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Nelson Mui | February 4, 2008
As the gayby boom leads to baby envy, some gay men are hearing a “biological clock” tick for the first time. Come again?
Last fall, I went to the annual fund-raiser Strike Out Breast Cancer at the Presidio Bowl. Apart from the promise of some down-home fun (bowling in western attire, a whirl on a mechanical bull) and free Zuni burgers, the event is known to attract gay professionals. As this magazine's social reporter, I was officially working the party. Unofficially, I was working the room for potential mates.
That was until I ran into two acquaintances, Paul Loeffler, a 38-year-old architect, and Mike Sullivan, a 45-year-old partner at the law firm Howard Rice. The couple could be considered a single gay man's nightmare: well educated, well coiffed, and well-off, they're essentially a glossy magazine come to life. Only a year before, I had run into Loeffler, tan and toned in a tight black Lacoste, at the same event, and he'd offered this advice—with the simplicity only a man not in the trenches for years could provide—on how to meet Mr. Right. "You need to switch gyms," he'd said.
Now I asked Loeffler what was new, expecting chatter about vacations and home renovations. Then came the thud. "We have a nine-month-old son," he announced with a proud, glowing grin. He pulled his wallet out, flashing a picture of little Joseph Loeffler. The boy's large brown eyes bore a striking resemblance to both his dads'. "We went through a surrogate," Loeffler said.
The news came as a sucker punch; I hadn't even known they were pregnant. Single at 34, with dating prospects as tenuous as peace in the Middle East, I suddenly felt like a profound underachiever, a laggard in the game of life. Loeffler was someone I could identify with—a witty gym bunny with an active social life who'd also managed to land a husband and now had a baby, too. I wasn't even sure I wanted kids, but confronted with yet another gay parent, especially one who made parenthood seem so comfortable and sexy, I suddenly wondered: would I be too late? Some mental math ensued. Three years in a relationship before I'd consider kids; I'd be 37. Two years to adopt or go through a surrogate; I'd be 39. And that's if I met Mr. Right right then and there.
The next morning, I relayed my vignette to a close girlfriend, a sassy, stylish, single 36-year-old who's the Grace to my Will. She exploded with laughter. "Welcome to my hell," she cackled. "Now you know what it's like to run into all your friends and hear about baby this, baby that."
Since when does a gay man have a biological clock? Just a minute ago, being gay still guaranteed you immunity from the straight life, from the stereotypical sex-starved marriage centered around children. Like the rich and famous, gay men had "lifestyles." Being marginalized, we were free to pursue lives of our own design, whether we opted for a boundless bacchanal or devotion to our careers. In my 20s, I met countless guys in their late 30s and 40s who, reflecting their coming-of-age in the go-go gay-lib seventies, extolled the virtues of high camp and a hard body. Monogamy was overrated if not downright impossible. My friend Robert Bryan, a 59-year-old New York fashion editor who took part in the Stonewall riots, would regularly poke fun at my quaint dating notions. "No, no, no," he would lecture me, "you should never sleep with someone after you've talked to him." Gays were free to postpone settling down as long as they wanted to; some of my older friends are only now ready for relationships after decades of partying. So why plan anything? Time would last about as long as your looks did. As for kids, well, those were for breeders.
Of course, gay men have bred millions of kids over the millennium, stuck in history's closet and making the best of it as dads and family men. But even in the eighties and nineties, as pioneers forged the first generation of "out" parents, the face of gay parenting seemed a suburban, almost countrified one to urban professional gays like me. We'd read about them (many of them lesbians) in news stories, and their earnestness struck us as worlds away from the cosmo-swilling, tanorexic party scene of New York, London, and San Francisco. In our world, DINKies—dual income, no kids—held sway, and the pink dollar was going toward Prada, not Baby Gap.
