Spotlight Iowa City: Probing gay fatherhood


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When Ellen Lewin started reading The Velveteen Father: An Unexpected Journey to Parenthood, she couldn’t stop. She finished the story, a memoir of a gay man’s transition to fatherhood, in one sitting.

“He wanted to be a father with such urgency,” said Lewin, a UI professor of anthropology and women’s studies. “He felt like his life had no larger meaning, that he was just a perennial child, and he wouldn’t really grow up if he didn’t become a father.”

The gay father’s passion left Lewin wondering what motivated other gay men to become parents and what difficulties they faced in doing so.

Lewin’s most recent book, Gay Fatherhood: Narratives of Family and Citizenship in America, draws on interviews with roughly 100 gay fathers. She began working on the project in 1999, moving to Chicago for a year in 2002 to connect with gay fathers there.

“I was really interested in how men manage this, because they’re not only dealing with being gay men, but they don’t have some of the options that lesbians have,” Lewin said in her downtown Iowa City office, noting the cultural stereotype surrounding parenthood is that it’s “women’s stuff.”

While lesbians can invest in in-vitro fertilization or other means of getting pregnant, gay men face more challenges, Lewin said. They’re left to choose between public adoption, private or international adoption, or a method like surrogacy that involves their own DNA.

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Lewin, who came to the UI in 1999, found finances are often a factor in gay men’s decisions; public adoption is relatively cheap, and surrogacy can cost upwards of $100,000 per child.

More than one-third of married gay men in the United States were raising children in 2008, while roughly 7 percent of unmarried gay men were doing so, according to 2008 census data analyzed by Gary Gates of the Williams Institute based at the University of California-Los Angeles.

Johnny Symons — a 44-year-old Californian who directed and produced an Emmy-nominated documentary on gay fatherhood, Daddy and Papa — and his partner decided they would make good parents after a lot of discussions. Nine years ago, they adopted their first son through California’s public-adoption system. A photo of Symons, his husband, and their 8- and 10-year-old sons grace the cover of Lewin’s book.

Lewin, who fidgets as she talks and cites New Yorker articles to prove her points, also explored the way gay men’s identities can change when they became fathers. One of Lewin’s subjects, Chicago flower shop owner Steve English, said his life certainly changed when he adopted his son 27 years ago.

But being a father was something he felt privileged to do, English said.

“I would be getting up at 5 in the morning, and I would think, ‘Oh my God, a few years ago I’d just be coming home from the bars,’ ” he said.

In her research, Lewin found a number of factors that influenced gay men to have children were similar to reasons cited by heterosexual couples.

“They want to be part of creating a future,” said Lewin, who became legally married to her partner after the Iowa Supreme Court legalized it last year. “Some of them feel very strongly that they want to be part of the society; they want to share something with their neighbors.”

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