Family men: A love story

Parenthood: A new book details how children changed two gay men.

July 11, 1999|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff

It's a familiar story: Jesse Green was in his late 30s, single, independent and career-oriented, when he met someone who changed all that. His new love had a child, and his life was forever transformed.

This Cinderella story had just one twist: Green is gay.

He also happens to be a skilled writer whose articles have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the New Yorker, GQ and others. "The Velveteen Father: An Unexpected Journey to Parenthood" [$23.95, Villard] is Green's intimate and often witty account of his transformation from Greenwich Village single to Brooklyn family man.

The experience turned out to be more universal than unique: From diapers to sleepless nights, dealing with family and self-doubt, Green's family life reads closer to Ozzie and Harriet than naysayers (both straight and gay) might expect.

"One of the reasons I wrote this book is to begin to show people that this is do-able, that this is good and they can think about it for their future," says Green, 41, a novelist as well as journalist. "I'm not saying this is the only way to become fulfilled or a real adult. I really don't believe that. But you have to face the question."

Green's partner, whom the book identifies only as Andy, is a high school guidance counselor and like Green, he is openly gay. Andy adopted an infant son he named Erez before the two men met. Two years later, and with Green's support, he adopted a second baby, Lucas.

Jesse -- that's what Lucas and Erez call him (the alternative titles -- Second Dad, Stepdad, Uncle -- were judged too awful) -- and Andy have a marriage-like commitment. Green is seeking a second parent adoption -- called a stepparent adoption in New York -- to legalize his relationship with the children.

The book's title draws from the children's story, "The Velveteen Rabbit," in which a stuffed animal is made real by a child's love.

"To write about children and not represent it as a life-changing experience thing would be false. How could they not have changed my life?" Green says of his children. "When I hear someone make fault with that, I think they just don't know."

Although Green grew up happily in a conventional family in Philadelphia and claims to have always enjoyed being an uncle to a nephew and niece, he never sought to have kids of his own. In his mind, it was almost antithetical to being gay.

Perhaps, he says, it was the stigma that confronts all gay men -- the gross and false stereotype that equates homosexuality with pedophilia. Or maybe the child-averse culture of gay life inherited from a time when gay men were forbidden to adopt (and still are in a handful of states). Or maybe it was just a single man's comfort with his life.

But in meeting Andy and Erez, he says, he discovered how much he loved being a parent. And "Velveteen" is filled with familiar parental moments from overseeing a bris to buying a minivan and choosing a nursery school (much to their own surprise, they ended up in one run by a Hasidic Lubavitcher sect).

"I do not stump for gay parenting; if being gay does not suggest any unfitness for a child, it does not suggest any genius for it either," Green writes. "But to the extent gay men have abandoned younger people, whether because of the pain of their own youths or the intimidation of bigots, I hope they have the nerve to return."

At a recent appearance in Baltimore at Canton's Bibelot bookstore, Green was asked mostly about the practical dilemmas of adoption for gay couples. While "Velveteen" is no how-to book, he says he gets at lot of those kinds of questions on the road.

The only negative comment he says he's heard during his book-promoting tour through the major Northeast and West Coast cities was on one radio talk show. A caller said that with two men, there was "no one to nurture and love the child."

"A few people hint at this subtext -- Is it fair to raise a child without a mother?" Green says. "I think a child needs the full attention and devotion of whomever is caring for them. I don't think who that is matters."

While Green says he rarely experiences overt disapproval from others, he is constantly aware of it, calling a playful morning snuggle with Erez and Andy, "Jesse Helms's worst nightmare." Elsewhere in the book, he recounts the moment Andy nervously tells his mother he was going to adopt and her hurtful reaction.

"How can you do this? You can't do this," Andy's mother says, leaving her son crestfallen. She later asks: "And you're going to walk the carriage right out on the Promenade?"

"Velveteen" has gotten strong reviews, but only modest notice so far in the nongay press. Green hopes to find a broad audience for his book. He rejected an editor's suggestion, for instance, to put the word gay in the book's subtitle.

"This is just a touching, real human story," says Andrew Tobias, the best-selling financial writer and gay author who provided a blurb for the book's jacket. "I just think it's for people who love great writing."

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