Sunday, June 26, 2011
Gay Parenting. Before It Was Fashionable.
Will and I had been a couple for less than a year when my former wife decided to leave the commune and move to the country on the periphery of Montreal. As I understand it, that move was largely due to the tensions that surfaced around attitudes toward me and homosexuality after I had come out and moved out. Because the boys, about seven and eight at the time, were going to school in Montreal and commuting every day to her new home wasn't possible, she asked that I take them during the week, as we lived a short distance from their school. That meant my sons would be living with us all the time during the school year, except for those weekends when I hadn't been scheduled to see them by our separation agreement. Accordingly, Will and I left the McGill residences and moved into a large flat on the third floor of an old triplex in what was at the time a working class neighborhood of Montreal; a beautiful area on the edge of Mont Royal, long since gentrified.
There was enough room in the flat for a bed room and working space for Will, another for myself and one for the boys. Although Will and I enjoyed a very active sexual life together and with assorted others, we never in our fourteen year relationship slept together or shared bedrooms. One of the happy things about being gay at the time was that you felt perfectly free to establish your own living patterns as a couple; I don't think we ever questioned the "normalcy" of having separate bedrooms; nor do I remember anyone in our social network questioning our arrangement; a sign of the happy acceptance of difference within the counter-culture of the Seventies.
From my perspective Will was a somewhat mercurial person; given to intense expressions of love, passion and anger. I was a cerebral, not to be confused with necessarily reasonable, type; given to withdrawal in the face of conflict and not terribly demonstrative in the happiest of times. In some ways we were emotional contrasts; drawn together by common interests and our love and attraction for each other. Many therapists working with couples think contrasts are as important for the success of couple relationships as similarities; otherwise, they risk sinking rapidly into boredom and stagnation. While heterosexual couples almost automatically have their differences as men and women, same sex couples tend to import other differences into their relationships: contrasts in race, class, age and temperament continuing to be, I think, more striking in gay than straight couples. In the case of Will and myself, our contrasting personalities have been consonant with the professional directions of our lives and have nourished a concern and intimacy with each other that remains to this day.
Will lived mostly through a combination of teaching and writing; though he also did film reviews, regularly, on radio for the CBC and, occasionally, on television. His main, creative focus was on his writing; his first book, Terre Haute, received considerable recognition in the late Eighties. Will had never had any desire to have children and needed time alone without disturbance for his writing. I, also, needed time alone both for my own emotional well-being and to complete the intense assignments related to the accelerated programme in social work I had undertaken. We realized living with my two sons would be a significant challenge for us as a couple. It was a tribute to Will's love for me and our strength as a couple that we undertook that challenge with very little hesitation.
At the outset we decided together that we would want me to be seen by my two sons in the role of parent with Will being seen as my boyfriend, partner, lover; as far as possible, neither Will nor I wanted him to assume the role of a step-parent; clearly, an objective more clearly delineated than accomplished. Nevertheless, Will and I did manage to adhere to the parameters of that agreement through the time the boys lived with us, which was nearly to the time they were old enough to leave home. I took responsibility for setting out our expectations and limits related to the behaviour of the boys and for dealing with them if those were not observed. If Will had some objection to their behaviour, he would tell me and I would take up the issue with them. As might have been anticipated, there were difficult times and close times when our role division broke down.
The difficult times tended to occur when I wasn't at home and Will was alone with the boys. On one occasion I was at school and the boys were alone with him on a hot, spring afternoon. As with many districts of Montreal, there tended to be conflicts between the neighborhood children based largely on language; conflicts that were mainly good-natured, childhood adventures in which no one got seriously hurt. In our district those rivalries were between Greeks and Quebecois; because the Greeks were english speaking, my sons were more identified with them. Will was in his room writing when he heard a commotion outside on the street. As he passed the long, steep stairway on the way to investigate the noise, a mob of Quebecois boys came storming up them. They stopped as soon as they saw an adult, but were attempting to get at Raphael and Julian. It seems that they had been on the balcony pelting the french speaking boys below with balloons filled with water; provoking a near riot. That was one of many situations wherein Will didn't wait for me to fulfill my parental responsibilities. On another occasion of the more tender sort, one of the boys was snuggled up against Will on the couch, when he looked up at him and said, "Remember, you're not my Mommy."
Given that my sons were beginning to live with Will and me nearly full time, I thought it was important to attempt to talk with them, once again, about the nature of our relationship. Their friends were spending increasing amounts of time around us and I felt sure they would be asking questions about our family. In addition, I wanted it to be clear to them that I didn't leave their Mommy for Will; not to blame him for the fact we were no longer living together. My first attempt a year earlier had gone nowhere; at that time they were clearly too young to understand our difference and it wasn't that important to put a name to it or talk about it; in the present context I felt it was. I began by telling them that I had left their mother because I wanted to be free to love other people. They pointed out that Mommy loves other people. So, I moved on and told them Daddy wanted to love other people in a physical way, like hugging and kissing them. They replied that Mommy hugs and kisses other people, so I said that with me it goes a bit further; I wanted to have sex with other people, which drew a blank and I let the issue rest.
