On Traveling As A Gay Dad
For two dads and a toddler, vacation can mean going beyond their comfort zone in more ways than one.
I love to travel, and for the obvious reasons: to explore, to discover, to recharge my senses. But I also get off on a getaway because it allows me to disappear. Not that I want to abscond from a responsibility-laden life (that’s what micro-dosing on Instagram is for) but I do like to not be me for a bit. No delusions of grandeur, to be sure. It’s not like I am dodging paparazzi or avoiding recognition. But there is something nice about not having to be anyone, including yourself, while on vacation.
My best friend and I have traveled extensively together, both for work and for pleasure. And the thing we have loved the most: going invisible. We plant ourselves in the middle of some action—a farmers’ market, a hotel lobby bar, a museum restaurant—create intricate narratives for everyone we scope while enjoying invisibility cloaks. We can see them (and their back stories) but of course, they cannot see us. Without context or connection, we might as well be two empty chairs. Real or not, there is a pleasure and relief in not having to be or be seen, in any regard.
That sort of allowance is greatly reduced when you travel as a family. Kids, no matter their age, don’t seem to place a lot of value on blending in or discretion. And when you’re my family—two guys and a toddler—you tend to get noticed. Ironically, it’s at home, in our downtown Manhattan neighborhood where we’ve become most invisible. The building’s super, the barista at our corner coffee spot, even the woman who takes in our dry cleaning … they all know our story: two dads, one toddler. In their—and our—nook of the universe, we have become commonplace. The further we float out of our progressive, metro New York bubble, the more visible we come. I would like to think that we benefit from contrast gain, that we appear more attractive, more appealing, more desirable simply because we are unlike who and what is around. And truth be told, that is often the case. Many times, people come up to us to tell us that they think we are “a beautiful family.” And in these instances, it feels nice to be seen and even nicer that people go out of their way to make sure we know they get us and that they, for lack of a better word, like us.
But with visibility, comes distortion or myopia, as well.
We just came back from a week-long vacation in Maine, and my eyes were opened when it comes to how others may see us, and how vulnerable we are, even just a few states away. We stayed with close friends (all on the verge of major life changes), and we did all the summer things you’re meant to do when visiting coastal towns. The following incidents can’t change those experiences but they definitely inform my memories and I bet, how I look at traveling in the coming months and years. Non-traditional families attract attention, and while you’re on the go and in a strange place—even one as familiar as Maine—that sort of attention isn’t necessarily a value add.
We had but one rainy day while we were in Portland and like every other parent in town, we took our son over to the local children’s museum for indoor fun. We arrived to find a long line snaking around the block. No time spent standing in one place, getting wet, would warrant the amount of frivolity inside. We decided then to head to the museum next door: the Portland Art Museum. Any museum with stairs, open spaces, colorful everything and a gift shop can double as a children’s museum when you’re with a two-year-old. The docent at the door suggested we head to the fourth floor at the top and work our way down. Daddy would hold the stroller; my husband, Papa, would hold Cielo, our son. I tend to walk ahead and unencumbered by a child, I found myself at the bottom of the first staircase waiting for my two guys to make their way down from the fourth floor landing. Cielo is in that stage where he wants to do everything himself even if it’s more difficult for him and us. He insisted on taking each step, “on own.” I looked up to watch the two of them navigate the stairs, backlit from the picture windows in the corner of the building. It was a beautiful moment, not just because of its composition but also because of their collaboration. I held the stroller with one hand and began taking photos with the other. After a couple of minutes, an older woman who had been standing quite close to me, leaned in to say loudly, “I sure hope that’s your child because otherwise that would be very creepy.”
What had she seen? Had she wondered how I was connected to this family if there’s already a father partnered with the child? Or, how am I, a white man, related to these two people of color (both my husband and son are Latino)? What did she make of the stroller—was it some decoy so I could get closer to other people’s kids? I replied that yes that is our son, that I would not be taking photos of a random child, and that butting in, as she had, was what was creepy. She did not apologize or, at the least, try to clarify her prying prejudice. She just walked away, hit and run-style. She had seen us but could not compute, and that uneasiness, for her, justified her lack of civility. I was thrown mainly by her breaking the fourth wall: I mean, have your observation, but please don’t share it, especially while my family is on vacation.
