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Above All Fathers First

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Before living as gay men, they were fathers and husbands. These men would always be dads, yet one adjective changed most everything: gay.

By Leigh Bell.

See also
Our House DVD
Happy Father’s Day, by Jack Berger

FathersFirstThe number of openly gay-dad families increases as public opinion of gays improves, and men who denied their sexuality with marriage are coming out.

“Forty years ago, they may have gone after the parents as a criminal because the stigma was far greater,” writes Mike Allen in an e-mail to this reporter. Allen, a professor of communications at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has extensively researched homosexual parenting. “A lot of public persons now are out, and some are role models even for others. The outing of Dumbledore and no mass burning of books indicates some social change,” adds Allen. He is referring to a revelation last year at New York’s Carnegie Hall, when J. K. “Jo” Rowling, mega-selling author of the Harry Potter series, disclosed that she had “always thought of Dumbledore [a major character in her books] as gay.”

OurHouseThe truth may set you free, but it always comes with a price. A gay man (and certainly a woman, too) experiences the typical tribulations of divorce along with a flock of additional complications related to his sexuality. He must face children whose father is not only gay, but abruptly and patently changed from the father they had always known. What will my children think of me? Will they still love me? Will they abandon me? And if the children are accepting, he will be co-raising his children with an ex-wife, who likely has issues with her ex’s recently revealed sexuality. Will my ex-wife turn my children against me? Will she let me see my kids? Will a judge rule custody in her favor because I’m gay?

The greatest fear is simple and searing: Will I lose my children?

The law normally prevents that from happening to a responsible father, gay or not. Texas family code bases custody decisions on the best interests of the child and bans any discrimination based on sexual preference, says Gae Preston, a solo-practicing local attorney who has represented several gay man in divorce proceedings.

“The question is this: Is this a good dad or a good mom?” Preston says. “But so many issues come into play when it comes to the best interests of a child. If we have someone who is sexually acting out, and that impairs the caretaking of a child or puts the children into harm’s way, that’s going to play out whether the mom as an affair with her boss who’s male or with a lesbian.”

Research consistently shows that homosexuality has no effect on a person’s ability to parent. “We have conducted over 100 meta-analyses, and never seen [any effect],” Allen writes. “Being a good a parent is being a good parent.”

Preston says, from her experience, judges have never based custody decisions on a parent’s sexual preference. But it has happened elsewhere in the past.

“People are freer to come out at this point,” she says. “But like in the 1950s, a guy would have gotten married and stayed married … because he didn’t want to lose his kids forever. However, I think more and more we are treating gay people as real people, rather than some kind of aberration we have to shield our kids from. The law has to reflect the changes.”

After all, these men were fathers first.

STEVEN PONDER

Steven Ponder had already lost one son to leukemia. He couldn’t imagine losing the other one. So he waited to tell his then-college-aged son Eric what he’d already admitted to his ex-wife after their divorce several years before: I am gay.

“I was scared to death,” Ponder says. Then, all the worst-case scenarios he imagined came true. “He was surprised, and in the next few months, he began to withdraw from me. I would reach out, and he would further withdraw. Then he became verbally abusive.”

Their relationship dwindled to birthday cards and Christmas presents that Ponder sent with little response. With his son so distant, Ponder realized there was nothing more he could do but trust that nearly 20 years of love would triumph over one word: homosexual .

“There was probably not a day that didn’t go by that I didn’t think I had lost him,” Ponder says. Tears formed in his eyes but never dropped as we talked in the lobby of his downtown office building where he works for a pipeline company. “At the very least, he could see that I was being honest. When he was growing up, I always said honesty is the best thing we can teach him.”

Like so many children who are older teenagers when they learn a parent is gay, Eric likely grappled with his father’s identity. Had his father lived a lie for the more than 20 years his parents were married? Was he a fake? The answer was no and no.

When 56-year-old Ponder was growing up, he was attracted to males, but being gay wasn’t an acceptable option in his small, straight-laced South Carolina town–not when he was boy, and certainly not when he grew up to be music director of a local church.

Those few years when he and his son hardly spoke passed like decades. Ponder had moved to Houston and left his musical career for far less pay in corporate America. But he was at peace, this coming from a man who once seriously contemplated suicide. Then his son came around–miraculously, inexplicably–after graduating this spring from National Guard basic training.

