Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2001


Gillian A. Dunne (2001) 'The Lady Vanishes? Reflections on the Experiences of Married and Divorced Non-Heterosexual Fathers'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 6, no. 3, <>

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Received: 21/9/2001      Accepted: 26/11/2001      Published: 30/11/2001


This paper draws on one of the first published studies of gay fatherhood to explore some experiences of those who were married or divorced. Focus on their stories reveals some of the complexity of our emotional and sexual landscapes, and provides interesting evidence of the socially constructed bases of sexuality. Mapping their parenting circumstances and relationships with ex/wives, I apply a feminist analysis in an attempt to understand the unusual patterns found. I suggest that in a contemporary context whereby increasing numbers of people are questioning and rejecting conventional forms of family life and gender practices, the exploration of non-heterosexual experience provides an important opportunity to consider alternative models of parenting, gender, and relations across and within gender categories.

Fatherhood; Gay Fatherhood; Gay Parenting; Gender Relations; Parenting


My interest in the circumstances of gay fathers stems from earlier research on the organization of work and parenting in lesbian partnerships. This generated some interesting findings. Firstly, that so many had collaborated with gay men (Dunne 2000) in their quest to become mothers via self-insemination supports the view that the `gayby' boom, identified in the USA (Weston 1991), is occurring here. Secondly, that rather than mirroring the polarisation of work and family-life that characterizes heterosexual arrangements, lesbian and gay people appear to be constructing more innovative and egalitarian approaches (Dunne 1998a, 2000). I was curious to investigate this from the perspective of gay fathers. However, noting the relative absence of sociological research on the topic, I sought and obtained ESRC funding for an exploratory study[1] with more simple aims: to map out the different circumstances of gay men in relation to parenthood. The research combined qualitative and quantitative methods in an attempt to learn about the experiences of the 100 gay fathers who participated in the study. While no study on this topic can make claims to be representative[2] and the findings must be treated with caution, every effort was made for this research to be as wide reaching and methodologically sensitive as possible.[3]

The research has been fascinating on a number of levels, one being the diversity of respondents' parenting circumstances. As anticipated, a large proportion of the sample (50%) became fathers in heterosexual relationships, 39 of whom are divorced and 11 are currently married. However, an equally high proportion of the sample are currently (or in the process of becoming) fathers in non-heterosexual contexts[4] . While I think that the implications of gay men becoming fathers and constructing parenting identities and practices beyond the confines of heterosexuality are profound (see Dunne 1999a, b, 2000, forthcoming) I want to focus here on the experience of married and divorced respondents and explore some important themes that often emerged across the sample. I will begin with the stories of respondents who are married, and expand my discussion to include those who are divorced. In the paper, I hope to illustrate the complexity of our emotional and sexual landscapes as well as the poverty of existing social definitions of sexuality. By focusing on respondents relationships with their wives and ex-wives, and the circumstances of their parenting, I will apply a feminist analysis to explore the relationship between gender and sexuality and offer some tentative thoughts on why `coming out' to a wife does not necessarily have to herald the end of a relationship. I argue that in a contemporary context whereby increasing numbers of people are questioning and rejecting conventional forms of family-life and gender roles, the exploration of non- heterosexual experience provides an important opportunity to consider alternative models of parenting, gender, and relations across and within gender categories.

Married Dads in the Closet

I shall begin by focusing on the stories of those married respondents who were not `out' about their sexuality to their wives; of the 11, surprisingly, there were only three.

John's Story - `I'm deeply in love with them all'

I met John in his small flat in the Manchester Gay Village. John is 41 years old and has been married for 11 years. He has three young children.

Like most respondents he described early feelings of difference and an awareness of same-sex attraction. For John, these feelings generated disgust, and his main preoccupation was to be `normal' and to conform. He came from a working-class background, and was the first member of his family to go to university. He told me of his strong desire to please his parents:

So at 21 - so this was during my university time - And I think I was desperately trying to fulfil [Mum and Dad's] expectations. And they were ambitious for me and I sort of picked up some of that. And in this period - in terms of my emotional development - I became aware of gay tendencies, but despised them and serviced them occasionally, but really felt they were perverted and disgusting. And needed to be held at bay... I think fitting-in was very important to Mum - and that transmitted itself to me... And so this sort of stuff rearing its head wasn't fitting-in and wasn't wanted.

During his twenties John had a number of romantic sexual relationships with women. Finally, aged 31, he wanted to settled down `I remember wanting to feel the warmth and security of the love of one person'. He met his Ginny on a skiing holiday and was married soon after:

I can remember the scene now. My very first thought was that here was someone who had been hurt. She struck me as nervous and vulnerable and tender, and someone who'd been through a lot. [I: And did you mention anything about your feelings about men?] No, no, I didn't. I was in love and I still am in love with her ... my wife has the sweetest nature of anyone I've ever met ... she's lovely.

