In this excerpt from his new book Out & About Dad, Jim Joseph shares what it was like to be newly out and establishing himself as a single, gay dad at a time when there were hardly any openly gay fathers around.
The first night in my new apartment was just glorious.
I was out and it was about me for once.
One of the neighbors down the street helped me load my furniture into his pickup truck to move me the whopping quarter-of-a-mile to my new apartment.
It took all of about thirty minutes since I had very few things: the bed and mattress that my sister had given me from her first apartment, a sectional that my parents had given me when they moved to Virginia, an extra television we had purchased along the way, and a couple other pieces of furniture…enough to cobble together a new “home.”
It was just a small, one-bedroom “flat” right in town within walking distance of the house so that going back and forth with the kids would be easy. I had every intention of being with them every day, either in my new apartment or back at my old house.
The one distinguishing feature of the apartment was a tub you stepped up to get into which on the one hand was odd yet on the other hand, surprisingly convenient for bathing the kids. I took solace in these little features because there wasn’t much else to rave about.
As I crawled into bed at 9 pm, exhausted from moving that day, I called the guy I had met in New York. We talked for an hour, but I didn’t mention anything about the apartment. He knew nothing about what was going on in my life, and I wanted it that way. He just thought I was some big advertising executive who had just launched a new campaign for Aveeno skin care. He was fascinated by my work because it was so different from his, and that was all he needed to know about me at the moment.
I wanted to move on, not talk about the day’s events or any of my drama. I hadn’t told him about the kids yet; that would come later, maybe, if there was even going to be a “later.” I was just enjoying my time with him on the phone, in my new home, and that was plenty for me.
I felt like a kid again.
Despite the back and forth with the kids, the workweek seemed suddenly so much easier.
Later in the week, the guy from New York left a message on my answering machine, and then played the song “Someone Like You” by Linda Eder.
Wow, someone actually did something nice for me! We had spoken about our mutual love for music and I guess he thought the lyrics would resonate with me. It was a nice little fling, but we never got close enough for him to meet the kids.
Even now when I drive by that same apartment, I remember that first night—it felt that good. For years when I would drive by with my daughter, she would also point out the apartment because even from her perspective it held fond memories. Thankfully.
I was only there for a year, and in that time we all slept in the one bedroom, so she remembers being able to crawl right into my bed from her bed, even though the rule was she couldn’t get up until daylight. Dad had some ground rules in this home too.
My parents came a few weekends later to help me “settle in.” They did the best they could: they bought me a set of very expensive blue glasses from Villeroy & Boch (which we still have) and a set of dishes from JCPenney (which are long gone). What else could they do, really? All I remember from their visit was that all of us were sitting at that glass-top dining room table from Pier One staring at the small cutout kitchen.
I think they were afraid for what could possibly come next. I found it very hard to talk to them about what might or might not happen.
“Are you able to cook for them here?” my mother asked, almost out of desperation for something to say.
While it was probably the worst place I’d ever lived aside from my college years, the time I lived there was probably the best year I had lived in so many ways. Sure the carpet was worn out, the kitchen was completely outdated, and the rooms were tiny, but it was still mine. I took great glory in that fact.
I was able to make my own decisions, once again.
But that didn’t mean that I was ready to go public quite yet.
At first, I didn’t want to tell anyone anything. I needed some time. Luckily, my ex-wife agreed to keep quiet too, and she did the best she could for as long as she could. I never blamed her for saying anything; she needed to have a reason for me moving out and it was easy to just blame me.
“Jim’s gay, what can I say?” became her gateway to freedom.
My gateway was that apartment.
After it all sunk in, I was fine using that as the reason. In an odd way, I was more ashamed for getting divorced than I was of being gay. Divorce meant failure, being gay was just who I was. In an odd way, it allowed both of us to save face, just like that first lawyer told me. Plus it was true, I was gay.
Using “gay” to explain the divorce became an easy out, even for me. It allowed me to leave out a lot of the details, details that were far more painful to talk about. Information that was really no one’s business.
The first person I finally told was my friend from J&J, the one who had come over to the house for brunch to meet my newborn daughter.
When I came out to her, we were standing at a crowded bar at a microbrew pub in Princeton, NJ. I knew she was safe to tell; she’d always been so generous with her emotions and attitudes as a friend. I knew in my heart she would not only be supportive of me, but she’d be happy for me. She was just that kind of person.