But in the past few years, the culture has shifted for both straights and gays, glamorizing pregnancy and parenting as never before. (Think of the world's biggest stars, from Gwyneth to Madonna, strolling the style pages in designer maternity wear.) We all know what that's meant for some childless straight women in their 30s: caught up in the fantasy, their eggs facing an imminent sell-by date, many feel stuck. Unwilling to settle for just any guy, their careers a pale substitute for a family, they face a crisis. When people bandy about the term biological clock, they're not just talking about impending infertility (after all, we live in a world with ways around that). It's about the pressure to get on with life, jump off the fast track, and find a better reason to grow older. (As they say, a baby changes everything.) What's been strange is to realize that younger gay men like me are now hearing the clock ticking, too.
The shift has been subtle; little has been written about a gay biological clock. It's been fairly sudden, too, resulting from a perfect storm of technological advances that make surrogacy more widespread and attainable, warm feelings connected to the burst of gay marriages, and a fast-changing groupthink—did someone say "fad"?—in the hypertrendy gay community. But however you add it up, the baby option isn't just available to men who've moved beyond nights of sweaty, shirtless dancing at the Mezzanine. Now it's seriously aspirational.
In my early 20s, after I came out, I thought I wanted kids eventually, though I wasn't sure why. (Maybe for the same nonreason many straight guys "want" kids: it's a given, like going to college.) Then, as I got caught up in my career by day, bouncing from man to man and partying by night, the nagging feeling that creating a gay family seemed really, really difficult pushed the idea of kids out of my head. Yet after moving back to my native San Francisco from New York two and a half years ago, I started noticing cute younger gay dads popping up everywhere, even at cocktail parties or the gym, like strangers you meet and suddenly see all around town. What's more, for anyone over 30, the kid question was cropping up. Driving home from a holiday party in 2003, one new friend, Jon Burgstone, a then 31-year-old Harvard MBA and entrepreneur who made out during the tech boom, confided that he wanted to meet the right partner soon, because he "hoped to have kids ideally by my mid-30s." At the time, I found the comment odd, since most of the gay men I knew still suffered from a Peter Pan complex.
Then my law school friend Tony Raftopol, 36, a New York attorney, announced that he and his partner of 11 years (I was with him the night he met Shawn, 35, at a Boston nightclub our final year) were in the initial stages of having a child through surrogacy. Back here, friends Patrick Herning, 32, a man-about-town from Atherton, and Brad Lande, 28, a partner in Olivia, a company specializing in gay travel, took a trip to L.A. to visit Growing Generations, a leading surrogacy agency, since they hoped to have a child in 2006. They "want to be young parents," says Herning, like their friends, who are mostly straight and going through their baby moment. When I was on a date with a tall, handsome 40-year-old psychiatrist I'd met at my gym, he casually dropped over crème brûlée that he had a child with a straight woman in a coparenting arrangement.
All the rushing seemed counterintuitive; why would a gay man be in a hurry? (Straight men don't seem to be.) My first thought was that it could be a gay existential crisis, the way some women, facing the inevitable loss of looks and youth, have a hard time turning 40. But something more practical may be at work. "This is about family planning," says Daniel Mendelsohn, 44, a gay New York writer and author of The Elusive Embrace, a memoir reflecting on gay fatherhood and his experiences raising a child in a coparenting arrangement. "Any idiot can reproduce. But there are certain times that are optimal, when you want to act. People think about their careers this way, so why shouldn't they think about planning a family that way?" Most gay men I spoke to seemed resigned to the baby train leaving their station if they haven't gotten on board by their mid-40s. After all, panting and puffing while tossing around a football with your kids at age 55 is just not a good look.