Like many married and divorced respondents, he talked about feeling intense social pressure to settle down and marry. In common with most of the many respondents who had an awareness of same-sex attraction before they married, he believed that marriage would be a solution to his unwanted desires:

It would make me more normal and acceptable to the job that I was in and smooth the way to promotion. Also I was looking to get married because getting married was finally going to help me achieve this pushing-down of these revolting, disgusting, perverted feelings back to where they needed to be. Battened down in a box. And getting married would help me do that.

He described the first four years of his marriage as being `blissfully happy,' although he still had questions about his sexuality.

As the distance between his home and workplace was great, and as his wife did not enjoy city life, John bought the flat in Manchester and commuted home during the weekends. Having time to himself enabled John to explore the gay scene. He soon he met Paul, who played a crucial role in helping John to establish a positive sense of identity:

At the age of 37 or thereabouts, I met Paul at a gay Christian meeting group. And started having a relationship really... well I think at the age of 37, I came out to myself. At that age I felt I could put my hand up and say: 'Hey, I am a gay man and that's actually okay - it actually makes me special - and that's actually what I am and it's nothing to be ashamed about'. And Paul helped me do that.

John and Paul have been lovers for the past four years. John could not imagine living without Paul and they share many interests in common. Given John's love for his children, and his feelings of affection, loyalty for and responsibility to his wife there seems to be no way out of the dilemma:

This is why I go to counselling weekly. It's a lot for me to bear as well. The deceit I find very difficult to bear. But, knowing my wife as I do, my greatest fear is that if all this all came out - and certainly if all this came out in a uncontrolled way - it might seriously unhinge her. It would be like ripping open the stomach of a goat in this room and having all the entrails and everything fall out on the carpet and trying to clear that one up. It would be uncontrollable... I bear the knowledge that she has had bad relationships with men in her life. I sort of am more aware of that, almost more than she is. And I wonder at a very deep level whether I'm trying to make up for that.

Yet there is no doubt of the strength of his feelings for Paul. At every mention of his name, John's eyes sparkled and often welled with tears. His solution to his dilemma is to lead a double life. However, having introduced Paul to Ginny and his children, and a close friendship between them developing, he treads a very dangerous line indeed. While it may be easy to condemn his dishonesty, one could not help but get a sense of him as a committed, loving father, and as a domesticated and attentive husband.

Bob's Story - `Walking a Tight Line'

Bob told me his story in a telephone interview. He is 55, has been married for 25 years, and has two children in their late teens. Like John, Bob describes himself as always having known he was attracted to men. He even told his wife about this before they married. He thinks that she did not take this very seriously and held the view that `she could convert me'. He describes his reasons for marrying thus:

I wanted a permanent, stable loving relationship and didn't think, at that time, I could find that in a gay relationship. I loved her, and in those days there was an awful lot of pressure, you were supposed to marry.

I asked him how he had managed to negotiate his sexuality once married, and he said `I just put all thoughts about it on backburner. I was just too busy being a traditional dad'. Two years ago, however, thoughts about his feelings for men began to flood back into his mind, and he felt he `had to tackle it'. Without giving his reasons he suggested a separation on the basis `of needing some space'. She begged him to stay, saying he was her very best friend. He felt he could not leave.

For the past two years he has been leading a `double life', `walking a tight line' as he describes it - seeing men and having casual sex in the spaces that he has negotiated within his marriage. He realises that this situation would be untenable if he formed a serious relationship, yet he also feels unable to leave. His wife has been seriously ill with cancer, although in remission, and he wants to support her. Like John, he feels unwilling to hurt her, telling me that he still loves her, and that they have a bond `like brother and sister'.

Tim's Story - `Staying in the Closet for the sake of the Kids'

Over the course of three months Tim, aged 39, told me his story in a series of email dialogues. In contrast to John and Bob, he feels that he is `locked into a loveless marriage'. He is in the Fire Service, has been married for 16 years and has two children in their early teens. Tim came from a skilled-manual background and grew-up in a working-class neighbourhood. Although, in childhood he felt attracted to other boys, he could not reconcile the limited images of homosexuality available to him with his own sense of self:

I was born in 1958 in Corby, a working-class area and my father worked in the steelworks, my mother as a machinist. We moved to an estate on the outskirts of the town when I was 10. I was aware through secondary school and college that I preferred the company of and was attracted to boys rather than girls. But I never had any physical contact with either. I went through the stages of looking up homosexuality in encyclopaedias etc, and later while at college buying a gay magazine from a shop. The only other gay person who I was aware of, through the media and local gossip, was a guy (transvestite) called 'Candy' who lived locally, in the next town. This kept my sexuality still in turmoil because I wanted to be with other males but I did not want to dress as a female or act camp in any way.