A couple of days later, still in Portland, while staying with close friends—a queer couple, pregnant with their first child—we had another off-putting encounter. Our friends live in a house that has been converted into half a dozen or so apartments. Their home is on the top floor and has access to a roof deck. After a long afternoon bouncing around town, in hot temps, I took Cielo back to their place to give him a bath and then power down for PJs and night-night. Given the heatwave that week, our hosts maximized cross-breezes by opening windows and this one bedroom door that overlooks a backyard, unused garden lot. As toddlers do, Cielo cried for a jag while taking a bath (he wanted to play with his trains) and then a bit later when we put him down in his crib (again, trains). About five minutes into Cielo’s tears, which had already been winding down, there was a buzz. One of our hosts ran down the three flights to see who might be at the front door of the building. They opened the door to find an older man asking if we needed help with our baby who was clearly “suffering.” They assured him that all was fine and that he need not be concerned, or involved. He insisted again and again that he knew best and was ready to intervene.
By the time the interaction ended, Cielo had already fallen asleep. Our host ran back upstairs to recount what had taken place at their front door. We were all more than disturbed. How, we wondered, did this person even know what apartment to buzz if he had only heard cries? Had he been watching us through the back door? Had he seen two queer couples come back to the apartment with a baby earlier in the day—what sort of flag did that raise? Why did he feel entitled to insert himself? Had he been that concerned why hadn’t he called the police? Once again, we found ourselves in uneasy territory—wondering about someone else’s perception, and again, how that perception was the catalyst for intervention.
Later in the week, we headed to visit with other friends on Maine’s bucolic and charming Mid-Coast. We quickly created a vacation ritual, waking up early every morning and heading for a somewhat indulgent breakfast at the same main street diner spot in the nearest town. The staff was warm and welcoming and the food was a cut above. We were the only gay family in the place each time we ate. On one of our last days, a woman who had been sitting next to us, with her husband, kept looking over. “She’s so beautiful,” she said twice. “Oh, thank you,” we smiled back. I added, “She’s a he, just has long hair.” When Brandon left the table for a quick trip to the restroom, the woman re-engaged. “Is he yours?” she asked me, while I was feeding Cielo scrambled eggs as he sat in my lap. “Yes, he’s our son,” I answered. “No, but is he yours,” she asked again. She could get as far as our being a gay couple raising a child, but how, she had to wonder out loud, are we related? “Yes,” aware that Cielo had not only heard her question but was now looking up at me to hear the answer, “He is ours. Daddy and Papa’s boy.” Her face registered dissatisfaction that she hadn’t gotten her details, that her perception couldn’t be confirmed. At home, I know, I would have more patience with someone’s intrusive curiosity. On vacation, out of our most comfortable zone, it was particularly jarring.
When we are seen as we see ourselves—what a beautiful family—the visibility is a neutral to a positive. We don’t blend in because that’s just how the numbers shake out, and if we can illustrate a facet of what it looks like to be a nontraditional family, great. It is when we are seen through a distorting lens—perhaps through confusion or intolerance or titillation—that we are made vulnerable. Vulnerable to having our bounds overstepped, often under the guise of concern. And while most opportunities are teachable moments—my husband and I steel ourselves to remain calm and consistent in these sorts of interactions—the most important lesson is one we’ve been taught years ago: If you don’t have anything nice to say, perhaps you shouldn’t say anything. To borrow from Stephen Sondheim, “Careful the things you say, children will listen.” Especially on vacation.
Ariel Foxman, the former editor in chief of InStyle, is a brand consultant and contributing editor at Vanity Fair. Follow him and his son on Instagram @arielfoxman.