A family of two parents and two young children lay stretched out between white sheets, their hair stuffed, pillows pulled apart during the reflexive movements of sleep. The boys occupy most of the space despite their small frames; a child reaches the arm of his father’s neck, his face joined in a tender embrace.
This photograph would have been extraordinarily rare a few decades ago, but is now one of many published in the book “Dads,” a four-year visual archive of gay parenting across America that began in 2016. The father responsible for the book is Bart Heynen , a Belgian portrait photographer now living in Brooklyn. And while the photo he took of his own sleeping family was shot in Antwerp, he included it in the image collection in New York, Utah, Alabama, Nebraska, Minnesota, California and all the other states. who visited to make portraits of parents at home.
“I felt a little lonely as a gay parent (even though we’re two), but lonely in the sense that all the other families I knew were heterosexual parents,” Heynen said in a video call, explaining why he started photographing the series. “I also thought it was important for my kids to see other families with gay parents.”
“Dads” is a four-year photo series of gay parents from across the country. Credit: Bart Heynen / PowerHouse Books
Heynen has been with his partner Rob Heyvaert for 25 years after sharing an elevator in his Antwerp building. When they began their relationship, same-sex marriage was not legal in Belgium and the children were far from Heynen’s mind. Even in his progressive country, same-sex adoption was not legalized until 2003 and paid subrogation remains banned.
When, a decade ago, Heynen and Heyvaert wanted to start a family, they decided to look for an egg donor and a surrogate away from home, in California, a state with more progressive and inclusive laws. (In the United States, while same-sex parents have been fighting for their rights since the 1960s and 1970s, laws on paid surrogacy continue to be stalled by the state).
They now have their ten-year-old twins, Ethan and Noah, who often joined Heynen in their outbreaks. Heynen recalled that Ethan, fascinated by other two-parent families, loved to ask them, “Who is the father and who is the father?”
The spectrum of fatherhood
“Dads” seeks to show the full spectrum of fatherhood in the U.S.: married couples, single parents, and widows; families in cities and suburbs; men of different races, ethnicities and religions; and family units that include close relationships with surrogates.
“For a lot of people, the book will be an introduction to gay parenting. And that’s why I wanted to walk very well between showing that our families are the same as any other heterosexual family,” he explained. “But at the same time, we have a lot of unique characteristics that are not found in heterosexual families, starting with creating the family.”
Heynen was often present at special times, including the first hours of a newborn’s life. Credit: Bart Heynen / PowerHouse Books
It was particularly important to include some of the women who acted as family substitutes. For Heynen, they represent additional love and care and help illustrate some of the decisions that, while not exclusive to them, must be fought by all gay parents. Adoption or surrogacy? Who will be the biological father? How much will they share with their children? Will the substitute be transactional in nature or will someone close to the family carry out the child?
In the case of Heynen and Heyvaert, they met the birth mother in California just a month before Ethan and Noah were born because of the agency rules they used.
“We were extremely nervous … and then it was a wonderful (but) very intense moment,” Heynen recalled. “I took pictures because I wanted to show my kids all together so they could see because they’re not allowed to see their biological mother until they’re 18.”
Heynen’s images often reveal these decisions and the difficulties and joy they entail. In one case, she photographed Mow and Chris cradling their baby at a gas station during the 14-hour drive from Tennessee to their home in New York, as surrogacy was not allowed in New York until early of this year. Another portrait shows the deep ties of an entire extended family involved in the birth of a baby: Elliot and Matthew appear in Omaha, Nebraska, with their daughter, Uma, as well as Elliot’s sister and Matthew’s mother, who were egg donors and Uma substitutes, respectively. .
In Salt Lake City, Utah, Heynen spent the day with Bryce Abplanalp and Jeffrey Wright, his two children, and Julie, his surrogate. The couple, who became known as adults, were raised Mormons, serving as missionaries before leaving the church.
“We always knew we wanted to have kids … (but) it was very hard for us to find a replacement because we live in Utah,” Abplanalp said in a video call. “Most women are Mormons and Mormons do not believe in gay marriage or gays who have children.”
Heynen shows how much love can reach a single birth. Here is baby Uma with her parents, her aunt (her egg donor) and grandmother (her birth mother). Credit: Bart Heynen / PowerHouse Books
After a long process of years, they met Julie, who lives half an hour away with her husband and two children. They now see each other every two weeks, with and without their children, forming a lasting bond between the two families.
“I don’t think we realized the kind of relationship we would have now,” Abplanalp said. “I mean, we’re very good friends.”
Heynen, as well as the parents he photographed, hope the photographs of “Dads” dispel some of the wounded stereotypes that still persist around gay parenting.
DaRel and Charles Barksdale raise their three-year-old adopted son Braeden in Mitchellville, Maryland. Charles remembered a time when a woman asked them at an airport, “What do you know about caring for babies?”
“I think this (book) will help, hopefully, change the image of being a father,” said Charles Barksdale, who appears here with husband DaRel and son Braeden. Credit: Bart Heynen / PowerHouse Books
“I’ve worked with kids all my life,” Charles said, explaining that he works in schools as a speech therapist. “I know a lot about caring for babies. I think this (book) will hopefully help change the image of being a father.”
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 a gay man. “We don’t try to be role models or become more important than we are,” he said. “We just try to be as visible as possible to help someone else who is in a dark place and doesn’t know everything that is possible in the world.”
Add to the queue: potatoes and parents
Hosted by West Hollywood couple Yan and Alex, the parents use each episode to chat about parenting and relationships, and lately they’ve focused each episode on gay rights and parenting paths by country and invited a gay father to each place as a guest.
This early black comedy-drama challenged the genre and broke down barriers in many ways, but has been especially acclaimed for the screen romance of Michael C. Hall and Mathew St. Patrick, who played an interracial gay couple who eventually married and adopted two children.
This elderly YA novel follows Sal, a high school student, who was adopted into a Mexican family and loved by his gay father, when he begins to question his identity and place in the world during his last year.
This one-hour documentary followed the family life of four gay families and the legal and cultural hurdles men faced in becoming parents. The director and producer is Johnny Symons, himself the gay father of an adopted son with his partner in the Bay Area.
Savage became an internationally recognized columnist and sexual activist in the 1990s and 1990s for his clear cultural vision of gay relationships and identity. This book, which became an Off-Broadway show a decade later, detailed the roller coaster he and his boyfriend experienced to become a father.
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