He left college at 18, `still a virgin', and joined the Fire Service. Living away from home enabled him to have the opportunity to discover `cottaging' and he had his first (anonymous) sexual relationship with a man when he was 19. At this point he felt pressure to be heterosexually active, and one of his colleagues arranged for him to go out with the woman who was to become his wife:

... she was 16 and [worked locally]. Some of the other staff arranged dates etc and it just went on. I suppose I was very naive. The relationship with my wife continued and progressed to engagement and then marriage. Mainly because I did not have access to other Gay men apart from loitering in toilets, but also because that was what was expected by my family, workmates and society.

Once married he continued `cottaging and anonymous contacts with other men'. Finally ten years later he came to terms with the idea that he was gay. He had become a volunteer worker on an HIV-AIDS project and in the context of meeting a wider range of `ordinary' gay men he was able to challenge the stereotypes. He has since had two long-term relationships with men.

As he began to come out to himself ten years ago, he felt torn between wanting to leave his marriage, and not wanting to hurt his wife or loose his children, aged two and six at the time. His compromise was to encourage his wife to become more independent and he realised that this would involve his taking a greater share in parenting and domestic work:

I had realised I needed to get out of the relationship for my own good, but was torn between selfishness and the two girls and my wife. I thought it through and came to the conclusion that I could not just dump them. I tried to prepare the ground for making a break. I persuaded my wife to get a job. I pushed her onto college courses, this worked really well because she managed to get on an access course and is now working as a staff nurse. I was really pleased about this because it gave her some independence from me..... She works full time now.

Unfortunately, just at the point when he had built up the courage to tell his wife and ask for a separation, she contracted a serious illness, and he felt unable to bring up the subject. Recently, he has become more and more convinced that she knows that he is gay - she seems to have asked him out-right in a letter which he in turn denied. He remains in a difficult marriage - `she is hanging on to me as an accessory. She needs to be married and needs the icon of a husband' - and leads a `double life'. Recently he told me that he is looking for accommodation, with the view to `making the break'.

`Out' Married Gay Dads

As I mentioned earlier, the majority of the married men in my sample were out to their wives, and I want now to draw on their experience.

Chris's Story - Coming out Late

Chris, aged 45, is a director of a manufacturing company and has been married for 25 years. He has three teenage children. I learnt his story in a telephone interview. Chris met and fell in love with his wife when they were at university together. Like others in the sample he had no idea that h might be gay until well into his married life:

I had no inclination that I was attracted to men. I had had several relationships with women during adolescence, was perhaps a bit shy. When I met my wife we were blissfully happy together, the sex was great, and getting married felt like the right thing to do.

It was not until shortly after his youngest child was born that he began to question his sexuality. In common with several other respondents, this thinking was stimulated by a particular configuration of life events. Money was tight, and there were difficulties at work and he became depressed - wondering what he had done with his life. At this time, his wife's uncle surprised them both by announcing that he was gay. Chris began to notice that his sexual attraction towards women began to diminish as his awareness of other men's bodies increased. Five years ago he met and fell in love with Ric:

After 6 months I decided to tell my wife everything - I couldn't live a lie. She said, `Thank God its not another woman'. I guess she felt that it was something in my make up and nothing could be done about it. She said, `you must continue your relationship with Ric. But this doesn't change my wanting to be with you!'

His wife has met Ric on several occasions, and for his part, Ric is very understanding about the situation - although Chris would not describe them as friends. He and Ric see each other regularly - spending a night together each week. He is now `out' to his children and in his job and hasn't experienced any difficulties. He too recognises that he walks a tight line:

I know we'll have to have a re-think in the future if it doesn't work out. One day we'll want to move in together, but I don't want to hurt people and let my children down. I would hate for them to think I wasn't a good father. I love my wife and have lots of respect for her, and I love family life, it's comfortable, it's familiar. My wife is an amazing person, very loyal and has given everything to her marriage - she's not the kind of woman who would easily start over with someone else.

Dave's Story - Ménage a Trois

The generosity and understanding shown by many of the wives of the married and divorced dads in the study was a great source of amazement and interest to me (see also French 1991). A particularly fascinating example is Dave's situation, which he has described to me in a series of email dialogues. He is 36, and has been married 13 years. He is a nurse and for several years has been at home full time caring for their four children. In Dave's case his early attraction to men was experienced positively and he had relatively little difficulty identifying as gay:
I was aware I was different and that I found boys 'interesting' from at least the age of 4. Way before I could have known what homosexuality was. The first game of 'you show me and I'll show you' was with a boy called Zac in Infants when I was 5. The next such encounter was with Al in 3rd year Juniors at about age 9. Then, alas, a gap of many years until my first adult encounter when I was 20. So, in short, I was well aware of my sexuality when I married and had no doubt I was gay and not bi-.

