IT WAS two years ago, while on business in the United States and visiting, of all places, a YMCA, that Mike Dalziel had his first sexual encounter with a man. Returning home, full of guilt at having been unfaithful for the first time in almost two decades of marriage, Mike decided the moment had come – he would have to tell his wife and children that he was gay.
He told his wife first. She had understood, before their marriage, that he was bisexual, but of course it was a shock and a terrible upset. How, though, to tell the kids?
Mike is in his 40s. He and his wife have four children – two teenagers, two at primary school. The family home is in the countryside outside Glasgow. They were, he says, seen by friends as a sort of perfect family – well-heeled, middle-class, sociable, stalwarts of neighbourhood barbecues and birthdays. Now, though, here was Mike with his secret, which threatened to blow all that away.
Seeking advice from a sexual health clinic, Mike was told he should, perhaps, separate from his wife and family first and then, six months or a year down the line, explain to the children the real reason. “A lot of men do that,” he says over coffee in an Edinburgh café. “They make something up and then tell the children later on.
“I talked to my wife about this and she was, like, ‘Well, I’m not happy with that. We should tell them the truth.’ I agreed. So we sat them down – the two older ones and two younger ones at separate times.”
He wasn’t that anxious about how they would react. They had been raised aware and accepting of homosexuality. “We had quite a bad way of introducing it, though. We said, ‘We want to tell you something. One of the reasons why Dad has lost so much weight lately, and Mum has lost so much weight, is because we’ve been quite worried about something.’ So, immediately, they think we’ve got some disease. But then, basically, I think I just said, ‘I’m gay,’ and my daughter went, ‘That’s fine. Thanks very much for sharing that with us.’ But the worst bit was we then had to say, ‘Well, Dad’s going to move out.’ That was harder. It’s just a normal break-up, but a lot harder.”
Mike is a gay dad. Sounds oxymoronic, doesn’t it? A contradiction in terms. Something to be played for laughs. Yet the situation is more common than you might think.
Across Scotland, gay men will have woken up this morning, perhaps beside a male partner, to find a handmade Father’s Day card on the bedside table. There are thought to be 12,000 same-sex couples raising children in the UK, an increase of 300 per cent since 2010. A survey by anti-discrimination group Beyond Barriers ten years ago suggested one in five lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in Scotland had children, the vast majority being the offspring of previous heterosexual relationships. It seems likely that in the decade since, given changes in the law to allow civil partnerships and to allow same-sex couples to adopt jointly, that the numbers will have increased.
Mike’s children have been very good about it, he says. His eldest has some anger, though that is more to do with the fact that Mike moved away from the family home to the city. But he had to do that, he says, for the sake of his own mental health – he was going through such a radical reshaping of his identity.
Does he have any regrets? “Even now, I’d much rather be straight,” he says. “Not that I’d change myself, but if I wanted my children to have simple lives, it would be so much easier. I would love to go back to my old life. But I can’t.”
Ewan Jeffrey, 59, is the chair of Gay Dads Scotland – a support group for homosexual men who are fathers. “People come along very commonly with the burning question of ‘How do I tell my children?’” he says.
They meet on the last Thursday of the month at the LGBT Centre in Edinburgh’s Broughton Street. All are welcome. Most members are middle-aged, a result of growing up, marrying and having families during a period when homosexuality was either illegal or despised or both. Some are still married. The few younger men tend to be from religious backgrounds – Catholics, Mormons, Plymouth Brethren, Jehovah’s Witnesses – which they feel makes it difficult for them to come out without risking rejection by faith and family. “Lots of guys who thought they were gay persuaded themselves they weren’t, or they got married because it was societally expected of them,” says Jeffrey.
“Then, in later life, it eats away at them and they go, ‘This isn’t my true identity. Yet I love my wife. I love my children.’ Many of them subordinate it for years, internalise it. Eventually there comes a point, and this can be five or 30 years into a marriage, where there’s a conversation with their spouse – ‘I’m sorry. There’s something I have to tell you…’ That’s the second-hardest thing to do. The hardest thing is to tell your children.”
