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The Dads Next Door

Gay dads say homophobia is less of a problem than the perennial question: "Where's the mom?"


Published June 1, 2013 at 4:00 a.m.

Chris Ilstrup, left, and Christopher Kaufman Ilstrup with their son, Jacob
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Chris Ilstrup, left, and Christopher Kaufman Ilstrup with their son, Jacob

Ask 4-year-old Jacob Kaufman-Ilstrup whether he has two daddies, and he instantly shouts, "No!" He calls one of his fathers, Chris Ilstrup, "Daddy," and his other father, Christopher Kaufman Ilstrup, "Papa."

Whom does Jacob call "Mama"? That's easy: His grandmother in South Burlington, who watches him two days a week.

Jacob is a blond and bubbly preschooler similar to most kids his age: He covers the living room coffee table with Lego pieces and Ninjago figurines. He eats macaroni and cheese for dinner and clambers onto his parents' shoulders, especially when a guest arrives. And he whines for attention if he suspects the adults are talking about him.

His papa says Jacob is still blithely oblivious to the fact that his family differs from most others in Vermont.

"We're just barely starting to have that conversation," Kaufman Ilstrup explains, as Jacob plays outside on the front porch of their Montpelier home. "I think he's just starting to get wind of that whole family-structure thing."

His dads don't dwell on it, either. Both Ilstrup, a 38-year-old IT coordinator at Goddard College, and Kaufman Ilstrup, a 43-year-old philanthropic adviser at the Vermont Community Foundation, say they hardly ever think about the fact that they're gay dads — until, of course, a reporter starts asking questions about it. In the liberal bubble that is Vermont, and the "bubble in the bubble" that is Montpelier, Kaufman Ilstrup says "the whole gay thing just disappears" as they're free to devote their time and energy to raising a happy and healthy boy.

Thirteen years after Vermont's divisive civil-union debate, same-sex marriage is legal in 12 states, including Vermont. "The biggest uncomfortable moments we get as gay dads come not from people saying homophobic things to us, but from all the people who are looking over our shoulder for Jacob's mom," Kaufman Ilstrup explains. "People ask us, 'Where's his mom?' all the time. It's awkward, intrusive and annoying."

Gay dads in Vermont face some other unique challenges. Among them: There aren't very many here.

It's impossible to get an exact count — the state doesn't keep statistics on lesbian moms and gay dads — but anecdotal evidence suggests that gay dads are a minority within a minority. Their relatively small number raises practical concerns that most other parents never have to think about.

"One of the tricky things about being a gay dad in Vermont is, there's no really critical mass, so it's a little hard to socialize," Kaufman Ilstrup explains. "You might know four or five gay couples with kids, but those kids are all different ages from your kid, so there's not necessarily a natural reason to hang out with each other."

That challenge isn't limited to gay couples, either. Eric Ronis is an assistant dean in the division of communication and creative media at Champlain College and the single parent of a 10-year-old son. He says he's gotten used to hearing the "Where's the mom?" question — initially in his pediatrician's office, then later at playgroups, preschool and other daily outings.

"I think it's more difficult for no-mom families to break into the society of moms that seems to develop in many preschool and elementary school settings," Ronis says. "I would not say I feel any discrimination here in Burlington because I'm a single, gay dad — just a sense of being one of the very few."

Kim Fountain hears that sentiment a lot. As executive director of the RU12? Community Center, Fountain has been trying to invigorate the center's family program, which offers monthly social events for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer parents, as well as their allies.

Fountain, who moved here from New York City, says that gay dads have a tougher time in Vermont than elsewhere finding other families that look like theirs, especially compared to their gay male counterparts in larger metropolitan areas.

"I know people who regularly go out to P-Town," — Provincetown, Mass., known for its abundance of both gay and lesbian families — "just so that their babies and toddlers can see a lot of other LGBTQ folks with children," she says.

Why does Vermont have more lesbian moms than gay dads? One obvious reason is because it's easier for a lesbian couple to have a baby on their own. If gay men want biological children, they need to find a surrogate.

