For John Hewson, the idea of becoming a father was always in the back of his mind, but it took three bouts with skin cancer and a later-in-life coming out to prepare him to embrace fatherhood fully.
Now he is looking for support in a city that, he says, is less than well stocked with resources, and especially dating services, for older gay men who want to find mates so they can father together.
In January, the 52-year-old launched a group to help gay men who want to parent but don’t know where to turn meet prospective partners online. The online dating/support group now has 15 members.
“It seems like there’s some uncharted ground,” member Doug Anderson says. “Since our group has gotten together, there has been heart, energy and a feeling of family for me.”
Many of the members tell similar stories of struggling to admit to themselves that they are gay and want children. “There’s that self-acceptance and settling into, ‘Yeah, this is okay,’” Anderson says. “Because when you start accepting that you’re gay, sometimes the first thing you write off is ever having a family.”
Hewson says he always hoped to have children, even as he dated women. “It’s not that I didn’t have some delicious relationships with women, because I did. But had it worked out and I had kids, I probably would have been cheating on the women,” he admits, adding that he thinks many gay men stay in straight relationships because they want a family.
“It’s a real commitment to have a family,” says Stephen Field, 57. “I think I sort of scare them off.”
Field wants to be a father but has yet to find the right family structure to help him fulfill his dream. He says he’s run ads in newspapers and online looking for gay men, couples and surrogacy options. “I thought, Why am I denying myself this?”
Unlike Hewson and Anderson, Field says he doesn’t want to raise a biological child. He says co-parenting children with a lesbian couple or meeting a man who is already a parent is appealing to him. “My intention in the group is to meet a guy who has kids because I don’t want to start from scratch,” he says. “At my age, the fact that I’m going to have my own children is probably unreasonable. I don’t want to be 75 when they’re 18.”
Just five years younger than Field, Hewson is eager to rear offspring. “I am very independent, I am very capable, I can move anywhere. I can make friends easily. I can do a lot of things, but what I haven’t done is create a relationship,” he says. “I was trapped in the mindset that you have to be a straight man to have a family.”
At the Health Initiative for Men, executive director Wayne Robert says the organization used to offer a support workshop for gay dads, but the program dissolved because there wasn’t a huge demand for it. “There’s not a huge need,” he says, “but we’re very open to giving help and support.”
The organizer of Rainbow Families for Metro Vancouver, an online meet-up site that plans events for gay and lesbian families, says lesbians are better represented than gay male parents in her group. Of Rainbow Families’ 160 members, most are lesbians, Claire Benson-Mandl says, adding she hasn’t seen much demand for gay male parenting events. “But it’s something we could consider doing,” she adds.
Benson-Mandl joined the networking site last summer so her daughter, six, could relate to other children of queer families. “I wanted her to not feel like she’s the only child of gay and lesbian parents. I wanted her to meet other families that look like hers.”
Benson-Mandl gave birth to the daughter that she co-parents with her longtime female partner. The child was conceived with the assistance of an anonymous donor at a fertility clinic in Vancouver. She says the conception process was relatively easy. “Local fertility clinics in 2014, they’ve had many years of working with out lesbian couples, so our experience at the clinic was supportive and clear, and I didn’t feel like there were any hurdles to jump,” she says.
But Benson-Mandl assumes it’s more challenging for gay men. “I think the gay experience and the lesbian experience is probably very different,” she says. “I think it would be much harder for a gay man to meet another gay man who is specifically looking for a life partner to raise a family with.”
“We’re women,” she says. “We have the biology, we want to conceive, and off we go!”