“We’re still not as close as I would like to be,” Ponder says, “but there’s contact and phone calls. He calls me, and I’m just overwhelmed. I always knew it would happen. I just didn’t know when.”

After all, he was a father first.

ROB SCAMARDO AND ALEX McDOUGALD

In the middle of the restaurant, Alex McDougald and partner Rob Scamardo said hello with a quick hug and a short kiss. The intimacy between them was so natural and palpable; I struggled to imagine that just five years ago they were both married to women.

Now, they are the self-proclaimed “Gaydy Bunch.” McDougald, an electrical engineer, and Scamardo, an attorney, each have three children. Both have two girls and a boy of almost the same ages, ranging from almost 10 years old to 16. Every other week the six children stay at the men’s shared home, and somehow everyone gets along.

Scamardo’s eldest daughter, 16-year-old Meg, introduces McDougald as her stepdad. McDougald scrolled through his cell phone to bring up a text from Meg that read: “UR the best partner my gay dad could have.” This was the one of all six children who had the most difficulty accepting the redefined family. Because the children were quite young, roughly 6, 8, and 12 years old, when their dads came out, they have grown into the idea as their understanding of homosexuality expands.

A mantra among gay fathers is “earlier is better” when coming out to their children, Scamardo says, because their idea of sexuality is still developing, and their understanding of being gay continues to change over time. “But that’s the thing about coming out to kids,” he says, “you have to come out multiple times. It’s scary, but the younger your children are, the better it is that you’re honest about who you are.”

Both Scamardo and McDougald realized an attraction to the same sex from a young age, but like so many boys, teenagers, and young men with similar feelings 30 and 40 years ago, they suppressed it because society essentially scorned it. Their close-knit religious families made the leap seem further than the state of Texas. They grasped a false hope that marriage would make them “alright.” Now, the women with whom they sought redemption are ex-wives and co-parents in the rearing of their six children.

The wives have been forced to face the truth that their children have gay fathers, and Scamardo and McDougald said each has done so to differing degrees. That’s despite “morality clauses” in both men’s divorce decrees that said no one could spend the night with the men while the children were there. Morality clauses are not unusual in divorces, states attorney Preston, but they discriminate against homosexuals if they apply until the ex-wife or ex-husband is married, which remains impossible for gays in Texas.

McDougald’s morality clause ended after three years, and, Scamardo says, the morality clause is no longer an issue with his ex-wife because “she came to know that the kids were enjoying each other so much that she didn’t make a deal about it.” And despite strong religious beliefs held by McDougald’s ex-wife, he said she has come around to the reality that her children spend half their lives under the roof of two gay men.

“Us normalizing our household, if you want to use the word normal , changed things,” McDougald says. “So when the kids saw that we were just another household, just another family, they took that back to their moms, which took all the fear away from it.”

Today, these dads take all six kids to Schlitterbahn each summer. They go camping, host birthday parties, and, well, do the things that dads do.

“When kids see unconditional love displayed, that will trump any message they get from other people,” McDougald says. “Now, our kids have experienced our home and our love. The stereotypes that they hear don’t fit with us. That’s the way you get past the prejudice. You bring it out in the open and let people see it.”

After all, they were fathers first.

 

GARY NAGLER

Meet Andrew Nagler and he’ll sooner than later drop the phrase: “Dad and my dad’s partner.” The same question always follows: “Is your dad gay?”

“Yes,” the 21-year-old college student answers. “If you have a problem with that, we can’t be friends.”

Andrew has accepted his father’s sexuality since Gary Nagler came out to his three children after being married to their mother for 27 years. Andrew, then 16 and the only child still living at home, never had a problem with it. “Cool, Dad,” he said.

Andrew’s older brother and sister, who had already left home for their own careers, struggled but eventually came around to the truth, as did their mother. Yet, the entire family had to redefine their structure that for almost 30 years was like most everybody else on the block. Dad worked as an attorney; Mom stayed home. The kids grew up, went to college, and got jobs.

Fifty-four-year-old Nagler didn’t live a lie. For years he couldn’t get his head around what he long sensed – he was gay. Decades later he did.