Fear of rejection, that’s what keeps most gay fathers in the closet. Fear, too, of hurting the very children whom you have spent your life trying to shield from pain. Jeffrey himself lived with his female partner for almost 15 years and raised her child as his son. He came out 11 years ago. “My ex and I sat down with my son, who was 16, and I said, ‘I am gay. We are getting separated. But we still love you very much and we are still your parents.’ He and I have a fantastic relationship, and my ex and I have a fantastic relationship. I was at her wedding when she got remarried, and so was my new partner. ‘Gay dads are cool,’ according to my son.”
There is some debate as to what is the optimum age for children to learn that their father is gay. Some argue that when they are still quite young is best, as they simply absorb information without getting bound up in and stressed by the complex implications. It is thought that children who are going through puberty might find it difficult to deal with the knowledge at a time when they themselves are discovering their sexuality.
Jeffrey believes the best way to do it is for the mother and father to speak to the child or children together – explaining that the marriage is ending (if, indeed, it is; some come to an understanding and carry on) and why.
How, generally, do children react, in his experience? “Overwhelmingly, it’s not an issue. In some cases the reaction is, ‘I worked that out myself.’ One man told me he almost crashed his car on the M8 when the question came from the back seat, ‘Dad, are you gay?’ It’s not the sort of conversation you want to have when making eye-contact in the rear-view mirror.
“Often children will say, ‘I’m proud of you, Dad.’ Somebody at our last meeting said that when he had come out, his younger son kicked him and said, ‘I hate you’ and rushed over to his mum. His older son came over and gave him a hug and said, ‘I still love you Dad.’ I think a lot of children recognise that it has not been easy for their dad to tell them this information, and they are often a bit frustrated that it has taken him so long to come out with it.
“The only rejections that have happened in the ten years I’ve been involved with the group came when the separation had been handled really badly and the mum has been really upset and influenced the children against their dad.”
Increasingly, the route of gay men into parenthood is through adoption, fostering or surrogacy. The percentage of children seeking adoption who are placed with same-sex couple adopters has almost doubled since 2008, although it remains a tiny proportion of the overall figures; approximately one in 20 adoptions in the UK last year were to same-sex couples. While gay couples might once have met with institutionalised disapproval from those empowered to find stable and loving homes for children, they are now regarded as an important resource.
It is estimated that if just two per cent of LGBT people came forward to foster or adopt, the shortfall in numbers of willing potential parents could be met. The law in Scotland changed in 2010, allowing same-sex couples to adopt jointly; previously, gay people could only adopt individually, with their partners given no legal parental rights.
The issue became controversial earlier this year when St Margaret’s Children and Family Care Society, a Glasgow-based voluntary adoption agency part-funded by the Catholic Church, was warned by the body that regulates Scottish charities that it could no longer operate if it continued to seek to place children preferentially with a married mother and father as this discriminates against unmarried and same-sex couples. St Margaret’s is attempting to have this ruling overturned. The controversy demonstrates that the idea of children being raised by gay parents is by no means accepted universally in 21st-century Scotland.
Alan and Stuart are gay dads. Alan is in his early 30s, Stuart 12 years older. They have been a couple for six years and civil partners since 2010. They plan to marry if and when the Scottish Government passes legislation allowing it. They have a 17-month-old son, Jack, who plays and babbles happily as we talk in their living room. He calls Alan “daddy” and Stuart “papa”, but they are both his fathers. “I’ve always wanted kids,” says Alan.
“I’ve got a big family, with lots of nieces and nephews. But because I was gay, I didn’t think I’d be able to have them. We considered all the different routes – surrogacy, fostering – but we decided on adoption. I didn’t think it would be possible, because we’re gay. But we approached a few agencies, and Scottish Adoption was by far the best.”
