If asked to describe a gay dad (like, an actual gay father with actual children), most people would probably picture the following kind of a guy: he’d no doubt be wealthy—a successful lawyer, maybe. He’d be living in an urban area like Los Angeles. And he’d most definitely be raising an adopted Vietnamese daughter alongside his sassy stay-at-home husband who sometimes moonlights as a football coach and professional clown.
Okay, yes, I just described Mitch and Cam from ABC’s Modern Family, but with good reason. Just as Will & Grace helped introduce and normalize gay men to Middle America for the first time on a mass scale, Modern Family has done the same for gay fathers.
But just how representative are Mitch and Cam (whose financial woes, according to a recent episode, are limited to deciding whether or not to splurge on a grand piano) of the modern queer dad experience?
According to researchers at the Williams Institute, not very.
“Describing the ‘average’ gay father isn’t easy,” cautioned Gary Gates, former Research Director of the Williams Institute, when I asked him to do just that. “But it is true that gay dads are more likely than their non-gay counterparts to be non-white and economically disadvantaged.”
In this way, Juan Jaimes Garcia, a gay Houston native, might have more to teach us about the current state of gay fatherhood in the country. When his daughter, Y’zvel, was born seven years ago, Juan was earning just $37,000 a year while working as a community health aid in a remote village in southwestern Alaska. Though it was enough to keep them above the poverty line, the state’s famously high cost of living made it difficult to get by.
In 2012, Juan and his daughter relocated back to Houston, hoping improved financial prospects might follow.
“But it was even harder than in Alaska, actually,” Juan told me. “I couldn’t get a job.”
Eventually, Juan joined the National Guard, which guaranteed him a steady income, but also meant long stretches away from his daughter.
“My mom had to care for my daughter because I was always away on missions,” Juan said. “It was really tough but I didn’t have any other option. I needed a way to provide for her.”
You may be wondering: if so many gay dads are, like Juan, struggling to make ends meet, how the hell are they affording all the costs associated with queer fatherhood? Surrogacy costs an average of $120,000, adoption can run upwards of $30,000, and a yearly voyage aboard one of Rosie O’Donnell’s LGBTQ family cruises will set you back $3,500.
Well, herein lies another way in which America’s favorite gay TV daddies differ dramatically from the norm; most queer men are still having kids the “old-fashion” (and cheapest) way—with a woman.
“A large portion of parenting among gay men is a result of different-gender relationships that occur when the parent is relatively young,” Gary Gates explained. “This pattern is more common among economically disadvantaged men, including racial and ethnic minorities.”
As it turns out, two-thirds of parents within the LBGTQ community identify as bisexual, so plenty of these men are likely choosing to enter into different-sex relationships intentionally. However, many others are doing so for the same reason LGBTQ people have formed such relationships for time immemorial—because of enduring stigmas and societal pressures.
Here, too, Juan’s path to fatherhood proves instructive. Juan became a father when he was just 19 years old and married to a woman. Though he had long been questioning his sexuality and had even discussed the subject with his wife, he feared life, as an openly gay man, would have been too difficult in rural Alaska.
“Being gay was something people just didn’t talk about,” Juan said. “I don’t think I could have really been accepted or had a career without being married to a female.”
But Juan had another strong motivation for pursuing a relationship with a woman, one common to many young low-income queer men: he felt it was his only chance to become a father.
“Realistically, as a gay 19-year-old, who was going to let me adopt?” Juan said when I asked if he’d considered alternative routes to fatherhood. “And I obviously didn’t have the money for surrogacy. Having a child like this seemed like the only way it was ever going to happen for me.”
Today, nine years after Modern Family first debuted, gay dads suddenly seem to be enjoying a pop culture moment. Practically every hit T.V. show these days features a token queer father. And famous gay couples are upping the visibility of LGBTQ parents by having kids in record numbers. Even the gaming world is getting in on the fun—last summer, Dream Daddy, a “dating simulator” where users play a sexy single gay dad looking for love, charted bestseller lists.
The increase in positive media portrayals of queer parenthood is certainly welcome. But most of these examples still perpetuate the myth that all queer dads are raking it in when they’re actually more likely than female or different-sex couples to be raising children in poverty.
For Juan, at least, things have improved dramatically. After his move to Houston, he began living openly for the first time as a single gay dad. Eventually, he found a good paying job with a local nonprofit, making it possible for Y’zvel to live with him full time. He’s also once again engaged to be married. He and his fiancé, Tommy Espinoza, have even discussed expanding their family. A good friend has offered to serve as an egg donor; now they’re just looking for a surrogate.
But even as Juan’s life inches closer to one you might see depicted in a family sitcom, he’s keeping a steady eye on the not-so-distant path behind him.
“Things are good right now,” he said. “I hope it stays that way.”