“My kids were probably my central part as to what caused me to come out later in life,” Nagler says from the home he shares with partner Cody Bowman. “I felt I had a commitment to a family, and I didn’t want my then-wife to be in a role as parent on her own, and I didn’t want to miss out raising my children in a direct sense. The possibility didn’t seem to be there.”

Nagler thought the coming-out conversation to his wife would be the most difficult, but that same discussion with his children turned out to be. He would fundamentally change their lives in a single sitting. His wife agreed to be there to support him.

“It was so difficult to look them in the eye and tell them something that I thought would change their perception of the world,” Nagler says. “They would know one more thing about me than they ever did before.” Would they still love me? Yes. As mature adults, they processed the reality with grown minds and perceptions of the world.

The next step for Nagler was introducing the children to Bowman, who is almost 20 years his junior. Ironically, the age difference eased this process.

“They never really saw me as coming into that parental role,” Bowman says. “I think sometimes I get looked upon as the big brother. I get more of the advice things, I get the advice questions.”

There is a mutual respect between Bowman and Nagler’s ex-wife, who is now remarried, and the families get on as a whole. Andrew sees in his father the same man he always has.

“The only thing different is that he goes home to a guy every night,” he says. “I’ve always said that as long as he is happy, I’m happy.”

After all, Nagler was a father first.

Leigh Bell is a Houston-based freelance reporter. Last month she reported on Jay Bakker and Soul Force.
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Our House DVD

What is it like growing up with gay or lesbian parents? This doc spends time with sons and daughters of five lesbian and gay families throughout urban, suburban, and rural America. Sure enough, there are the usual highs and lows—then there are also varied reactions from extended family, classmates, teachers, neighbors, public officials, and other outsiders. • 2000. Directed by Meema Spadola. • From First Run Features (www.firstrunfeatures.com). —Eric A.T. Dieckman

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Happy Father’s Day
By Jack Berger

The month of June means even more than the celebration of Gay Pride for a select group of gay men. We are the Proud, the Few, the Dads! Much like the Marines, we landed on the beach with our best swimmers and claimed our stake. Nine months later we were fathers!

Being a dad is a common occurrence. Being a gay dad is a challenge, a series of tests, a battery of trials and, above everything, a blessing.

What a joy to get a card, e-mail or a call with a “Happy Father’s Day” message. It’s even better when you get to wake up to “Happy Father’s Day, Dad” in person, followed quickly by “Now get your yourself into that kitchen and make us some pancakes! After all, it is Father’s Day and you should have something nice for breakfast! And later, you should probably take us out to a decent lunch to celebrate, too.”

My sons are 9 and 13, old enough to know better and young enough to still like me. After all, what’s not to like about an ATM that can chauffeur them around!

I’m one of the lucky ones. My family, my ex’s family and the folks I care most about know I’m gay. Coming out four short years ago was made much easier once I met some guys facing a similar situation.

Thanks to a support group called Fathers First that meets each Monday night at 8 p.m. at Bering Memorial United Methodist Church, men like me get the encouragement and support needed to be honest with ourselves and confront the fact that we are gay.

We all enter with the trepidation that we are the Lone Ranger—the only one facing this situation. But we quickly learn that there are many of us out there. The local group has some 70 members currently. Some men stay married, some are separated for a long while and some sprint to the divorce court.

And that’s OK. Everyone has his own timetable. For me, it was a separation for six months followed by an ultra-friendly divorce process. Most are not so fortunate.

The process can be short and sweet or long and nasty—it just depends on the individuals involved. But, to a man, what usually results is happier adults and much, much happier kids.

At Fathers First we confidentially talk about everything from dealing with exes, in-laws, parents and especially our kids. We progress into dating, relationships, partners and the phases of being a gay dad that follow divorce.

Fathers First provides hope, friendship and understanding; when you have been married for five, 15, or 25 or more years and are jumping into something this huge, it’s nice to have a built-in support network.

If you are fortunate enough to have a Dad that is still alive, whom you have a relationship with, please call him and thank him as much as you can. If you don’t have a great relationship, send a card anyway. Or maybe just e-mail.

And if you are as lucky as I am, I will call my Dad and tell him how much I love him. Then I will get myself behind the griddle.

“Those pancakes aren’t going to cook themselves, Dad!”

 

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