The bar where we met that night was so noisy that I had to either scream it out loud, enough for her husband and everyone else to hear, or I had to gently whisper it as if it was a closely guarded secret. I chose the latter.
As I whispered in her ear, her face lit up and she said, “I’m so proud of you.”
Those were her first words. I needed that.
After I told her my “news,” she whispered in her husband’s ear and he threw in a thumbs-up. I know it sounds cheesy, but it was the best thumbs-up of my life; I can still picture the scene today, including the blue denim shirt he was wearing.
I was wearing an ill-fitting, faded maroon Gap sweater and a worn-out pair of Levis, both of which just hung off of me. I weighed 158 pounds…I hadn’t been eating much lately and I was running at least five miles a day. Often longer. I walked out of that bar on cloud nine, arm in arm with my friend. I needed that.
While she was the first I told, the avalanche was not far away.
There was a small town about ten miles up the Delaware River called New Hope. Remarkably, it was one of a few very gay communities in the country at the time: Provincetown, Ogunquit, San Francisco, and New Hope. How odd that it was only a few miles away from me. Fate?
New Hope was a gay destination with a couple of gay clubs that filled up on the weekends. The place to go dancing was the Cartwheel, and it soon became the place where I would go to meet other gay men. There was always a friendly crowd at the Cartwheel and it wasn’t that hard to meet people there. I’d go out on the dance floor and pretty soon I’d be talking to someone. It was at the Cartwheel that I conquered the fear of dancing by myself.
I should clarify that: it wasn’t hard to get a date at the Cartwheel. It was very hard, much harder than I would have thought, to meet friends because every guy I met just wanted to date, not necessarily be a friend.
I quickly had to get used to that because I was not prepared for it mentally.
It took me a while to master this phenomenon…and it was by far the hardest part about meeting other gay men…deciding if the guy you were meeting would become a date or become a friend. I’d never had to think about things that way before. I was searching for friends at this point more than anything else. Friends were the priority for me, but I’m not sure that was the case with most of the guys I was meeting.
But hey, I’d take a date if that was the only option! I needed that.
I was quickly schooled that Monday night was locals’ night in New Hope, so I made every possible attempt to be there so that I could meet locals, even if it meant paying for a babysitter that I couldn’t afford. I was more likely to make friends on locals’ night than a crowded Saturday night, or at least that was my hope.
I did a lot of hoping in New Hope.
As I was still getting used to the whole situation, I was caught in a very unusual spot. On the one hand I wasn’t really ready to let the straight world know that I was divorced, and newly gay, yet I wasn’t ready to let the gay world know that I had just recently come out and had kids.
Imagine living constantly on the edge of your seat, waiting for people to probe just a little deeper on your marriage, or about your kids, or about what you did over the weekend. Imagine having to tell a schoolteacher that your kids have a gay father and you’re worried about the other kids finding out and that you’re worried that your kids will be bullied. Imagine having to tell a guy you have a major crush on that you have kids, only to see him put his hands up in the air and walk away shaking his head.
But as I had hoped, not much with the kids changed, even though my entire life was turning on its head. I was still the primary caregiver at night after work.
Changing their diapers, feeding them dinner, and giving them baths—that was my nightly routine. I was still the one taking them to doctor appointments and doing all the things I had always been doing. Oh yes, I was still up to my eyeballs in dirty diapers and laundry; I was still Dad.
I would always be Dad, I never doubted that. I would never let anyone take that away from me.
My ex-wife kept our house, which was my idea, and not a lot changed there from my vantage point either. Like me, she started dating a lot, which I’m sure was good for her too. She needed to move on as much as I did.
I met most of the guys she dated, and they were all very nice to me. Some of them I knew already from around town, which was neither comforting nor awkward. I didn’t let it be. They were obviously told what was up with me, but never seemed to hold it against me.
Actually, looking back, we both dated like we’d never dated before: the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker. Literally.
Who could blame either one of us?
She was home with the kids during the day because we had agreed that she would do that until both kids were in school full-time, which was still a few years away. I took the kids at night, most nights, unless I was traveling for work, which she was always cool about.
We got along quite well, I have to say, for two divorced parents. We never showed the kids that anything was wrong, at least not that I remember or remember hearing about.
The whole situation was just much better and I hoped that it would stay that way. I had to make sure that it stayed that way. I had put all the crap behind me and held no anger, none at all.
