Moving portraits of gay fathers with their families across America
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A family of two dads and two young sons lay sprawled among white bed sheets, their hair mussed, pillows pushed aside during the reflexive movements of sleep. The boys take up most of the space despite their small frames; one child reaches his arm across his father's neck, their faces pressed together in a tender hug.
Such a photograph would have been extraordinarily rare just decades ago, but now it is one of many published in the book "Dads," a four-year visual archive of gay fatherhood across America that began in 2016. The dad responsible for the book is Bart Heynen, a Belgian portrait photographer who now lives in Brooklyn. And though the early morning photo he took of his own family sleeping was shot in Antwerp, he included it among the collection of images from New York, Utah, Alabama, Nebraska, Minnesota, California, and all the other states he visited to take portraits of fathers at home.
"I felt a little bit lonely as a gay dad -- although there are two of us -- but lonely in the sense that all the other families I knew were straight parents," Heynen said in a video call, explaining why he began photographing the series. "I also thought it was important for (my kids) to see other families with gay dads."
Heynen has been with his partner Rob Heyvaert for 25 years after sharing an elevator ride in their building in Antwerp. When they began their relationship, same-sex marriage wasn't legal in in Belgium, and kids were far from Heynen's mind. Even in their progressive country, same-sex adoption wasn't legalized until 2003, and paid surrogacy is still banned.
When, a decade ago, Heynen and Heyvaert wanted to start a family, they decided to look for an egg donor and surrogate far from home, in California -- a state with more progressive and inclusive laws. (In the US, while same-sex parents have fought for their rights since the 1960s and 1970s, the laws for paid surrogacy remain patchwork by state.)
Now they have their 10-year-old twins, Ethan and Noah, who often joined Heynen on his shoots. Heynen recalled that Ethan, fascinated by other two-father families, loved to ask them, "Who's the papa and who's the daddy?"
The spectrum of fatherhood
"Dads" seeks to show the full spectrum of fatherhood in the US: married couples, single fathers and widowers; families in the cities and the suburbs; men of different races, ethnicities and religion; and family units that include close relationships to surrogates.
And the book is publishing at a time when their rights are still being contested at the country's highest court. This week, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Roman Catholic foster agency that lost its contract with the city of Philadelphia for refusing to work with same-sex couples.
"For many people, the book will be an introduction to gay fatherhood. And so I wanted to walk a fine line between showing that our families are the same as any other straight family," he explained. "But at the same time, we have a lot of unique characteristics that are not found in straight families, starting with creating the family."
Including some of the women who acted as surrogates for the family was particularly important. For Heynen, they represent additional love and care and help illustrate some of the decision-making that, though not exclusive to them, all gay fathers must contend with. Adoption or surrogacy? Who will be the biological parent? How much will they share with their kids? Will the surrogate be transactional in nature, or will someone close to the family carry the child to term?
In Heynen and Heyvaert's case, they met the birth mother in California only one month before Ethan and Noah were born due to the rules of the agency they used.
"We were extremely nervous...and then it was a wonderful (but) very intense moment," Heynen recalled. "I took photographs because I wanted to show my kids all of us together so they could see because they're not allowed to see their biological mom until they're 18."
Changing the image
Heynen's images often reveal these decisions and the hardships and joy they bring. In one instance, he photographed Mow and Chris cradling their newborn at a gas station during their 14-hour car ride from Tennessee back to their home in New York, as paid surrogacy was not allowed in New York until earlier this year. Another portrait shows the deep bonds of an entire extended family involved in a baby's birth: Elliot and Matthew are pictured in Omaha, Nebraska with their daughter, Uma, as well as Elliot's sister and Matthew's mother, who were Uma's egg donor and surrogate, respectively.
In Salt Lake City, Utah, Heynen spent the day with Bryce Abplanalp and Jeffrey Wright, their two children, and Julie, their surrogate. The couple, who met as adults, were raised Mormon, serving as missionaries before eventually leaving the church.
"We always knew that we wanted to have kids... (but) we really struggled to find a surrogate because we do live in Utah," Abplanalp said in a video call. "Most of the women are Mormon, and Mormons don't believe in gay marriage and gays having kids."
After a years-long process, they met Julie, who lives a half-hour away with her husband and two kids. They now see each other every couple of weeks, with and without their children, forming a lasting bond between the two families.
"I don't think we realized the type of relationship that we would have now," Abplanalp said. "I mean, we're really good friends."
Heynen, as well as the fathers he photographed, hope that the photographs in "Dads" will dispel some of the hurtful stereotypes that still linger around gay fatherhood.
DaRel and Charles Barksdale are raising their three-year-old adopted son Braeden in Mitchellville, Maryland. Charles recalled a time when a woman asked them in an airport, "What do you guys know about taking care of babies?"
"I've worked with children my whole life," Charles said, explaining that he works in schools as a speech pathologist. "I know a lot about taking care of babies. I think that this (book) is going to hopefully help change the image of fathering."
Abplanalp said he and Wright have never shied away from sharing their own experiences. Abplanalp never knew when he was younger that fatherhood would be possible for him as gay man. "We don't try to be role models or make ourselves any more important than we are," he said. "We're just trying to be as visible as we can to help somebody else who is in a dark place and doesn't know everything that's possible in the world."
"Dads," published by powerHouse Books, is available June 29.
Add to Queue: Papas and daddies
Listen: "Daddy Squared: The Gay Dads Podcast" (2019-ongoing)
Hosted by West Hollywood couple Yan and Alex, the dads use each episode to chat parenting and relationships, and lately have been focusing each episode on the gay rights and fatherhood pathways by country, and inviting a gay father from each location on as a guest.
Watch: "Six Feet Under" (2001-2005)
This black comedy-drama of the early aughts was genre-defying and barrier-breaking in many ways, but it has been particularly hailed for the onscreen romance of Michael C. Hall and Mathew St. Patrick, who played a interracial gay couple who eventually marry and adopt two children.
Read: "The Inexplicable Logic of My Life" (2017)
This YA coming-of-age novel follows high schooler Sal, who was adopted into a loving Mexican American family by his gay father, when he begins to question his identity and place in the world during his senior year.
Watch: "Daddy & Papa" (2002)
This one-hour documentary followed the family lives of four gay families and the legal and cultural hurdles the men faced to become fathers. The director and producer is Johnny Symons, himself a gay father of an adopted son with his partner in the Bay Area.
Read: "The Kid: What Happened After My Boyfriend and I Decided to Go Get Pregnant" by Dan Savage" (1999)
Savage became an internationally recognized sex columnist and activist in the 1990s and '00s for his frank cultural insight into gay relationships and identity. This book, which became an Off-Broadway show a decade later, detailed the rollercoaster he and his boyfriend experienced in order to enter parenthood.
This story was updated to reflect the Supreme Court ruling in favor of a Catholic foster agency's refusal to work with same-sex couples in Philadelphia.