Here’s another article from our Fall 2018 Pride Guide, released in conjunction with 2018′s VA PrideFest. Get your copy of the print edition at your favorite shops around town, or check out the digital version here.
One April in 1997, a small group of men walked to every gay bar in Richmond posting flyers in the windows, not knowing what to expect. Each of these men had recently been through the most difficult time in their lives: unhappiness, counseling, legal battles, divorce, and coming out to their families after years of suppressing the fact that they were gay.
The flyers told of a new group that would be meeting in a church. They had no idea if anyone would show, but as it turned out, ten men walked into the room that night. Ten men would grow to 30, and for the next 20 years, the Gay Fathers Community of Richmond, Virginia (GFC) became a thriving dinner club for men who had married, had children traditionally, then later in life came to terms with their sexualities. It was a place they could connect, share experiences, and discuss their children and new home lives.
“We wanted other gay fathers to know they are not the only ones going through this,” said Bob X, a founding member of GFC. “The best thing for me is taking that step 20-some years ago to come out to my wife. To acknowledge who I truly am. My life has been enriched by my marriage and my kids, but being comfortable and open with who I really am will be the crowning achievement of my life.”
Twenty years later in fall of 2017, those original founders decided to retire. They gathered everyone together and told the group it was time either to find new leadership, or dissolve the group. Jason Fair, gay father of four, owner of a consulting group, decided the need was too great to lose this group.
“When they said they were going to dissolve the group, I felt like that was doing Richmond a disservice,” said Fair, who is now the President of GFC. “I felt like there was going to be a void or a gap. During that exact same time–that was during October, November–I had just joined Stonewall Sports and had met 10, 15 other gay fathers that didn’t know anything about GFC. There’s a need out there.”
The first step was to rebrand. For years the group was an informal, word-of-mouth club for older gay fathers who had been part of traditional marriages, then been through divorce. Fair explained that most of the resources available were specifically for men dealing with divorce, who had children in their teens and older, and events were primarily private potluck dinners. They weren’t an official nonprofit, and weren’t particularly connected with other LGBTQ organizations in Richmond.
“When this group first organized, the culture was different. Our acceptance and what diversity meant back then is very different to what it means now, and even the evolution of what it means to be a gay father has changed,” Fair said. “Back then, it was about traditional marriages, divorces, and raising children as gay parents, where now [there are] different options around adoption [and] surrogacy, and [other] new options for people in the gay community around parenting. There’s a whole new group of people out there who probably want to have a connection with other dads, maybe with other families of gay fathers. So what we did is expanded to include those new folks.”
Finding new fathers meant finding younger generations of fathers who potentially grew up in more accepting eras and communities, meaning the process of marrying a woman, having children and going through divorce was never part of their timeline. While Fair’s own experience paralleled with the cycle the group’s founders had experienced, he recognized that many younger people would be looking for advice on new aspects of child rearing like adoption, surrogacy, or finding LGBTQ-friendly schools. Including men with these experiences in the group, as well as being able to provide a wider variety of resources to newer members, was essential for expansion.
The issues around adoption were new territory for the group, and as these fathers found out, they were complicated.
“Choosing open adoption was not an easy decision at first,” said Leo X, one of the newer members of GFC. “After all, there were lingering questions about what the involvement of the birth family would be, along with concerns of adoption scammers – both financial and emotional. In the end, we knew that it would be far healthier for our child to be able to build a relationship with their birth parents, and to know that they were placed in adoption out of love.”
While many younger men are arriving at gay fatherhood through different paths than GFC’s founders did, that doesn’t mean older men aren’t still going through the painful processes of divorcing, coming out to their wives, children, and communities, and experiencing the same difficulties the founders had. Despite changing social norms, many are still struggling to break free from toxic heteronormative lifestyles. For men like these, GFC serves as vital a purpose as it ever has.
“I was welcomed with open arms,” said Ryan X, and older member and divorced father. “Several people already were expecting me, knew my name, and immediately introduced me to other guys. Not for one minute did I feel awkward. I remember saying to myself, ‘Wow, there are other guys that have gone through the same thing as me.’ Several members took the time to sit and chat and share their experiences with me, to make me feel comfortable. I immediately felt that this was a group that I would be able to build personal connections [in], and feel comfortable sharing my journey and seeking the support to overcome my challenges.”
GFC’s membership has more than doubled since the start of 2018. Beginning with about 30 people, they now include upwards of 100 gay fathers and men looking to become fathers. Fair has made efforts to reconnect the group to other organizations like Diversity Richmond and Virginia Pride, and has acquired legal not-for-profit status in order to fundraise. For the very first time, GFC will have a table at Virginia Pride this year.
“Richmond is a small community, and Richmond is conservative in nature, and so trying to seek out and find other people that have similar experiences and similar challenges makes some of these folks feel more comfortable,” Fair said.
GFC has expanded to include resources for counselors and financial advisors, but Fair says the members often just want a group of people with whom they feel at home.
“I’ve only been here five years, six years,” Fair said. “When I was starting my separation process, my counselor recommended I seek out this group. They honestly were fantastic people to help me through my separation, through my divorce, through my experience with my kids. I had different experiences with all four of my kids. Just having a group of people who can understand what you’re going through and say, ‘Hey, what did you do about this? What did you do about that?’”
As part of an effort to become more involved in their local community, GFC has also teamed up with Host Homes, an organization that assists LGBTQ youth in finding foster homes after being forced out of their own homes for coming out to their families. In addition to these new partnerships, GFC has also increased their monthly events, which still include the traditional potluck dinners as well as a few new additions, such as camping trips, happy hours, fundraisers, and family-friendly events like a day at an amusement park. One thing’s for sure; it’s not just a dinner club anymore.
“We wanted to be able to show that everybody goes through their own journey and their own challenges, and we are a group of people that are really trying to bring those people together so they can share those experiences [and] we can support each other,” Fair said. “We provide resources to people. We have a group of counselors that support our groups. We have a group of attorneys that support our group. We have a group of financial planners that support our group. It’s really more of a networking and a community outreach, and to be a resource to people that either may be having challenges, or they’re just looking to meet people that are like them.”