His life took a change of course when he got chatting to a woman sitting opposite to him on a long train journey:

I wondered about what led you on the pathway to marriage? The 17:15 train from Fenchurch Street to Basildon to be quite honest with you. Sis, looked like a nice person and I was in need of someone to keep me awake on the journey home. I discovered, when she got off the stop before my stop, that this was a match made in heaven... My intent was to doze off during the journey and she could wake me up just as she was getting off. What happened was quite different and surprised me no end. We talked all the way and I loved it! For the first time... ever... I had found someone I really got along with and I liked it. The thing was we talked endlessly. Sis had had many disasters with men, abortions, miscarriages, rapes.. Oh the whole bag, loads of shite from men. She said she felt 'safe' with me. She, after a month or so, said she found gay men really exciting and felt they were the best kind of men. We got to a point where I decided that I could not live without this person so I asked her to marry me. I had a deep feeling too that I really wanted children. I truly loved Sis by now and knew this was really not very likely to happen again.

Shortly after they were married he came out to her:

I never spoke to Sis about it until we had been married for six months and already had a child. She said fine! She thought it was fun talking about attractive men to me! She started throwing things at me! [joke] She hit me a few times! [joke] After a year or so, we went back to fine.

I wondered how he had managed to negotiate his sexuality within his marriage:

We came to the conclusion that there was no way we could pretend we were compatible between the sheets. We simply were not and it was driving a wedge between us. We decided after the fourth child was conceived that sex would stop and we would have separate beds. This moved onto separate rooms a year later in 1995 and then last year we decided we were ready to allow the possibility of other people in our lives.

Dave met his current male partner, Simon, seven months ago. Three months later Simon moved in with Dave and Sis. Dave describes their living arrangements as very harmonious. Sis and Simon have become close friends, and Sis has been able to explore the possibility of forming lesbian relationships. He tells me that he cannot imagine living without his wife, who he sees as his `soul-mate':

What do you think are the main reasons for remaining in your marriage? Love, it is the only reason. We could blame the kids and say they hold us together but it would not be true. We simply love each other but just happen to be sexually incompatible. What do you think is the secret of maintaining a relationship in marriage? No excuses, no blaming sexuality for everything that goes wrong, always hugging and not going silent, always talking about problems, even if it means a major argument, it's better than not doing anything.

Interestingly, Dave was not alone in the sample in falling in love with a woman and experiencing a `match made in heaven' after having happily identified as gay.

Overall, married respondents' reasons for remaining married were as complex as they were diverse, they were as likely to be traditional - informed by loyalty, duty and concern not to `break up the family' (see French 1991) - as they were progressive. Most stayed married because they loved their wives, some had grown used to the privileges of marriage, while others felt trapped.


This outline has illuminated a number of interesting issues and themes that were often reflected across the sample, particularly in relation to divorced men's experience. As a woman and a feminist I cannot help but hold some ambivalent feelings about the deceit and infidelity that we have borne witness to (which gives some insights into why the majority of respondents favoured genetic/innate theories of sexuality). However, I would like to turn now to three key questions that have intrigued me from the very early stages of fieldwork:
  1. What might these findings tell us about the way that sexuality is constructed?
  2. How are we to understand the responses/generosity of wives?
  3. Might we have something to learn about alternative models of parenting to those based on heterosexual romance?

The Social Construction of Sexuality

Clearly these stories raise fascinating questions about sexuality and sexual meanings. At one level one cannot doubt the human cost of the powerful processes of legitimisation (Rich 1984, Steinberg et al 1997, Dunne 1997) that support the social construction of heterosexuality, by limiting our imaginations to the straight and narrow, and stigmatizing other forms of living and loving. Those men who had an early awareness of their sexual attraction to men often interpreted this as disgusting, or believed what they were told about it being `just a passing phase'. Additionally, marriage appeared to be promoted as the only appropriate expression of adult living. Often divorced and currently married dads were angry and saddened about the hurt caused and the years wasted through the social denial of homosexuality as a positive, valid and indeed `normal' lifestyle. At a policy level, their experiences show the ill-conceived nature of attempts to silence discussion of homosexuality in schools, such as the implementation of Section 28 (2) (a) of the Local Government Act 1988.