But a 35-year-old gay dad, well, that's sexy. Watching Paul Loeffler—the architect who resuscitated my own and no doubt many a gay man's baby envy—play with his son on a grassy knoll in Golden Gate Park one fall Sunday afternoon, I saw him as the symbol of a tantalizing new fantasy. If we just played our cards right, started dating appropriate people (whatever that means), and settled down with a partner and kids, we, too, could find gay life's second act: an immortality we had not thought possible; an identity not based on fucking, shopping, AIDS activism, or all three. "We did the volunteering and fund-raising thing," said Loeffler when I pressed him on why he'd channeled his deeper impulses into having a family. "If you're not dying when you're 40, what's the future going to be? What did our moms do? I thought to myself, ‘Do I want to be just the sassy architect with the decent body at 50?' "
In his late 30s, Ed Swanson, a partner at a law firm he cofounded, would get depressed, even cry, every time he and his partner of 14 years saw children at friends' homes or on the street. "Time was passing," says Swanson's partner, Paul Herman, 39, a PhD candidate in American history at Stanford. "Ed was beginning to feel that it wasn't going to happen, that he was hitting 40 and that'd be it." Initially, Herman was reluctant, fearing he'd be saddled with being "mommy" on account of Swanson's long work hours. Counseling helped them reach a solution, and they eventually had twin girls, Kate and Liza, with a surrogate. Now that they have a happy family, Swanson tells me that one of their single gay friends who also wanted kids badly won't bring the subject up; he's beyond 40. "It was hard for him because we made it happen," he says.
My colleague Andy Tidwell, 41, this magazine's associate publisher, and his husband, Mark Sullivan, 43, a retail executive, are on edge, too, caught between not wanting to introduce kids into the equation after just three years together and feeling like they can't wait. The topic is never far away: on a recent trip to Florida, the pair met a gay couple who had an "adorable three-year-old son," prompting yet another round of baby talk. "A lot of my gay friends are feeling the same pressure," says Tidwell. "Time is moving fast."
At least they're already married. For singles like me, most of whom don't want (or can't afford) to raise a child solo, the only choices are to meet someone soon or opt for some sort of arrangement with female friends. My friend Brian Backus, 40, a Harvard MBA turned painter and entrepreneur, recognized at 37 that the relationship front wasn't happening for him; he had to pursue other options. "Look at me, who's good enough?" he jokes. "I move all over the country and have two different graduate degrees [the other one's in film from USC]. But 40 felt like a cutoff, partly because I knew one's energy and fertility drop. A lot of donor clinics don't even want to work with an anonymous donor over 40." He talked to a lesbian couple in Seattle he's friends with (who were facing their own biological clock) and had a lawyer draw up a donor insemination agreement. Last fall, they had twin sons, Will and Carter, whom he flies up to see every couple of months.
Backus's arrangement, while perfectly suited for him, didn't resonate with me. Maybe it's because I'm just 34 and still "in play" for the guy, the house, and the baby by my early 40s. Plus, I wasn't sure about the baby. Like many men, I didn't feel a strong paternal instinct and wasn't certain I'd be able to develop one. Nor did I feel any compelling desire to pass on my genes. But perhaps no different from any straight guy, I'd been socialized into thinking that having a child would be the right thing to do—a crucial step in becoming a "real" man, or at least a grown-up. Maybe I just wanted to keep up with my peers.
Apparently, now that gays can have children more easily, like straights, we too can have them for all the wrong reasons.
This new drumbeat about procreating is not without its skeptics, of course. When I talked to one female friend, a writer who's lived in the city for over 15 years, she said, rather tartly, "Gay men are ruining themselves. They could have perfectly fabulous lifestyles, and they want to throw it all away for what? A screaming child in nappies?" My friend Tom Kelley, 50, a volunteer fund-raiser for Project Inform, was more resigned about matters. "Children are the new dogs for gays," he joked. "Pretty soon there will be a war between the dog people and the kid people in Dolores Park." One early 40s, Stanford-educated management consultant I went on three dates with recently told me that he feared that gays were "rushing to replicate the same social constructs as straights." "What next?" he asked. "Gay baby showers?"