A short time later, hearing of some homophobic remarks having been made in their presence, I decided to try again; this time starting at the very beginning. I began by telling them that the story they usually hear about everyone growing up, falling in love, getting married and having children wasn't true: there are people who grow up and are happy living alone, people who live together and never marry or have children, some who love people of the opposite sex and some of the same sex. I told them that I loved and liked to have sex with people the same sex as me and that was a major reason why Mommy and Daddy no longer lived together; that people like me and Will were called gay. I told them of other people they knew who were also gay, like Jim, their babysitter, and that gay people could love each other just like Peter and Sheila, the other couple in our collective, loved each other. This time I could tell they had understood.
Seeing their understanding, I continued by telling them that some people, probably most, including those in the Church, thought being gay was wrong; they should be careful with whom they shared that they lived with two, gay men. Julian and Raphael both offered that they didn't think being gay was wrong, but one of them, rather astutely, remarked that they were sort of caught between me and their mother. If they liked gay people, then she wouldn't like it; if they didn't like gay people, I wouldn't like it. I responded that he was probably right and that when they grew up they'd have to make their own decisions on that issue; in the meantime, that I loved them and was proud to be their father. That was the last conversation we ever had about my being gay until they became adults. The only exception being that one of them, when he was in high school, asked that I not be too, too public about the fact, as in being frequently in the news. I respected that request. I don't really know how they handled the issue with their friends; except to say later that it wasn't an issue. Certainly, by the time they were in high school, when our house became the place to hang out, they all knew and I never felt the least hostility.
Our family was different in other ways than living with a gay father and his boyfriend: our decor and lifestyle were rather funky; there was much coming and going; dope-smoking a regular occurrence (the boys referred to dope as "sharing tobacco"). Their bunk bed was a creation by a former architectural student of mine that was constructed from cardboard forms for concrete posts as the uprights, two-by-fours for the cross pieces and foam for mattresses. The last place we lived was a hundred year old, former hotel with three floors and a stone basement that was were the boys and their friends hung out and played dungeons and dragons; the smell of dope rising through cracks in the floor boards into our living room.
Their social group identified with being mods, bought their clothes from thrift shops and rode scooters; both boys had second-hand scooters which they spent hours assembling and disassembling. At fifteen they started going to clubs, which wasn't that unusual in Montreal, and by sixteen they were hosting mod evenings in a downtown bar they rented from the husband of a fellow social worker. Julian formed a band that achieved some renown within their circle. At the time part of my responsibilities were with youth protection and I told both boys that were they caught in a bar for being under-age I'd rather not know until the next morning and I'd pretend I didn't know what they were up to. They were amused. One morning at three AM I woke up with pounding on the door and red lights flashing through the window blinds. The policeman at the door asked me where my son was and I replied that he was in bed, which I thought was the truth. He related they had received a call from a neighbor who had seen a kid climbing through one of our windows and I should check to see if he was, in fact, in bed; sure enough, he was cowering out of sight and used the excuse that he had come in by the window because he hadn't wanted to wake me. I was not amused, but, happily, the police were.
There was another member of our family adopted by Raphael: Stripe, aka, Woozer, a pit-bull type, born in a lane-way and offered free to a good home. He was a bright dog, very friendly to those invited into the home by a family member and terrifying to the un-invited, though he never actually bit anyone. He was admired by neighborhood punks for being so well hung and the source of many stories. "Woozer" was a nickname he acquired from his habit of howling every time he heard a siren. Julian later brought his own dog into the family, a Samoyed named Cyndy, who had lived with his mother; Cyndy was the beauty to Woozer's beast. The two dogs got along just fine and on the occasions they escaped from the backyard you could always find them walking down the side walk together on their way to the park.
I think we all had a good life together as a rather different sort of family; a very different sort of family at that point in history. We all remain close today and at the very least have no shortage of crazy, eccentric tales to share with our children and grandchildren. It was with sadness and disappointment that I later learned one of their friends, then in his early twenties, committed suicide, allegedly after coming out to his family and being rejected. The boys often related that he was unhappy in his adoptive family and I wish he had been comfortable enough to talk about it with us on one of the many times he was in our home. Another of their friends, Patrick, continued to be in contact with me, intermittently, for years after the boys had left home to make their ways in the world. I want to devote my next posting to Patrick.