: “I found your nose. It was in my business.”
But as tempting as it may be to snap off a one-liner, I’m sorry to say this isn’t the time for sass or snark. As much as I detest this phrase, your quandary is “a teachable moment.” With Father’s Day (but make it plural when there are two dads) coming up, this is a great time to let the world know just how fortunate all three of you are and, yes, what an “amazing gift” your son is. With more than two million children being raised in L.G.B.T. families in the United States, many straight people (even die-hard fans of “Modern Family” haven’t had firsthand experience with such a clan. For them, it can be a new and unfamiliar situation when Hank has two daddies. You may not invite the spotlight, but there it is, pointed right at you in the checkout line.
Instead of a sharp retort, I’d start with a question, “Why do you ask?” You may be surprised — some of those nosy parkers may actually be considering fostering or adopting. Most people, though, are probably just curious and don’t mean to be rude. For them, I say put on your gracious face and use the opportunity to answer the question, which is really about how our families are different, yet the same. Just as many straight folks’ attitudes about marriage equality have changed by knowing same-sex couples, these situations are just crying out loud for some “educating.” Andy Miller, who, with his partner, Brian Stephens, co-founded The Handsome Father, an online community for gay dads (and together are parents of 6-year-old Clark), put it to me this way:
“I try to remember that people are often curious about things that are unique or rare. It doesn’t mean that they are trying to be rude, rather they are taking advantage of a situation where they can get information directly from a knowledgeable source — you. I think many parents love telling the stories of how their families came to be. Let’s face it: gay parents’ stories are often full of drama, mystery, suspense, politics, family dynamics and decisions most families never have to make. Who wouldn’t want to hear that story?”
On the other hand, you’re under no obligation to reveal personal information to strangers, or there may be occasions when it’s simply not the right time. I asked my 16-year-old niece Jessie (who has two moms of her own) for her advice since I know she is often asked, “Who is your real mom?” or “Are you adopted?” She told me: “By no means should you feel any pressure to answer these questions. It’s equivalent to a complete stranger asking a heterosexual couple the intimate details of their child’s infancy and life, which would be considered unacceptable and rude.” (By the way, if your son isn’t yet privy to the details of his birth then you must shut down any questions in his presence with a firm: “This is not a good time” or just reply with a non sequitur: “Thanks! Isn’t he an amazing kid? We feel so blessed to have him as our son.”)
With kids being bullied for having same-sex parents, safety also needs to be factored into how you answer (or don’t). A lesbian mom to a 7-year-old posted that some “of us who became parents through adoption or sperm/egg donation often want to keep it ‘private’ for safety reasons.” In fact, a recent survey by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network found that children with same-sex parents (as well as L.G.B.T. kids themselves) are bullied more often than others.
Of course, intrusive questions are not the provenance of gay dads or moms. Adoptive parents, straight or gay, have been dealing with Gladys Kravitz and other busybodies for time immemorial, especially if the children are of a different race or ethnicity. A Facebook poster noted: “For foster kids, people want to know the birth parent’s drug history and cognitive functioning! Even though curiosity is a great human trait, in certain cases, it’s best just not to scratch that itch.” To those well-meaning folks who are curious: Ask yourself, first, “Why I am thinking of asking this question?” Every query doesn’t need to see the light of day.
Finally, stay on the lookout for questions that begin with, “Don’t you think ...?” More often than not, this is a tip-off for a judgment-in-waiting or someone more interested in telling you what she thinks than listening to you. As Andy Miller put it: “Someone who is not trying to learn from your experience should not have the privilege of hearing about it. Tell those folks to move along.” Or do what my niece does: “If you don’t like their tone, there‘s nothing wrong with stating politely that you would rather talk about something else.”
With that all said, Happy Father’s Day to you and your husband.
Originally published in The New York Times, June 11, 2013