Why not? Given the new undercurrent, it's not difficult to imagine today's upwardly mobile gay twentysomethings experiencing all of life's phases in lockstep with their straight peers. Get your partying out of the way now. Solidify career and a relationship in your 30s. One person will probably have to be on the mommy track and make career sacrifices. Already, some gay men are discussing the baby issue during the first few dates. Whereas they used to suss out whether a prospect was a top or a bottom, now detecting a date's lack of readiness for kids or his poor fit for either the breadwinner or househusband role can be a deal breaker. "In the first couple of dates with my boyfriend," concedes my friend Jon Burgstone, now a Cal professor, "one of the things I was looking for was [whether he] was open to having kids. We've talked about how we need to make sure we're financially and professionally established for kids and that, for me, the mid-30s represents a sweet spot." Burgstone's partner, James Rembert, 31, adds that the straight parallels include pressure from his mom. "She made it clear she definitely wanted grandkids, one way or another," says Rembert, a Harvard-educated radiation oncologist.
Naturally, all this baby fever widens an old and craggy divide within the gay community. To radical queers, aspiring to a traditional family life is just another example of conspicuous consumption. Christopher Carrington, an assistant professor of sociology and human sexuality studies at San Francisco State and the author of No Place Like Home, a book about gay and lesbian family life, lectured me that this was "an enterprise of the affluent. Most gay men I know are pretty savvy. The substantial majority will not give up their lifestyles for children. Once all the labor and expense involved in having kids becomes apparent, I think there's going to be buyer's regret."
Raising a child is obviously not for the faint of wallet, and having a baby through surrogacy carries a huge one-time price tag of $80,000 to $100,000, with extras such as donor eggs from a "Harvard-educated woman" potentially bumping it up another $20,000. (Apparently, there are many gay men in entertainment in L.A. who, flush with cash, go for such customized options.) This affluence factor can make for easy satire, and one day a screenwriter could have fun sketching out this new subculture of wealthy, youngish gay parents. I once ran into Loeffler at an amfAR fund-raiser, and he informed me that he'd just heard that some gay daddies have started calling their nannies "personal assistants." "So," he said, only partly mocking, "we're going to start calling ours a personal assistant, too."
But all laughs aside, the underlying drive of men like Loeffler, Burgstone, and Swanson to have kids won't dissipate. It's like another coming out, the realization of an identity so innate it's hard to articulate. Just why does anyone want to be a parent, really? Loeffler explains that being a dad was always how he saw himself. Like being gay, that was who he was. And now that he's a parent, he experiences a level of emotional richness he never expected. "I never felt this sense of forward motion before," Loeffler says. "I feel like I've really accomplished something and am part of something much bigger than I used to be. I never felt so connected to my family, and there's a certainty now that even if my career goes nowhere, I'll still always be this little guy's dad."
As for my own mild longings, I finally realized that I've mostly been coveting what someone else has, the way you might ache upon seeing someone's insanely fabulous house. Right at this moment, I'm not in the running for a nanny, a baby, or even a husband. Admittedly, I've been called picky, but it seems that the pool of eligible men (emotionally and financially stable, interested in commitment) in town isn't large. And my own panic is too sporadic to make me rush into something. Still, as a hedge, I've recently decided not to actively pursue men over 40, since they're usually over the baby thing (not to mention still single for a reason). And when I do get the unsettling feeling that my chance for having a family is zipping past, I can count on a single girlfriend in her mid-30s to shoot back, "I don't even want to hear it." One of them recently took a trip to Stanford to look into freezing her eggs. That's enough of a reality check to get me to leave my pity party—and head for a real party.
Then again, I could just ignore the fact that I'm part of the first generation of gay men to hear the biological clock and stick to my elders' advice. "I went through a period where I wondered if I wanted kids, and I really considered it," says Thom Lynch, 45, executive director of the San Francisco LGBT Community Center. "There was a great desire to have a legacy.
"But it's sort of like indigestion," he says. "It just goes away."