While the idea of being a victim of circumstances implied in this reading rests more easily with the notion of `always being gay' and has obviously helped soften the blow of deceit and infidelity, I believe that it is a too simplistic an interpretation of their stories. Many of the married/divorced men in the study would not wish to deny the validity of their relationships with their ex/wives, and the significance of their opportunity to father children in a loving partnership with a woman. I think that this research raises far more compelling questions about the geography of our emotional landscapes, and the problematic nature of definitions of sexuality. The majority of married and divorced respondents described having `fallen in love' or `being in love' with their ex/wives, and enjoying or having enjoyed full sexual relationships with a woman (see also Blumstein & Schwartz 1999, Matteson 1985). Perhaps we can safely resolve this conundrum by viewing these men as bisexual (Matteson 1985), certainly many respondents claimed that because they had been married, other gay men often viewed them as `not entirely gay'. However, this is problematic for two reasons. Firstly, while this research was open to men who perceived themselves to be bisexual as well as gay, almost all described themselves as gay. Those who did not, tended to favour the rejection of definitions over `bisexual.' Secondly, the dismissal of complexity in favour of a third neat catchall category `bisexual' conflicts with my social constructionist position (see Dunne 1997) because it ultimately implies the existence of an essential sexual nature that flows in three directions - `heterosexual`, `bisexual' or `homosexual`. Thus, policing mechanisms would be understood as merely acting to prevent potentially homosexual/bisexual people from straying beyond heterosexuality rather than to construct heterosexuality. We have to remember that these are social identities (Plummer 1995, Weeks 1991) and not explanations.

Instead, I argue that our sexual and emotional experience is far more complex than the social categories that are available to us (see Blumstein & Schwartz 1999, Hemmings 1995). Respondents' stories about the difficulties of gay identification reveal evident contradictions between individual and societal meanings attached to sexuality - the resolution of which, I argue, is what `coming out' is mostly about (Dunne 1997). There is a powerful widespread belief in the existence of a simple, exclusive and restrictive checklist of indicators of homosexuality (and heterosexuality - but as the identity of default this is rarely acknowledged). The clear mismatch between the complexity and ambiguity of individual experience and the concrete trinity of dominant conceptions of sexuality (heterosexual, bisexual and heterosexual) is important, because the very capacity to police sexuality rests on the notion that we actually know what we are talking about. My research on the lives of non-heterosexual women and now gay fathers leads me to believe that this assurance is misplaced [5]. This recognition can be deeply unsettling to the mainstream because it undermines the confidence that can be drawn from the belief in an imaginary line dividing the human attributes, histories, gender characteristics, sexual and emotional interpretations/responses of those on the one side who are heterosexual and those on the other who are gay, raising the question `how do I really know I am straight?'

Let me illustrate this further. We have already seen the effects of the mismatch between myth and reality in Tim's account of his early difficulties in reconciling his identity as a man who felt sexually attracted and emotionally connected with other men, with popular conceptions of what constituted gayness. Greg's story told to me in a telephone interview is even more helpful for my argument. He is in his late forties, was married for 15 years and has three young children. He has been divorced for three years. He told that he had `grown up in a family where sex was not discussed'. He fell in love and married. Like Chris, the lead up to his questioning of sexuality was a configuration of other unrelated life events, including an accident, and stresses at work. He was a left-wing schoolteacher who was a passionate defender of Equal Opportunities. He found himself greatly enraged, on a political level, by the injustice of the introduction of Section 28. He became curious to know more about gay issues, and in secret, decided to attend a gay men's walking group. He described his shock at discovering that these men were just like him - `the club demolished the stereotypes, it was a real eye-opener'. This undermined Greg's assurance of his own heterosexuality and enabled him to acknowledge and re-interpret his feelings for other men - `I realised that I had been sold propaganda about what gay men are and do!' He told me of the anger and frustration that he felt and still feels at the time lost and the hurt caused by the existence of dominant stereotypes of gay sexuality/identity which had acted to pre-empt his evaluation of heterosexuality.

There is much in the accounts of married/divorced gay dads to support a social constructionist argument, even if, as it happens, the men themselves were likely to adhere to genetic, biological or psychological explanations. The notion of innate sexuality is understandable in light of the early awareness of `difference' and attraction towards other boys that they often reported (their emphasis on early sexual awareness is something that does not feature to the same extend in lesbian accounts (Dunne 1997)). This could be, of course, the product of retrospective/selective memory (Plummer 1995, Ross, M. 1980) - when making sense of one's gayness the idea of always being different, always knowing, fits well with dominant explanations, both within and beyond gay communities. However, I increasingly wonder whether the feeling of difference in childhood and youth is an exclusively gay phenomenon, or more of a human condition, born out of the clash between individual and collective will, in short, the process of socialization. Given also the intensity of the social construction of gender difference, hierarchies and boundaries which gives rise to homo-social childhood worlds, might it not be common for boys to love other boys and feel awkward and strange in the company of girls ? Finally, might not boys' admiration for and preoccupation with the masculine body (Prendergast & Forrest 1996) and the `you show me and I'll show you' games of genital exploration which feature prominently in interaction between boys, lead to an early awareness for many men that the touch of a boy can bring sexual and erotic pleasure? Might, this knowledge account for why gay men tend to have a sense of the sexual possibilities of same-gender encounters at a much earlier age than women, and could this insight help explain the intensity of male homophobia?

