Not a J.C. Penney family

On Being a Gay Parent

by Brett Webb-Mitchell    
Published: July 7, 2012 in On Being a Gay Parent

The adage “A picture is worth a thousand words” bears truth in light of the rush of praise and criticism of J. C. Penney’s Fathers’ Day advertisement. The ad was unforgettable and rather iconic: two dads are caught mid-laughter as they play with their cute, rambunctious children on the clean living room carpeted floor. Throw in a family dog and you have a family that could fit in Anywhere, USA, somewhere near Pleasantville, perhaps on Wisteria Lane. Real-life Todd Koch and Cooper Smith are the dads who are enjoying what looks like a game of tickle wars with their two adopted children. The advertisement line that accompanies the picture is quite appealing: “First Pals: What makes Dad so cool? He’s the swim coach, tent maker, best friend, bike fixer and hug giver — all rolled into one. Or two.” This ad is J.C. Penney’s response to the anti-LGBTQ-American Family Association’s offshoot group, One Million Moms, attempted boycott after the department store signed up out-lesbian Ellen DeGeneres as a spokesperson for their merchandise.

I am aware of more same-sex couples, especially gay dads, being in the spotlight this year when it comes to advertisements for Fathers’ Day, as well as in the news. They are extraordinarily handsome dads, with gorgeous and well-behaved children, in immaculately clean and stylish homes. For example, there’s the picture of Ricky Martin in a carefully staged publicity photo with his two adorable children using him as a jungle gym, climbing all over him. And, Neil Patrick Harris and his partner David Burtka went two-to-one with Oprah herself on television, discussing life as dads and surrogacy on modern outdoor furniture near their contemporary home’s pool. There appears to be a full-frontal assault of advertisement and public exposure to gay television personalities. MTV is already working on a reality series of same-sex parents and children and Bravo network and the “E” or Entertainment channel are trying to figure out which family will be used for their next reality television show. It is safe to say that the rather conservative impulse of making our LGBTQ-headed families (two dads or two moms and two young adult children) part of the mainstream of American middle-class life, along with the other accoutrements of the American dream, like mom and apple pie.

Images matter in making change happen. While being out and engaging in conversation and relationships with others is one way of shaping people’s impressions regarding same-sex partnership, there is also power in iconic images of same-sex parenting families that also hastens changing the larger public’s impression and acceptance of who we are. What is lost in J.C. Penney ad wars and Madison Avenue’s image of certain families is the longer, thicker, more intricate story of our families. We don’t all live in well-kept houses with outdoor pools and contemporary furniture. Many LGBTQ individuals and couples with children from a previous marriage, in vitro fertilization, adopted or through surrogacy, are people from a wide variety of national heritages and ethnicities, of all ages, economic conditions, educational backgrounds, with all kinds of body shapes and sizes, pierced and tattooed…and the same goes for our children. In other words, we are more interesting than the sanitized version of what a public relations person would want us to look like.

And, yet, amid the change that we represent in our same-sex parenting relationship, we do what only a parent can do: provide the constancy of support, of hope and of love. It is not that glamorous. No pictures quite capture what it all looks like amid the roller coaster of emotions — exhilarating highs and pathos that knows no end, all in one day. And, there’s no Oprah, Matt Lauer or Rachel Maddow to capture our stories in all their wonderful detail. We, who are parents in same-sex relationships, are pioneers, telling and writing new stories for generations of parents to follow in the years and generations to come. We tell our stories so that the next generation of LGBTQ parents has a map that will enable them to more successfully navigate the challenges and opportunities that are still new to us all. All I ask is for you to take a photograph of the family to share with others. : :