CNN documentary 'Gary and Tony' takes big-hearted look at gay parenthood

PARENTHOOD: Soledad O'Brien interviews Gary Spino, left, and Tony Brown in the big-hearted CNN documentary.
PARENTHOOD: Soledad O'Brien interviews Gary Spino, left, and Tony Brown in the big-hearted CNN documentary. (Jeremy Freeman/cnn)
By Tom Shales
Tuesday, June 22, 2010

They're parents "like anybody else," says a sympathetic soul, but not really. Not quite. If they were like anybody else, these parents wouldn't both be wearing "Proud Dad" caps at the baby shower.

As the title more than implies, "Gary and Tony Have a Baby," a poignant and captivating CNN documentary that debuts Thursday evening, is the story of a family that's both unusual and a sign of the times. It does not, as the cliche goes, "explore all sides of an issue," but instead offers an intimate and affecting portrait of what happens when partners in a same-sex marriage set out to secure for themselves a blessed event, the limits of biology notwithstanding.

Sensitively but not mawkishly reported by Soledad O'Brien, the hour-long documentary is definitely high-road television -- meaning it's been made as a gesture toward enlightenment and not to grab big ratings, which it probably won't. Not to disparage the Fox News Channel or its right to thrive, but it's hard to imagine Fox doing a documentary as big-hearted and open-minded as this one. Fox docs are virtually always hard-edged, hard-news affairs, including the most recent, "Fox News Reporting: The American Terrorist," an explosive hour about Anwar al-Awlaki, born in the United States but relocated to Yemen for his graduate studies in being rotten. (Other "Fox Reporting" titles that aired this year include "Inside Campaign 2010," and, to commemorate the 40th anniversary, "Summer of Evil: The Manson Murders.")

"Gary and Tony" may be "soft" by comparison, but it's also hard-hitting emotionally. The two men -- Gary Spino and Tony Brown -- face many a bump along the rough road to parenthood. Two New Yorkers in their late 40s who've been living together for 20 years, Spino and Brown must be truly in love or else how could they survive in one of those punishingly puny New York apartments? They're a likable pair if not precisely eloquent. "So cool," one of them says while looking at sonograms of the fetus. "So cool," says the other when they hear the baby is a boy.

So cool? Not "awesome"??

Asked early in the hour why they want to be parents, they come up with the same sort of glib answers, making it sound as if they're trying to be fashionable rather than paternal. But this is a picture medium; shots of Gary and Tony holding newborn Nicholas, and close-ups of their shining eyes as they behold the baby for the first time, are inescapably expressive -- and conclusive.

O'Brien has the men recall the history of their relationship from the beginning, when, like it says in "Some Enchanted Evening," they saw each other "across a crowded room." They had a wedding outside of New York state because the legislature refused to pass a bill acknowledging same-sex marriages. Demonstrators outside the courtroom repeat the canard about gay marriage being a "threat" to the institution, but Gary and Tom justifiably want to know how they are a threat to anybody.

The "threat" argument seems to presuppose that everyone would be homosexual and take up with husbands or wives of their own gender if not for the social strictures placed upon such behavior. And that goes back to the never-ending argument about whether homosexuality is learned or inherited, a "lifestyle" or a genetic predisposition. O'Brien is wise not to rehash all that; it's not a subject that brings out the best in those who never seem to tire of debating it.

You do have to wonder: Could an opponent of same-sex marriage, or even a homophobic extremist, watch the documentary, see Gary and Tony in paternal bliss with their child, and still want to deny them this happiness -- even deny them the right to cohabit? Or, for that matter, to hop into the same sack?

A good-natured Floridian named Holly is the egg donor, although "donor" is not quite the word because she charges the guys $8,000. But another woman has to be employed as the surrogate, to carry the baby to term, and she gets a $30,000 fee (these expenses are in addition to thousands of dollars in legal fees). Cindy, who has a back filled with tattoos, at first finds the male couple "annoying" but later on, they all seem to get along.

When the baby arrives early, and has to be delivered via emergency C-section, Cindy is told she will never be able to have another child (she and husband John -- not their real names -- have two). Her feelings for the baby she gave up grow stronger than she, or the two dads, anticipated, although it appears she was spared a traumatic meltdown. O'Brien might have given us more detail about that.

Asked by the reporter whether they worry about how peers and angry zealots may react to Nicholas when he gets older and attends school, Gary says, "We won't live our lives in fear of what a crazy person will do." That is some kind of courage, isn't it?

"Gary and Tony" is not technically advocacy journalism, but in showing a same-sex couple who successfully navigate the mine field and adopt a baby that one of them helped create, O'Brien makes a case for, at the very least, compassion -- a case that has to be made again and again in this society, or so it seems.

During their courtship, when Gary and Tony were first considering some version of marriage, Gary was appalled to hear a priest rail against same-sex marriage at the church in central Pennsylvania that he attended. Pamphlets were distributed that urged people to "Join the Campaign to Save Marriage in Pennsylvania." Instead of having anyone inveigh against the campaign, the producers simply cut to a tell-tale sign that sits outside the church: "All Are Welcome."

Not really. Not quite.

In America: Gary and Tony Have a Baby

(one hour) debuts Thursday at 8 p.m. on CNN.

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