The Flexibility and Generosity of Wives

A second question relates to the flexibility and generosity of wives that both married and divorced respondents often reported. From the men's accounts it appears common for wives to be exceptionally understanding, and sometimes supportive of their husband's sexuality. There were of course, `horror stories', where wives and/or children felt deceived, hurt and angry - severing all contact in eight cases. However, more usually, after an initial period of shock and anger (see Gochros 1985), respondents' said their wives came to accept their sexuality (see French 1991, Gochros 1989). Some marriages - like Chris's and like Dave's, - continued in a transformed state where spaces were created to incorporate their gayness (see Matteson 1985), while other marriages came to an end with the loving relationship intact, perhaps after existing for several years as `open marriages'. The extent to which divorced dads described their relations with their ex-wives as `ok' or `excellent' (often improving on separation) was a great source of surprise to me: as many as half referred to their ex-wives in very loving ways, often describing them as best friends.

These positive feelings contrast with the accounts of divorced non-heterosexual women, who often associated coming out with liberation from gender oppression (Dunne 1997), and must indicate, at some level, the gendered nature of marriage - `his' marriage and `her' marriage (Bernard 1972).

Another surprise was the extent to which divorced respondents remained actively engaged in their children's lives and/or happy with the arrangements negotiated. Of these 39 respondents, almost half were either actively co-parenting with their ex-wives (n=9) or main carers (n=9). There was usually, but not always, an overlap between extent of parental involvement and quality of relationship between the mother and the father. Some who took major roles in childcare reported strained or poor relations with their ex-wives, but more usually they were on good terms. Alternatively, some men reported good relationships with ex-wives but minimal contact with their children - they appeared happy with arrangements as they were throwing themselves into their new lifestyle.

It was not unusual for a divorced respondent to have become a main carer because his children had chosen to live with him - sometimes because they did not get on with their mother's new partner. Co-parenting situations involved respondents' children spending at least two days a week, including overnights, with their fathers and for some routine care-giving during the working week. To facilitate contact co-parents often lived within a few miles of the marital home. One dad, Oliver, had recently shifted from being a main carer to a co- parenting situation with his ex-wife, with whom he has a strained relationship. He balances childcare with part-time employment. Pete's situation is interesting. He is 41 and married 16 years ago, despite knowing he was gay. The marriage ran into trouble and just as they were about to divorce they discovered that they were going to have a baby. They decided to stay together for the first year of their daughter's life and then separate. For the past nine years he has spent three days a week in the marital home to enable shared care. He tells me that his relationship with his ex-wife is excellent and recently he has contemplated temporarily moving back into the family home on a full-time basis.

The favourable circumstances of the majority of divorced gay dads with respect to their good relationships with ex-wives and/or willingness to remain actively engaged in their children's lives contrasts with findings on divorced couples more generally - men are much more likely to be hostile to their wives and reluctant carers or absent fathers (Sclater & Piper 1999, Smart and Neale 1999). While this is a relatively small study my confidence in these findings is strengthened in two ways. Firstly, American research on ex-/wives of gay men (Gochros 1989) reports finding that the majority described their husbands/ex-husbands in glowing terms with few limiting contact with their offspring. Second, there has been little to contradict these findings in the numerous enquires that I have received from gay fathers following widespread media dissemination.

I think that there is a range of interconnected reasons for why friendly or loving relationships continue post-marriage which I now want to explore in the rest of the paper. Firstly, because these men had formed, or were going to form, primary relationships with other men, wives could interpret a situation whereby her position was not being replaced (see also French 1991). It was not unusual for an ex-wife to have become close friends with their husband's partner, or to counsel an ex-husband on his love life. Secondly, wives did not have to worry about the possibility of their ex-husbands starting new families and losing interest in the children of their first marriage. Thirdly, as one of my respondents suggested, the prevailing belief that homosexuality is an act of nature means that the end of a marriage does not have to be perceived as an individual failure. Furthermore, the marriages usually had not ended because a husband no longer loved his wife.

Creative Possibilities for Collaboration between Gay Men and Women - A Feminist Analysis

The tendency towards fairly positive accounts in my study and in the limited research available (French 1991, Gochros 1989) led me to wonder about the advantages that women might gain from loving and being loved by a non-heterosexual man. I believe that a feminist analysis offers crucial insights here because it is more attentive to the significance of institutional heterosexuality and marriage in reproducing gender inequality. I will sketch out some tentative thoughts.

Sociologists now hold more sophisticated understandings of gender. Rather than a fixed identity set in childhood, gender is an active ongoing accomplishment that is negotiated through everyday social interaction (Connell 1987, Fenstermaker et al 1991). Furthermore, Connell (1987) challenges the polarised dualism, masculinity and femininity, favouring more pluralistic conceptions. There are masculinities and femininities. Gender inequality is primarily reproduced through the existence of hegemonic masculinity to which men aspire. Connell highlights the significance of homosexuality as representing `the other' against which hegemonic forms of gender identity are partially defined and constructed. For a number of reasons contemporary women are able to extend their identities to embrace a much wider range of qualities and skills that have been previously viewed as masculine (e.g. bread-winning). However, fear of the label `homosexual' appears to represent a powerful force in limiting the extent to which men reconstruct masculinity (Steinberg et al. 1997).

