For 20 years Marcos Nascimento has been working with groups of young and adult men, practitioners, educators, and policy makers on how to promote gender equality in Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America. In recent years, fatherhood has become a major area of interest and in 2012, Nascimento was invited to be part of a new initiative developed by a Rio de Janeiro– based NGO. A group of professionals, mostly family therapists, were starting a new project that offered a safe space for gays and lesbians who had children—and those interested in having children— a place designed to share experiences and learn from one another. All participants were establishing or trying to establish their own families with partners and children. Through his experience with LGBT families, Nascimento’s interest grew in understanding not only the personal and social challenges gay and transgender fathers face, but also how society—from a contemporary understanding of evolving notions of masculinity—can better support these fathers.
From public policy planners to men’s groups, over the past decade, fatherhood has been increasingly recognized as a critically important topic around the world. Campaigns to encourage men to be more involved in maternal and newborn health care, debates around paternity leave, and educational programs for young fathers are among the issues organizations are addressing. However, there are few references to gay fatherhood or to transgender fathers. The majority of studies about fatherhood are seen through the lens of the heterosexual experience, an experience primarily expressed through virility, sexual power, and one’s own (heterosexual) masculinity.
In Latin America, discussing ideas about fatherhood and motherhood with LGBT parents is a relatively recent development for many professionals working with these parents and prospective parents. Although debates on marriage equality, adoption, and access to assisted reproduction technologies for LGBT people have been addressed—and have led to important rights achievements in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and Uruguay—there is still much work to be done. In Latin America, there are few statistics regarding the number of same-sex parents. It is evident that gay fathers (and lesbian mothers) have always existed, either through previous heterosexual relationships, as gay couples, or individuals seeking adoption services and assisted reproductive technologies to establish families. For gay and bisexual men, official and informal adoption is the preferred pathway to having children. For most transgender people, informal adoption is often their only recourse since discrimination against them is even harsher than what gays face.
In 2010, the Brazilian census reported for the first time the number of same-sex families in the country. The figure of 60,000 was undoubtedly an underestimated number (because of the tremendous prejudice facing the LGBT community, many gays and lesbians may not have reported their sexual orientation to census takers.) Meanwhile, studies conducted by the International Men and Gender Equality Survey (IMAGES) have revealed that between 40 and 70 percent of respondents in Brazil, Chile and Mexico are against gay men adopting children. Their argument is that gay male couples are “suspicious” because of their sexual orientation—and their gender—and are seen as “unable” to effectively care for children (compared to lesbian couples,) who at least have “natural” maternal feelings as women (suggesting no equivalent paternal feelings exist in men). Any orientation other than heterosexual is perceived negatively; indeed, in some Latin American countries being gay, lesbian, or transgender is a crime, considered a deviant behavior. It reflects a deep-seated prejudice that often leads to homophobic violence, including homicides.
In our project with LGBT adults, there were few men in the groups. However, for those men who were a part of the group, becoming a parent was not some “fatherhood project” but part of a life plan, not an “accident” or something that just “happened.” There was a great emotional (and financial) investment in realizing their dream of becoming fathers. Such men expect a lot of themselves and feel the stress of wanting to be good fathers. They were afraid, for instance, that if their children struggled in school it would be attributed to their fathers, being gay.
Creating a family with a partner and children that has full legal recognition is new for these men, for their families of origin, and for society as a whole. For that reason, the men face a range of problems related to being a “new family”—legal (do you list both father’s names on the birth certificate?); paternity leave (for one father only? For both? How long?); and, heartbreakingly, dealing with schools that refuse to admit their children (because the schools are not “prepared” to receive their families as part of the school community). As one man in the group said (referring to gay and lesbian families), “We are in the middle of a changing process. We are the change.”
In spite of the social barriers they may encounter, fatherhood remains an important goal for many gay, bisexual, and transgender prospective parents. They face challenges and barriers as gay fathers that society eventually will have to address. For those men who have had children in a previous heterosexual relationship, what help might they need with others in their lives navigating their new sexual identity? What does it mean for a gay man to come out to his children? Does it change their benchmarks of masculinity and fatherhood? For those who have sons, does it change their understanding of boyhood and manhood? And what do we know about the experience of transgender fathers? Isn’t the lens through which we analyze their male experience necessarily going to have to be different from the traditional heterosexual masculinity framework?
As researchers and activists Gary Barker and Fabio Verani have reported, “The discussion around same sex couples highlights the fact that fathers have many other unique issues that cannot be addressed by simply focusing on traditional heterosexual nuclear families.”
Gary Barker et al. (2012). Men Who Care: A Multi-Country Qualitative Study Of Men in Non-Traditional Caregiving Roles. Washington , DC: Promundo and International Center on Research on Women.
Gary Barker and Fabio Verani (2008). Men’s Participation as Fathers in the Latin American and Caribbean Region: A Critical Literature Review with Policy Considerations. Rio de Janeiro: Promundo/Save the Children.
Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística – IBGE. (2010). Censo demográfico 2010: famílias e domicílios. Available at http://www.ibge.gov.br/home/estatistica/populacao/ censo2010/default.shtm.
Marcos Nascimento (2011). Improváveis Relações: produção de sentidos sobre o masculino no contexto de amizade entre homens homo e heterossexuais. [Dissertation]. Rio de Janeiro: UERJ.
Marcos Nascimento and Márcio Segundo (November 2014). Masculinity, Sexual Diversity and Homophobia: Challenges to Promote Gender Equality. Analysis of the survey IMAGES and implications for action. Paper presented at the second MenEngage Global Symposium: Men and Boys for Gender Justice, New Delhi, India.
Marcos Nascimento, PhD. is a researcher at Fundação Oswaldo Cruz (FIOCRUZ) in Rio de Janeiro, and a member of the Brazilian Men’s Network for Gender Equality. He can be reached at email@example.com.