by Rumaan Alam
Once — during one of those conversations in which you and a spouse/friend/coworker are formulating an alternate reality — my husband suggested that we move to Japan and become reality television stars. We’re an interracial gay couple with the two cutest kids in the universe. In this country, we get occasional stares. In Japan, I’m confident we could be stars.
Gossip personality Perez Hilton is going to co-produce and star in a reality television show about gay dads, right here in America. It has a very descriptive name: “Gay Dads Of New York.” We are not going to be on it. We weren’t asked to be, nothing like that, and we’re not the kind of people who would do well on reality television, anyway; neither of us has ever said “I’m not here to make friends.” (We’re not, though.)
It goes without saying that reality television has very little to do with reality. What such programming represents isn’t a realistic depiction of a thing; it’s the elevation of that thing to cultural prominence. It’s the Tyler Perry conundrum. The popular culture will reckon with someone who is, on paper, representative of me. Does it have to be that guy?
In 2010, at the ages of 63 and 48, Elton John and his partner David Furnish became fathers. They had a second son earlier this year. With respect to parenting, biological age is not for men the concern it is for women. I do not know Sir Elton, and would not guess at his motives for fathering a child, and I’d hasten to point out that I don’t think anyone’s motives for bringing a child into this world are unimpeachable. Parenting is love, sure, but it’s as much about receiving love as it is giving it. Parenthood is a kind of vanity.
Vanity is a sensitive subject for gay men. When I became a father for the first time, someone I don’t know very well made a joke about a Gucci diaper bag, as though fatherhood were merely an excuse to accessorize. By extension, I guess, the baby would be the ultimate accessory. You could say that Elton John had his fill of Alain Mikli, and wanted something more special — just as you could say that Madonna, in choosing to adopt a child at the age of forty-eight, was simply parroting Angelina Jolie, who adopted three of her six children, but if you’re saying that, you’re arguing that children are simply objects to be collected. Stars are just like us, remember? They’re celebrities, not sociopaths. I have to believe they love their children.
The only people I know with a Gucci diaper bag are a straight couple.
I don’t want the staggeringly wealthy Elton John and his family to represent the standard of gay fatherhood any more than straight people want the stunningly beautiful Angelina Jolie and her family to represent the standard of heterosexual parenthood. Stars are outliers; stars are exceptions. Reality television, despite its fakery, traffics in the opposite of stardom, even as it elevates its participants towards fame. For god’s sake, there are about a hundred reality shows about cake.
Bunim/Murray and Perez Hilton are poised to influence the popular perception of gay male parenthood, a perception heretofore largely shaped by the sitcom “Modern Family,” a show I have not ever seen but which approximately ten thousand strangers have mentioned to me upon learning that I am a gay father.
Unfortunately, I assume that, in the service of making a compelling program, not documentary television, Bunim/Murray will build the action of their show around couples bickering, montages of shopping and brunching, telephone calls conducted via speakerphone — all decorated with the occasional camera pan to baby’s beautiful face. Babies just drool and poop and cry, hardly the stuff of great television. And older children… well, my elder son is a capable conversationalist, but most of our chats revolve around types of trucks. It’s boring even to me.
But that boringness could be quite compelling in a reality show, as it would inevitably remind viewers of the parenting they practice, or the parenting they received. Our common humanity, and all that jazz. But reality television isn’t in the business of celebrating our common humanity, unfortunately.
Most of us, myself included, have heterosexual parents. Being curious about parents who are not doesn’t seem especially malicious to me. I’m aware that gay men and women have been raising families for years before my own family came along, but so too am I aware that my kids and their contemporaries will be a generation for whom having gay parents is a kind of normal. We have, to some degree, television to thank for this.
I’m sure there are teen moms who rage at “Teen Mom”; I’m sure some people who bake cakes watch one of those shows about cake and shake their heads and cry. I know the purpose of reality television is not to represent reality, but selfishly, if the class of which I find myself a part is to be represented on television, I want it to be well-represented. I realize it probably won’t be.
My husband and I often say that we’re the most traditional family we know. We were introduced by a mutual friend, we dated, we got married, a year later we had a baby, a couple years later, we had another. I cook dinner, he washes dishes; we both change diapers, wipe tears, give baths, build elaborate highway scenarios on the floor of the dining room, read the same books over and over again, then when everyone’s asleep, we eat dinner in front of the television, and are in bed by nine-thirty. Gay parenthood is just like regular old straight parenthood; tedium leavened, on occasion, by magic. Like when I said goodbye to my 15-month-old son last Wednesday and he said, clear as day, “I love you,” and rested his cheek against my lapel, drool trickling onto my blazer.
We live in New York City, where the bar for freakdom is extraordinarily high. We get stares, but they’re often sort of… kind-hearted. I’ve seen frowning women soften as they realize what’s going on, or people taking in me, our boys, my husband, and trying to do some complicated math. I’ve had people tell me, apropos of nothing, just how much both of my sons look like me. I’m not sure why they do it — it’s like they want me to know they’re trying to figure us out, and anyway, it’s patently untrue. As my sons are both gorgeous, I take it as a very high compliment.
I’m sure there have been “faggots” muttered under breath, I’m sure there have been people who want to pray for us, or feel sorry for my kids, or judgmental about the people who entrusted us with the privilege of being parents. But for the most part, when people stare, I think it’s with no particular ill intention. When my older son was an infant, a woman on the subway asked us if he was ours. I anticipated a fight, a public prayer, some kind of horrible set-to. My husband offered a defensive “Yes,” and she laughed. “Get ready!” she said, before telling us how she’d raised six daughters, an undertaking that left her completely bald. She removed her hat to show us. She asked God to bless us.
Rumaan Alam lives in New York and for now can be found here: @Rumaan.