Although the re-making of masculinity is certainly not confined to members of the gay community nor embraced by all gay men, it may be that gay men are more likely to be amongst those at the forefront of challenging the limitations of traditional masculinity. Respondents often described `coming out' as involving a long and complex process of self-reflection and the questioning of dominant social norms and expectations - one respondent likened this to `doing a PhD on life'. In feeling more comfortable about their sexuality they grew to feel more confident in critiquing hegemonic masculinity (I suspect this is a two-way process), rejecting features that they found oppressive, and embracing other wider human qualities. While, within the context of contemporary value systems, these men may not have put this at the top of their list of the advantages associated with being gay, the mothers of their children may well have done so. Certainly, it was an appreciation of their more rounded gender identities that encouraged lesbian mothers in my earlier study to include gay men, as parents and role-models, in their children's lives (Dunne 1998a, b, 2000). It was also described as shaping the motivations of heterosexual women who had joined forces with a gay male friend to have and rear children.

In the absence of the accounts of respondents' ex/wives themselves[7] , I explored whether respondents' felt that women might experience advantages through their relationships with gay men.[8] In describing why his wife, Sis, remained married, Dave makes explicit some of the reasons that were alluded to across much of the sample:

What do you think wives, or women in general might gain in their relationships with gay men? Better wallpaper! No seriously... A genuine friend I would think is the main gain, certainly not a demanding sex life which I'm sure some women would appreciate. Probably more understanding of family issues, especially in relation to the children. I think it is possible gay men are more in touch with their feelings. I don't want to say that as a blanket comment though as a lot of gay men could not give a monkey's about anything other than themselves. It has to be the sort of guy that wants children.

Gochros (1989:165) also noted the extent to which women described their ex-/husbands as exceptionally caring and sensitive.

The accomplishment of gender is also negotiated through participation (or non-participation) in practices, activities and tasks (see Dunne 1998b). Despite changes in the labour market, and popular representations of `new fatherhood', research on married couples finds that the tasks and responsibilities of parenthood and domestic life remain highly gendered (Berk 1985, Dunne 1998a, Ferri and Smith 1996). The persistence of gender inequality in shaping who does what in the home has been partially explained as arising through the affirmation of gender difference (Berk 1985). My exploration of this in relation to lesbian women leads me to argue that sexuality makes a difference here (see Dunne 1998b), and that the affirmation of gender difference is a particular, although not exclusive, feature of hetero-normative formations and practices of gender. Importantly, respondents' re-interpretation of masculinity was not confined to the emotions; it also appeared to shape practice. When I discussed respondents' inputs into domestic life when married, some admitted to traditional roles, but the majority described themselves to be domestically competent and `better than most men'. Likewise, the wives in Gochros's study often spoke of the egalitarian domestic arrangements they experienced their marriages to gay men (Gochos 1989:165).

Through the re-construction of masculinity came the re-making of fatherhood for many. When I asked respondents to describe their involvement in childcare when married, they had often been exceptionally active carers (see Dunne 1999a,b). Co-parenting fathers usually described themselves as having been consistently involved in caring - with some having put their caring responsibilities before career advancement. Furthermore, five of the nine men who are currently main/sole-carers, and one of the nine men in co-parenting situations had taken on the bulk of childcare responsibility when married. The main reasons given for the reversal of parenting roles in marriage included: being less career- orientated than their wives; the demands of a wife's employment/shift-work; a desire to be egalitarian; the impetus for having children having coming from the man, and the wife being less interested in mothering.

The extent to which respondents were involved fathers when married is important for explaining why they have managed to remain actively involved in their children's lives post divorce. In studying parenting post-divorce, Smart and Neale (1999) found that the gender division of labour during marriage played a crucial role in shaping outcomes. During the marriage, fathers usually relied upon their wives to negotiate their relationship with their children. Divorce either led to them extending fatherhood to include activities and experiences associated with mothering or, more commonly, this dependence on the mother for facilitating their relationships (particularly if good will was absent) encouraged loss of contact.

It has been suggested that heterosexual desire is reproduced through the eroticization of gender difference (Connell 1987). I have argued elsewhere (Dunne 1998b) that eroticized difference may not be a very sound basis for sustaining long-standing relationships. One has to ask, what are people left with when difference loses its erotic power in a heterosexual relationship? Respondents' experience of pushing forward the boundaries of masculinity and fatherhood indicates the possibilities for the negotiation and establishment of more egalitarian and inclusive gender relations between women and men. Like Dave, many married and divorced respondents described their marriages as having been built on a bedrock of friendship rather than romance, and friendship may well have a more enduring quality than romance. This offers an additional insight into why `coming out' to a wife does not necessarily destroy relationships (see also Matteson 1985).