When it comes to adoption, same-sex couples have a harder time than opposite-sex couples do, and gay men have an even more difficult time than lesbian couples. When Ilstrup and Kaufman Ilstrup started the process, they read though materials provided to them by the Lund Family Center in Burlington and found that many of the sample letters to birth mothers seemed to be written by "very conservative and traditional couples," which left them with the impression they'd never be chosen as parents.

But that turned out to be a non-issue. With almost gestational timing, they learned that they were adopting Jacob nine months after they filed their application with Lund. They were at the Philadelphia hospital the day he was born. Fortuitously for them, Jacob's birth mother said explicitly that she wanted two gay men to raise her son, though she never explained why.

Their success story aside, Fountain says several studies have shown that when it comes to adoption, it's easier for a single gay man to adopt than a gay male couple. Some countries won't even allow a child to be adopted by two men who live together.

Why not? As Fountain explains, stereotypes have historically portrayed gay men as creating an "unsafe" or "unhealthy" environment for children, in part due to the now-disproved link between homosexuality and pedophilia. In years past, she adds, many gay men were told that a child "won't thrive" with them because there's no mom in the household — another belief that has since been proven groundless.

Kaufman Ilstrup says he always wanted to be a parent, but he thinks that many gay men his age and older have struggled with the impulse to start a family.

"Many of us got the message loud and clear that we weren't allowed to be parents — or that we, as gay men, are somehow not fit to be parents," he says. "It's harder to love yourself and see your full range of future opportunities if you're constantly hearing the message that you're not fit."

Fountain also observes that gay male parents face a problem similar to those of single dads, gay or straight. Hardly any parenting materials targeting men — including parenting magazines, books, toys and stories — portray dads as primary caregivers. And there's a dearth of parenting classes and support groups specifically for dads.

Says Fountain: It can "send a strong message about your family and what is valued. Or not."

In practical, day-to-day terms, two gay men with a child are more likely to attract attention in public than two women with a child — even in Vermont. As Fountain points out, people often assume that two women out together with a baby or toddler are just a pair of moms, friends or sisters.

When he and his partner lived in Hinesburg, "I felt like I was completely under the radar ... until Jacob was born," Kaufman Ilstrup recalls. "And then we'd go out for a walk in a stroller every day and it became very clear, very quickly, that everybody knew who we were. As soon as Jacob was born, we became a very visible part of the community" — in a good way, he emphasizes. Many lesbian couples immediately came over to introduce themselves.

Josh Slade with his daughter, Amelia
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Josh Slade with his daughter, Amelia

Josh Slade says he, too, occasionally gets noticed when he's out in public with his 4-year-old daughter, Amelia, but not because he's gay. Amelia is African American with curly black hair, while Slade has a shaved head and is, in his words, "as white as can be."

Slade, who's 34 and works as a development underwriter for the Vermont Housing Finance Agency in Burlington, says he always wanted a child. He admits his decision to become a parent — and a single one, at that — was greeted with a healthy dose of surprise and skepticism by his friends, gay and straight alike.

"Some of my friends thought I was insane," he says with a laugh.

But over the two years it took to finalize the adoption, Slade, his friends and family had time to adjust to the idea. Since Amelia arrived in his life, he says, his sexual orientation has never come up as an issue.

"The only time I've gotten funny looks was when she was screaming her head off and kicking her legs and I had to walk her from one end of Shelburne Museum to the other to get out," he recalls. "But that probably just looked like I was kidnapping a child."

For Amelia, he says, his gayness hasn't arisen as a question so much as his status as a single parent. Though Amelia has friends with two mommies, two daddies and two opposite-sex parents, "We're kind of an anomaly, and that just had her totally confused," explains Slade. "But she's just accepted it."

Slade fully expect other issues to present themselves down the road — especially as Amelia gets too old to accompany him into men's restrooms and locker rooms — but he doesn't think the lack of a mommy around the house will be one of them. Slade says she has "lots" of female role models, including Slade's mom and his best friend, who lives right around the corner.

Asked if there are upsides to being a single, gay dad, Slade notes that he gets to celebrate both Mother's Day and Father's Day.

"Why not?" he asks with a smile. "I'm doing all the work!"

This article was originally published in Seven Days' monthly parenting magazine, Kids VT.