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Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

Polite curiosity about one’s children is nothing new. But when you’re gay parents, you must prepare to be interrogated.

Photo: MultipleParent. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Photo: MultipleParent. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

When one meets a femme d’un certain age with an unusually perky figure, one does not ask her whether her bosom is real, or even whether her rhinestones are. One does not ask, upon first encountering an interracial couple, to what extent their parents were horrified by the match. One does not inquire of people who work in finance whether they have ever had a felony conviction. As Alice memorably told the Mad Hatter, “You should learn not to make personal remarks; it’s very rude.”

As a gay man with children, however, I am frequently asked, “Where did you get them?” — a question I would be cautious of asking a stranger about his socks. If I deflect the inquiry, I am often then asked, “How old were they when you got them?” as though gay people mostly get children in assorted states of maturity from handbags left on church steps. Or I am asked whether I or my husband is the “real father,” which would seem to suggest that the “unreal” one of us had signed on for sleepless nights and potty training entirely for social advancement.

The details of conception are a rather unusual place to begin conversation even with heterosexual couples, and call me a Victorian throwback if you must, but I prefer not to discuss the physical details of my reproductive activities with people who have not yet told me their surname. I know that our family makes some people anxious, and I’d love to assuage their discomfort. I have written about exactly where and how my husband and I got our children in the conclusion of my new book, Far from the Tree. I have written about it because I hope to normalize other people’s interactions with gay parents and their children. For the record, I have a daughter with a college friend, and they both live in Texas; I have a son of whom I am the biological father and of whom my husband is the adoptive father; my husband is the biological father of two children who live with their lesbian mothers in Minneapolis; and the member of that lesbian couple who is the biological mother of the two children of whom my husband is the biological father was our surrogate for the pregnancy of our son, whom we conceived with a donor egg. All four children call me Daddy. The apparently innocuous question, “How many children do you have?” necessitates a monologue that I have only lately managed to reduce to this paragraph.

None of it, then, is a big secret, but I’m afraid that does not entirely mitigate the prurience of questions about whether I had to use the cup, and if so, whether I brought my own “materials” to the hospital for that purpose. This is a topic about which one would not choose to be interrogated, as I have been in the past few months alone, by a business acquaintance who had arranged a disastrous investment, by a tipsy neighbor at a protracted dinner party, by the man who was hanging the bathroom wallpaper, or by a person with obstructive hand luggage who was making conversation while a short haul flight climbed to cruising altitude.

Reflections on my children’s place in the social order are also a regular feature. I was recently at a lunch at which someone who had spent a little time with my extended family said, “Isn’t it wonderful how your father accepts your children?” I admire my father’s spirit of openness in general and feel fortunate to bask in his affection, but I’d prefer not to be asked, in the middle of a game of sticks with my children, to evince amazement that their grandfather loves them. I’d like them to grow up thinking that they are just as adorable as anyone else’s children.

It is also of concern that so many people, upon learning that we have biological progeny, say, “Oh, but there are so many children who want good homes.” I admire friends who have chosen to adopt abandoned children. My husband and his sister were adopted by wonderful parents who gave them a fantastic start in life. But I’m not entirely clear on why our choice to produce genetically linked children is subject to censure from people who have effectively made the same choice — and whom I am meeting for the first time. In keeping with the admonition from Alice in Wonderland, I would be wary of suggesting to such people that their child ought to get a haircut, for example, or would do well to look adults in the eye when being introduced. If elegance is refusal, etiquette is restraint.

I’m especially not keen on being asked at passport control where my son’s mother is, and why she isn’t traveling with us. We have the paperwork to show that my husband and I are his legal parents, but since the federal government doesn’t recognize our marriage, the question of whether we constitute a “family” when we come through customs is open to debate — a debate several customs officers we’ve encountered have taken it upon themselves to adjudicate disparately. The rules are bad and vague, a situation curiously reminiscent of such loci of misery as Mao’s Great Leap Forward and my fifth-grade gym class with Mr. Lombardi.

A year ago we attended an open house at the poetically named Preschool of the Arts without realizing that it was run by Lubavitch Jews. I held out my hand to the head of school and said, “Hello, my name is Andrew, and we’re interested in this school for our son.” She said piously, “For religious reasons I cannot shake your hand, but” — and here she smiled warmly — “I can shake your wife’s hand.” I tried to match her grin of radiant authority and said, “But, alas, I don’t have a wife. I have a husband, and you probably can’t shake his hand, either.” We enrolled our son in a school run by the Presbyterian Church, an organization originally set up by Scottish Calvinists that seemed positively gleeful by contrast.

So consider, upon meeting gay parents, for instance, “What are their names?” Another tried-and-true question is “How old are they?” Also useful are “Have they started school yet?” and “Do they get along well?” I’d suggest that any question that warrants the ubiquitous preface, “I hope you don’t mind my asking you this, but…” be reserved until you are better acquainted.

Here’s the irony: If I didn’t have children, I wouldn’t really care about being asked where they come from. Just for myself, it’s usually good sport to shock the bourgeoisie. But given that I do in fact have children, I’d like to shield them from growing up thinking that our family relationships constantly need to be translated from some bewildering Urdu in which we lead our domestic life. I’d like to let them be themselves, rather than asking them to mean something. We have children who are the light of our lives, and that should, really, be enough information for everyone else to get on with. At least the first three times we meet.