Concluding Comments

We have to be careful not to over-generalise from this exploratory study1, and more research on this interesting and neglected area is needed. However, an important and constraining consequence of contemporary hegemonic discourses that conflate heterosexuality with motherhood and fatherhood, is the privileging of romantic love and the sexual as the foundation stone for the parenting relationship. The existence of powerful bonds of affection and respect between gay men and the mothers of their children and their capacity to collaborate with women in raising children provides an interesting alternative purchase for the critique of romantic heterosexuality as the ideal basis for parenting relationships.[8] Given the fragility of marriage, friendship may support the construction of more enlightened and egalitarian forms of intimacy that are more in keeping with the raised expectations of contemporary women.

Just as the mainstream has much to learn from gay men's experience of parenting so too does the wider gay community. Gay communities are on the brink of major transformations as a result of the `gayby boom', and expanding opportunities for fathers to `come-out'. The greater visibility of gay fathers is likely to enable other gay men to realise that fatherhood is not ruled out for them. In the meantime, gay fathers can feel very isolated in both mainstream and gay communities. Those who are denied access to their children may have little in common with heterosexual fathers in similar situations, and sole/main carers may do so in difficult circumstances - feeling different from other fathers and excluded from networks constructed by mothers. Gay men with parenting responsibilities may be constrained in socializing, and may experience rejection by other gay men when seeking relationships. Thus too do mainstream gay communities need to recognize and validate diversity.


1I am grateful to the ESRC for funding this one-year project (R000 22 2557).

2For example, it is safe to assume that the particularities of their situation have led to the under-representation of married gay fathers.

3The study was widely publicized during and after it was carried out. Following media interest in my earlier study of lesbian parents, it received much interest in the gay press in this country and abroad. Consequently, the study extends beyond national boundaries and includes four respondents living in New Zealand, eight in Canada and 13 in the USA. In addition I have received many letters, telephone calls and e.mails from gay fathers who read about the study after it was published, and few of the stories communicated since have contradicted the findings in this study. The methods used in this research are interesting (see details in Dunne 1999b), as it combined a qualitative approach to gain depth and quantitative to gain breadth. Each participant completed a short questionnaire; in-depth life-history interviews (n=7) were conducted with respondents in each of the main categories identified. In addition, often very rich qualitative data was collected via an email dialogue with 63 respondents. This was supplemented with telephone interviews. A detailed questionnaire was distributed to 81 respondents.

414 have become fathers via donor insemination (usually in collaboration with lesbians but sometimes with heterosexual women), 13 are foster carers, and four have children via surrogacy or adoption (these men live in North America). There were eight social/non-biological dads who were parenting with their male partners or female friends, and 11 are in the process of becoming fathers either via donor insemination or fostering.

5I have yet to come across a definition of `lesbian', `bisexual,' `gay' and indeed `heterosexual' that fully and discretely captures experience (see earlier lesbian feminist attempt in Rich 1984). If, for example, one takes participation in sexual activity as a signifier, one is faced with the problem of persons who are celibate, and men who can routinely engage in homosexual sex without shifting from an identification as `100%' straight - a common experience according to respondents who have engaged in casual sex. In my work I use the term non-heterosexual in an attempt to highlight ambiguity in and the impoverishment of existing social categories of sexuality (although non-"heterosexual" might convey this more accurately) - both in wider society and amongst the definitions and life-histories of the women and men who have participated in the different research projects that I have conducted on lesbian, gay and bisexual experience.

6Ironically, we find in our work on young gay men that they report having been very likely to have formed close friendships with girls during their schooling (Prendergast et al. forthcoming). I am arguing here that this ability to get on well with women appears to continue into adult life.

7Obviously, this is a very one-sided account and, again, I am relying on Gochros (1989, 1985) and French's (1991)research for a sense of what women themselves might say.

8The significance of friendship in lesbian and gay people's social networks of support has already been identified as a dominant feature of non-heterosexual communities ((Weeks et al. 2001, Weston 1991). My work suggests that this feature can be extended to incorporate significant others who are heterosexual. In addition the experience of gay men who combine forces with lesbian women, or sometimes a heterosexual women friend to have children illustrates another important dimension. Often these men were actively co-parenting and in doing so, applying creative thinking to how practical care could be shared more equally (Dunne 1999a,b, forthcoming).


I would like to thank the following for their valuable comments on this paper: Shirley Prendergast, David Telford, Ginny Morrow, Nina Hallowell, Ken Plummer, Peter Aggleton and of course, the anonymous reviewers. I would also like to thank the men who by sharing their stories with me made this paper possible.


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