Her “mom” friends still treated me very kindly, which was a good thing considering that I saw them all the time at the kids’ activities.
But I couldn’t get too comfortable because I never knew when the other shoe would drop. What if the situation changed and she turned on me? What if she met someone who didn’t approve or accept me? It could have easily happened.
It’s happened to others.
For the first time in my life I had to really worry about approval, acceptance, and “what-if.” For the first time in my life I was a minority and had minority status.
How could that be? I didn’t anticipate that in my plan.
Single gay dads weren’t exactly embraced, approved, or accepted. There weren’t very many of us to be accepted, at least not visibly.
But I have to say that juggling work and family was actually a lot easier now, because at least there was some sort of separation to help me manage it all. It was a welcome relief to just concentrate on me, the kids, and work—nothing else.
It was my world now, on my terms. I was “part of that world,” finally.
The dating part of that world came pretty naturally, to tell you the truth.
Dating a man wasn’t really any different than dating a woman, except that it felt a whole lot more comfortable, finally.
Meeting men and going on dates and going through the “courting” was really no different than doing it with a woman. People are people, and dating is dating.
I just liked dating men better.
It struck me funny how easily I fell into the rhythm of dating men—proof that I really was gay all along.
It was actually so much easier than it ever was with a woman. Being with a guy never gave me pause, not once.
Wish I had known that a lot sooner.
The tricky part was that I had to manage dating like it was a job, so that I could make sure that the kids were either with their mom or with a baby-sitter who could drive at night.
Do you know what it costs to hire a babysitter that can drive at night? I was rolling quarters to pay for a night out, so spending an hourly rate on an adult babysitter was a luxury.
It kept my options limited in terms of making plans, making it almost impossible to join the “community.” I found a couple of older babysitters who were in graduate school, and they saved my life. My dating life, anyway.
I longed to join a group of friends that I could hang out with, but being a working dad made that virtually impossible.
Most of the guys I met, if they were interested, were free of any responsibility, yet I wasn’t available most of the time. I generally kept the kids out of the conversation until I really knew the guy well, which made it very hard to get to know anyone.
How could they really know me if they didn’t know that I had kids?
And if I’m telling the truth, I was still trying to keep a façade alive. I hadn’t really told many people about the divorce, in fact no one at work knew. I hadn’t told any of my college friends either. That came later in the form of personal notes I wrote to each of my fraternity brothers.
I’m not sure what I was waiting for; I guess I was just gearing up for the scrutiny that I knew would come along with my news.
So there I was, living alone in an apartment, juggling kids back and forth, dating men for the first time in my life, keeping an aggressive schedule at work, but not letting anyone really into my story.
While I felt more alive than I had in years, it was wearing on me.
Work consumed the entire day, the kids consumed the entire night, and both of those things consumed the entire weekend, with some dating along the way.
I felt perpetually tired, so much so that the doctor said I was on the way to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome if I didn’t deal with it. At one point my mouth broke out in a series of sores that covered the entire inside of both cheeks.
The doctor said it was stress. I called it agony.
But how could I slow down? That’s impossible when you’re a working, single dad—let alone a single gay dad trying to make a new life with two kids in tow.
Single gay dad: SGD.
I literally had no one to turn to. I didn’t know anyone else like me; no one.
I’d hear moms talk about juggling it all and I could relate to them on some level, but none of them were gay men trying to live in a new world. The men I was meeting didn’t have kids, and many of them didn’t want kids, so there was no support there.
SGD: the only one of its kind, at least that I knew.
I think that was the crux of the stress I was under: I was trying to live in three different worlds:
Dad: a single one.
Working professional: an ambitious one.
Gay man: a brand new one.
SGD. If it were today, there would be a hashtag for it. #SGD.
No wonder I had the world’s biggest zit on my face, hadn’t had my haircut in weeks, wasn’t sleeping properly, and looked like the cat just dragged me in.
Not a good look for making new friends or catching dates.
But despite all of that, I was happy, really happy, and I was in control of my life. I was a SGD and it was okay that I was alone; I had gotten used to that. It felt better than where I had been, that’s for sure. While this was way before “It Gets Better,” I knew in my heart that this was temporary and that things would get better. It had to get better; there was no way to go but up.
This post was excerpted from Out & About Dad: My Journey as a Father with all its Twists, Turns and a few Twirls, by Jim Joseph. You can read Jim’s contribution to the 1,000 Families Project here, and learn more about the book here.