They learned it might take a long time to go through the adoption process, and while there would be no official discrimination, there was every chance that a social worker, when making a choice between placing a child with a man and a woman, or a two men, might well decide the child’s best interests would be met by the former. They expected, therefore, to encounter some prejudice among those considering their fitness as parents. But they were pleased to find this was not the case. “We were very fortunate,” says Stuart, “in that birth parents get asked their opinion as to how their child is brought up, and one of the things his mother said is that she would really like two guys to bring him up. That was because she knew a gay couple and she thought he would get a good life. That put us to the top of the list right away. So what we thought would take five, six years, only took three.”
In the summer of last year they were told there was a child for them. In November, they became his parents. What was it like, meeting him for the first time? “It was like all your Christmases together,” says Stuart. “Absolutely brilliant.”
“The best thing ever in my life,” says Alan. “I think I’ve known him since he was born. I feel that connection with him. It was very, very emotional. To me, being a father is just the best thing in the world.”
Alan is a full-time dad. Stuart took a fortnight’s paternity leave and then returned to work. In their new family, they explain, Alan is effectively the full-time carer; Stuart is the breadwinner. Their relationship has been strengthened by fatherhood, they say. They are a stronger couple for being a family.
Stuart has two children from a previous marriage, sons now in their early 20s. He and his wife split up 20 years ago. As a father himself, he knew fatherhood was “a missing part” of Alan’s life, and was keen that he experience it. For him, too, it felt like unfinished business. There were a number of years when he hardly saw his children at all. His ex-wife’s new husband was, he says, homophobic. It was only after she got divorced again that he renewed his relationship with his teenage sons. So this, now, is a second chance.
As they go about their life as a family – to cafés, the park, the doctor – they experience no bigotry, they say. Sometimes someone will say to Jack, “Oh, you’re gorgeous. Your mummy and daddy must be so proud of you.” But they understand that this is a good-hearted assumption. They look forward without apprehension to Jack starting nursery and then school. When he is older and perhaps asks why he has two dads when most other kids have a mum and dad, they will speak to him honestly and positively about his adoption. He will have plenty of female influence in his life, they say, in the form of a multitude of aunties and a brace of doting grannies.
Rather than their sexuality being a negative, there are positives gay couples can bring to adoption, according to social workers in a recent survey. Same-sex couples are often coming to adoption as a first choice, rather than as a compromise following years of frustrating attempts at natural birth. Also, as people who have experience of what it means to grow up feeling different, they are often well-equipped to communicate with and support an adopted child.
For men who have come out in later life, and whose children have had to get used not only to their mother and father no longer being together, but to the possibility of their father being with another man, relationships are often rather more complex. Mike Dalziel has been with his partner for a year, and the children know him simply as a friend of their father. “He’s actually a bit reluctant to spend time with them, which is a small area of conflict. But I’m also not completely sure,” says Mike. “Do you all hang out in the evening and then Dad and his boyfriend go to bed and then you see Dad and his boyfriend the following morning in dressing gowns? How does it all work?”
What about on the gay scene? What was the reaction when he came out as a father? “It’s just part of the mix now. From a sexual point of view, I think it makes you more desirable. People think, ‘My God, he’s 40, he’s masculine, he has fathered children.’ I think the community’s fairly accepting. I also think there are so many gay men out there from their late-20s to mid-40s who look back on their life and think, ‘Jesus, it has all just been about shallow sex, selfishness and materialism.’ I think I’m lucky to have children. If I can hold it all together, I’ve got the best of both worlds. I’m a dad, one day I may be a grandad.”
We are still some distance from the day when such stories are unremarkable – when a gay dad is simply a dad who is gay. Yet that, doubtless, is the direction of traffic. Something to think about today of all days.
“I can’t wait to have my first Father’s Day card,” says Alan, as Jack gets off his dad’s knee and toddles over to his other dad for a grape. He smiles at his son. “You’re a good wee boy.” n